When I was a kid one of the coolest things that could happen was getting something in the mail. As a kid you did not have to worry about bills or advertisements (you had no money for marketers to exploit anyway) so when something arrived with your name on it you felt special. It could be a card from a relative (ideally with some cash stowed away in it) but the real prize was when you got something you sent away for.
I had a real knack for this and participated in several such programs. In my youth (1980s - 1990s) it was common place for companies to post small ads in comic books, the newspaper, magazines or on the back of cereal boxes with programs requiring you to collect a set number of “proof of purchases” and then to mail them in with money for shipping and in return you would get some sort of prize. The prizes were almost never worth it especially when you factored in that you would need to collect enough proofs that they had more than reaped their profit and it was just another way to keep you engaged. Even as a kid I knew this but my small brain pushed it aside in favor of the joy I would get when it arrived and the bragging rights I would get when I showed it off at school.
Typically, you would need to cut a small corner off of the product that would be labeled “proof-of-purchase” and occasionally they would have their own point system to further incentivize. For example, a small envelope of Kool-Aid would only be worth 1 or 2 points but if you could convince your parents to get the large plastic jug then you could snip a coupon worth 10 or more. This was a brilliant way for them to get kids to do the marketing for them. Sure I liked Kool-Aid but if I could convince my parents to buy more I could get a better/bigger prize or if you were like my family it was more of matter of convincing them to buy the name brand product over the generic that offered no rewards program. I can clearly remember standing in the isles of Food Barn on 350 hwy telling my mom that if she got the big jug instead I could make more Kool-Aid and she would save money because I wouldn’t drink so much orange juice or milk. This was of course not true; I consumed an inordinate amount of milk (after all I had to work my way through more boxes of cereal for those prizes).
In my room I had one of those faux wood dressers that were popular in the 70s/80s and the top couple drawers had clothes but the bulk of it was filled with toys I rarely used (past mail in rewards) and the bottom drawer was my stash of product stickers. The moment we got home from the store I would go through the products and if I could safely remove the tag without exposing the food inside I would snip it and place it in a bag corresponding to its value which then went into a cookie tin. You know the one, it said, “butter cookies” and after the cookies were gone most of the time it became a sewing kit for your mom. Well once my mom’s kit was established, I claimed the new tin every year from grandma (after promptly eating all the cookies) as they were a good place for a nerdy little kid to store scraps of food product labels.
Once I had enough points it was time for some paperwork. You had to line them up and secure them in such away the processing site could easily count them. This usually meant to glue or tape them to a piece of paper grouping them by value, post cards worked best. Then you had to go hat in hand to your parents and ask for a check to cover “postage and handling”. Since most companies didn’t accept cash and as a 10 year old I didn’t have check book this mean I always had to go through my parents. My dad was always my first stop as most of the time he admired my dedication and patience plus he had the stamps and envelopes in his desk. If I caught him right he would even help me fill the form out. If I caught him in a sour mood (50/50 odds) I would have to go to mom and that was often a long shot. She thought it was a waste of time (her time or mine I wasn’t sure) so if I felt she wasn’t receptive I would have to wait till grandma came over. .
My grandma was a tough as nails woman who grew up in the great depression, lost her husband young and more or less raised 3 kids on her own. I spent a lot of time with her for reasons I will get into another day and I witnessed her bring store clerks, policemen and family to the verge of fisticuffs or tears on several occasions. She was never the kind to back down from a fight if she felt she was right and growing up she was my all-time favorite person. She held me to a high standard and didn’t let me get away with much of anything. That said she wouldn’t even blink if I asked for a $3.95 check made out to General Mills. She would even take me to the post office to drop it off with the idea being they would get it sooner so I would get my prize sooner. Never mind it took 4-6 weeks processing.
Over the years my patience and interest would rise and fall but I was usually a sucker for a new program from a product I liked. My father was the owner operator for a small vending business that would often burn through a 100+ cases of soda pop each week as he drove around town filling machines returning with the flattened paperboard cases to be trashed. In 1992 the Olympics were in Barcelona Spain and Coca-Cola had a rewards program where you could mail away for mix CDs of music by famous musicians. Before long I had the compete set and began using the extras to barter for toys and food at school. That Christmas I got a personal CD player and these discs were the only media I had to play in it. Growing up my parents were die hard country music fans so I had heard VERY little outside of that genre. As a result, those Coca-Cola CDs were my first exposure to folks like Eric Clapton, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Freddy Mercury. While I was not an instant fan of all of those it did open my eyes (ears) to other music styles.
