What do you do with two kids in a four-metre caravan when it’s raining?
Well, back in the day, once you had done all the usual things – like a game of Chinese Checkers and Happy Families, (oh the irony! After a few days of close living in the rain, it was more likely a game of Snap followed by Sorry!) – my mum would get out those wondrous little cellophane packs of ready-to-build cereal-packet toys that she had squirrelled away during the year for such emergency situations.
The build-your-own assembly kits included all of the miniature parts connected to a thin frame. How we loved popping off the little components and carefully putting them together, and woe betide anyone who let a wheel fall down the side of the seat! There were trains and cars, planes and wagons, submarines and boats, circus toys and snow sleds – to name just a few.
Not only were we blessed to have these fine-motor-skills activities, but there was also a plethora of other plastic stuff, like animals (real and fantasy-like Crater Critters and Space Nits), secret stencils, sliding letter puzzles, mini people, and things with lenticular picture inserts.
These “premiums” (their marketing term) were, of course, the forerunners to what I now affectionately call “landfill items” that tempt today’s children in a commercialised rush of “gimme”. Accompanying burgers, groceries and anything else that can raise an extra dollar and spur label loyalty (however fleeting), where once these things were exciting and lived with us for ages, these days they are soon forgotten, their places taken by the next piece of advertising brilliance.
I can’t say I remember my mother vying for missing pieces of the Skippy Cornflakes International Costumes series at the school gates, or placing ads in the Trading Post (paying extortionate amounts so I could have a complete set), but I have no doubt that if the marketing teams had had the idea of the “rare piece”, we would have eaten boxes of broccoli-flavoured cereal just to get that elusive item. Kids haven’t changed that much, really.
From the late 1950s, little treasures were included in many cereal packets to encourage kids to pressure mums into adding that particular cereal to the shopping list. It worked – a lot! Not only did mums buy the cereal, but the kids made sure they had big bowls of the stuff just so they could open the next pack – well at least that’s what happened at our place!
We were usually a Skippy Cornflakes family but switched loyalties occasionally, depending on what was on offer (fickle children). There was, of course, the palpable anticipation when a virginal packet of cereal was placed on the table. Would it have one we already had or could this be the one we coveted? With the lovely new polythene bag (‘Keep it fresh and crisp in the polythene bag’) that replaced the waxed paper one, you could often see the treasure before you even opened the bag. (At least you knew where to stick your hand!)
Sanitarium, Nabisco, and Kellogg’s all vied for market share, which led to many new variations of these wee plastic landfill items being dropped into cereal boxes. How many you ask? Well Rosenhain and Lipmann (the R&L you can find on the base of some of the toys), who produced many at their Melbourne plastic moulding firm, created about one billion of them between 1959 and 1977, distributing their little creations worldwide. Five million pieces alone of the Kellogg’s Crater Critters series were made in 1969. In 1977, R&L was sold to a Mexican company and moved overseas.
I have to admit to still having quite a number of cereal packet toys, including toy dogs, horses, planes, sliding letter puzzles, international costumes, trains, and some bits and pieces from other sets, such as the circus and Australian animals. I also have a few still in their original cellophane packs from the Polar Base Series. It still takes all my internal fortitude not to rip the bag open and put the dog sled together.