As if his wispy curled mustache and comfortable south-central Kansas twang wasn't interesting enough, ex-circus roustabout and Mullinville native Jack Carson has an expansive collection of collapsible cups he'd like to show you.
"I don't really know how I got interested in it, it's been so long," said Carson. "I would say 20 years ago." Lona, his wife of 18 years, thinks he started to collect long before they were married.
"He tells me 'I've just got to have that cup,'" she adds. "I'll say 'how much?' He'll say 'a couple of dollars,' then I'll say 'get it.'"
Not long before Carson began collecting the small portable cups, he was an employee of the Jungle Wonders circus, a traveling outfit from Alabama owned by John "Gopher" Davenport that was in operation in the late 1970s.
While in jail for passing $190 in bad checks in Garden City, Carson had a visitor.
"The circus man bailed me out and before we left, and we were standing in the lot, he said 'Now you're bailed out and you can do whatever you want.' I figured I owed him so I stayed with him for two years," laughed Carson.
A 1978 circus review magazine, transcribed by a user at circusanonymous.blogspot.com, talked about the route of the circus that year, including a trip to Alaska, which Carson fondly recalled.
"The show opened in January in the Phoenix, Ariz., area and while playing nearby a few days later had snow on the lot but despite bad weather did good business. Ken Benson was ringmaster and announcer and Mel Silverlake started the season as road manager. [Davenport's] show had four elephants and featured a strong menagerie. Although in past seasons Davenport had operated several units it appears he had only a single circus on the road in 1978. Returning eastward from Arizona the show played in New Mexico and Texas and encountered some unusually cold weather during the early weeks. When spring arrived the show headed west again and picked up stands in Nevada, Utah, and on to Oregon and Washington. In June the show went into Canada and had a blowdown of its big top at Strathmore, Alberta, on June 15. The route carried the show northward to Alaska where it was at Dela Junction on July 4 and at Fairbanks, July 5-8. After the show returned to the States a visitor caught it at Post Falls, Idaho, and reported the three pole big top showed a lot of wear and tear following the Alaskan tour. It was still carrying a large contingent of animals, including several elephants, llamas, Sicilian donkeys, goats, monkey, lioness, hippo, leopard, and bears. The show gradually moved south to Texas where it closed in December in the Houston area."
Page 2 of 4 - A collection of collapsible cups seems fitting for a man once employed by 'the big top.'
The odd item has a history spanning world wars, generations of recreational campers and thirsty bicyclers.
"Years ago all of the towns had a well in the middle of town and they had a dipper," said Carson, who had his own story on the origins of the collapsible cup. "You could dip the water. Then Typhoid Fever came and they thought it was from the dipper. Someone decided everyone needed his or her own cup, and someone invented one. You can put them in your pocket and take them wherever you go. It small and handy and light."
It doesn't take long to realize the practical benefits of the space saving devices.
They are round and small, some in cases and some with covers. Each has its own unique color, size and design. Older cups are made of metals like aluminum or copper. Newer ones, especially the ones manufactured in the 1960's and 1970's are made of different types of plastics.
Some have intricate decorations and leather pouches, while some advertise a political candidate or product.
They all share a common form factor. A number of inter-linking rings create a locking seal when they expand. The concept is similar to an old fashioned handheld telescope.
As the need for the collapsible cup dwindled in the later part of the 1900s, they became a niche product targeted at consumers who needed to take pills while away from the house. Carson has a number of cups embellished with insurance or medical advertising, and a small interior capsule for storing pills.
"If you don't have a whole handful of pills they work great, cause you can just pop it and take a sip," he said.
They might be one of the first "on-the-go" products designed to take up little space and perfect size for a pocket or purse.
The "cyclist" cup, as it was then known, was patented on February 23, 1887, by inventor John Lines of the Scovill Manufacturing Company in Waterbury, Conn.
The popularity of bicycles is thought to have inspired Lines, whose neighbor Columbia Bikes began manufacturing bicycles in nearby Hartford in 1878.
Lines however, may not have invented the first collapsible cup, as a number of Civil War era cups have surfaced in private collections and online auctions.
The true inventor of the cup still remains a mystery.
Variations on the collapsible cup in the early 1900s are a result of the success of the portable drinking device that had been patented by Lines.
L.R. Smith patented a "waterproof fabric" collapsible cup in the summer of 1912.
Page 3 of 4 - Earlier that year Adams, Mass., native J.L. Follett patented a "hands free" collapsible cup that used a spring to pop the cup out "without spoiling the inside of the cup with dirt or soil from the hands."
The U.S. Patent office has recorded more than 300 different patents for collapsible drinking cups.
In the age of the bottled beverage, it seems that the collapsible cup, and the cup in general has taken a backseat to the plastic bottle. What does that mean to a collapsible cup collector?
"It means they are probably harder to find," he said. "Who uses a collapsible cup anymore? Unless they think about it and need it when they are going on a vacation or something and not everyone collects them."
There is no national collapsible cup groups or organizations. There has never been an official price guide or trade convention. While other collecting markets like glass, toys and books have far reaching members, the collapsible cup does not.
"I haven't met any other cup collectors," Carson said.
A December 31, 2005, article in the Arizona Republic Newspaper profiled Gerald Burnett, a Phoenix-area resident with a collapsible cup collection of more than 300 items.
As with any collector, the conversation turned towards questions of value and cost. Carson was asked about the reaction of people when he tells them about his unique collection. "First thing they say is 'I didn't know that there was such a thing.' And then they ask where I find them, and how much do you have to pay for them?"
Carson says his 100-plus collapsible cup collection hasn't been a very expensive one to acquire.
"The cheapest one I've ever bought was a dime at the old Care N' Share thrift store in Greensburg," said Carson. "The most expensive one I bought was $30. I won it at an auction and it was against a lady I knew. I guess I shouldn't do this but, I was bidding against her. I wanted it."
Carson also waxed poetic about his thoughts on why he's collected the cups, along with other things like knives and Vaseline glass.
"I was raised [in Mullinville] and we weren't hand-to-mouth but we were between the red and the black. If we had something, we kept a hold of it. I don't have my first pocketknife but I remember it. It was a valuable thing because you didn't have the money to just go out and buy another one."
The collection is on permanent display in the center of Carson's living room, within arms reach of his favorite armchair, though he had considered moving it to the other side of the room. "I like it where it is," said Mrs. Carson.
Page 4 of 4 - When they can, the Carson's take trips to antique shops and thrift stores across Kansas, looking for new additions to their collections, with Mrs. Carson being an avid doll and nativity scene collector.
"Every time I go into an antique store in Wichita the woman that works there says 'I know what you're after' and she finds it for me," said Mr. Carson. "I've found one every time I've gone there. I don't know if I am the only one looking for them, but if they are still there when I get there, well, they are sold."