The year: 1971.
The scene: A Mount Washington alley.
The character: Will Hartlep, who dutifully cleaned up empty Iron City beer cans he assumes rowdy Pittsburgh teenagers littered in the alley in front of his garage.
“I’m picking them up to throw them away, and I happen to notice they each had a different picture on. The cans are pretty nice,” Hartlep remembers, thinking he’d use them to decorate the rafters in his garage. “The Iron City Brewery came out with a six-pack of cans, and they had six Pittsburgh scenes. They were very nice pen-and-ink sketches on the cans.”
They looked pretty good in his garage, so he decided to buy some more.
Fast-forward a few decades: He’s collected 10,000 cans — local cans, foreign cans, and plenty of breweriana, meaning other collectibles such as signs and advertisements.
Ten-thousand beer cans.
That was back in 2003, what Hartlep called the “zenith” of his collecting hobby. Since then, he’s decided to specialize in Pittsburgh cans and sell everything else.
He shares this love for beer can collecting with members of Olde Frothingslosh, the local chapter of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America.
This weekend, you can meet the enigmatic club — and buy (or just admire) some of their collectibles — at the annual Summer Blast Beer Collectibles Show, a public event.
If you go, expect to see what Hartlep calls “relatively new stuff” from two dozen local dealers and collectors.
“By relatively new, I mean 1950s up, but there is older stuff there,” he said. “The things that are pre-Prohibition — before 1920 — are very rare and command some very high prices.”
The pale stale ale
The club with the funny name numbers about 70 members — and they’re always looking for new members (it’s just $14 to join). Hartlep is past president of the group and a Brewery Collectibles Club of America hall of famer.
The club’s name — Olde Frothingslosh — came about by chance.
It was founded in 1972, a time when a beer called “Olde Frothingslosh” was the punchline to a joke.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Pittsburghers loved a comedy show by radio personality Rege Cordic. On his radio show, he often performed skits, including one about a fictional beer he dubbed “Olde Frothingslosh Pale Stale Ale” so light that the foam was on the bottom.
Iron City Brewing Company (or, more formally, Pittsburgh Brewing Company) heard the skit and picked up on it in 1956, packaging their signature beer with a label calling it Olde Frothingslosh, only released during the holiday season. People clamored for it, giving it as a sort of holiday gag gift.
“Olde Frothingslosh is a classic example of a joke that became something more,” said Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at Heinz History Center. “By the time it became a can, the relationship was already sealed.”
The joke endured over the decades with different iterations of the can design. Sir Reginald Frothingslosh, a bespectacled, mustachioed Englishman, often appeared on the cans.
In 1968, Miss Frothingslosh “Fatima Yechbergh” made her debut on the cans. Her real name was Marsha Phillips, and she was a go-go dancer from Beaver County known as “The Blonde Bomber.” Phillips died in 2000. (Hear from her at the 1:40 mark below.)
At that same time, cans, rather than bottles, were becoming a popular way to serve beer.
“1969 is the first year that canned beer outsells bottles for the first time,” Przybylek said. “Iron City is putting the voluptuous Miss Frothingslosh on the cans at just the moment when cans are becoming the most popular way to sell and purchase beer. The popularity of cans converge at the same time.”
The club formed in 1972 borrowing Olde Frothingslosh as its name.
“Just about the time the chapter was formed, they put Olde Frothingslosh into two different colored cans — a brown and a red. Around the country, that brown can was considered the most rare can you could find,” Hartlep said. “When we formed the chapter, that was the name that was in the air at the moment.”
He still has some of those coveted brown cans in his collection.
Old Frothingslosh was served in a variety of ways, from a tiny seven-ounce can pried open with a church key to glass bottles to cans similar to the ones we’re familiar with today.
The asking price for one of the original seven-ounce cans? $400-500.
Beer and identity
It seemed everybody was part of the Olde Frothingslosh joke, but why did it take such a hold on Pittsburghers?
“I think there’s two things: One, when you’re talking about Olde Frothingslosh itself, I think it has connection with Rege Cordic and it’s kind of a joke on the working class culture of the city coming from Pittsburgh,” Przybylek said. “Everybody knew that it was coming from this local context, and it’s hard to overstate now how much Rege Cordic’s show was a local tradition.”
Cordic’s show was known for making up characters. While Sir Reginald was a fancy Englishman, Fatima Yechbergh was the opposite — “a down-to-earth” woman. A Pittsburgher.
“It was about loyalty and sense of place,” Przybylek said. “It played into that sense of, ‘we can make fun of ourselves — just don’t you do it from the outside.'”
The joke’s staying power makes sense given that beer marketing is often about place and identity. Say “Coors,” and you automatically think of the Rocky Mountains. Say “Iron City” or “Olde Frothingslosh,” and you think of Pittsburgh.
“It really is a fascinating example of how local culture — in this case, it was popular radio culture — really fueled something that long outlasted that radio show,” Przybylek said. “It’s sense of place. It’s those things that make the place special. It’s our inside joke.”
‘The collecting gene’
Though it was the can that tapped this whole adventure, Hartlep himself was never an Iron City guy. Duquesne Beer was his favorite. He and his Carnegie Tech college buddies used to visit Duquesne Brewing for a brewery tour every Friday — because it included as much Duquesne Beer as you could drink.
These days, the 74-year-old prefers Straub. Iron City and Duquesne, he said, just aren’t the same anymore — and he’d never let anything Budweiser touch his lips, resentful about the conglomerate’s impact on smaller breweries.
Nowadays, Hartlep has moved his collection from his Mount Washington garage to his Mount Lebanon basement bar, what he calls “the can room.”
The cans sit like tin soldiers, commanding attention with their technicolor designs.
A few pieces have even spread to the family room, but Hartlep said his wife, Betty, doesn’t mind.
“If it wasn’t cans, it would be stamps or coins. If you’ve got that collecting gene in you, you can’t stop yourself,” Hartlep said, adding that his wife maintains a collection of mini whiskey bottles. “She’s got the bug. She probably caught it from me.”
And you can catch the bug this weekend.
Check out displays of vintage beer cans and breweriana from two dozen local dealers and collectors at the Summer Blast Beer Collectibles Show. Also, meet members of the Old Frothingslosh chapter of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America and learn how to join. The show is open to the public.
Where: Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center at 3579 Masonic Way (Ross Township)
When: August 4, 2018 from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.