How a love for Arizona led one man to create a legacy in treasured Blakely glassware, collectibles
If you’ve lived in Arizona long enough, you’ve probably seen them: glassware tumblers featuring Saguaro, Ocotillo, or Organ Pipe cactus designs, in vibrant technicolor shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple.
The iconic tumblers — some with a frosted finish — have become collector’s items. What you might not know is that the glasses were a gas station give-a-way from the 1950s. The complete set, for those who collected it all, featured eight different Arizona cacti, a pitcher, and a wooden display tray.
Albert Monroe Blakely started Blakely Oil, an Arizona-based chain of service stations, in April 1949. At its height Blakely Oil operated 88 service stations in Arizona, California and Nevada. By the time Albert Blakely sold to Gulf Oil Company fourteen years later, the Blakely name had become synonymous with give-away promotions that included cars, boats, kitchen ranges and the Blakely cactus tumblers.
Customers received tumbler coupons with every 5 gallon or 10 gallon gas purchase. The stations even provided special shipping cartons for sending the cactus tumblers anywhere in the world. Ads promoting the tumblers said, “Tell the Wide World About Arizona.” Cactus dinnerware and china soon followed.
Kathleen Rambo is the oldest grandchild of Albert Monroe Blakely and she got to see first-hand some of her grandfather’s entrepreneurial business ideas and promotions. The Show’s Sativa Peterson sat down with her to talk about how Blakely Oil began.
KATHLEEN RAMBO: Well, Blakely Oil began in April of 1949. Their first station was at 19th Avenue and Buckeye Road when they began the company. It started at their dining room table, and his truck was his office. So it was very much a family business.
And what set them apart were two really distinct things. Number one, he charged 5 cents a gallon less for his gasoline because you could pump it yourself, which was scandalous at that time to pump your own gas. People in certain circles weren't comfortable with allowing regular human beings to pump their own gas. They thought it was a safety hazard, which seems humorous today. The other thing that set him apart was he instituted a multi-pump island design in 1949 when he put his first station in, he had several islands of gas pumps and you could pull up to the island and pump your own gas and pay the attendant and leave.
Where before his design, it was a single pump or two or three at one station, and that's it. There were not multiple islands that had multiple pumps on each island. So his first station had I think three islands with three pumps on each island, and you could have multiple cars going through. So he made his money off of volume even though he charged 5 cents a gallon less. He had run through more cars during the course of a day than a normal station could run. It was wildly successful. People liked saving 5 cents on a gallon of gas.
SATIVA PETERSON: What's really striking about your grandfather is how innovative he was about the business.
RAMBO: He had several strengths, and one of his strengths was innovation. The other was promotion, and he was just a crazy promoter and primarily promoted things that had to do with Arizona. He loved the state. He was born the year that Arizona became a state and he was fabulously devoted to Lady Arizona.
PETERSON: I think that is the real story here, that he is the innovator of these Blakely Oil ads and customer promotions, and you got to see some of that firsthand during your childhood. Can you describe a little bit of what that was like?
RAMBO: Well, he was known at the time for giving away automobiles. And during the course of Blakely Oil, he gave away 89 different automobiles, and they were a big deal when he gave them away. It started in 1951 with the 51 Ford promotion. He gave a 51 Ford away every 51 days in 1951. And when he did his first promotion, he brought in searchlights. So they were bouncing around all through the sky and there was popcorn and peanuts and it was a big deal. Bands, they had music, and of course the searchlights brought everybody, people would come around to see what was going on at this station.
There were people that had given away a vehicle here and there, but the fact that you had — every 51 days — you had a shot at winning a new car and you didn't have to buy anything. You could drive into a Blakely station and get a coupon and sign up for the drawing without buying gas. So that made him unique too. You didn't have to purchase something to get the right to win the vehicle.
PETERSON: Let's talk about another wildly successful promotion, and that was the Blakely Glass Tumblers, the cactus tumblers that your grandfather created. Can you tell us a little bit about how that got started?
RAMBO: They launched in January 1956, and he worked with the Anchor Hocking company out of Ohio. And as I said, he was passionate about Arizona. He loved all things Arizona, and there's nothing more Arizona than our cacti. We have beautiful and amazing cacti. And so he had an artist develop eight different patterns and he worked with Anchor Hocking Company to create the glasses. Now, the first glasses that launched in 1956 were very fragile, and they broke easily. So they had to go back to the drawing board and make them a little more substantial. And those are the glasses that you see today that have stood the test of time. And then two years later, he started with the china and then the stoneware, and then the etched glasses came last after that.
PETERSON: And if I'm not mistaken, the Cactus Tumblers were giveaways.
RAMBO: You had to have a coupon, a little premium coupon, and so many coupons got you so many things.
PETERSON: Yeah, they’ve really stood the test of time. In fact, they're highly sought after.
RAMBO: They're highly collectible, yeah. Which is, I love that. It's adorable for me that people are collecting things that my grandfather used as a promotion in the '50s. And he would be astounded that they have lasted this long and are still collectibles.
PETERSON: It seems like these promotions were really cutting edge and imaginative. Was he like that in life? Was he a bigger than life personality?
RAMBO: My grandfather was a bigger than life personality. He was a really large man. He was well over six feet and he had a booming deep voice. And so he was a person that when he entered a room, kind of commanded attention just by his size and the type of voice that he had. My uncle, when he got married, I was a flower girl and I spilled my flowers down the aisle and I was about to cry, and he jumped up out of his seat and scooped me up and carried me down to the front of the church and held me. And that was just the safest place on the planet.
PETERSON: And Kathleen, do you yourself collect the Blakely cactus tumblers and chinaware?
RAMBO: I do. I have all of it, yes. They're precious to me, which is why it's always fun when I find people that collect them. Because whenever I see one, when I go into an antique store, and, I have found them in antique stores all across America, by the way. It just makes me smile.
PETERSON: Let's talk about that for a second, because they really did spread right? That was part of the goal was that — Blakely Oil was going to have these iconic images of Arizona and that they really would serve for Arizona Boosterism.
RAMBO: Well, and that was what he wanted. He really wanted it to be something, he wanted to create an item that you could send to your Aunt Marge in Spokane or your Uncle John in Buffalo, New York. He really wanted it to be a memory of Arizona. And it was.
PETERSON: What would your grandfather think of this today?
RAMBO: Oh, I think he'd be stunned. I think he would be completely stunned and flattered and humbled. I think that people still treasure what he created and that has lived so long beyond him. That would be a lovely and warm feeling. My grandfather grew up in an environment where you treasured where you lived and you tried to be a good citizen in that society.
PETERSON: Did your family ever eat Thanksgiving on the Blakely china and use the Cactus Tumbler glasses?
RAMBO: I did. I still do. I kind of feel like if you have things they should be used now, the glasses I'm a little more careful with because the ones that I personally have are from my family. And so I'm very careful with those because I don't want any of those to break. But I have never broken any china or stoneware and I use them all the time. I serve Thanksgiving and Easter and Christmas dinner on them all the time.
PETERSON: And did you as a child too?
RAMBO: Yeah, we ate off of them. We ate off everything. In fact, if they broke, it was no big deal because we always got more, it was never a traumatic event. If anything broke now, it would be a traumatic event for me if something broke. But when I was a child, yeah, it was always around. It was everywhere.