By Dr. Curtis Varnell
Cars whiz in and out of the new super-station, paying up to $4 dollars a gallon to pump their choice of fuel. Patrons line up in front of the 12 pumps, feeding in credit cards and selecting which color nozzle will dispense the gas. None of them look to happy in the one-hundred-degree heat and most leave the place without ever speaking to another living soul. The world sure changes with just a few added trips around the sun.
Being raised in the days of Andy Griffin, I can identify with Gomer or Goober running out of the station to check oil, water, and to offer my father a fill-up. The uniform dressed employee would wash the windows and then offer you a promotional gift if you bought ten-gallons of more fuel. Gulf, Esso, Dino, and all the popular chains strived to get your business by offering all sorts of freebies. Personally, the lunar module kit showing the lunar lander, The Eagle, was my favorite. Younger kids liked going to the station that offered an animal that they could add to the Noah Ark kit. The driver could get the ark for a minimal price and then, with each ten-dollar purchase, you received one of Noah’s animals to add to the collection. During the 1930’s, a service station in Pennsylvania even offered a free airplane ride with any fifteen-dollar purchase. That seems like a real bargain today but, at .21 cents a gallon, that would require about a half-dozen fill-ups on hard to get depression era money.
Service stations and grocery stores gave away S&H green stamps. Fill-up the books with stamps and trade them in for a wide-range of gifts or money. I collected up a pocket-full once while working as a sacker at the local grocery store and, being a young smart-aleck, placed them in the offering plate at church. The next week, the pastor who must have had a wife who collected, thanked his benefactor from the pulpit. A sacker in a grocery store? That bring up another subject to be discussed more fully at other times.
Some of the best promotions gave away glass dishware. Quaker Oats were our family favorite. Beginning in the 1920’s, Quaker began placing a cup or a saucer of carnival glass in each box of cereal. It was brilliant advertising and customers would purchase only that name-brand to receive the next essential addition to their collection. My grandmother would open the box, pour out the oatmeal, and eagerly search for the glass within. Additional large pieces could be obtained by turning in box tops or labels. Families finest set of dinnerware, kept in the pantry and for special use, came from those boxes. Duz detergent and others soon followed suit; leading to collections of this red, yellow, or green dishware as valuable collection items today.
Promotional products encouraged you to buy every item imaginable. A&W root beer would supply a small glass of their product free to everyone under six with an adult purchase. Buy a float and keep the beautiful, heavy mug advertising their product. Those mugs now sale for a nice, fancy price. Presidential campaign buttons from every presidential race were place in cereal boxes. An avid collector, I now have a set of every one of those buttons running back to the 1896 campaign and some of those buttons cost much more than an entire case of the original product. Toys, small books, Disney characters, ashtrays, and coasters were stashed in products across America. If that wasn’t enough, buy a twenty-five-pound sack of flour or a fifty-pound sack of hog feed and you received a yard of gingham cloth. Many students went to school with dresses or shirts provided gratis for buying life’s essentials.
Returning home from pumping my own gas, Zachary asks me for fifty-dollars to buy a new hoodie with some kind of funny swatch across the front. “Son, I stated emphatically, you can get that same hoody for twelve dollars down the road.” He looks at me like I am crazy, “It doesn’t have that logo Dad!” Now instead of getting a promotional, we pay for the privilege of doing a company’s advertising for them! Sometimes I feel like I have either set out too long in the sun or experienced a few too many trips around it.