When I was perhaps seven or eight years old—old enough to read my brother’s comic books—I discovered “ADS”. These ads were for free stamps – with approvals. Now, I certainly didn’t know what approvals were—nor did I know much about stamps (other than it took a 3 cent stamp to mail a letter or one cent to mail a postcard) – but I was captivated by the word “FREE”. Now pre-paid postcards, from the post office, were one cent each and for ten cents (which was often the most I ever had) you could mail ten one cent postcards (hard to believe, isn’t it?) I was constantly earning pennies running errands or selling greeting cards for my mother, which she bought and then sold from Cardinal Craftsman card company. I began using the penny postcards to send for the “FREE” stamps and when they came, on sheets of onionskin paper, with accompanying letters and literature, I blithely threw away anything that wasn’t a stamp, which I kept in a large dress box with my paper dolls. (In hindsight, I am baffled that my father never opened these packets of stamps—he opened all the other mail—the first time I submitted an article, printed in pencil, to My Weekly Reader—when I was in the second or third grade—my father opened that and read it before giving it to me—without any comment. Why didn’t he open the envelopes containing the stamps? I’ll never know.
At some point in time, when my cousin Margie and her siblings were visiting us, I showed the stamps to her. She expressed an interest in them, so I gave all of them to her and that was the end of my stamp collecting. By then, the stamp company began sending me threatening letters about my unpaid account. I confessed to my mother, who wrote to the stamp company explaining that their customer was eight years old and didn’t know any better and I learned what “with approvals” meant.
Now, you would think that this experience would have cured me but from early on, I was enchanted with the idea of receiving mail and even more thrilling was receiving things in the mail, free of change. In the 1940s, magazines such as Life and Look were filled with ads for things you could get FREE. One day I found a stack of old LIFE magazines in my grandmother’s basement. With never a thought that the magazines might someday become valuable, I began cutting out all the little coupons advertising FREE things. Along the way, I made another discovery. I wrote to the Cuticura people one day telling them how much I loved their soap and what do you know! They began sending me free gift packages with shampoo and big bars of cuticura soap. I also discovered that most food companies, at that time, offered free recipe booklets. These usually advertised not only in women’s magazines, but also on the backs of cans and boxes—such as baking powder, baking soda, Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa. I began searching through all the containers in the pantry, reading the labels, searching for free booklet offers. The only limitation to this enterprise was acquiring enough pennies to buy more postcards. (one source was empty soda pop bottles, which were good for 2 cents each in the grocery stores. Everyone I knew—myself included—searched for pop bottles to redeem at the grocery store on the corner (Finke’s was on the corner of Pulte and Beekman while Mary’s was farther up on Pulte—there were numerous little mom-and-pop grocery stores and saloons all over Fairmount. Fred’s Cafe was on the other corner of Pulte and Beekman Streets.)
Before long, I had acquired a good size stack of free recipe booklets. With my mother’s Ida Bailey Allen Service Cookbook and my stack of free recipe booklets, I began to learn how to cook. (My original collection of recipe booklets was lost, probably when my husband Jim and I made so many moves. When we first came to California—with what could be packed inside the car (or tied to the roof, like a baby bed) was mostly what we needed for our one year old child—many personal things were packed in my mother in law’s shed. The floor to that shed caved in one winter and my belongings were mostly trashed by the elements. My in-laws retrieved what they could but my scrapbooks, childhood dolls & other things were all lost. [and the concept of storage units was years away).
Throughout most of my adult life, I had been a “refunder”—saving proofs of purchases or box tops—to redeem for cash or premium offers…in 1970-1971, I saved all the money from refunding to pay for a trip to Ohio for entire family—by then my husband, myself, and four children. Back then, you could travel with a young child on your lap; I held one child and Jim held the other. We had two young children only 15 months apart.
One year I acquired half a dozen basketballs, free – for my sons and for my friends’ sons. Another time I acquired dolls for the girls. (I would use my own address as well as the addresses of close friends or neighbors.
One summer when I was in Ohio with three of the children –our oldest son stayed home with his father – the two of them opened all my refunding mail and kept the cash for themselves. That may have spelled the end of refunding for cash unless it was a check. And I really don’t remember all the things I acquired free, so I asked my penpal, Penny, who became a penpal in the 1960s and with whom I frequently exchanged refund forms and occasionally the POPs (proof of purchases needed to fulfill a refund offer). She wrote this back to me:
There were, she writes, basket and baseballs, baseball bats, all sorts of T-shirts (I particularly remember the Smuckers and Reeses shirts) Fisher Price Snoopy Sniffer, stuffed toys, snuggle bear, mama, papa, and baby panda bears, Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, a few Tonka trucks, Hot Wheel cars, Del Monte veggie pillows, Libby’s red wagons, baby clothes from Dreft.
There were also band aid wall sconces, Tide set of Melmac dishes, Kellogg’s silverware (which she still has), the glasses and cup sets from laundry detergents, free socks and boys/men’s underwear from Hanes, Hanes sports shorts and sweats, Duncan Hines cake pans (which Penny still has).
She thinks the following are from the 1980s..Camel/Salem free basketballs, baseballs, VHS recorder/player, sony camcorder, 19” tvs, boom boxes—this was a military form that failed to say so..and there were NO limits on the items you could get. Penny says “we picked up packages [from cigarettes] from the side of the road, bought them for 5 cents each, had the guys in the Tulsa county jail saving them for us…I got MANY duplicate things, mainly the basketballs, boom boxes, TVs and VHS recorder/players. Most cigarette brands were offering premiums and I got sooooo many. Sold the Marlboro setuff on Ebay and made over $500.00..” (Penny did a lot more refunding than I did!).
Back when I was a young child, my mother saved the labels from Wilson’s Evaporated milk – which were redeemable at a small store in downtown Cincinnati – I know that I turned in batches of the labels, stapled together in groups of ten (for dish towels or other small kitchen items) and we all saved S&H green stamps to get free items.
I think it goes hand in hand with all the refunding Penny & I did when our sons were young boys—me with four sons, her with three. Free was good – not so different from the free samples of Cuticura soap and recipe booklets that I acquired in the mail when I was a child!
And now you know the rest of the story!
–Sandra Lee Smith