This started off with me reminiscing in an email to Old John about the cut-out masks you used to get on the back of Puffed Wheat packets when I was a kid. So this is straightforward, aimless nostalgia, purely for its own sake.
I’m not an expert or a collector, but I suppose I must have spent many weeks of my life at breakfast times over the years, staring at cereal packets – maybe months. Nowadays my attention tends to wander a bit, but this is partly due to the messages on the packet being mostly dedicated to telling me why I should buy this stuff, disregarding completely the fact that I have obviously already bought it.
There was a long period when all cereal packets had to be themed into some popular TV character, or some cartoon personality they had generated for their own advertising – which at the time I thought was a bit limp, and probably is a useful guide to the point in history when kids were no longer expected to have an imagination. There was also a pseudo-health period – where else could I have learned that the cereal I was eating contained traces of Niacin, which (of course) is the anti-Pellagra vitamin? Just out of interest, did anyone ever have Pellagra? – I’ve always assumed it was very nasty, but I never knew.
No – I’m talking of the fifties [sinister, echoing sound effect]. Out of complete idleness, I spent a little time yesterday looking online for some evidence of some of those memories – naturally, the world of Google is swamped in US examples, probably because Americans are better than we are at nostalgia and because it rarely occurs to them that anywhere else ever existed. I found a marvellous UK site, which is worth a look, here. I borrowed a couple of examples from there, but only to show what a great place to visit it is.
Well I remember the Puffed Wheat “Hi-Hats”, which promised so much yet delivered so little. My first one was the Saturn Space Spy, which was unusual in that it was a full face – most of them were upper face only. I munched my way impatiently through a big pack of PW, gazing longingly at the thing (though I had some misgivings about the fact that it said Space Spy in big letters on the forehead). This is the stuff of fantasy – at no additional cost (as they pointed out), the mighty Quaker company – whose technology was such that every single Puff was fired from big cannons, apparently – had presented me with the opportunity to actually look like a real Space Spy. Fantastic. If you got your mum to give a hand with cutting out the eye holes, and around the sticky-out nose flap – oh yes, and punch the holes for the elastic, and then actually find some elastic – then, at a stroke, your imagination would do the rest and you would instantly - magically - be changed from a kid into a kid with a piece of cereal packet attached to the front of his head.
I believe that I actually cried a bit when I saw the reality of my mask. Even if it had worked, which it didn’t, it would only have worked from the front – although, of course, that is exactly the view I presented in the mirror. The worst of the lot was the cowboy hat. Let’s put this into context…
Cowboy hats were a problem. In fact cowboy outfits were a problem generally. You could buy any number of toy guns, you could play at wiping out the entire aboriginal population of Northern America every day (God forgive us - no wonder we grew up weird), but if you wanted to dress the part you were in for a let-down. Cowboy outfits that you bought from toyshops didn’t look like the proper cowboys in the Tim Holt movies on Saturday mornings – they looked, at best, like Hopalong Flaming Cassidy. I had a stupid black, Baden-Powell shaped hat with a lime green fringe around the brim – lime green? - what was that about? My cousin’s was even worse – it was the same shape, but a festive sort of royal blue, with a cut out tin-foil star on the front – and his cowpoke’s protective “chaps” actually had pictures of cowboys printed on them. Even at 5 or 6, we realized this was a poor show.
You get the idea. Into this authenticity vacuum, Puffed Wheat produced a very convincing looking 2-dimensional cowboy hat that Tim Holt and his chums would have been proud of, and the drawing of the happy boy wearing it, terrorizing his astonished mother and sister, showed that he looked – even from the side – just like the real deal. Although I had cooled on the idea of Hi-Hats after my Space Spy fiasco, I got quite worked up about this one. One Saturday, stuffed with Puffed Wheat, I cut it out, fitted it up, recycled the elastic from the binned Space Spy, took one look in the mirror and it was ditched within 20 seconds. Not only did it look rubbish, but it actually wrapped around the sides of your head like a sweatband – not at all like the illustration. More tears.
These were valuable life lessons, of course – about marketing and about the fact that – in the long run – no amount of imagination will cover up for complete junk!
I remember the multiple series of cut-out vehicles of all types on the back of the Weetabix packets – I’m sure some genius must have designed them, and they were fun, but – again – they were fiddly to make and looked dreadful. One after the other, they were cut out, glued together and binned, I didn’t get upset about them any more, but I was aware that I only liked the process, rather than the end deliverable. The flat wheels, printed on one side only, were an obvious weakness, but in fact the square edges were unrealistic too – in both respects, the veteran car series were better, but the finished product was never worth the effort. It must have served as a good apprenticeship for all these botched toy soldiers in later life, though! I recall that the first couple of series of Weetabix Workshop had a sketch of a boy and his mum looking suitably enthusiastic, but the later ones were more obviously macho and engineering-focused, and mum was dropped - the psychologists were busy, even then.
I also remember something called Mornflake Oats, which I assume was porridge – my cousin collected a most impressive looking village and farm which you could cut out and assemble – on good quality art card, as I recall, but we never had the courage to try to build them. There was a slight risk that if they didn’t turn out well it might be down to us.
So much other stuff – freebies which have become little icons of childhood – red plastic British Foot Guards bandsmen – I started collecting them, but gave up after I got five tuba players on the trot. Of course, if I’d had any mates, I could have swapped them.
I recall little plastic submarines which worked with baking soda, a series of small one-piece plastic racing cars, which must have come with Sugar Puffs (later?), since I can recall that they were always sticky and had to be washed.
I tried to find some pictures of proper Hi-Hats, but failed – I found some American Kellogg’s equivalents, but not the real thing from my own history. Anyway, if you never saw them, they were rubbish. Take my word for it.