Something for Nothing and Your Gifts for Free

(Part 1)

Remember when companies wanted your business enough to compete for it by offering free gifts? Many types of businesses used this marketing technique to gain new customers and keep current ones. Competition was fierce. Was there a broader business base when we were in our formative years? Or was it the expansion to the suburbs that produced the proliferation of entrepreneurial profiteers? In Mister Boomer’s case, that’s hard to say. In the pre-interstate freeway system days, Mister B’s neighborhood ran along the main truck route through his portion of the state. While that certainly would draw specific businesses to the area, like gas stations, others that cropped up were truly intended to service a local rather than transient population. Free gifts, clearly, were intended for a neighborhood clientele. They were looking for customers for life.

Banks were probably among the most consistent givers of free gifts. The usual pitch, advertised in ads in local newspapers, was to offer a free toaster, blender, the occasional piggy bank (complete with bank logo) or $25 Savings Bond to open a new savings or checking account. It would seem, though, that timing was everything. Mr. B’s family didn’t seem to be able to cash in on this particular gift bonanza. Once the Boomer family children reached age 10 or 11, the parents walked them down to the closest bank, which is where they banked, and opened their first savings accounts. There never seemed to be any promotional giveaways in effect when the time came to start an account. There were regional banks around, but most were decidedly local in nature, with no more than a few branches in adjacent suburbs.

Banks all over the country still employ this method of attracting new customers, so it looks like we boomers have learned to like free stuff from our parents. A quick check on the Internet has dug up offers for $50 to be placed into your new account, iPods, Flip cameras, cordless drills, step stools, gift cards, art prints, and even one that offered a free HDTV with an initial deposit of $20,000.

Gas stations may be the one most of us recall as a great place for functional freebies. Before the oil embargo of the 1970s, gas stations were on almost every other corner. This caused a healthy competition that kept prices extremely low — in fact, most of us can recall paying twenty-five cents or less a gallon. There wasn’t going to be much more room for them to discount the gas, so starting in the 1950s they turned to giveaways to bring in new customers and keep regular customers loyal to their brand. They offered small toys, trinkets like keychains, maps, drinking glasses and logo-based specialty products.

Of course, most of us recall the drinking glasses. At the rate of one glass per fill-up, your genuine Libby (or Anchor Hocking) set could be complete in a matter of a couple of months. Mister Boomer recalls Mobil and Shell giving away glassware in his neighborhood. There were Standard Oil, Cities Service, Sinclair, Mobil, Shell and Union Oil stations within ten blocks of the Mister Boomer household. Mr. B’s family preferred the “free” Welch’s jelly glasses to gas station glasses. Due to Mr. B’s sister’s addiction to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the glasses collection grew weekly. They were hearty glasses and seldom broke, so the excess was relegated to basement storage, only to be sold at bargain prices in a yard sale.

Union Oil gave an orange ball with their blue logo on it in the late sixties or early seventies. The ball had a hole in the bottom to enable it to slip over your radio antennae. When your car was in a lot at an amusement park or shopping center, yours would stick out with this simple “car finder.” Unfortunately, yours blended with the hundreds of others who capped their antennae with the same ball.

Sinclair Oil had a dinosaur in its logo. This gave them the opportunity to give away dinosaur-themed gifts, like coloring books and trinkets with the green dinosaur on them. There was a Sinclair station on the corner of Mr. B’s block. One day his father filled up at the station and gave the gift to Mr. B. It was soap in the shape of a green dinosaur, housed in a box about the size of animal crackers. Mister Boomer treated the soap as if it were a plastic model to play with, until his siblings didn’t approve of his outside-the-box thinking. They threatened to steal it away unless it was given its soapy utilitarian function. Jealousy had reared its ugly head over a free gas station gift, but Mr. B brought the “toy” into the tub after that.

Local as well as national supermarkets hopped on the free gift bandwagon, too. Mr. B remembers his parents clipping the newspaper ad coupon for a free pound of Eight O’Clock coffee at the A&P. Mr. B’s father generally did the shopping with the kids — he would grab the red bag of coffee and spill it into the in-store grinder. He’d turn the dial to “Percolator” and let it rip. Imagine that. A free pound of coffee may be the reason Mister Boomer enjoys the aroma — but not the taste — of coffee to this day.

There were many other free gifts for all of the area’s supermarkets, though they almost always required a coupon that ran with the weekly newspaper ad. Get a free 32 oz. bottle of a local brand of soda pop with an additional purchase. (Remember when soda pop was sold by the ounce instead of liter?) Get a pound of ground beef with the additional purchase of other fresh meat. Buy one of something, get another free. Every week something else would be available to lure customers into choosing one store over another.

While not exactly free, but certainly in the subsidized gift category, were the bonus items at supermarkets that could be purchased for a reduced fee. The biggest promotions among these in Mr. B’s neighborhood were Corning Ware sets, china and dinner ware sets, and complete Funk & Wagnell’s encyclopedia sets, doled out one volume at a time. Each week the Mister Boomer family would pick up one of these items. The entire “good” china set that Mr. B’s mom owned (used only on holidays) came from these supermarket promotions. And the Funk & Wagnell’s encyclopedias were used umpteen times to complete school reports, saving the need for a trip to the local library.

Other businesses got in the free gift action, too. A local pizzeria passed out flyers evry week, offering a small pizza free with the purchase of a large. A newspaper ad for a local menswear store offered a free shirt and tie with the purchase of a men’s suit.

Many boomers recall these times with great nostalgia, lamenting the fact that today’s youth doesn’t seem to appreciate the true value of a dollar. Is that the case? Or is it that by percentage, the things we need day to day are now so much more expensive in relation to earned income? Or is it that our boomer parents, part of the burgeoning middle class, got a few breaks along the way in the form of something for nothing?

