Kellogg’s Pep cereal pinback buttons
Neither the auction-house staffer nor I could identify most of the cartoon characters. We spotted Superman (an obvious one), Dick Tracy, Orphan Annie, Blondie.
I had seen the plethora of pinback buttons of cartoon characters on a bright red and yellow beanie cap, and had asked to look at them. These are Kellogg Peps, he said. “They did cartoon characters. You won’t recognize them.”
That’s when the both of us starting picking out the ones we knew. He was right; I could name only a few of the faces on the front of the pinback buttons. Many were popular before my growing-up years.
On the flip side of the buttons was the name Kellogg’s Pep in blue lettering. It was a cereal, he explained. He also read aloud the wording on the side of one of the buttons, but I didn’t recognize the maker’s name. Checking later, I saw that they were stamped 1945, Famous Artists Syndicate.
Kellogg’s Pep, a whole wheat cereal, was introduced in 1923 and fortified with vitamins – along with a large marketing campaign – in the late 1930s. The buttons were created by a man named Sam Gold, who designed premiums for Kellogg’s and other cereal companies.
In the mid-1940s, Kellogg’s started placing these small pinback buttons as premiums inside boxes of its Pep cereal. Children would attach the buttons to their beanie caps, according to a 2006 Heritage Auction catalog. The Heritage lot contained the full set of 86 buttons, sized 13/16″ each. It included two that the auction house said were hard to find: Felix the Cat and the Phantom.
Another lot included original drawings of the cartoon characters for nine of the buttons. Still another consisted of 11 Pep pinbacks of American fighter planes, along with original drawings of four of the planes. Another set consisted of WWII squadron insignias, one of which was in the grouping at the auction I attended, the 48th Bombardment Squadron.
Pinback buttons were apparently not the only things in those boxes. Pep cereal boxes also contained black and white photo cards of movie and radio stars, stamps and cards of sports celebrities, and toy picture rings of sports and other figures.
The company was a sponsor of the “Superman” radio show in the 1940s and the short-lived “Tom Corbett Space Cadet Radio Show” in 1952, which heavily advertised Pep cereal and its giveaways. Several Kellogg’s magazine ads from the 1920s featured illustrations by artist N.C. Wyeth.
Once the cereal was fortified with vitamins, it was advertised as a way to boost looks and appeal, especially for girls and women. The ads were delivering a message that the cereal would give you pep, sex appeal and success.
I left before the auctioneer got around to the buttons, but I didn’t leave an absentee bid. I figured the bidding would be crazily high. Googling, I found a set of 86 cartoon buttons that sold for $399 on eBay, with most selling better in groups. A cartoon set sold in 2006 for $580 and a military set for $707 in 2008. One eBay seller was asking $799 and $849 for two complete cartoon sets.
How many of the cartoon buttons can you name in the photos? Here’s all 86 of them identified on a pinback reference website.