First posted on May 25th, 2011 on The Retroist Retro Blog and Podcast - CW post link
We all know the prominent roll that stickers have played in our history, but how many of us have ever asked ourselves where they came from? It seems a strange thing to know so little about something that did so much to change the landscape of our country. Most of you probably know the story I’m about to tell, but if this article helps just a few more people to better understand this very important subject, then I will have done my job.
The year was 1981 and America was just coming out of a recession. By banning the newly created Beta-Max technology, President Jimmy Carter had sent the nation into a state of chaos and near financial ruin. Wall Street tried to offer its own solution, but yuppie stockbrokers were not the answer. The world desperately needed hope, and was thirsty for something to lift its spirits. By sheer coincidence, there were events going on miles from New York that would change everything.
In Columbus, Ohio an adhesive researcher named John Keaton was struggling in his home office to create a permanent adhesive. The adhesive was intended to help apply rock concert posters to the walls of alleys in dangerous downtown areas. It was hoped that it would make the posters easier to replace when they were inevitably vandalized by punk rock gang members with boomboxes on their shoulders. Unfortunately, no matter how hard Keaton tried, the results always seemed to be the same. Weak adhesive that would never stand up to constant fights, spray paint and crashing metal trashcans. Making Keaton’s frustration even worse was the energetic presence of his son Alex. The young boy, not knowing that his father’s job was in danger was treating the day like any other and was trying desperately to show his dad his latest drawings. Alex prided himself on being quite a good artist and enjoyed filling a sheet of paper with tiny, evenly spaced pictures of cartoon characters, food, animals etc. He had just finished an especially good page full of posed Heathcliffs and Heathcliff accessories. As John’s son tried relentlessly to get the attention of his distracted father, he grew more and more impatient and eventually thrust the drawings into his father’s face. In a sudden loss of temper, John Keaton snatched the art from his son’s hand and tossed it aside. As fate would have it, the drawing landed face up in the latest vat of his new adhesive. He quickly removed it and placed it on a piece of wax paper to dry. Once they had set, Keaton found that because of the nature of the adhesive, the pictures could be cut out individually and removed from the wax paper and applied easily to any surface. John Keaton knew he had stumbled upon something incredible. This invention could mean that folders and mirrors would never have to go undecorated. More importantly, photo albums could finally be used for something other than photos!
After patenting his creation, Keaton left the adhesive firm and started a company called Peel Here Industries. His staff of 12 began to work day and night to develop and market his new creation. He decided to call his invention “Stickers” and together, this core group would bring about a marketing revolution. While each of them played a vital roll in the birth of stickers, one man in particular is considered the most influential in bringing “sticker fever” to the nation. I am very proud to say that I have been granted a one-on-one meeting with this giant of pop culture history and it is my sincere pleasure to present my experience to you.
I arrived at 9:00 in the morning at his sprawling estate somewhere in Georgia and was greeted at the door by a butler. It was like something out of a movie. After introducing myself and presenting my credentials, he contacted his boss and guided me up the stairs. I was then lead down an enormous hall to a dark mahogany door, which the butler opened. And there he was, the man who’s life had become synonymous with stickers themselves. The man who took the sticker art form from a great idea in Ohio, to one of the most powerful industries in the world. There seated behind a large desk was Shawn Robare. I was immediately star-struck, Robare was imposing not only in stature but in manner. Even at the ripe old age of 95, Shawn seemed as powerful as ever. I looked around the room and it felt as though I was in a museum, so many artifacts of pop culture past, most prominent of all, of course being the stickers. And then I spotted it, and its significance hit me immediately. On the wall behind Robare was an enormous portrait of the Incredible Hulk. And finally the silence was broken by his voice, which was as impressive as the man himself. “Yes there it is, the largest sticker ever created.” His voice was course and he spoke with a heavy Polish accent. An accent that was strangely absent from the many recordings I had heard of the younger Shawn Robare. “There are men that would kill for this and, it has never been peeled! Not once! Look at it young man, this is the kind of sticker that dreams are made of.” I stared at the picture in amazement. “But, you haven’t even heard the best part yet, it’s actually scratch and sniff! It smells exactly like Lou Ferrigno. I always did love strong scents! I haven’t had a sense of smell for years now but I remember. Ah yes, my boy, I remember.” He then instructed his butler (Rogare) to serve us drinks. Which he prepared from Mr. Robare’s private Slurpee machine. We were served our bright frozen refreshments and our discussion began.
I started by asking him how it felt to have played such a big part in a major cultural phenomenon. “People often give me credit for the popularity of stickers but in reality I was only a mouthpiece, only a voice. There were some real creative geniuses behind the scenes who were giving stickers real life. I have loved the sticker art form from the moment I saw it, so “selling” them to the world always came so easy to me. Back in my day, stickers were really stickers…they meant something! Not like Pogs, I mean what are Pogs? You can’t even stick them to anything. It doesn’t make any sense! So many people these days don’t know anything about stickers and they certainly don’t understand the value of history. I remember Retro when it was new! At that time the world seemed so new to all of us at Peel Here. It was like an explosion of creativity, every day was another leap forward in sticker technology. I can still remember the night that Jerrica Benton invented the hologram sticker. We celebrated into the early hours of the morning, it was truly outrageous!”
