Monday, November 10, 2014

Beer Can Collecting in 1970s Oshkosh

If you were a Wisconsin kid growing up in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you had a beer can collection. And if you did, your bible may have been the slim volume written by an Oshkosh school teacher named James Gropp. Published in 1974, Gropp’s Beer Can Collector's Handbook helped fuel the American beer-can collecting craze of the 1970s.

Gropp was a seventh grade science teacher at Webster Stanley Middle School in Oshkosh. He had been introduced to beer can collecting by his son Jeff and was urged along by Clarence Dallman, a fellow collector and Oshkosh science teacher. By the early 1970s, beer can collecting – especially among young boys – had become immensely popular in Oshkosh. Beer can clubs had formed at Merrill, Perry Tipler and Webster Stanley Middle Schools. The book Gropp began working on would become the ideal primer for the young collectors he encountered every day.

It took Gropp six months to complete the book. He began by compiling a list of extant breweries. He wrote letters to state officials requesting information on breweries and the brands they produced. From the Federal Government he obtained a list of breweries authorized to operate as of July 1, 1974. That list, fleshed out with information he received from individual breweries and other collectors, formed the basis for Gropp’s book.

Beer Can Collector's Handbook wasn’t the first book about beer can collecting, but it was unlike other books on the subject. Its most salient feature was its focus on American breweries that were still in business. Other beer can guides were more concerned with rare cans, the most valuable of which had been issued by breweries that had closed sometimes decades earlier. Gropp’s emphasis on the cans of existing breweries made the hobby accessible to younger people without the resources to take part in what could otherwise be a very expensive pursuit. For Gropp, this was a main point. He said that the nearly 400 cans in the collection he and his son built cost them less than $10. The book’s cover price of $1 was in-tune with that theme.

James Gropp and his son Jeff in 1975
Gropp’s handbook could not have been more unassuming. Sold in small shops, liquor stores and taverns, it was just 32 pages long with a simple, card-stock cover. After a brief introduction, the book amounted to a series of lists of American breweries and their current line-up of 12 oz beer cans. At the time, there were just 117 U.S. breweries in operation. Perhaps to keep the book from being too thin, Gropp gives several breweries multiple entries. For example, Schlitz Brewing, which then had breweries in seven states, is listed seven times with the same three beer cans – Old Milwaukee, Schlitz, and Schlitz Malt Liquor – under each entry.

Looking back on it today, Beer Can Collector's Handbook is a bleak snapshot of the American brewing industry as it was approaching a low point. Big, national breweries were in the process of eviscerating regional brewers. Within a decade of the release of Gropp’s handbook, the deed was done. By 1983 there were just 51 brewing companies operating in the United States with more than 90% of all beer being produced by the six largest.  

But at the time, Gropp’s book appeared to be anything but discouraging. At least it wasn’t for me. It was the first beer book that I ever bought. I was all of ten years old. I poured over it compulsively; to the point where I could rattle off which brewery produced any of the hundreds of cans listed inside. More importantly, Gropp’s book was inspiring. It roused me and my friends to learn the art of dump scouring. I spent hours digging through dumps with that beat up handbook shoved into my back pocket.

Today, a book like Gropp’s would be nearly impossible. With so many small breweries opting to package their beer in cans, such a book would be out of date before the print dried. And it’s doubtful that a teacher today would be comfortable involving kids in a hobby that has anything to do with beer, much less encouraging them to bring their empty beer cans to school. In some ways, it really was a simpler time.


  1. Wow, he was my 6th grade Science teacher!!

    1. I was one of those kids who lived in Oshkosh and collected beer cans in the 70's. I sold most of my collection about 20 years ago but kept my Chief Oshkosh and Peoples beer cans along with a few others. Brings back a lot of memories. I now live in Texas but do come back to visit.