CEREAL BOX TREASURE!
BY BRADLEY MASON HAMLIN

Here's the thing, the key of why I love cereal: it's that irresistible sort of junky-gambler high as you open the cereal box, reach in and dig through that great smelling grain (and most likely sugar) until your fingers close around the prize and you pull out that little piece of treasure as if unearthing an ancient artifact from unknown and mysterious sands.

Crap, I have that one already you think, but that's okay, just a few bowls later and back at the store for another roll of the dice. Maybe this time you'll get the elusive Mickey Mouse toy rather than just another Timon, that annoying little meerkat from the Lion King. I can't say exactly what this obsessive compulsion is and I won't try. I can only relate the feeling, and the feeling is tied to mystery and an immediate sort of euphoria of discovery combined often with a letdown when you don't get the prize you're searching for, but if you're like me you've learned to immediately dismiss that feeling and go back to the hunt. One good rationalization is that if you accidentally stock up too much cereal you can feed the older stuff to the ducks in the park-and hey-that's just good family fun.

But the sad thing, and most likely the reason this article played out inside my head, is that really cool cereal premiums are almost a thing of the past. This decline in marketing goes hand in hand with modern America's tendency to continuously offer less for more. Once a product or service is well established or entrenched into our day-to-day lives we get to watch the routine of its devolution. Hamburgers become smaller but cost more, or hamburgers become ridiculously large so you can be ridiculously overcharged. Homemade recipes for pizza fly out the window with faster, easier, ingredients full of preservatives that can be slapped on at a lightning pace and shoved into a box.

Cracker Jack boxes used to provide cool rings, charms, and odd little PVC figures, but have you opened a box lately? You get a tiny piece of paper with a joke on it. Yeah, joke's on us. But not all of these crimes can be attributed to inflation or wars that make gas prices kick us in the balls every time we fill the tank. The main answer to less for more is simple: greed. When a company knows they can offer less and you'll still buy the product, well, you do the math. I once asked a manager of Starbucks why they don't have a coffee card system where you can get a free cup of joe after so many purchases. He replied: "We tried that, but it didn't effect our bottom line, so we dropped it." In other words, people will buy their coffee whether they get a chance of getting a free cup or not-so why give away coffee for free?

Human kindness?

Customer service?

Right. Those animals are rearing up on extinction as quickly as the beautiful great white shark.

Okay, where were we, back to cereal. Well, the other thing that bothers me is that while the fun seems to have disappeared from the cereal industry-the health aspect jumped ship long ago. Cereal was a health food in its conception, a food source of good fiber to help break folks away from those fatty English diets, and that's another really super cool thing about cereal: it's a genuine original American invention. I once read an article by Harlan Ellison where he argued that there were only seven original American inventions, among them comic books, the banjo, the modern musical comedy, and some others but I don't believe he mentioned cereal. I think it's generally an assumption that something as innocuous as cereal probably came from Europe.

Not so.

Some general history concerning cereal: (Come on, you know you always secretly wondered where cereal came from, so read on, culture junkies, read on )

The first cereal like convenience came from a man in New York in 1863. His name was James Caleb Jackson and he put together the first ready-to-eat breakfast cereal called Granula. Granula was really not much more than a congealed block of graham flour, bran nuggets, and water baked into loaves that you'd have to soak in water overnight in order to soften them up enough to eat in the morning with your milk. Ah, but by 1895 ol' John Harvey Kellogg came on the scene and things have never been the same since.

Kellogg was a health nut who ran a health institute in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was a Seventh Day Adventist, and therefore, a vegetarian. That's right folks; modern cereal was invented by a nineteenth century hippy. I believe Jackson's invention was really more of a granola than a cereal in terms of how we view cereal today, yet, granola cereals really are the best. If they could just put a good granola together with a fun character trademark and prize-I'd be in cereal heaven. Anyway, Kellogg didn't invent cereal per say, but he did invent the cornflake. However, he wasn't a greed-head and didn't market his invention. He actually invented the flakes for usage at his health sanitarium to help people have a good, healthy, regular blast on the toilet. I wonder if some of those early cereal shitters read the newly debuted newspaper comic, Richard Felton Outcault's Hogan's Alley, featuring Mickey Dugan-later known as the Yellow Kid. They wouldn't have known it but if they did read the funnies in the sanitarium they were making history from eyeballs to assholes.