“I suppose our brightest stars were these two boys in R&D by the names of Stinky and Tim. Everything they touched became an almost instant hit! They created puffies, they created scratch and sniff. These two invented scratch and sniff puffies! The possibilities were endless! One day, Tim brought a new prototype to my office. He had a strange look in his eyes and I knew this was going to be something special. I can still remember the hushed voice as he said “Shawn, we call this Lenticular.” And he presented the page to me with a single sticker. It was the image of Cy-Kill, but not just a picture. On this sticker the transformer transformed! He changed from motorcycle to robot right there on the sticker. I don’t have to tell you I was mesmerized! I mean it was like I was watching an incredibly short scene from a movie. I must have tilted the thing back and forth for two hours trying to figure out how it worked. My friend, it was marvelous.
Once the popularity of stickers took off, they really took off! And our business quadrupled overnight. We were selling stickers to school teachers, retailers, even the clothing and food industries! When Chiquita made the decision to start putting stickers on bananas, it transformed them almost immediately from a mistrusted foreign fruit into a mainstream snack for the lunchboxes of kids everywhere. Speaking of the kids, they absolutely could not get enough of stickers. Everyone wanted to trade them, and no one went anywhere without a sticker book. There were even these books with numbered blank squares and the kids would buy packs of stickers and try to fill every square in the book. After all these years I still don’t understand it. Did you know, that there was a period of two months in 1985, when stickers were traded at such a high volume that they actually became a currency?“ He laughs “The government didn’t know what to make of it! It nearly ruined the US financial system…now that is a powerful hobby! Stickers changed the world! They helped make movie and cartoon franchises what they were…I mean who would have even heard of Ghostbusters if there weren’t Ghostbusters Stickers? Once teachers started including them on graded papers, national test grades went through the roof. Everyone wanted stickers on their products or their creations on stickers. It seemed like Lisa Frank would not leave us alone until we finally started putting her art onto stickers.”
My ears perk up as he mentioned the famous trapper keeper artist and he noticed, waving his hand dismissively.
“I know what you’re going to ask but the rumors of Lisa and I being romantically entangled were never true. It was never a romance…nothing that meaningful. It was a different time, a freer time. It was” …he pauses…“sticker time.”
There is another less cheerful subject I need to ask about as well. In the fall of 1988 sticker mania hit its darkest hour. A semi-truck hauling a load of Smurfs stickers crashed in downtown Philadelphia, dumping its entire load out onto the city street. The city erupted into chaos with people racing and even fighting to gather as many of the cartoon stickers as they could. It took dozens of police officers to finally break up the insanity, but only after thousands of dollars in damage. People still talk about the Smurf-Wreck riots in Philly to this very day. I ask Mr. Robare about its impact.
“After that fateful day, we began to realize that stickers had become like a drug and we had to slow it all down. We brought production nearly to a stand-still only meeting the bare minimum of our requests. People were outraged at first but eventually the demands slowed down and finally faded away altogether. Before we knew it, the public seemed to forget about sticker madness completely. It was a bittersweet end to all of it, but I suppose it had to be done. Still, we had a good run and there are some people, like you, who do remember and even pay tribute to those wonderful days.”
“I really admire the fact that people still care about retro pop culture in this day and age, what with the cable and the TMZ and what have you. It’s very comforting to know that people still care and there are journalists like you, getting the word out there. I will certainly be on the lookout for your newspaper when it comes out!”
I explained once again to Mr. Robare again that our work is “published” on the Internet, and that I work for a blog…and suddenly his friendly demeanor became full of disgust… “A blog! A blog on the…the internet? You worthless bottom feeder! Get the hell out of my office! GET OUT!!!” I backed slowly out of the room as he became overwhelmed by a terrible coughing fit. Rogare rushed over to pat his back and freshen his Slurpee. While the scene played out, I began to “show myself to the door.” All the while I looked at my surroundings in total awe. How often does one get to meet a living legend…to actually walk through his home, to walk down the halls and look at the photos of a lifetime of memories. To hold in your hands priceless items from a collection that holds as much of a nostalgic value as it does a monetary one, and to meet his armed guards who tell you to put Mr. Robare’s things down and get out of his mansion.
And as I was forced from the premises, I continued to let my thoughts wander. Would there ever be another fad as powerful as stickers? One that was so simple, yet so amazing? It may have just been a matter of the right place at the right time, but I do really hope that we as a nation can recapture that magic. To go back to a more innocent time that we all desperately need today. I also hope that Shawn Robare never misses any of those things I stole from his house.