New York City’s Greek Coffee Cup: How the Anthora Became an Icon
You’ve definitely seen the Anthora.
A small, disposable blue and white coffee cup with Greek motifs and sharp ochre letters spelling “We Are Happy To Serve You”. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s either because you spent time in New York City from the 60s to the 90s, or have seen virtually any movie or TV show set in it. From shows like Law & Order, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Mad Men, to movies like Wolf of Wall Street and Ghostbusters, the Anthora cup is often placed in characters’ hands to instantly set the action in New York City.
Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Martin Scorcese’s Wolf of Wall Street (Just Jared)
Mad Men characters with Anthora cups (via Remorandum)
But in the city today, the cup is nowhere – and everywhere.
You’ll see glimpses of blue and white here and there: on mobile coffee carts in Midtown, behind bodega counters, or crushed and floating in gutters and trash cans. More likely than not, it’s one of the many Anthora knockoffs and not the original design itself. The original Anthora cup, designed in the early 1960s by Holocaust survivor Leslie Buck, was phased out in the 2000s as demand dwindled. But with a subsequent “Greek cup” popularity boom brought on by film, TV and nostalgia, the cup came back. You’ll be hard pressed to find the original in the wild though – the rights to it are more expensive than its imitators.
After a search for the cup earlier this year in New York City, I became fascinated by its story. How did an Eastern European refugee and Holocaust survivor with no design background create such a wildly successful product? How does an object you can barely find these days symbolize a city? What makes something iconic?
Spotted – a crushed blue and white cup on a New York City street earlier this year, and the Anthora advertised on a coffee cart in Midtown Manhattan
The cup’s origins
The Anthora cup’s designer, Leslie Buck, was born Laszlo Büch on September 20, 1922 in Khust, which was then in Czechoslovakia but is today part of Ukraine. Laszlo was Jewish, and a teenager at the outbreak of World War II. His parents were killed by the Nazis, while both he and and his brother Eugene were deported to Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.
The brothers survived the camps and sought refuge in the United States, landing in New York City after the war. Laszlo got married and Americanized his name to Leslie Buck. After running businesses with his brother, Buck joined the Sherri Cup Company, a startup looking to break into New York City’s booming cup market. It was here, as director of marketing, that Buck created the Anthora cup.
Leslie Buck, Holocaust survivor and designer of the Anthora in 1991, from his obituary (NYTimes)
New York City in 1960, looking west from 42nd + Broadway, Kodachrome photo by Charles Cushman (Indiana University)
It was the early 1960s in New York City, and coffee was mainly sold in diners.
Most diners in the city at the time were owned by people of Greek descent. About 350,000 Greek immigrants arrived in the United States between 1900 and 1920 and brought with them the concept of a ‘kaffenion’, a place for men to meet and drink coffee. It is believed that the Greek diner eventually evolved from these early coffee spots.
Lunch bar at Whitehall street from Peter Minuit Plaza near Battery NYC, Charles Cushman, 1960 (Indiana University)
Tom’s Restaurant, established in the 40s and made famous by the tv show Seinfeld, is one of many NYC diners owned by Greek immigrants (NYC Go)
Buck decided to create a cup marketed towards these Greek immigrants, evoking nostalgia for their old country. It’s easy to imagine that Buck knew what it felt like to be in their place, an immigrant in New York City, far from your home and culture. His hunch would pay off as the cup became an instant success.
The design and success
Buck designed the cup himself, despite no design or art experience. According to the Dart Container Company, who currently own the rights to the Anthora, Buck did extensive research into Greek culture before drawing out the design.
Close-up look at the Anthora design on the ceramic version (NY Coffee Cup)
The blue and white colours of the cup are a nod to the Greek flag, while the geometric pattern on the top and bottom, called the “meander pattern”, is commonly found on ancient Greek pottery and drinking vessels.
Terracotta fragment of a skyphos (deep drinking cup) c. 460–-450 B.C.E. showing a classic meander pattern (MET Museum)
On the cup’s sides are two amphoras, ancient Greek vessels used to store and transport liquids and grains. (In fact, according to Buck’s son, the name “Anthora” came from how Buck pronounced “amphora” in his thick Eastern European accent.)
Ancient Greek terracotta amphoras c. 540-500 B.C.E. (MET Museum) Amphoras were used to transport liquids and grains in Ancient Greece and sometimes depicted characters, such as Herakles and Apollo on the left, or patterns such as the meader pattern on the neck of the one on the right
Finally, the welcoming letters spelling “We Are Happy To Serve You” are influenced by Greek letters.
Greek inscription on marble, estimated 2nd century (The British Museum)
Buck’s design and sales abilities turned the cup into a multi-decade success.
While there is little recorded reaction from Greek diner owners, I asked my friend, designer Peter Vlahohristas for his take on Buck’s design as an ode to Greek culture:
“North American designers have been fascinated with the Greek alphabet for years. Whether it be for sororities or poorly thought out ads, the Greek alphabet continues to be be treated as a dead language when it’s not. Through the use of the colors, iconography and the meander pattern, this cup does a wonderful job at honoring the history, culture and heritage of Greece. This is why it’s widely loved by Greeks.
