Waiting for those special prizes

By Rick Houser – 

I came from a farm family that ate a light breakfast most of the time. What I mean is Mom didn’t offer steak and fried potatoes or fried cured ham. No, we got toast with peanut butter and jelly or oatmeal a lot more than I really wanted, and if nothing else sounded good there was always a bowl of cereal and milk. Please don’t misunderstand. We never starved at breakfast but on the same token we never ate what Mom referred to as a heavy meal.
Since Mom went to the field to work she didn’t have or take the time to cook a huge morning meal. She was putting together the items she would serve us for lunch. So if it wasn’t oatmeal it was cereal. Most of the time it would be Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Placed in a bowl with milk poured over them along with Mom’s secret ingredient (sugar), you went to meet the day on a full stomach.
The thing about cereal was that it seemed that in every box there would be a surprise inside. Now I ask you, is there is any child who didn’t want to obtain a toy of at no extra cost or with no begging at all? For as long as I can remember, there was always something extra in the cereal box. Sometimes the item wasn’t that interesting, but the next box might hold a prize worth waiting for.
The concept was a key marketing tool for that time and if you ever watched “A Christmas Story” you might recall that Ralphie waited for a Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring with so many labels from Ovaltine. So, anticipating those prizes had been around for a long time.
I know that even my Grandma Houser got into this act because she would buy Post Toasties and in each box there would be a package of cats eye marbles (six to be exact.) For what seemed like forever, she would give me those marbles from every new box she bought. The thrill for her was that I got a gift and she didn’t have to pay for it. As a matter of fact, I still have a lot of those marbles in a jar that I see up on a shelf from time to time. Also, I never learned how to shoot marbles either. I just looked at them and enjoyed the fact they came from my Grandma.
In the late 1950’s, Kellogg’s’Corn Flakes came out with what to me was the neatest prize ever. They were offering a United States Navy Frogman for a few box tops and the cost of mailing. The frog man came with a “magic powder” that when a teaspoon of it was loaded in the frog man’s feet and when placed in a tank of water, he would dive and return to the surface until the powder ran it. It was really the coolest thing I had ever seen. Even my Dad, brother Ben, sister Peg would come over to the sink where we had water drawn up and watch him dive and rise for awhile. It wasn’t long before I ran out of that magic powder but somehow my Dad figured out that baking soda got the same results. This was the prize that gave me the confidence to believe that all prizes were winners. (I was so wrong about that!)
I have seen offered such items as a Gunsmoke pistol which was miniature in size, and a small camera that when you pushed the button for a picture it would squirt water at who you were pretending to photograph. Now that one had to be a very unpopular with the parents. My daughter said her favorite prize she got was a Pebbles coin purse and a Dino ink stamper. I really remembered that one as she stamped Dino all over our house. It came with ink that wouldn’t go away easily either.
I’m sure if you were from that time period, that this was the marketing tool you remember. As a matter of fact, as the cereal prizes began to disappear, McDonald’s began placing toys in their kids’ meals. This was very effective in getting parents to buy some chicken nuggets and fries so their child could get the newest item featured. I am certain I have stepped on more than one Star Wars or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toy and I assure you they were made with some strong materials.
I think I am only touching on the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this topic. Sometimes I pick up a box of cereal in the store and look on the back to see what, if any, offer are they making. I am only looking and don’t tell yourself that I am still buying cereal toys at my age. What I have found is that in this day and age to obtain any prize, you had better be a computer whiz, because nearly every prize had to be obtained over the Internet. This is where it separates the men from the boys, and as most of you know your grandchildren fall under the men category and the grandparents fall under the boys.
Here is where I see that our world has changed and I’m not so sure for the good. To grab a box of corn flakes or Rice Krispies, dump the contents into a bowl, and pull out a prize for yourself, it it was a special feeling that may never be felt again. This is just one more of the simpler pleasures that we got to enjoy.
Once there was a 45 RPM record pressed into the cardboard on the back of the cereal box with a popular group and a song I knew. I immediately cut the record off the box and played it on our record player. The quality of the sound was pretty rough but I was kind of pleased to say I got a current record to play and I paid nothing for the pleasure. Yes it was barely understandable but hey, I got it for free!

Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and loves to share stories about his youth and other topics. If you would like to read more of his storied you can obtain his two books “There are Places I remember” and Memories ARE From the Heart” He may be reached at houser734@yahoo.com.