Collector's items: Thrilling trinkets of yesteryear

January 13, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Like millions of kids in the 1940s and '50s, little Johnny Snyder pestered his mom to buy the "right" brand of cereal so he could send the box top and a dime for the latest hot premium from the Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight, Tom Mix, Superman, Don Winslow of the Navy or Little Orphan Annie, whose adventures aired daily on radio.

When the postman -- at last -- delivered the secret decoder, special-detective badge, magic whistle ring, signal flashlight, periscope or club membership pin, fantasy for him overwhelmed reality.

Radio came into its own as the medium of mass communication during the Great Depression. Imagination was everything. Listeners had to visualize action from dialogue and sound effects.

A full menu of dramas and adventure stories filled with suspense and cliff-hanger endings aired daily. Sponsors targeted the juvenile market, and most had offers of one kind or another.

"To the child who got the premium, it was like the Hope Diamond," said John K. Snyder, 50, of Timonium, whose childhood fascination with premiums has never flagged.

He has been collecting since 1972 and has created one of the country's top collections.

The 10,000 items reflect "100 years of what we're all about as a people," said Mr. Snyder, president of Diamond International Galleries, a comics and memorabilia gallery being established by Steve Geppi at the Timonium headquarters of his comic-book distribution empire.

From 1972 to 1983, Mr. Snyder, an Indianapolis native, served as head of the tourism section of the U.S. Department of Commerce. His stint included a year as acting undersecretary of Commerce. He said he began his return to "those thrilling days of yesteryear" almost by accident after buying a Lone Ranger Atomic Ring at auction.

"I just wanted it, because I had one when I was young," he said. "The Lone Ranger was my super hero.

The collecting bug bit and wouldn't let go.

"I'm working to collect the things my mother threw away," he said, "but you're just holding them for the next person. Every one of us, men and women, has been affected by these things. How many boys wanted to become strong because of Superman?"

Comics companies consult him frequently, asking to study pieces in his collection, Mr. Snyder said.

"Stuff from the old days is being copied now," he said. "They are going back to how they did it before because it was better then."

The Snyder collection wallows in nostalgia, beginning with premiums offered in 1895 when The Yellow Kid, the first continuing comics character in color in American newspapers, appeared. Those early premiums were aimed at adults.

The vast majority of the pieces, however, are from what Mr. Snyder calls the Golden Age: the early 1930s to about 1955, when companies offered high-quality premiums.

'It was never junk'

Prices for those items now range from a few dollars for relatively common pieces to $150,000 or more for rarities, like the 10 known survivors of the 1,600 silver-colored rings awarded as prizes in a 1940 contest to write in 100 words or less: "What I would do if I had Superman's powers."

People frequently ask, "Why do people pay so much for such junk?" Mr. Snyder said. "I resent that, it's baloney. It was never junk. . . . There was always something neat to keep a kid occupied, and I learned to wheel and deal and trade. Everything was always 10 times better than I expected."

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when jobs were scarce, companies were able to hire some of the country's best artists to design premiums and graphic illustrations for promotional material.

Sponsors pushed their products' nutritional value on the parents, but every youngster knew the really important thing was the latest premium offer.

Sponsors knew few parents could resist kids' insistence on a particular product.

"Children don't listen to adults," Mr. Snyder said, "but they will listen to a character."

Who could resist?

Who didn't want to be a Junior G-Man or a Dick Tracy Detective, to unravel the day's secret message with the Don Winslow Golden Torpedo Decoder, ride with Tom Mix or the Lone Ranger against the rustlers, destroy the enemy fleet with the Captain Midnight Bombsight -- or enjoy a drink of Ovaltine from the Little Orphan Annie shaker?

All things were possible, if you had a dime and the right box top.

Sponsors formed "secret clubs," based on the radio programs. To keep interest alive, sponsors promoted the advancement of a child, as in the Dick Tracy Detective Club. For promotion from detective and a new badge, a child had to send in more box tops.

To reach Inspector General, the top rank, a child "had to eat about 30 boxes of cereal," Mr. Snyder said. "Very few people ever did that. It was too expensive. And that's why the badge is so rare today."

Girl listeners included

Although most items were directed toward boys, charm bracelets, rings and coloring books were used to get girls to listen to shows and read comic books. Wonder Woman was among the first comic book heroines.

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