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A&W Burger Family.
In their early years, the Burger Family smiled from A&W Root Beer roofs.

The A&W Burger Family

Story by the Roadside America Team

Burger Family Bonanza of 1967.
1967 A&W Convention: Burger Family as top prize.

Fast-food hamburger cartoon characters flourished in the 1960s. Most were transitory and forgettable (Burger Giant, Big Barney, etc.), but they weren't meant to be remembered -- they were meant to put you in a happy mood to buy hamburgers. The button-nosed, mug-hoisting A&W Burger Family are a rare, permanent presence in this grill-and-patty pantheon. Preserved as statues, they have smiled at multiple generations in full-color fiberglass.

The Burger Family -- Papa, Mama, and Baby Burger -- debuted as A&W's brand mascots in 1960 (the restaurant chain started much earlier; a plaque marks its 1919 root beer formula birthplace in Lodi, California). Teen Burger was added in 1963, the same year that International Fiberglass began making the statues. Individual A&W root beer stands were encouraged (but not obligated) to purchase a single statue or a set of all four, which cost $1,800 in 1967, roughly the same price as a Muffler Man.

How many were made? Debra Jane Seltzer, author and photographer of roadside buildings, signs, and statues (and curator of the impressively obsessive states that about 200 full family sets were produced, roughly one for every ten A&Ws at the time. "I got that number from somewhere," she said, "but where exactly I can't remember." Janet Ritter, our A&W contact, said that an A&W historian once told her that an additional 300 Papa Burger statues were made. "Few restaurants had space for the full family," she said. "Many locations just purchased Papa."

Burger families hit the road.
Burger Families hit the road.

By our count, roughly 50 of the possibly 1,100 Burger Family statues are still on public view, and a slightly larger number may be in storage and private collections. What happened to the rest? "From the A&W guys I've talked to," said Mark Smith, a Burger Family statue collector who's chatted with a number of A&W owners, "the stores were told to destroy them. They were told, 'The Bear's the thing now [Rooty, the A&W Great Root Bear, introduced in 1974]. We're going with this Bear. So get rid of all the Family members.'"

Mark Smith's private collection: a Burger Family reunion.
Mark Smith's private collection: a Burger Family reunion.

This purge, if it existed, ended years ago. A&W once again welcomes the Burger Family, or at least isn't actively trying to smash them. Janet told us that there was even an attempt (unsuccessful) to purchase a complete set of statues as part of A&W's 2019 centennial.

A number of A&W owners saved their statues, and some still display them. Other Family members, possibly salvaged from junkyards, have been repurposed into everything from lumberjacks to humanoid vegetables. Mark, the collector, plans to assemble four complete original sets -- one for each of his kids -- plus possibly one for himself. "My wife thinks I have a mental issue."

The motivation isn't nostalgia, said Debra Jane. "There are plenty of people in their twenties who are crazy-nutso about this stuff," she said. "I think people realize we live in a society where everything is square, plastic, boring. So anything that's an outlier is special." Yet despite the potential demand, there will be no modern knock-off copies of Burger Family statues, said Mark, "because technically A&W still owns the rights to them."

Proud Burger Family, Hillsboro, Oregon.
Civic Pride Burger Family of Hillsboro, Oregon.

The Burger Family has lasted so long that they've achieved respectability. A city in Oregon declared its vintage Burger Family a "cultural resource," gave them an official bronze plaque, and put them on prominent display. And in 2019 the New York State Museum became the first mainstream institution to restore and exhibit a member of the Burger Family -- a Papa Burger -- as a historical artifact. "He's utterly charming, he's part of the American landscape, and he's an object that that draws people to the museum," said Karen Quinn, senior historian and curator of art and culture. "You just look at him and can't help but smile."

And then maybe order a hamburger.

Burger Family

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