The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia had lovers. Its neighbor to the north had ‘Maryland is for Crabs.’

Seemingly a retort to Virginia’s 1969 “Virginia is for Lovers” slogan, the “Maryland is for Crabs” catchphrase began showing up on T-shirts in the 1970s. This  throwback design is by LocalVyntage.com.
Seemingly a retort to Virginia’s 1969 “Virginia is for Lovers” slogan, the “Maryland is for Crabs” catchphrase began showing up on T-shirts in the 1970s. This throwback design is by LocalVyntage.com. (LocalVyntage)
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I enjoyed your July 25 “Virginia is for Lovers” column. What’s the story behind the “Maryland is for Crabs” slogan? I’m guessing it’s a “copycat” thing, akin to our recently abandoned goofy state anthem “Maryland My Maryland” that stole its music from the Christmas song “O Tannenbaum.”

John A. Moore, Gwynn Oak, Md.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Answer Man suspects that whoever came up with the crustaceal riff on Virginia’s famed tourist slogan did it with tongue in cheek.

As author Robert J. Brugger put it in his 1996 book, “Maryland, A Middle Temperament: 1634-1980,” the snarky slogan fell into the time-honored tradition of “twitting an older sister.”

“Virginia is for Lovers,” you will remember, debuted in 1969, courtesy of the Martin Agency, an advertising firm in Richmond. The first print reference to “Maryland is for Crabs” that Answer Man can find is in a 1975 Washington Post story about a Fourth of July gathering at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Among the T-shirts spotted was one bearing “Maryland is for Crabs.”

There was no description of the shirt, but it probably aped the Virginia shirt, right down to the typeface and a red crab where the red heart would have been.

The catchphrase has never been used officially in Maryland, the state’s tourism office told Answer Man. It seems to have been a grass roots creation, conjured up in a T-shirt shop or bumper sticker factory.

A business called L and H Stores did trademark a “Maryland is for Crabs” iron-on in February 1976, along with dozens of other designs, including “I’m with stupid, stupid’s with me” and an image of a partially peeled banana with the legend “Hungry? Eat this!”

The crab trademark seems to no longer be valid.

“I don’t know how long it’s been around,” said Craig Pfeifer, owner of Maryland Screen Printers in Dundalk. “Everybody was doing all kinds of crab things: ‘Don’t bother me, I’m crabby.’ ‘Maryland is for crabs.’ ”

Said Pfeifer: “It’s tough. Everybody’s trying to come up with the same idea … You can have a hit, but you can have 100 misses.”

Pfeifer has been in the T-shirt game since 1988. His big hit was a line of “Big Johnson” T-shirts.

Until his retirement three years ago, Steve Nachman ran United Souvenir and Apparel in Harford County.

“We printed it on a lot of different items,” he said of the “Maryland is for Crabs” slogan. “We printed it on T-shirts, magnets, keychains, sweatshirts, nightshirts, shot glasses, mugs.”

Nachman said that over the years, he sold tens of thousands of garments bearing “Maryland is for Crabs.”

“It’s definitely not licensed,” he said. “There are other people who make it with a different crab.”

Steven T. Sherfey of the Baltimore T-Shirt Co. got his start in the late 1980s working for V’s Tees in Reisterstown, where owner Vic Vicarini made “Maryland is for Crabs” T-shirts.

“I think I remember William Donald Schaefer holding that shirt up,” Sherfey said.

Soon after buying Vicarini’s company in 2013, Sherfey came across some old artwork bearing the original design. Before throwing away the vellum — the now-obsolete technology used to print T-shirts — Sherfey duplicated it on his computer.

“The fonts were Cooper Black and some other font that [former senator] Barbara Mikulski used to use all the time,” he said.

A love of nostalgia has fueled LocalVyntage.com, a web site that sells more than 200 different T-shirt designs, including, since December, a $32 “Maryland is for Crabs” shirt. Company founder Chet Winnicki grew up in Connecticut but his father is from Pennsylvania and an uncle lives in Aberdeen, Md.

“I’m an O’s fan, I’m a Ravens fan,” Winnicki said. “I grew up in the summertime sitting around a big table of steamed blue crabs. My dad had an old T-shirt from probably the ’70s or early ’80s that bore that slogan and an image of a crab. That inspired us to create that particular T-shirt design.”

If you know who first came up with “Maryland is for Crabs,” please drop Answer Man a (trot) line, especially if you can date it to before the summer of 1975.

The cheeky shirt is an indicator of how successful the original Virginia slogan was. Washington wanted to get in on the act, too. In 1976, the Downtown Jaycees and radio station WMAL hosted a “Washington is for …” contest. The judges were gossip columnist Diana McLellan, humorist Art Buchwald, Roy Jefferson of the Redskins, and Harden and Weaver of WMAL.

More than 5,000 people responded. The Evening Star’s Judy Flanders wrote that many of the entries referenced Jimmy Carter — “Washington is for Peanuts” was common.

The District’s Heather Brow submitted “Washington is for Soul.” Carlos E. Vazquez of Rockville, entered “Washington is for Peace.” Parul Jani of Springfield covered all the bases with “Washington is for Crabby Lovers.”

The five finalists were: “Washington is for U.S.,” “Washington is for Winners,” “Washington is for Affairs of State,” “Washington is for US by George!” and “Washington is for Great Expectations.”

Not to be crabby, but none of those really work, do they? Perhaps it’s no surprise that Answer Man couldn’t find any reference to a winner ever being selected.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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