What is the best free gift you remember from your early boomer days?

Next week, in part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss the tremendous impact trading stamps had on boomer families.

Keeping Our Collective Cool

Yes, it was pretty hot in 1966. Do you remember that Abbe Lane was married to Xavier Cugat?

A commonly quoted definition of “heat wave” is one in which the temperature reaches above 90º F for at least three consecutive days. Here at Mister Boomer headquarters, we’ve had quite the heat wave this past week, with the thermometer near or topping the 100º F mark for five days in a row. That got old Mister B thinking about our earlier years, and the ways we kept cool.

It’s difficult for today’s youngsters to fathom a world without air conditioning, yet that was our shared world while growing up. Willis Carrier is considered the father of modern air conditioning, for his invention of a unit in 1902. Hindered by toxic chemicals used to create the cool, and high costs, decades would pass until a practical, affordable model reached the average boomer household.

Mister Boomer recalls a time when only higher-end cars had air conditioning, and there weren’t many of those in his neighborhood. Homes and even stores did not have air conditioning. One fine summer day Mister B walked, with his mom, the mile and a half to the city’s business district. As we approached the Woolworth store, the doors were wide open and the store was uncharacteristically dark. The prevailing thought was that lights generate too much heat, and there was already plenty of that. On entering, a blast of hot air brushed across our faces. The store staff had positioned two tall, large metal fans at the back corners of the store, aiming them out the front door. We wandered through the aisles of bins — in an era before shelving was a marketing art — maneuvering the maze as the wooden floorboards creaked, and we criss-crossed the hot stream from the fans.

The scene at home wasn’t any better. Positioned on the floor by the front screen door, one box fan provided the only breeze for the family. Come bedtime, the fan was repositioned to point down the hallway of bedrooms. Windows and doors, including the front door, where left open all night to catch any breeze that would care to waft our way.

So how did we keep cool? The same way it had been done for centuries, with a few modern twists. We could lounge beneath shade trees when our 47-inning baseball game got to be a bit much. Some, especially young girls, folded paper to make a hand fan. For more immediate cooling in our younger years, there was the oscillating sprinkler. We’d put our bathing suits on and set the lawn sprinkler in the front yard. Flipping the control knob to allow it to rotate a full 180º left and right ensured that a neighborhood group of us could all feel the cool spray of the jets even by standing in a single spot. We’d leave the sprinkler on until pools of water accumulated on the lawn, or it would remain off when restricted by the city in times of drought.

Mostly, we took in a lot of fluids. Water in a glass with ice, iced tea, cold milk, lemonade, Kool-Aid or the occasional Hawaiian Punch helped us beat the heat. When we got a little older, we might ride our bikes to the A&W Root Beer Drive-In, walk inside and sit at the counter. We’d order up an icy root beer. The thick glass mugs were kept in the ice cooler, so dispensing the tasty concoction into the glass could be as frosty and cold an experience as anything you’d ever imagined. Then there was the Coca-Cola machine at the corner Sinclair gas station. We didn’t drink soda pop all that often — it wasn’t kept in the house — but there weren’t many things better than an ice cold Coke on a very hot day. When we could gather up ten cents, we’d walk to the station, where the Coke machine was perpetually kept outside. Slipping the dime into the coin slot, we could open the glass door and pull an 8-ounce bottle out by its neck from the column of circular receptacles. Grasping the familiar feminine-shaped Coke bottle’s waist, we’d aim the top at the built-in cap opener on the front of the machine. The bottle was always cold to the touch, adding to the anticipation. Once the fizz popped when the cap was removed, you could hardly wait to taste the sweet coolness. While some chugged the full 8 ounces in one fluid motion, Mister B would savor the moment. This boomer would take that first delicious sip, then go back for more, again and again until it was spent and the heat was gone. All the while we’d be standing in front of the machine — in the heat — to avoid paying the two-cent bottle deposit. Once empty, the bottles were slid neatly into the wooden cases alongside the machine.

Ice cream trucks made regular runs down the streets. There were independents clanging bells to peddle their wares: usually frozen fruit pops, push-ups or sundae cups. We knew these would do in a pinch, but weren’t our top-shelf-quality favorites. For that, there was the Good Humor truck (Toasted Almond, Chocolate Malt or Strawberry Shortcake for Mister B, please) and Mister Softee (the creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream, maybe, but a jingle that haunts most of us to this day). Sometimes our families couldn’t spare the change, so we’d make our own popsicles. Other times, we’d search for soda pop bottles along the main road and redeem them at the store for Creamsicles or those frozen sticks of gooey color.

Somewhere in the early sixties, stores started getting air conditioning. They would advertise the fact with “Air Conditioned” signs in the window. Movie theaters took the advertising to a whole other level, with signs hanging from the bottom of the marquee exclaiming, “It’s Cool Inside!” Always situated on a blue background, the letters were composed of icicles and snow to offer a literal, visual explanation. Although Mister B cannot recall a single time his family escaped the heat by going to a movie, others have reminisced of that very thing. With double features and an intermission, complete with cartoons and coming attractions, you could stay inside for a full four hours.

Nevertheless, for day-to-day, beat-the-heat cooldowns, only one experience comes to mind. It may very well be the quintessence of boomer keep-cool methods. We’d grab the metal handle of the outdoor faucet with one hand, and turn it on, holding the garden hose in the other hand. As the clear, cool liquid arched from its spout, we’d lean in and take the most satisfying drink of water a boomer child could have. Hey, boomers, have you let your children — or grandchildren — in on this super summer experience? Teach them well. Teach them to drink from the garden hose!