The Cup that Overflowed into a Business
"GET OUT! And don't bring me any more orders until I get these filled!" Gary Minkert said in mock exasperation to the student salesman who had just brought in a list of orders for the cup which Minkert had designed as a souvenir of Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College.
Minkert, a sign painter in Bryan, Texas, looked at the cup which he had created and felt as if he had made a Frankenstein monster. The thing was growing, reaching into every corner of his sign shop, crowding him, pushing him, threatening to absorb all his time and his business. That was when he decided something had to be done—and he set up making the cups as a separate business.
Of course, it had not been planned that way. But then, profitable hobbies often start out to be only pleasant pastimes with inconspicuous beginnings. That was certainly true of the cup business—it sort of "happened" and then grew like a sprouting teen-ager.
Minkert, whose nickname and sign signature is Mink, had his first acquaintance with modeling clay when he enrolled in a recreation class in ceramics with his daughter, Patti. His three-year-old son, Jesse, in typical little boy fashion, had been demanding and getting all of his dad's attention, and suddenly Mink realized that the daughter was sixteen. In looking around for a project that he could share with her, he had to consider her interest in creative art. The six-weeks' ceramic course in modeling and coils offered an opportunity for them to start a project together as beginners, and to build a common interest in the evening sessions that followed.
At the end of the course, Minkert bought twenty-five pounds of clay, took it to his sign shop, and in free moments continued to experiment. He directed his Boy Scout troop in modeling during their handcraft lessons. Many of the articles were worked over and over into various objects. Some of the creations showed originality and imagination and were set aside. Nothing was fired because he had no way to fire it, but after a few months he liked some of the work and realized that it deserved to be made permanent.
"I want a kiln," Mink said to his wife, Hazel, "to fire these crazy do-dads."
This not so gentle hint just before Christmas, 1951, was passed on to Santa Claus, who obligingly left a 13½-by-13½-inch hexagon kiln in the paint shop behind Minkert's house. It was immediately employed firing Boy Scout projects and Mink's crazy do-dads.
VISITORS TO the shop often included students from Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, which is five miles from Bryan. Texas A&M is the largest military school in the United States, having graduated more officers than any school in the nation, West Point included. Compulsory military training has been in force since the college was founded in 1876 and every student except war veterans has been a uniformed cadet and member of the R.O.T.C. organization. (This year, for the first time, it was optional.) As a reward for their four years of R.O.T.C. training, all graduates receive the commission of second lieutenant and remain reserve officers. By the time they are seniors, many students hold high commissions in the cadet corps, are highly esteemed by underclassmen, and have a strong prejudice in favor of all things A&M or military.
One day George Rush, a senior student from the college, came into the sign shop. He looked at a row of ceramic objects on display, and was attracted by a planter which was fashioned like a man's head, but it was unusual in that the left side of the face was smiling while the right side was scowling. The student said:
"You know, this thing looks just like 'Old Sarge' on the side that's frowning." He continued to turn it, looking at the left side which was smiling and then at the right side which was scowling.
"It sure is a funny mug," he commented.
"It's not a mug," Minkert corrected. "It's a planter."
"I mean, this guy's mug—his face—like Old Sarge." He thought a minute and then said, "Say! Do you suppose you could make a mug out of this? I mean a cup, with a handle?"
"Well, yes, I guess I could. Why?" asked Minkert.
"If you could make a few and put Texas Aggies on the handle, I'd like to try to sell them out at college," the student proposed, and there was a gleam like a dollar mark in his eye.
Old Sarge is symbolic to Texas A&M students, just as pictures of Uncle Sam are to Americans. Old Sarge is pictured in cartoons in the campus daily newspaper, the Battalion, and on decals which the cadets stick on their car windows. He was originated several years ago by a student, Pete Tumlinson, who is now a syndicated cartoonist in New York, and has remained a tradition of the corps ever since. There may never have been such a sergeant in flesh, but there certainly is one in the imagination of every Aggie.
INSPIRED BY this tradition and Rush's proposition, Minkert went to work on the project after his shop was closed that night. Using a five-pound batch of modeling clay, he fashioned the solid shape of a mug six inches tall and 3½ inches in diameter. A big handle was attached to the back. Then he began shaping the front of it like a face, pushing it in or out with his fingers, using a ceramic tool when needed, adding clay where necessary to form a chin, nose and ears. On the left side, he turned the corner of the mouth up into a smile and put a crow's foot wrinkle at the corner of the eye. On the right side, he pulled the cheek muscle and the mouth down to simulate a scowl. At the base, he molded the clay, to form a collar such as the military "spit and polish" requires.
He had, then, one solid heavy piece of clay whose outside contours resembled the large cup he wanted to create, and from which he would make a plaster mold so that he could duplicate the cup if any orders came for it. Thin strips of tooling copper two inches wide called shims were pushed into the model where he wished the mold to separate at center front and back. It was placed on a plywood base, and two pieces of linoleum were placed around it. The linoleum wall was two inches taller than the mug and at least two inches from any part of it. To prevent plaster from leaking, clay was used to seal the bottom where the linoleum rested on the plywood base, and at the seams where the two pieces of linoleum joined.