Yeah, but it wasn't Kellogg who originally commercialized cereal; one of his sanitarium residents by the name of Post took up the idea. After witnessing the miracle of Kellogg's flakes-C.W. Post created Grape Nuts in 1897. He first tried to market his new wheat and molasses based cereal as a hot drink alternative to coffee, but it didn't really take off until he made it into a breakfast cereal. He pushed Grape Nuts as the great new snake oil cure, and when John Kellogg's younger brother, Willie, took note of Post's success he quickly jumped into the cereal game with their cornflakes and soon Battle Creek, Michigan became known as "Cereal City" as thirty different cereal companies came to town like a mass of claim jumpers mining new found gold.

By the 1940s the cereal business became so competitive that the fat cats in charge started pouring more and more sugar into the mix to see who could hook in the most kids, but as early as the 1930s companies had already added games and cutouts to the boxes and various oddities that became that sacred commodity known as the cereal box premium. One of the earliest cool premiums came in a variety of Captain Midnight paraphernalia. Kids were so jazzed by the Midnight swag that you can still hear the Captain Midnight decoder ring mentioned in films, sitcoms, and pop culture in general.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s and the coolest cereal, with the coolest premiums, the one that got me hooked, was the Freakies. I used to go to the local market in Los Angeles, buy a box of Freakies (I believe they cost exactly .69 cents), eat a few fistfuls of the cereal, pour the rest into the rain gutter, and stash the little monster toy inside my pocket-with the distinct feeling that I had just liberated and rescued a friend. If you could have turned my pockets inside out at any point in 1974 or 1975 I believe you would have found a plastic or rubber Boss Moss or Snorkeldorf hiding inside. Maybe that sort of made me a freak unto myself, but those monsters in my pocket gave me something, some sort of a mystic voodoo charm to ward off evil. I believe that.

And here I am, over 40, and still with every trip to the market I make that sacred journey down the cereal isle (almost as exciting as the liquor isle when I was in college) and I look for the latest cereal still willing to give a little something extra. Forget about those corny mail in offers. That's way too complicated and not exciting at all. Give us the treasure inside the box. Come on. How much does a two-inch plastic monster cost? Not much, but it goes a long way. If it's cool enough that little toy can create a time machine affect that will transplant the mind, body, and spirit of someone who views the thing in the years to come back to perhaps a less stressful point in time. Oh yeah, wow, I remember that! That was from that cool cereal back in '05. Yeah, things sure are different now. I remember in '05

Well, you get my meaning. If we want great memories, memories of innocence in times that are clearly not innocent (in a culture that's been dying a death of moral decay and greed primarily since the 1980s) make your voice known now. Give us back the Freakies, or other food premiums such as the Frito Bandito or the Secret Sauce Agent! Hell, bring back that mysterious Captain Midnight or how about something entirely new! Wouldn't that be nice? Something new to inspire a forty-year-old of the future-can it be done? Or will we only be able to look back as far as the generic cereal boxes of the 80s and know we killed creativity with Nazi-like efficiency.

Okay, I can't end on a negative note like that. You might be happy to know that Kellogg's, more than any other cereal company, still produces some cool cereal treasure. Most often, their madness is a joint effort with the magic of Mickey Mouse, such as the new Wobbler series. Sure, out of 50 possible Disney character wobblers-my first purchase produced Timon the annoying meerkat from the Lion King, but I'm going right back in there, and with a little luck, I know Donald, Goofy, and Mickey are real possibilities, hidden underneath miles of cereal sand, but there, somewhere, waiting to be liberated from the box.

-Bradley Mason Hamlin
brad@retrocrush.com

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