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Collecting in the Heartland: Wacky food marketing and premiums

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 4, 2009 - From the 1930s through the late 1950s, breakfast food giants including Kellogg's, Post, Ralston Purina and Quaker offered an astonishing variety of premium treasures, with marketing campaigns designed to ignite the imaginations of generations of young people. Who could resist the Buck Rogers Cream of Wheat "Lite-Blaster" Flashlight, Ralston's Space Patrol Outer Space Helmet or Quaker Oats' Roy Rogers "Official" Sheriff's Badge?

The golden age of breakfast food premiums likely reached its zenith near the end of World War II with the introduction of a series of tin lithographed comic buttons wrapped in paper or cellophane and inserted into every box of Kellogg's Pep Cereal. The 86-character pin set included cartoon figures such as Felix the Cat, Little Orphan Annie, Flash Gordon and Brenda Starr.

A friend who managed to accumulate a complete set once told us how kids from his South St. Louis neighborhood would roam the local grocery aisles, use their pocketknives knives to slice open packages of the cereal and slip out the precious pinbacks, before carefully resealing the boxes.

But if those early cereal premiums remain prized by collectors today, another, later, group of breakfast food ollectibles has become equally coveted, largely for their strange, offbeat characters and fascinating graphics.

In the mid 1960s, the Quaker Oats Co. introduced an unlikely pair of characters: Quisp, a pink-skin alien with a propeller atop his oversized head, and Quake, a hardhatted, square-jawed cave explorer. Soon, Quisp and Quake were followed by a parade of wacky breakfast cereal "spokescreatures," including the well-known General Mills funny monsters Franken Berry and Count Chocula.

Gregg Koenig, a graphic artist from St. Louis, was born in 1975 and has no memory of those early days when Quisp, Quake and Franken Berry lined area supermarket shelves. He also says he has no memory of Freakies, another Ralston Purina breakfast cereal innovation that featured seven little beings with names like Cowmumble, Snorkledorf and Goody-Goody. But, he said, that didn't keep him from what has become a lifelong passion for goofy and unusual food collectibles.

In the early 1980s, while at a friend's home, Koenig noticed a tiny play food box of Freakies and remembers being fascinated by the colorful packaging and odd little beings on the front. Soon, he was hooked.

By the time he was in high school, he was hiding empty cereal boxes underneath his bed. "Nobody knew," he said. "I guess it was kind of strange."

By the time he discovered eBay, he was spending all of his discretionary income on rare and unusual food packaging items and premiums - from empty packages of Mr. Bubble bath powder, to toys featuring the Banana Splits to Pillsbury's Funny Face drink mix premiums. His home is a veritable museum of the bizarrely nostalgic.

"Most of what I collect deals with kids' junk food," he said, showing off figures of Cap'n Crunch, Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders and Pillsbury's Goofy Grape.

But through it all, he said, his favorite remains the Ralston Purina cereal that first captured his imagination as a boy.

His shrine to "Freakies" cereal is arranged neatly on shelving leading to the basement of his house. It includes Freakies boxes, press kits, stickers and vinyl racing cars.

Most impressive is a stack of "original concept" art for Freakies premiums that were never manufactured, including a Freakies kazoo. He said he got the artwork, believed to be one of a kind, from a Ralston employee who worked on the Freakies line in the 1970s.

His prize item: an exceptionally rare Cocoa Freakies box, one of only three or four in existence. The price tag was also exceptional, he admits: $700.

"It's all in the graphics," he says, still awed by the artwork. "Just look at that box. You'll never see something like that today."

Koenig estimates he has more than 2,000 cereal boxes in his ever-growing collection. Yes, he says, he has even eaten some of the cereal.