For an American boy growing up in the heartland during the 1950's, the cultural capital of the world wasn't Paris or New York or even Hollywood, but rather Battle Creek, Michigan. And the highest achievement of humankind wasn't art, science, religion, or even baseball — it was the cereal box top premium.
There were three kinds. The first was the least significant: the kind printed on a cereal box itself. This kind included various gliders, rockets, masks, and follow-the-path games. Most of these premiums scarcely deserved the name. I held them in contempt, though I always tried them out, of course, by dissecting each box long before it was empty, or else by transferring the contents into any convenient receptacle — another box, a bowl, or the nearest wastebasket.
The second kind of premium offered greater rewards for greater effort. This was the kind that came inside the box. Somewhere down there, nestled safely in Cheerios or Post Toasties or Spoon Size Shredded Wheat, was the object of my longing. All I needed was enough time and appetite to eat my way past the cereal. This was a minor challenge: like most self-respecting boys, I regarded the cereal as little more than packing material for the premium. I usually reached my goal by plunging an arm elbow-deep into the box to settle the matter once and for all. Yet the effort usually proved more exciting than the final achievement. Free-prize-inside types of premiums tended to the paltry: whistles, balloons, decals, and other affronts to my nascent acquisitiveness.
Then there was the third kind of premium — the kind I mailed the way for. This was the best kind, though it involved tolerating a typically unreasonable adult request: PLEASE ALLOW SIX TO EIGHT WEEKS FOR DELIVERY. But if I sent my money along with a few boxtops, if I remembered to fill out the order form, if I waited that inexplicably long wait, then the effort was almost always worthwhile. For in return, I received a parachute, a crystal radio, a miniature telescope, a sundial watch, a camera, a first aid kit, a baseball bat-shaped pencil, a Lone Ranger deputy badge, or any of several strange rings.
Looking back now, I feel astonished at how desperately I craved those trinkets, how eagerly I sought them, how quickly I walked into every marketing snare that the cereal companies set for me. Was I simply doing my apprenticeship in American consumerism? I suspect not. Gullibility and greed weren't the whole story. The truth is that some of those premiums fired my imagination like few possessions I've owned before or since.
Consider the meteorite ring. The ring itself was unremarkable: just a plastic ring with a clear cap over the top. Inside, however, was a real meteorite. I could scarcely believe that this ugly, pitted, gray-brown pebble could have produced one of the sky-wide streaks of light I loved to spot on summer nights. I spent a lot of time tilting the ring back and forth, examining the meteorite, and pondering it. What part of the solar system was it from? How far had it traveled? How had it survived its plunge through the atmosphere? And once it fell to Earth, who had found it? I had visions of a special staff clad in white coats and goggles — the General Mills Meteorite Recovery Team — searching the Nevada desert on hands and knees.
Then there was the atomic ring — the paragon of cereal boxtop.premiums. The atomic ring was a spinthariscope. Consisting of a sealed tube with a thin layer of radium and other chemicals at one end and a lens at the other, a spinthariscope is a simple device for viewing subatomic phenomena. The radium interacts with the other chemicals to produce alpha particles, which show up as tiny flashes inside the device. (The name comes from the Greek word spintharis, "spark" + -scope.) The atomic ring was a version of the basic spinthariscope but was encased in a metal and plastic ring instead of a larger tube, as would be typical of the devices sometimes present in high school physics classes. This wasn't the likeliest of cereal premiums, but it was definitely the best.
I sent off for mine during the mid-Fifties. I was seven years old. After going to bed each night, I would pull the covers over my head, nestle into the darkness, wait for my eyes to adjust, then peer through the eyepiece and watch what I believed to be the unfolding of a miniature galaxy. Of course I told my family about the ring, but I never convinced anyone of my claims about what I saw there. "I can see shooting stars inside this ring! " I told my parents and brothers. "I can see comets! I can see planets! " Everyone was amused but incredulous. No matter. Knowing that I alone saw the flashes heightened my sense of delight. I had discovered a private universe.
The atomic ring now seems like a bad joke. Just a little more than a decade after the U.S. nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a major American food company promoted this radioactive toy, then continued distributing it during the first lap of the US-Soviet nuclear arms race. Yet the atomic ring didn't inspire fear in me. It didn't prompt me to consider the tragedies of World War Two or the quandaries of post-war American military power. When I looked at it, I never saw the engines of Armageddon. I saw a window into another dimension.
I didn't keep any of my old premiums, but even now, many decades after I acquired them, I can still feel their influence. I've graduated from the Secret Agent Microscope and the Lone Ranger Spyglass to more elaborate and subtle technologies, but I'd be ungrateful not to acknowledge my original inspiration. I've outgrown my obsession with codes and ciphers, and I can trace some of my fascinations with language to the Secret Code Maker and other premiums. Childhood possessions are notoriously influential. I could have done far worse than to have boxtop premiums sparking my impressionable young mind.
Were the premiums as remarkable as they seemed during my youth? Probably not. Some of them were simply amusing toys. Others were just bits of promotional junk. Yet ultimately their significance, both at the time and since, says less about the trinkets themselves than about human imagination. My own imagination was (and is) a complex force that both animates my psyche and in turn energizes my work as a writer. I owe this aspect of my personality largely to my parents, who were by nature both playful and artistic. However, I owe something as well to the boxtop premiums. It's not as if the premiums were a source of imagination; instead, they were a kind of particle for imagination to grasp, much as water vapor requires a bit of dust to form around before atmospheric moisture can turn to rain. The premiums — whether remarkable, banal, or both — made a difference to me. They allowed me a boyhood testing ground for my sense of wonder.
Whenever I take off the sweater in a dim or dark room, I'm astonished by the intricate swirl of sparks that such a simple action produces. To my eye, it's one of the most beautiful and wondrous of sights. It's as if I'm inside a spinthariscope. It's as if I'm chunk of radium flinging off thousands of alpha particles. My hyperactive imagination again? Perhaps.
But wonder is where you find it — even if it first turns up at the bottom of a cereal box.
Edward Myers is the author of thirty-four published and forthcoming books. Among these are three novels (The Mountain Made of Light, Fire and Ice, and The Summit), thirteen children's books, and a well-received, much-reprinted book about bereavement, When Parents Die: A Guide for Adults. He has also co-authored and ghostwritten many books. He lives with his family in the New York metropolitan area.