By Greg Bates
Kids who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s had the best of both worlds when it came to breakfast cereal.
Companies catered to the younger generation with tasty, sugar-coated goodness. But the best part? Most of the cereals included a prize – also known as a premium – either inside the box or that could be acquired via a mail-in offer.
The premiums were cool and sometimes a bit off the wall. Kids loved them and most held onto their prized possession. Even today, many cereal premiums are highly collectible, and in some instances extremely valuable.
“When you went down the cereal aisle with mom, you were looking for the best toy,” said Greg Holman, who is the director of pop culture at Heritage Auctions. “It wasn’t just about the cereal. I really didn’t care what the cereal was, I wanted what was inside. I want the scuba diver where you put the baking soda in and he rises and sinks in your tub. I love that kind of stuff.”
Since Holman deals with cereal premiums on a regular basis at work – although, those types of items haven’t been coming for sale as often at one of the nation’s top auction houses – he knows his stuff. It also helps that Holman is a collector. He figures he has about 60-70 cereal premiums in his collection and 15 unopened boxes of cereal at his house.
But Kirk Robinson could be the king of collectors when it comes to cereal premiums. Robinson, who turns 60 in November, started his collection as a teenager in 1973.
“My brother and I ate a lot of cereal. That’s what we ate before we went to school,” Robinson said. “Of course, a lot of cereals back then had a lot of prizes in them. My mom would throw them on my desk and one day I had a ‘clean up your room type thing,’ and look at all these. I had 23. I specifically remember I had 23 prizes on my desk. Put them in a shoe box, and that started it all.”
Robinson, who lives in Akron, Indiana, still has the 23 original premiums he got 45 years ago. His collection now is at 1,408 premiums as of mid-August.
Robinson keeps track of his collection on an Excel spreadsheet and updates it once a year. The document stretches 67 pages. Most impressive.
“The one thing that’s unique about my collection is everything I have is unopened,” Robinson said. “There’s some stuff that doesn’t come in a plastic wrap so to speak or whatever, but all my cereal premiums – they’re actually called ‘in-packs’ – are all unopened, every one of them. I have them all tagged as to what cereal they came out of and what the name of the prize was and the date.”
When Robinson was younger, he would have his mom buy the cereal boxes mainly for the cereal but also the prize. But years later, he would buy the cereal for the premium inside.
“But it has to be a cereal I would eat,” Robinson said. “I eat a lot of cereal, that’s just what I do. I eat it at breakfast, I eat it at lunch and have I changed to the adult-type cereals over the years. But right now, I have a box of Mini Wheats and a box of Captain Crunch cereal. They’re both open and I’m eating them right now.”
Duane Dimock started collecting cereal premiums as a teenager 46 years ago. The hobby has consumed him. The 60-year-old now has 3,000-4,000 premiums and just over 10,000 cereal boxes.
When Dimock attended Eastern Washington University in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he would go to breakfast every morning with one thing in mind. Dimock always made it a point to get to the cereal. He’d reach into the box and take out the prize.
“I got hundreds of prizes from that era,” Dimock said.
Dimock once met a guy who had a trick to collecting cereal premiums.
“He said, ‘I just turn the box upside down and open it that way,’” Dimock said. “He would get the premium right off. I thought, ‘Oh, that was really clever.’”
Collectors didn’t have to be clever collecting cereal premiums, however. The prizes were everywhere in the 1950s-1980s, but that changed.
Premiums pick up speed
Three years after W.K. Kellogg created the initial batch of Corn Flakes, he started the premiums phenomenon. In 1909, Funny Jungleland Movie Pictures comic book was available for anyone who purchased a box of Toasted Corn Flakes. It was a mail-in offer where kids would have to send a dime for the comic book. According to Holman, the promotion was so successful it lasted for about 30 years.
“It’s actually the one thing I did buy,” said Robinson, who acquired all his other premiums right out of the box.
There are still plenty of the first cereal comic books available online these days, notes Robinson.
In the 1910s, there was a new wave of premiums.
“You got one type of a dish in a box,” Dimock said. “As far as I know, Wheaties was one of the first boxes that had the baseball players on the back, which was extra cool. Walt Disney was like 1934, so he did a bunch of cutouts that you could display your toys out of them.”
Kellogg’s was at it again in 1945 when it released Pep pinbacks. The Pep cereal brand had 18 buttons in five series, but Superman appeared in all five sets. So, there were 86 unique comic character pins. Holman said a complete full set of pins can go for a couple thousand dollars in good shape. Also, an advertisement – a 2 feet by 3 feet, large cardboard document – with all the pins on it can sell for $5,000-$6,000.
Holman said some of the older items have value, including little Orphan Annie items as well as full box board games that came on the back of the package. Kellogg’s had some big foldout games that were popular that can now sell at auction for $500-$700.
The draw of cereal premiums
One of the biggest draws about the hobby is that it’s affordable for the most part.
“You rarely find cereal premiums that reach over $1,000,” Holman said. “Whereas some of early Superman of America rings and stuff like that can go for tens of thousands of dollars.”
With the internet making it so easy for collectors to pick up whatever premiums they so desire, it’s having an effect on the hobby.
