When “Stuff” Was Free, Or Nearly So

By Jim Ignasher

There’s a trinket from my childhood that I’ve managed to keep over the years. It’s a ring, with an actual piece of 24 karat gold inside; or so I was told. It was given away – for free – by the Post Cereal Company in the mid 1960s to promote their Honeycomb cereal. To get that ring I had to study a “treasure map” on the back of the cereal box. Then using a set of clues, had to figure out where a fictional gold mine was located, and mail the answer, along with two Honeycomb box-tops, to the cereal company. Actually my older and wiser next-door neighbor, Michael Mulvihill, helped solve the mystery.

The 1960s and early 70s was a golden era for cereal give-aways. Each brand had its own sales gimmicks of either placing a “prize” in every box, or offering something through the mail after receiving a designated number of box-tops as proof-of-purchase. The freebees ranged from the mundane to the “pretty cool.”

Unfortunately, many of the cereals from that era won’t be found on store shelves today. How many remember Quaker cereal’s “Quisp”? Their boxes depicted a loveable green space alien. (“Quisp – for Qwazy energy!”) For 50 cents and a couple of box tops one could send away for a Quisp “Cosmic Clouder” water pistol.

And there was General Mills’ “Count Chocula” and “Frankenberry”. They once offered free monster stickers in their boxes.

Post Alpha-Bits offered three kinds of tiny terrariums, while Kellogg’s cereals contained a mini baking soda powered submarine, or the chance to send away for an official Batman periscope.

Nabisco had plastic Winnie-the-Pooh characters that could either attach to a spoon while you ate your breakfast, or cling to the side of the cereal bowl.

Boxes of Cap’n Crunch contained plastic “bo’sun” whistles which somehow seemed to vanish into thin air after you were done using it.

“Mom, what happened to my whistle?”

“How should I know?”

Other “prizes” included rub-on tattoos, toy cars, and small-scale state license plates for one’s bicycle. (Collect all 50!)

The snack-food industry also got in on the act. For example, Frito Lay corn chips came with molded-rubber pencil erasers that depicted characters from their commercials such as “W. C. Fritos”, or the “Muncha Bunch Gang”. (Remember them?)

As a kid I can recall riding my bicycle to the military recruiting station where there were always free posters and bumper stickers for decorating my room, and to the tobacco shop where they gave away empty cigar boxes.

However, free stuff wasn’t just for kids. How many can recall the free samples of new cleaning products that used to appear in mail boxes?

And gas stations would compete for business and customer loyalty with give-aways of their own. Esso gasoline for example, (now Exxon), had a slogan in the 1960s; “Put a tiger in your tank”, referring to the high octane in their fuel. As such, Esso gave away faux fur tiger tails that could be clipped to a car’s gas cap, or a child’s bike. They also offered orange colored rubber tigers-head bicycle handle grips. As a kid, these items ranked in the “cool” category.

Gulf stations gave away plastic orange horseshoes to stick to the trunk of a car to advertise their “extra kick horsepower” gas.

Sinclair gas stations doled out hollow plastic toy dinosaurs, which sometimes melted if left in the sun too long, and coin banks that looked like oil-cans.

Shell gasoline gave out presidential collector’s coins with each visit to be placed in a commemorative booklet, and Sunoco issued coins that featured antique cars.

Periodically various stations gave away glassware and dinner plates with each fill-up, which kept homemakers coming back to collect the whole set. Free road maps, key chains, pens, and even ashtrays with company logos were also given away. And nobody had to pay to put air in their tires either.

The best thing for any junior fireman to get in those days was a red and white Texaco fire chief helmet, which sold for $3.98 at any Texaco station. (Technically not free since an adult had to buy it.) It was made of hard plastic and included a battery operated microphone-speaker system. These are sought after by collectors today.

One thing free at all gas stations was the service. When a car pulled in, the occupants were greeted by a uniformed attendant who operated the pump, wiped the windshield, and checked the oil – even in the rain. (“Self-serve” didn’t exist then.)

Banks were another place where free stuff could be had – as long as you had some money. How many remember the days when banks would offer things like free toasters, transistor radios, or luggage, to anyone who opened an account? To encourage young people to save, they also gave away small toy banks of various designs, usually with the bank name or logo on them.

I had relatives in upstate New York, and as a kid I would sometimes take the free tours offered at the Utica Club Brewery, and the Beechnut factory (now gone). The brewery tour included a trolley ride around the grounds, and ended at the 1890s saloon where kids received two free mugs of root beer, and adults got two mugs of Utica Club draft beer. Beechnut tours netted free Lifesavers and chewing gum.

I don’t know if this is still done, but airlines once gave out free pilots wings to passengers under 12.

Unfortunately corporate thinking has changed over the years making free stuff harder to find. However, there’s at least one bank in town that still offers free lollipops, and I did see some free promotional posters advertising a new beer at a local liquor store, but from what I can determine, today’s cereal companies seem to be lacking in the “free stuff” department. Yet I’m not surprised. After all, who can afford to offer free gold-filled rings these days?