This cup is so iconic I’m willing to overlook the misuse of the Greek letter S(Σ) as an E in this instance.”
The blue and white Anthora ruled the New York City coffee market for 30 years, peaking at 500 million cups sold in 1994. A year later, the New York Times called it “perhaps the most successful cup in history.”
When Buck retired from Sherri Cup Co. in 1992, he was gifted 10,000 commemorative Anthora cups with a special inscription, and told the Wall Street Journal that the cup’s original engraving still hung in his home office.
Appearance in popular culture and symbol of New York City
By the 1980s and 1990s, the Anthora started appearing on New York City-based movie and TV show sets.
Stacks of blue and white cups in The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984 (from the amazing Greek Coffee Cups Tumblr)
Ghostbusters 2, 1989 (Greek Coffee Cups Tumblr)
Cop Land, 1997 (Greek Coffee Cups Tumblr)
Eventually, the cup seeped into popular New York City culture.
The Anthora depicted on the NYNEX Phone Book, 1995 (Greek Coffee Cups Tumblr)
Barney’s promo postcard, 2005 (Greek Coffee Cups Tumblr)
Jerry Seinfeld on the Hollywood Reporter cover with Anthoras, 2013 (Hollywood Reporter)
Downfall and birth of an icon
The cup’s dominance of the market made the Anthora widely known, but what seems to have earned it iconic status was, unfortunately, its downfall. In 2001 the New York Times reported that the cup, already as much a symbol of New York City as the subway or Statue of Liberty, was destined to soon disappear.
New York Times article about the disappearance of the Anthora, March 11 2001 (NYTimes)
The growth of big coffee chains and branded cup designs in the late 1990s ushered the Anthora out of the market by the early 2000s. Dart Container Co explained: “Starbucks began to replace the diners as the morning stop for on-the-go coffee lovers, and the diners tried to compete by offering trendier packaging. The 2001 terrorist attacks in the city also led to a wave of patriotic-and flag-themed cups.”
(Side note: the Dart Container Co. was founded by William Dart, creator of the styrofoam cup which the Anthora had overtaken in sales.)
In 2006, the production of Anthora cups was discontinued. A cup that was once so prominent became so rare that even Dart had trouble sourcing it in 2014 for the New York Historical Society’s exhibition “A History of New York in 101 Objects”.
The Anthora featured in “A History of New York in 101 Objects” (6sqft)
While the cup disappeared from New York City’s everyday life, its representation stuck around. The design was licensed to souvenir shops which sold depictions of the cup on socks and keychains, as well as to the MoMA, whose ceramic representation of the Anthora is still for sale. The cups were also sold by third party companies to movie production studios, including Martin Scorcese’s studio.
Ceramic version of the Anthora sold by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
Andy Samberg’s character drinking from an Anthora on Brooklyn Nine-Nine in a 2015 episode when the Anthora was actually nowhere to be found in New York City (Greek Coffee Cups Tumblr)
The void left by the cup eventually birthed many knockoff designs, the ones you’re most likely to encounter today. The tell-tale signs of knockoffs are slightly different wording on the copy and the lack of amphoras, replaced instead by columns, scrolls or other Greek-like figures.
The fruits of my personal search for the Anthora in NYC this year. It seems this particular design rules the knockoff market, though it is hard to find as well. Your best bet are morning coffee carts in midtown and bodegas in Washington Heights.
Still, it’s unlikely that you’ll be handed the original design as your morning coffee cup while in New York City. Even the knockoffs are dwindling on mobile coffee carts.
And yet, the Anthora lives on in spirit.
The 2018 NYC bike map (NYC DOT)
Once you look for it in New York City, you’ll see it everywhere. In bookstores on NYC-themed wallpaper and tote bags, in baby ABC books and sticker kits, on the subway in ads and transit announcements. Some mobile food carts have the original design printed right onto the cart, even though their stacks of plain cups peeking through the window suggest false advertisement.
Greeting cards with wishes from NYC and even the city’s 2018 bike map suggest that the blue and white combo with ochre lettering is synonymous with the city.
Through decades of widespread availability, nostalgia, and its continued presence on Hollywood screens, the Anthora has made it as a symbol in the subconscious collective memory of New York City.
The cup’s design itself undoubtedly contributed to its iconic status. With bright contrasting colours, distinctive lettering and a hand-designed feel, the Anthora has character; eagerly depicted and adapted by illustrators who may never have actually seen one in real life.
What a legacy for Leslie Buck to have left: an industrious refugee with no design background whose intuitive knowledge of his audience left his mark on the symbolism of New York City.
Colour your own Anthora (Edible Manhattan)
Do you have memories of the Anthora cup? Do you know of a place in New York City where you can still get coffee in one? Leave me a comment below!
Here’s a fascinating breakdown by the New York Times in 1996 of how waves of Greek immigration brought the Greek coffee tradition and diners to New York City
Check out all of Charles Cushman’s Kodachrome colour shots of New York City in the 1940s and 1960s through Indiana University
The New York Times “A History of New York in 50 Objects”, featuring the Anthora