Something for Nothing and Your Gifts for Free

(Part 2)

Loyalty programs — the practice of giving a token gift of some kind back to consumers in exchange for their business — date back to the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. As far as boomers are concerned, the most ubiquitous programs from our youth involved trading stamps.

There were several different trading stamp companies operating in various states, with some states restricting and regulating their use to the point of keeping them out altogether. Merchants would buy the stamps directly from the companies, then give them to consumers as a bonus for their purchases. Often the stamp-to-purchase price ratio was one stamp for every 10 cents of purchase, with “bonus days” that could double the number of stamps given during periods of high local competition or marketing pushes. Stamps came in different denominations to allow for larger and smaller purchases. The stamps were perforated and the backs contained glue, like postage stamps, to allow consumers to moisten and paste them into pre-printed, 24-page books. Books were supplied free by the merchants.

The heyday of the trading stamp era was the 1960s. Gas stations and supermarkets were the biggest purveyors of the stamps, though some other retail businesses occasionally participated. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, three trading stamp companies were operating: S & H Green Stamps, Top Value Trading Stamps and Gold Bell Gift Stamps. Since Mr. B’s dad did the grocery shopping and gassing up of the family car, he would bring home the stamps. The Boomer kids would lick the backs and, like cats that had tasted something unpleasant, made sour faces and repeatedly stuck out their tongues in an effort to rid their mouths of the flavor. Before the glue could dry on the paper stamps, they would paste them on the book pages, being careful not to mix up the various denominations and stamps from the different companies. After a period of trial and error, the Boomer kids learned to use a moistened sponge instead of their tongues to wet the stamp backs.

S & H Green Stamps looked the most like postage stamps. A light green background had money-like swirls in a darker green that surrounded the red “S & H” in the center. The Top Value company used a plaid elephant as its logo. The animal’s Scottish cap and plaid body was a symbol of “thrifty,” which was a Scottish stereotype of the era. The stamps were printed with red banners above and below the Top Value name, which was also in red. Gold Bell stamps had a golden-yellow-orange background with a red bell in the center. The design, with its radiating rays from the top and bottom of the bell, looked more like a remnant of the 1930s or 40s.

The key to getting a “free gift” was the redemption center, run by the stamp companies. These were stores in their own right, but instead of purchasing merchandise with cash, the consumer used trading stamps. Completed stamp books were exchanged for merchandise that ran the gamut from housewares to small appliances; lighting and home furnishings to bicycles and toys; and more. Each piece of merchandise required a certain amount of redeemed stamps, in the form of complete or partial books. A shopper could pick up a catalog in the store to take home that would show the available merchandise, along with the redemption requirements for each. This resulted in people “saving up” their stamps for a particular goal.

Mister Boomer’s mom would walk, kids in tow, to the redemption centers. They were all clustered within a few blocks of each other in the city’s “downtown” area. There she’d shop for smaller items to carry back, or scope out larger ones that would require a family excursion on a Saturday to bring home the treasure. While the S & H and Top Value storefronts were rather non-descript, the Gold Bell Gift Stamp redemption center had a massive neon sign running the entire length of its storefront. Inside a series of concentric, rounded-corner rectangles were tall, san-serif letters spelling out “Gold Bell.” Just to the left of the name was an “animated” neon bell. When the sign was lit, it glowed a magenta-red. The bell would appear to “ring” left to right and right to left, an illusion created by neon tubes switching on and off between three positions.

Some items that Mister Boomer's mom obtained by redeeming trading stamps
A reasonable facsimile of some items obtained by Mister Boomer's mom. There sure were a lot of brown colors around in the days before avocado and gold entered the scene.

Mister Boomer’s mom was in charge of which items were acquired. As a result, household gifts were the biggest category of obtained items. Mr. B can recall the family taking home a card table and set of four chairs, a standing lamp, TV trays and that symbol of 60s suburbia, a starburst clock. Naturally, it was hung against a paneled wall in the living room, where it remained for at least a decade. The card table and chairs, often employed on holidays where it became the kids’ table for meals, is still in use.

It’s unclear if the giving of trading stamps ever swayed a single where-to-shop decision in Mister Boomer’s family. As is the case with most middle class families, they were more concerned with savings than store loyalty. As such, trading stamps were, indeed, a bonus.

Well, boomers, can you recall an item your family obtained through redeeming trading stamps? Was the item for personal or home use, or to give as a gift to someone else?