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    Pedometer from childhood hero Jack Armstrong & Wheaties

    Before the weather started to chill, I went out and bought a pedometer. I wanted to measure the number of miles (or mile) I walked along the uphills and downhills of my neighborhood.

    I didn’t want to buy one of those digital things that linked to my phone and drained my data. So I took the mechanical and less-expensive route. To be honest, I was surprised that those old pedometers were still being made.

    Coincidentally, I came across a similar one at auction a few months later. It was round and blue with some age on it, and it bore the name “Jack Armstrong pedometer.” I was obviously curious about Jack Armstrong, and assumed that he was one of the first people to put a face on the health benefits of walking.

    Jack Armstrong pedometer

    The front of the Jack Armstrong pedometer, a Wheaties cereal premium.

    Instead, I learned that Armstrong was a globe-trotting fictional character from a serialized children’s radio program that ran from 1933 to around 1950. Called “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” it was sponsored by Wheaties, the company that put the faces of sports figures on its cereal boxes. Jack was the first figure in early 1934, followed by athlete Lou Gehrig the same year.

    The pedometer was a Wheaties premium, and Armstrong first offered it on his program in 1941. In fact, the show offered all kinds of  premiums bearing the Jack Armstrong name, including stamps of champions, a dragon eye ring that glowed in the dark (said to be a classic now) and model planes.

    During World War II, the program encouraged children to buy war stamps. The premiums could be found on the back of the boxes or required that kids send in box tops and a coin.

    Jack Armstrong pedometer

    A 1937 Big Little Book based on the series, and a 1941 photo of Jim Ameche. Photos from Wikipedia.org.

    There were apparently several versions of Armstrong’s pedometer, but the blue one with the silver inner ring – like the one at auction, at 2 ¾” wide – was the first. A black band on the silver ring showed the dials and numbers that a wearer would set to determine how far he/she had walked in miles and fractions of miles. The pedometer came with a belt clip. It was selling for 10 cents plus one Wheaties box top in an ad in Boys Life magazine in 1941.

    Armstrong the character was first played by Jim Ameche (younger brother of actor Don Ameche) from 1933 until 1938, followed by five other actors over the years. The radio show could be heard at 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday (the weekend day was later dropped) out of WBBM in Chicago, and over time, ended up on all three networks. He was a high school super hero who with his friends Betty, her brother Billy and their uncle Jim went on “thrilling adventures (and some of the most far-fetched) ever to grace the 5-to-6 P.M. children’s thriller hour.”

    The program began with Armstrong and his team at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and then they headed to Canada. Then it was on to cattle-rustling in Arizona; later, Africa and an elephant hunt, and then the jungles of South America. During World War II, they went after spies and Nazis.

    Jack Armstrong pedometer

    The back of the Jack Armstrong pedometer shows the belt clip and a dealer’s price.

    There appears to be some debate about the origin of Jack. The show itself came out of an ad agency where General Mills, the maker of Wheaties, was a client. One story is that its chief writer got the name while staring at an Arm-and-Hammer baking soda box and seeing its strong-arm symbol as representative of the all-American hero. Another story is that Jack Armstrong was the name of a General Mills employee.

    Either way, the story stuck and children adored the character. The show was instrumental in boosting the fortunes of Wheaties, although some parents complained that Armstrong and his student-friends never went to school (a tutor was later added to the program).

    The teens used the pedometer often in their trips; the blue one was used in the Philippines when they went in search of some hidden rifles. Jack used a Hike-O-Meter, which measured your hiking miles, to hunt for two of his friends in Rio de Janeiro. It proved to be immensely popular: When it was offered as a premium in the late 1930s, it drew tons of orders. Child actor Shirley Temple was said to have sent a handwritten order for one.

    I’d never heard of the show – it was before my time – but I listened to part of it in this Jan. 31, 1941, segment. First, though, I had to listen to a 3.25-minute ad for the pedometer. You can listen to more episodes here.

     

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