When I was teenager my grandma moved in with us and as we had a 3-bedroom house this meant my parents had the master bedroom, my little sister had her room and my grandma got mine. I was still able keep some of my stuff in the room, primarily the closet and one corner but I was relegated to sleeping on the couch. Despite my love for my grandma this rubbed me the wrong way for a long time but like most things in life I slowly adjusted to my new truth. I stopped inviting friends over (what few friends I had) because I was embarrassed. This continued for about 18 months till we finally moved but in that time we had 3 heavy smokers in our house (Dad, Stepmom and Grandma). It also happened to be around the time the Marlboro Tobacco Company introduced the Marlboro Country Store catalog.
The catalog had things you would expect like lighters, cigarette cases and ash trays but it also had some big-ticket items. You could save up for dart boards, leather jackets, kayaks, billiard tables and more. As I was the established mail order guru in the household my dad tasked me with tracking the points and submitting the orders. My father had a discharged 90mm APC, M26 Pershing “Tank Destroyer” shell he bartered from an old vet that proudly say in the corner of the living room. This was our designated drop off point and only now do I see the irony of dropping empty cancer inducing tobacco packs into the remains of a large destructive shell. When I saw it getting full, I would fish them out, cut the points off and add them to the count. As all 3 of my parental figures were heavy smokers we racked up numbers pretty quickly. My stepmom switched from Capri Super Slims to Marlboro Lights to help increase our numbers at my dads recommendation.
Growing up in a household of smokers you don’t realize right away the impact it has. I was oblivious of the smell that permeated my clothes and it wasn’t till I went away to college that I discovered although I didn’t smoke myself (still don’t) I reeked of the smell just the same. I remember one day in health class learning the impacts cigarette smoke had on your lungs and promptly marched home to share this revelation with my parents. Thinking I was sharing some new info and eager to save them I was met with a cold stare and dismissed as an alarmist. Up until this point my father would occasionally let me pick prizes using the points and I had been wearing Marlboro Man t-shirts and using a Marlboro Red duffle bag at school. I told them I would no longer be helping them and began stealing packs from the “smoke drawer” and shoving them under the trash before taking it to the bin outside.
With suspicion in his voice my father announced once day that they had been going through packs faster than usual. This should have been my clue but later that day I was asked to empty the trash and I walked by the desk with the “sticks of death” as I had grown to calling them and before I could even close the drawer my father came around the corner. He had been waiting and listening for the slight scratch as I pulled the chair aside to clear way for the drawer to open. I quickly lied and said I was preparing to bring him a pack, but he saw right through it. The subsequent punishment was swift and severe. Needless to say I never tried to dispose of my families cigarettes again.
It is far less common to mail away for something in the modern day and if your household is like mine it's typically Amazon that gets delivered after a late night impulse purchase on their app. Being a geography nerd and fan of connecting with other cultures I was ecstatic when I stumbled upon a post card exchange website a couple years ago. Postcrossing.com helps connect other mail day fanatics like myself. Once registered (free) you can request the random address of another member somewhere around the world. You then send that person a postcard with a message and marked with a unique ID only given to you. Once they receive that card they register it on the website using the unique ID which validates you did indeed send the card as promised. This gives you a credit and now your address will be given up to a 3rd person somewhere else in the world who sends you a card and the process continues.
Most members will list some of their interests on their page so you have an idea what kind of card to send and what type of message to write. My daughters have gotten interested too so we take turns authoring cards and have a small collecting of post cards to share. I love when we receive a card and we talk about it’s country of origin often breaking out the globe to show how far away they live and imagine what life might be like in their part of the world. Like many members we have a long term goal of getting cards from as many different countries/states as possible. Paul, our mailman, often remarks on the interesting and sometimes bizarre cards we receive. And on that note, I am going to fill out another card or two and head to the post office. Be well everyone and thank a postal worker if you get the chance. In addition to bills and ads they sometimes bring joy from far far away right to your doorstep.