“I think eBay has hurt the value of these things, like a lot of things,” Robinson said. “It went from being a rare thing to, ‘Well, gosh, I have one of those.’”
One extremely popular premium back in 1947 was the Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring from Kix. The tagline on the advertisement for the ring was “atoms split to smithereens.”
“You could pull off the fin and look inside and there was a piece of alpha radiation – it’s a sample of uranium bromide,” Dimock said. “You could see it spark.”
Over one million where reportedly sold as consumers had to send 15 cents and a box top to the company to redeem the prize. They are still popular items on eBay these days, and some still spark even 70 years later.
“The amount of radiation in them, which was so small, it was way less than the uranium dial illuminated watches we had in the early ’80s,” Holman said. “I thought that was a really cool nuclear toy. That’s a pretty nifty prize.”
One of the more unique premiums over the years was a promotion by Quaker cereal in 1955. In association with the radio series, The Challenge of the Yukon, interested cereal consumers could purchase a deed for one square inch of Yukon land in the Alaskan Frontier that Sergeant Preston of the Yukon patrolled.
Quaker bought 19 acres of Yukon riverfront territory, which cost around $1,000. Then it cost the company other $10,000 to send out about 10 million deed certificates. In all, the highly-desired promotion cost Quaker just $11,000.
“Their cereal was sold out across the board,” Holman said. “They had special displays set up, it was crazy.”
Quaker reneged on paying taxes on their land some years later and the acres got repossessed by the Canadian government. According to Holman, when the kids who had saved their deeds started dying and family members found the pieces of paper, calls started pouring in to Quaker to find out how much the land was worth. Quaker had to spend quite a bit of money on legal fees and fielding calls from “landowners.”
In the 1950s, items pertaining to Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger were all big sellers for premiums as well as cereal boxes, noted Dimock. The next decade, Batman and Superman were big collectors’ items.
One of the first premiums Robinson remembers receiving was a plastic orange basketball with a small hoop from Alpha-Bits cereal.
“They don’t have them like that anymore today,” Robinson said. “Those staple cereals back then were the Alpha-Bits, Captain Crunch, Honeycomb, Sugar Crisp – it was Golden Super Sugar Crisp, it was Sugar Crisp. Those are the ones we ate all the time.”
Dimock recalls saving between 40 and 60 box tops to send away for plastic firetrucks offered by Captain Crunch. He raced them in the hallways of his college dorm for weeks.
Cereal premiums were still popular in the 1980s, but then there was a slow decline.
Robinson said monster-related items such as Frankenstein and Dracula are in demand these days. One great cereal promotion in 1991 was the release of the Addams Family cereal with a Lurch flashlight. Also, glow in the dark prizes gain a lot of interest, Robinson noted.
In the late ’90s, there was a bit of a resurgence with cereal premiums when CDs were made available.
Even if collecting cereal premiums has seen its better days, Robinson absolutely loves the hobby.
“I just think it’s really unique,” said Robinson, who figures he has eaten 95 percent of the cereal himself that he has purchased over the years. “I’ll show other people that have some interest and it’s just so different. I think that’s probably what attracted me to it. Who else do we know that collects these things?
“The premiums have kind of dropped away – you don’t see as many premiums as you used to,” Holman said. “When you go down the cereal aisle, there’s not that many.”
Holman explained that part of the reason for the premiums decline was it was a health hazard if a kid would try to eat a prize.
In 2000, there was a NASCAR promotion where cars where put into the boxes but a couple wheels came off. There was an instant recall, but no one was ever reported to have choked on them. Four years later, Spider-Man watches with a mercury battery in it were pulled because people didn’t want mercury in the kids’ cereal boxes.
“I think the companies were really leery of putting things in their cereal for fear of setbacks,” Holman said. “Recalls were expensive, bad press was expensive. So, I really think that was more the downfall than anything. Not the actual incidents, but the fear of the incidents.”
If cereals do have premiums these days, they are mail-in offers. Days are long gone for in-pack prizes.
A new cereal brand, Funko, is trying to get longtime cereal premiums lovers back in the game. Funko’s line includes mini pop figures in its boxes.
“It’s like they’re going back to having inside premiums,” Dimock said. “They’re based on the pops, and they’re beautiful boxes, colorful. And they plan on having black cereal. Wow, black cereal, that’s going to be so good.”
So, maybe there is a future with new cereal premiums.
“The future looks bleak, it looks real bleak,” Dimock said. “Kids aren’t collecting things. … People are collecting photographs or selfies or they’re playing games. It’s the physical item that has changed. Kids aren’t growing up with physical items much.”
Holman is hoping for another move in the right direction again for the hobby.
“I think the Baby Boomers and the Gen Xers are going to want to see cereal premiums coming back because we miss them,” Holman said. “That was a thrill as a kid to be able to open that box of cereal and find that cool toy.
“I hope to see a resurgence in it, honestly. I think they were cool, I think they were neat and I think they were fun.”
Greg Bates is a national freelance journalist. He writes mostly about sports, but dabbles in antiques and is fascinated by the Civil War. His work frequently appears in Sports Collectors Digest, and he’s also written for USA TODAY Sports Weekly, The Associated Press, TeamUSA.org and USAHockey.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.