Photo courtesy of Unemployed Philosophers Guild

Gift Shop Plus Fall 2022
Meet the Maker: Unemployed Philosophers Guild By Debbie Eisele

Unemployed Philosophers Guild appreciates big thoughts that can inform funny, simple gestures

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild (UPG) is a gift company known for its intellectual, yet humorous, gifts. Thirty-three years ago, UPG was founded by brothers, Stephan and David Shaw after college graduation when they were disappointed with career options.

The brothers decided to earn money by creating clay earrings that were called East and West Germany. The earrings could be worn in either ear, or together in one ear. The Shaws sold the earrings for $5 on a SoHo street corner and were very successful.

Over the years, the brothers created more products including pins, pillows and more that incorporate beauty and history. “UPG seeks to share beautiful and fun ideas, in science, art, philosophy and literature through a wide selection of original products,” Trudi Bartow, director, sales and marketing for UPG, said. Today, UPG sells hundreds of items, both domestically and internationally.

“At the heart of our business is a small (11 people!) office we call the Ivory Tower — in literal terms, it’s a humble second-floor walkup with skylights and a friendly office dog named Vector,” Bartow described. “We’re a motley crew of overeducated misfits with passions for art history, film, journalism, theater, comedy, philosophy, and business who pool our passions into creating products that amuse, delight and spark curiosity.”

Typically, products are conceptualized during weekly meetings, which are held “around the large table in the back of the Ivory Tower,” according to Bartow. A majority of those meetings are “dross,” yet are filled at times with laughter, silence and sometimes a new product!

“For every product that comes out, we have 100 that don’t,” she detailed. “Often people suggest products and personalities to us that we should add to our line, but it’s very rare that we hadn’t thought of it already!”

UPG offers over 25 product lines, and the most popular line is the transforming mugs. The designs on the mugs morph once hot beverages are poured into them. For instance, the Climate Change Mug shows how the earth transforms to future predictions of sea level change, once a hot beverage is added. Another example is the Constellation Mug — a sky of stars changes into a series of constellations once hot liquid is added. There is even a Dinosaur Mug that transforms from a design of living creatures to one of dinosaur skeletons.

The heat-transforming mugs are a cornerstone of UPG’s business. Additionally, the Constellation, Dinosaur and Butterfly Mugs are popular designs. Within the Secular Saint Candles, James Baldwin and Edgar Allan Poe are favored. Plus, UPG shared that its Mister Rogers and Bob Ross collections are consistently great sellers along with Rosie the Riveter products, finger puppets, pins, mint tins and more.

UPG’s Magnetic Personality Finger Puppets, which feature historical and fictional figures such as Plato, Emmanuel Kant, Maya Angelour, Cthulhu, Frida Kahlo and William Shakespeare, are very popular.

The 2 oz. scented soaps feature humorous wrappers, such as Lady Macbeth’s “Out Out Damn Spot Guest Soap,” and “Freud’s Wash Fulfillment Soap,” amongst others. Bartow noted these items make great “impulse purchases and stocking stuffers.”

“We are always happy to offer products featuring perennial favorite Frida Kahlo, whose popularity makes her a perfect figure for a wide range of businesses, from bookshops to museums, and florists to art supply stores,” she explained.

Bartow suggests that retailers use UPG’s Ivory Tower or the category displays, which are made in the USA. Additionally, she recommends grouping items by theme, product, subject or personality.

“Oftentimes, we find featuring a doll or finger puppet with a corresponding theme gives the display that touch of whimsy that draws customers in,” she said.

Additionally, UPG offers displays for specific product lines such as its soaps, hair pins, notebooks and other merchandise. The display units help display the UPG brand in a “harmonious way with (a) customer’s store.”

UPG fans run the gamut from “fellow scholastic nerds to the casual customer looking for a huggable Albert Einstein doll,” according to Bartow. “We love to embed a little thought in unassuming places, like Freud in a pair of Freudian Slippers. From Socrates to Mister Rogers and Bob Ross to the silly antics of Monty Python, we appreciate the big thoughts that can inform funny and seemingly simple gestures.”

“We regularly make sure to take a break from pondering ‘the Good’ in order to do some good,” Bartow shared. Every year, UPG contributes over $100,000 to a variety of charities and organizations. “This is all done through either product donations (like gift bags and pledge incentives), sponsorships of cultural events or through direct financial contributions,” Bartow emphasized. Some of the well-known organizations that UPG supports include: World Central Kitchen, Doctors Without Borders, Planned Parenthood and more. For a full list of organizations UPG supports, visit

Debbie Eisele

Debbie Eisele is the former managing editor for Gift Shop Plus, Stationery Trends and a variety of special issue publications, including: The Guide, Holiday Shop, Celebrations & Occasions and Waterfront Living.

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