“Trendy, a bit shrill and funny“

Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska, Hanno Hochmuth, and Sabine Stach on the chicken eggcup – the bestselling souvenir at the GDR Museum Berlin – and its impact on the so-called memory market

EDIT: This blogpost is an excerpt from the newly published article by Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska, Hanno Hochmuth & Sabine Stach “Entrepreneurs of memory: Selling history in the GDR Museum shop in Berlin” for the Journal Memory Studies, 2024.

Can memory be sold? And if so, how exactly does it work when it literally becomes a product? In our recently published article “Entrepreneurs of memory” we explore these questions using the example of state socialism. Taking the GDR museum shop in Berlin as our starting point, we trace the histories, distribution channels and product life cycles of some of its best-sellers. One of these is the plastic eggcup in the shape of a chicken. Not only is it the best-selling souvenir in the store, it also appears twice in the exhibition. First, we saw it in the section on the plastics industry, and then in the fully equipped kitchen in the household section, where we could hold the original item in our hands. A modern version of it can be purchased in the museum shop for EUR 3.00. This relatively cheap object has become a widely recognizable icon of retro design, showcased not only at the entrance of the museum but also on the covers of numerous books, as well as in various design exhibitions related to the GDR.

Branding Sonja Plastics

Unlike other East German household products designed by professionals who had been educated at one of the state-run design schools—for plastic objects, this was primarily the Burg Giebichenstein in Halle—the eggcup was created by Josef Böhm, a descendant of the founder of the factory that later produced it. Initially conceived as an export product, the cup was launched in the late 1960s by the Willibald Böhm factory in Wolkenstein, Saxony. The enterprise was founded in 1925 and focused mainly on making buttons. The Böhm factory launched the Sonja Plastic brand for their household products in 1953. When it was nationalized in 1972, Willibald Böhm GmbH became “VEB Plaste und Chemie Wolkenstein,” with the abbreviation “VEB” standing for “Volkseigener Betrieb,” or “nationalized enterprise.” In 1990, after the reunification of Germany, it was re-privatized and regained its original name.

Eggcups displayed in the exhibition of the GDR Museum. Foto: Hanno Hochmuth.

However, the history of the eggcup is inextricably linked to the history of another Saxon enterprise. As long ago as 1880, Georg Rheinhard Franz had begun to produce chemical materials in his factory in the small town of Annaberg-Buchholz, which was likewise nationalized in 1972. The Franz family took back ownership of their factory in 1993 and transformed it into Reifra Kunststofftechnik GmbH. Reifra acquired Willibald Böhm GmbH in 2001, though retained the latter’s name for branding purposes. With this transaction, the descendants of Georg Rheinhard Franz and now managers of Reifra, Jasmin Franz-Klutz and her brother Norman Franz, aimed primarily to secure the rights to the Sonja Plastic household design line. Investing in the rights for GDR-designed plastic goods proved a good business strategy. Although Reifra took out loans to finance the transaction, as its balance sheet shows, the company’s leverage ratio had fallen back to its previous level within just two years. 1

The current success of the eggcup, a million of which have been sold so far, 2 is down to the marketing strategies being employed at Reifra. When the company obtained the rights to the plastic chicken, the wave of “Ostalgie” was at its peak, and the fondly remembered products turned out to be a resource of great commercial value. Reifra’s financial statements show that the company expanded in the 2000s and remained stable despite the economic crisis in 2008 and thereafter. 3 Although they also sell synthetic materials for the machine and automotive industry, the easily recognizable eggcup has appeared in almost every public statement mentioning Reifra, thus serving as the company’s best advertisement. It also helped to establish a positive corporate image: In response to problems with illegal copies being made in China, Reifra’s managers emphasized the high quality of the products that met all the necessary standards and were produced in Saxony. The Franz siblings drew on the long tradition enjoyed by the Saxon chemical industry to strengthen the Sonja Plastic brand, for which the eggcup is the main icon.

Eggcups displayed for disposal at the GDR Museums museum shop. Foto: Hanno Hochmuth.

In the realities of the socialist economy, the two companies—Böhm and Franz—produced their goods without competing with each other. Böhm was larger, whereas Franz was incorporated into another state combine, apparently because it was too small to be transformed into a VEB of its own. In the neoliberal realities of the early 2000s, their roles were reversed. Now, Reifra (formerly Franz) was the larger company, which acquired its competitor Böhm and obtained the rights to the eggcup. Its history is thus inseparably linked to the high costs of the economic transformation in East Germany. While the socialist VEB Plaste und Chemie Wolkenstein employed between 120 and 140 people, only 20 staff worked for Reifra in 2021. 4 In fact, southern Saxony, where Reifra has its headquarters, is among the regions that have been affected most severely by the hardships imposed by the economic transformation after the collapse of the GDR.

