Play Stuff Blog

They’re Gr-r-r-eat! Cereal Box as Serial Docs  

Apple Jacks box, 1965, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkCan you get enough of that Sugar Crisp? Does the crunch always give you away? And are Trix just for kids? Cereal slogans have become embedded in popular culture, and even satirized in television shows. Such slogans were made memorable at the time by the cereal mascots that voiced them in animated commercials. However, these slogans were also often splashed across cereal boxes. Lucky the Leprechaun has been promising that his cereal is magically delicious since 1964 (except for a brief period in the 1970s when Lucky was replaced by Marvin the Wizard), and this slogan can still be found emblazoned somewhere on the packaging. Some slogans, however, have changed over time. Toucan Sam originally spoke the name of his cereal in “code” using Pig Latin. The Ootsfray Oopslay identifier would eventually give way to “follow my nose, it always knows,” but Toucan Sam rarely gives such directions on his cereal boxes anymore. An even greater transformation in cereal slogan can be found in Apple Jacks. Few people seem to remember that in the beginning Apple Jacks was advertised as a “bully-busting” cereal. Those who consumed this cereal for breakfast would either be immune to bullies or would be fortified with the strength and ingenuity to outwit their tormentors. Early Apple Jacks cereal boxes featured comic strip cartoons that graphically illustrated the bully-busting promise. These same Apple Jacks cereal boxes also offered a recipe for bully-busting cookies.

But a cereal box is more than a pretty package bearing clever slogan; it is a social document that deserves examination and historical exploration. In the university classroom, I have instructed students in the art of reading and analyzing a variety of primary documents, including census records, diaries, newspapers, and photographs. However, after a research trip to Rochester, New York, I have added a new resource to my documentary repertoire: the cereal box. Having been awarded a research fellowship by The Strong museum, I spent a week exploring its cereal box and cereal box prize collection. I had arrived with the intention of examining children’s culture through the lens of the breakfast cereal industry, and while I satisfied this aim, I also left with a greater appreciation for the cereal box as a cultural artifact. Breakfast with Barbie box, 1989, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkThe cereal box is an undisputed gateway to childhood, to our shared past, and to collective memory. The topic of cereal and its association with the prize inside never fails to generate discussion. Whether it has been at The Strong’s library, in my own classroom, in a casual setting, or at a conference, cereal memories are not only common but powerful. One gentleman recently inquired about “Pep pins,” since he had collected them as a child. The Strong has a considerable collection of these pins, which were first inserted into Kellogg’s Pep cereal during the 1940s. The Pep pins featured popular comic strip characters including the entire Popeye gang and the cast of Bringing Up Father. The gentleman sharing the memory not only conveyed his enthusiasm for this particular cereal box prize, but shared how such pins were displayed. He and his friends attached the Pep pins to beanie caps they had fashioned for themselves from felt. Such memories provide insight into the style of play and in the eager reception of these pin prizes. Evidently the marketing ploy urging children to “collect them all” succeeded, and not surprisingly cereal box prizes were often produced in ongoing series (or a fitting piece of academic terminology, serialized) this way. Cocoa Pebbles box, 1993,The Strong, Rochester, New YorkThe cereal box is an artifact that, when “read” as a series of sequential documents, reveals change and continuity over time. Treating cereal boxes as serial documents presents wider social history implications rather than simply tracking changes in cereal marketing strategies. The serialized cereal box can chart trends in the toy industry while also revealing shifting consumer preferences. Read and interpreted in this same manner, the cereal box can also provide critical commentary on childhood and play. Although it has a place in popular culture, this familiar packaging has yet to be recognized in the field of material culture. The cereal box deserves scholarly attention beyond its power to milk our emotions and to stir our recollections.