The phrase “Collect all 4,” or some variation thereof, has become the bane of every parent’s existence, but the motivation behind the phrase is hardly new. For more than 100 years, as companies attempted to sell more stuff, they included free toy prizes with the purchase of a product in order to encourage parents to buy their brand, again and again and again.
Sometimes, toy premiums were only given out in-store after a purchase, while others required mailing in a certain number of box tops or, later, UPC barcodes as proof-of-purchase. But the most satisfying reveal was achieved by sealing the toy directly inside the product’s box.
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes offered the first-ever cereal-box prize in 1909, which required kids to mail in proof of purchasing two boxes to receive a free copy of “The Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Book.” Eventually, Kellogg's upped the price to 10 cents, but that didn’t stop customers from claiming them.
Quickly, the giveaway toys moved beyond cereal boxes to all types of processed-food packaging, from candy bars to bread to canned peas. Other premiums were given away at gas stations, such as the miniature model cars given out by Mobil, or fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, whose Happy Meals entice children to finish their meals with the promise of a toy.
The Cracker Jack Company introduced its first toy surprises in 1912, which included a range of items like tops, tin soldiers, celluloid lamps, puzzles, and movie slide cards. The company’s most valuable premiums today are likely the baseball cards issued during the 1910s, such as the 1915 Joe Jackson cards, which have sold for more than $100,000.
In the 1930s, radio programs utilized toy premiums through partnerships with major brands like Ovaltine or Libby’s Evaporated Milk, offering toy prizes like rings, posters, figurines, and pinbacks related to certain children’s shows. Over the years, many premiums also referenced characters from comic books, films, and television shows, including favorites like Buck Rogers, Superman, Howdy Doody, Captain America, Archie, Batman, and the Looney Tunes.