Circus heroes on Dixie Cup ice cream lids
When I saw the round paper discs lying in a box on the auction table, I was certain they were the lids for old milk bottles. Those glass bottles were delivered at homes before I was born, but I’d seen enough of them at auction and in old movies to recognize their toppers.
So when I saw the scattering of lids in the box, I instantly assumed they were bottle lids and I knew I would go after them – just as I’d done with some bottles in the past.
I waited as the box came up for bids early in the auction and until the auctioneer dropped the starting bid to $5. Then I took the nibble and found myself alone in the bidding. No one else wanted them, probably because they were worn and a bit dingy.
Once I handled the lids, I realized that I had completely brushed over the wording on them. These were not milk-jar lids; they were Dixie Cup ice cream lids, and I was disappointed. Darn, how had I made that mistake?
The lot contained 39 lids with colored lithographic images of circus animals and performers on one side and the names of two area dairies – Abbotts and Supplee – on the other. On the rim across the top on the image side – in several variations – were the words:
”One of the 24 Animal Heroes of Bob Sherwood’s Radio Stories Over the WJZ Chain Every Friday Evening,” ”One of the 24 Animal Heroes of Dixie’s Circus Radio Stories Over the WJZ Chain Every Saturday Evening,” and “One of the Heroes of the Dixies’ Circus.”
Now, that was intriguing.
I had used Dixies years ago, pulling a paper cup from one of those clear plastic containers you’d stick to a wall or the side of a kitchen cabinet. And I’d lifted my share of paper lids from small ice cream cups, but I’d never seen pictures on the underside.
These lids go back to 1930 (and were discontinued in 1954) when Dixie sold them to individual dairies to hold single-serve helpings of ice cream. The circus menagerie was the first – 24 animals from the Dixie Circus radio program that had begun airing in 1928 on NBC on Friday nights (and at some point on Saturday nights) with Uncle Bob Sherwood. The program later ran on CBS radio.
The sketches seemed to consist of Uncle Bob – in real life a former P.T. Barnum clown – taking kids to the circus, and encountering and engaging with the animals and performers. Some of the sketches included “A tense situation at the Dixies circus,” “The mystery of the talking dog,” “The elephants saved the day” and “A rattlesnake strikes.”
The theme music was “Dixie,” and the cup and its benefits seemed to be as much a character on the program as Sherwood and the kids.
Dixie Cup started out as a paper-cup maker around the time people were becoming anxious about the unhealthiness of drinking water from communal dippers. Near the turn of the 20th century, a man named Lawrence Luellen invented a vending machine that emitted clean water in a disposable cup. He and partner Hugh Moore realized that the money was in the cups and not the machine.
Then they came up with the idea that paper cups could work just as well as small containers for ice cream – which in the past had been sold in bulk. They partnered with ice-cream makers to fill the cups with the stuff right there at their plants – as evidenced in the lids I got at auction. They noted that the cups were “filled and frozen at the ice cream plant” (Abbott) and “sealed at the freezer” (Supplee).
Dixie Cup released 24 lids a year, starting with the circus, which lasted two years. In 1931, it produced a special series featuring U.S. presidents for the Philadelphia Dairy Products Co. A year later, the lids came with pictures of dogs, birds, fish and butterflies.
Starting in 1933, Dixie began making lids with movie stars from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio films, and these were said to be its most successful. The first set included Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo – some of whose lids are said to be the among the most collectible. Humphrey Bogart was one of them, along with John Wayne, and Lucy and Desi, who came later.
The stars’ faces were on the flip side of the lids against the ice cream, and they were covered with wax paper to keep the product safe. Children peeled off the wax paper to see their favorite stars.
A variation were the mystery lids with the blanked-out faces of movie stars, prompting children to figure out who the person was along with the movie they were in.
The batch of lids I bought at auction contained a mystery lid: “Playing in ‘The Affairs of Cellini.’ A Twentieth Century Production. … Who is this Mystery Movie Star?” Googling the movie, I found the mystery actress from this 1934 movie to be Constance Bennett, sister of actress Joan Bennett, a leading lady during the silent-movie era and one of highest-paid during the Depression.
Dixie Cup kept bringing on the lids with new images: During World War II, the graphics became patriotic. Baseball players were featured during the 1930s, along with cowboys, and TV and radio personalities.
On eBay, the lids – mostly of movie stars and cowboys – were selling singly and in groupings for 99 cents up to $200. The highest-priced was a five-lid set of baseball players in individual protective plastic sleeves. An auction house was selling a 46-lid set of the circus (with duplicates) for $230.