Elbows on the counter, I watched as Mom carefully pried the top corner from the blue and red box. The words on the front foil wrap boldly proclaimed “Free Glass Inside!” A giant starburst twinkled brightly on the picture of the tall glass tumbler. “Duz does everything!” was printed at the bottom of the carton. Guess it did, as my mother beamed as she pulled out the smoky-blue treasure. She rinsed and dried it until it sparkled like the picture and fondly placed it next to the other three on the top cupboard shelf.
There is an element of excitement about getting something free, and manufacturers used the sales tactic to their advantage, especially following the bleak years of the World Wars and the Great Depression. After long periods of doing without so there would be enough for the soldiers or struggling to feed the family, it must have been fun to get something pretty — especially when it came free!
Duz did it again when they included a 22K Golden Wheat dish in every box. Monday washings enabled American housewives to collect plates, cups and saucers nice enough to grace the table when company visited. Even cooked oatmeal was special when served in “crystal” bowls that came free in Crystal Wedding Oats canisters.
A Cannon bath towel snuggled in every package of Breeze laundry soap. The clothes on the line fairly gleamed with the brightness from all the detergent purchased!
Companies quickly discovered who made the food-buying decisions in the family — the children! Cracker Jack plopped a prize in every box, beginning in 1912. For more than a century, kids couldn’t wait to open the small bonus, a metal or plastic toy or a baseball card.
Kellogg was the first manufacturer to offer prizes in their cereal, and others soon followed suit. “Snap,” “Crackle” and “Pop” figurines stood by as we listened while pouring milk over the crispy morsels of rice. Wheaties boxes boasted of the “real” microscope inside, a plastic device that magnified things six times. Attached to the box of one cereal was an actual 45 record. It didn’t matter that we had never heard of the band or the song. It played!
Hidden in boxes of Wheat and Rice Honeys was a free 2 Stage Rocket that separated in mid-air when launched. In 1958, Nabisco Spoonmen “Munchy,” “Crunchy,” and “Spoon-size,” (they ran out of “unchies”?) attached to a child’s spoon, assisting as he or she scooped up little squares of the shredded grain.
During the sixties, youngsters could complete their espionage repertoire by buying all three kinds of Chex: rice, corn and wheat. With a Secret Agent ring, watch and decoder pencil in hand, we had it all. We could practice our spy technique while watching our atomic submarine (Wheaties freebie) crash-dive and resurface with Frogmen (Kellogg’s Cornflakes) swimming along beside.
One afternoon, as I was strolling through the grocery aisles with my mother, I spotted the endcap display of neatly stacked Kellogg’s boxes with the vivid sign above: “Free Dragnet Whistle inside every box!” Immediately, the theme song of my favorite TV show trumpeted in my head: DUM da dum-dum. I heard the solemn announcer: “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” I envisioned my hero, Sgt. Joe Friday. I NEEDED that whistle. “Mom, can we please buy cornflakes?”
I stared wistfully at the picture of the whistle on the box as I put it away in the cabinet at home. Mom insisted that we finish all the “old” stuff before we could open new. Waiting for that prize was like anticipating Christmas in September. I thought it would never come.
I had to be patient. Joe Friday was patient. At night I dreamed of chasing down the bad guys. I blew my whistle and they stopped and held up their hands. I hauled them in to the precinct.
The dilemma was real the morning I could finally open the box. Of course the prize was hiding at the bottom. A choice had to be made. Dig in with both hands and fish it out? Eat the whole box? Wait a few days and risk that a brother or sister might find it first?
Mother’s big enamel bowl held most of the flakes; the distinct aroma of corn drifted up as I emptied the box. Finally, out dropped the coveted red whistle, wrapped in crinkly, clear cellophane. Flakes flew as I grabbed it. With a delighted grin, I slipped it into my pocket.
One cup at a time I began pouring that cereal back into the crisp white package. The fine print at the bottom of the ingredients list, “contents may settle during shipment,” was an understatement. At last the huge bowl was empty and the paper package stuffed back into the box. My breakfast bowl overflowed only slightly with the flakes that wouldn’t fit. I poured in milk, lifted a spoonful and chewed away as I examined the carton in front of me.
Wait! What was that? What was printed on the white circle on the bottom front corner? “Coming soon! A powerful Superman Belt and Buckle in specially marked boxes. Help Superman save the world. Don’t miss it!”
I stared at the bulging box before me. I poured myself another bowl.
DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow. She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA and is employed as Children's Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library. DeAnn has written a series of books, (four published so far, fifth to come out soon) "Promises to Keep," which are available at Amazon.com.