This set-up would make two sections of the three which would be required for the mug mold. Obviously, an opening would be necessary, so at this point it was provided for by shaping a solid cylinder of clay three inches in diameter and three inches long. This cylinder was placed with one end resting on the top of the cup model and the other end protruding above the linoleum frame.
TO MIX the plaster for making the mold, a two-gallon bucket was used. Minkert poured three quarts of water into the bucket; then molding plaster was sifted into it until it ceased to settle to the bottom and a little remained on top showing that the proper amount of plaster had been added to the water. This produced about one and one-half gallons of liquid plaster. Using both hands, Minkert broke up any lumps that might have formed. He worked carefully, not stirring the mixture to avoid creating air bubbles. The liquid plaster was then poured over the solid clay model, filling the linoleum form to within ½ inch of the top. Mink jarred out any bubbles by gently rocking the plywood base.
The next step was to make the third part of the mold. After the plaster was allowed to set a few hours, it hardened. The cylinder of clay used to create an opening in the top was removed and the whole form was turned upside down, the plywood was lifted off, and the linoleum was peeled away. The rigid plaster which had been on the bottom but was now on top, was coated with a commercial solution called a mold lubricant. This solution would prevent the first two parts of the mold from sticking to the third. The visible bottom of the cup was gently scraped to make it concave and give a more professional appearance to the ones to be made from its impression. Linoleum was again used, being secured around the plaster so that it came three inches above it, and liquid plaster was poured into it to a depth of two inches. When this second pouring had hardened, the linoleum was removed, the three parts of the mold were separated, and the original clay model was taken out. The mold was carefully checked for undercuts or bits of clay that remained, so that blemishes would not be left on the mugs. The three parts of the plaster mold thus fashioned were ready to make a sample cup and to duplicate it if and when the orders came.
To make a cup, Mink placed the three sections of the plaster mold together with the opening on top, and made them secure with rubber bands. Ceramic slip, mixed according to directions on a package of clay flour, was poured into the mold. The plaster began to absorb moisture from the slip immediately. That mixture nearest the mold hardened first, and the longer it stood the more it absorbed and the thicker the rigid portion grew. When slip approximately ¼ inch thick was firm (in about fifteen minutes) the mold was tilted so that the remainder of the slip was poured back into the container. This left the ¼ inch thick shape of the mug clinging to the walls of the mold, which was upturned to drain for about twenty minutes. The mold was carefully opened, and there was Old Sarge!
The top of his head was trimmed level, and the ridge down the center of his nose which was left by the seam in the mold was gently scraped with a ceramic knife and smoothed with a damp sponge. When it was dry, the mug was painted with appropriate underglaze colors, fired, glazed, and fired again.
A FEW days later, when Rush returned, Minkert had the half smiling, half scowling mug standing for exhibit with the mold to make others sitting near by. They agreed that the student was to give him $1.50 for every one that he got an order for. In a few days, he returned with an order for twelve more.
In an effort to improve the original, Mink went to a military store and bought one each of the eighteen different brass collar ornaments used by the cadets to indicate the military organizations to which they belonged, such as infantry, air force, engineers, etc. To an Aggie or a former Aggie the military organization to which he belongs is second in importance to the college. Each outfit is the "best"—if you doubt that, just ask an ordnance man if he belongs to the signal corps!
With this knowledge of the student body in mind, Minkert then rolled out a 3/8-inch slab of clay on a plaster bat and pressed each of the ornaments into it face down, to form press molds. This he fired at cone .05 and he had a bisque mold for making impressions of the collar ornaments that would last indefinitely. By using different insignia, the cups would be more personalized and have greater sales appeal for the 5,000-man military corps.
To applique an ornament to the mug collar, Minkert would take a small bit of clay in his fingers, roll it into a ball and press it into the proper insignia of the press mold. It would flatten out on the back but have a military emblem on the front. With a ceramic tool, he scored (scratched) the flat back of the emblem and also the place on the collar where it belonged. With a small brush, he dipped into the ceramic slip and swabbed the scored parts of the emblem and the collar. The slip acted as glue, and when the tiny piece of clay was pressed down against the collar and smoothed at the edges, it was on to stay. Now, in addition to looking like Old Sarge, and having Texas Aggies on the handle, the mugs also had different collar ornaments. What more could anyone ask of a mug?
THE STUDENT salesman picked up the batch of twelve and returned Friday afternoon with the money, and the names and outfits of 150 more Aggies.
"I told them," he calmly stated, "that the cups would be delivered in ten days."
One hundred and fifty in ten days! That meant that the lone mold was sadly inadequate. That meant that more molds were needed and right then. Since it takes two or three weeks to cure a mold properly, a short cut was obviously needed. Minkert made four more molds at once, set them on a work table under a battery of infra-red lamps, and he and his assistant, Charles Hines, turned them every few hours, night and day, during the week end.
"Start pouring!" Minkert said the following Monday morning.