The eggcup on the memory market

The patents and designs from the GDR turn out to be resources of high monetary value. It is not the technology or the material that makes the highest profit but the memories associated with particular products. The mnemonic discourses related to the eggcup comprise issues of individual nostalgia and generational change (memories of everyday life), political and economic history (memories of the chemical industry), post-1989 transformation (memories of unemployment and social deprivation), and, finally, regional traditions (emphasizing the eggcup’s Saxon roots). People’s negative memories of the social and economic hardships of the 1990s are rarely visible in the eggcup’s appearances in museums, albums, or shops. Instead, the eggcup is usually presented as an “innocent” everyday object from the GDR and a product that has successfully survived the economic transformation of the 1990s.

Die DDR in Objekten“ – „The GDR in Objects“ – is the title of a GDR Museums own publication starring the eggcup on its cover. Foto: Hanno Hochmuth.

It is thus an example of what marketing researchers call “brand nostalgia,” which is said to create effective incentives to buy products associated with the past Brand nostalgia targets consumers from particular generations. One important audience for the eggcup is middle-aged people who grew up in the final years of the GDR and now collect retro objects: “Here you will receive the original: the egg cup in chicken shape” notes the seller at amazon.com, although this description relates to the item currently being produced. The GDR Museum’s online shop advertises the eggcup as “trendy, a bit shrill and funny.” 5 This is how it is presented in exhibitions: as a “cult object and common souvenir.” 6 Stories about the hardships of the economic transformation, the politicized chemical industry, and the nationalization of private property are usually omitted from such descriptions. After all, they are hardly conducive to generating a profit.

The memory-forming effect of museum shops

The eggcup appears not only in the GDR Museum Berlin, but also in other GDR Museums such as the Haus der Geschichte and the Museum of Utopia and Daily Life in Eisenhüttenstadt. In addition, it was a prominent feature of the 2021/22 exhibition entitled “German Design 1949–1989. Two Countries, One History,” presented first in the Vitra Museum in Weil am Rhein and then in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Dresden. To analyze it through the lens of how it has been exhibited and showcased provides information on just one specific part of its memory-forming effect. The entrepreneurial perspective completes the picture by asking not only how products become museum objects, but also how objects circulate as marketable products and how these two aspects are intertwined.

The GDR Museum is advertising its museum shop prominently using the eggcup as its symbol. Foto: Hanno Hochmuth.

The case of the eggcup demonstrates more so than virtually any other object how permeable the boundary between the museum and the museum shop can be and how broad the entrepreneurial network is that is involved: The GDR Museum’s business partners are neither the museums that have displayed the eggcup nor the publicly funded institutions that commemorate the GDR, such as the Berlin Wall Foundation (Stiftung Berliner Mauer). Rather, its partners are tourist attractions and discount partners such as Madame Tussauds. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to conclude that the establishment of the EasyJet hub in Berlin in 2004 may have had an impact on the development of the GDR Museum that was no less significant than any curatorial decision or political recommendation.

This blogpost is an excerpt from the newly published article Saryusz-Wolska, M., Hochmuth, H., & Stach, S. (2024). Entrepreneurs of memory: Selling history in the GDR Museum shop in Berlin. Memory Studies, 0(0).

Header picture: The eggcup in the exhibition of GDR Museum Berlin. Foto: Hanno Hochmuth.

  1. Commercial register data: https://www.genios.de/firmen/firma/RE/reifra-kunststofftechnik-gmbh.html (accessed 14 September 2021, behind paywall).[]
  2. Even as early as GDR days, sales had reached 50,000 pcs/year (Zschiesche and Errichiello, 2009: 162).[]
  3. According to the balance sheet, the company’s assets shrank by 21% from 2007 to 2008 but recovered as early as in 2010 and remained stable until 2020 (most recent available data): https://www.genios.de/firmen/firma/RE/reifra-kunststofftechnik-gmbh.html (accessed 14 September 2021, behind paywall).[]
  4. Most recently available data in the commercial register (accessed 14 September 2021).[]
  5. https://onlineshop.ddr-museum.de/en/products/eierbecher-huhn (accessed 7 March 2022).[]
  6. Caption from the ’German Design 1949–1989’ exhibition (2021) at Vitra Museum, Weil am Rhein and Kunstgewerbemuseum, Dresden.[]
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