Again the infra-red lamps were used, this time shining down into the cups to dry them faster. As soon as the slip was removed from a mold it was placed under the heat. In this way, he got as many as eighteen a day out of one mold, whereas all he had read on the subject advised about three a day.
Business had to proceed as usual; and since among other contracts, Minkert painted all the weekly display signs for a chain of ninety grocery stores in Texas and Louisiana, he and Hines were forced to keep jumping between the mugs and the signs.
As the handles were too large to pour solid, they were hollow when removed from the molds. Thus, holes existed where the two parts of the handle joined the mug. This was corrected while they were still damp by "plugging," which meant taking a small piece of clay, scoring it, swabbing it and the opening with slip, and forcing it into the hollow handle to seal it off. It was smoothed, and hardened as the cup did.
(Incidentally, Minkert considers "plugging" a must for any ceramics that may be used to hold food or drink, as they cannot be properly washed otherwise and may attract tiny ants or roaches. As a judge in ceramic shows, he has graded off for this oversight on creations that were otherwise excellent.)
By referring to the list of 150 orders, he could tell how many belonged to each outfit and he took bits of clay, pushed them into the proper ornament of the press mold and appliqued them to the collars.
Then followed painting on an assembly line basis. About twenty were lined up at a time and painted with underglaze colors on the green ware, putting in the proper colors for a face. On each handle was painted "Texas Aggies" and the date of graduation such as '54 or '56. For speed, Minkert used his air brush, applying one color at a time to all the cups and then using another color. They were then bisque fired, dipped in glaze, and refired.
"It was not as easy as it sounds," Minkert says. "Of course we had a lot to learn, and all of it the hard way. Since I knew of no one who had tried such a project, I had to experiment. When the green ware blew up in the kiln, as it did several times, I had to figure why and try and improve the slip. When the light meter began to growl, I realized that it was carrying too heavy a load for its ancient vintage, and had the light company put a new one in."
Nevertheless, on the tenth day, 150 Texas Aggie cups were exchanged for $225. Mink immediately bought another kiln with $75 of the money.
THE STUDENT-salesman, who has the earmarks of being a genius at promotion, then sublet his contract to three other students. He paid the $1.50 wholesale price agreed on for all orders, but by retailing the mugs for $3 each, he permitted his undersalesmen to keep fifty cents of every order they received and he kept $1. Naturally, with this arrangement, he encouraged the boys to sell and Minkert to produce.
Both kilns were put into capacity production, being fired alternately. There was no leisure time now, and from every shelf and space in the shop a face peered, and it seemed that the smile had turned to a smirk and the scowl to a sneer. The sign business had to go on, and orders were stacking up.
That was when the new business began. Stages of growth and enlargement followed in due succession. The big front porch of the Minkert home was enclosed with plate glass to create a display room for ceramics. Soon after, the family was moved to another home and the entire nine-room house was converted into a ceramic shop. Obviously, someone was needed to run the shop, and as Hazel had been learning the business along with her husband, she employed a full time maid at home and took over the shop. Many molds of different kinds were bought; fifty original ones were made, and green ware became part of the stock.
Short cuts were discovered and introduced whenever a need arose. For instance, in making the green ware, mixing the slip in quantity became a problem. Minkert obtained a second-hand washing machine and converted it to rotary motion by switching the wringer gear over to the dasher, and presto—a good slip mixer!
Partitions were removed from the four front rooms of the house, making a big display room. Imported Mexican novelties were added. Artcraft materials of all kind were gradually introduced, and the name was changed from a ceramic to an artcraft shop.
ONE UNUSUAL feature of the Minkerts' establishment is a work center with a long table and chairs. On one evening a week, Hazel and Mink give instruction in ceramics. (They sell supplies for ceramics, of course.) Another instructor teaches a class in china painting at the work center. (They sell china and painting supplies, of course.) On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Mrs. Vic Lindley gives lessons in various kinds of handcraft. (They sell handcraft materials. But of course!)
Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Minkert have a splendid location on a busy street near a shopping center. Being on a corner lot, they have ample parking space for both the sign business and the artcraft shop. A considerable investment of time and money has gone into the venture, and as in any new undertaking there have been times when they have wondered if they have not overreached themselves. But it has paid, and has continued to grow from its beginning. The most recent expansion was the addition of a complete line of paint.
Hazel and Mink are frank to acknowledge that nothing ever made a greater profit than wholesale production of the Aggie mug, considering the amount invested. The idea is simple and one that could be used profitably by anyone living near a college. It would not have to be a mug, though the fact that many people collect them makes them an attractive medium. The novelty theme on the mug could cater to some feature of the school for which the sales were slanted.
In fact, it need not be restricted to school souvenirs at all. Any institution (barring perhaps penal institutions and insane asylums), has many a potential customer who would like a memento of his sojourn there. An air base, a summer camp, a vacation resort, or whatever you have near your home town could be the inspiration for your souvenir mug. And who knows, maybe you will discover even as Minkert did, that you have started a big headache—I mean a thriving business.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.