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Gumball Prizes

by Amy Lynwander

Photos by Jeffrey Maxwell


I have a vision of myself at about age 6 with my arm shoved halfway up a gumball machine trying vainly to dislodge one of the plastic bubbles which held a prize. Never mind that I was stuck and facing possible amputation, or at least the embarrassment of having the manager come over followed by the wrath of my mother. I almost had it and wasn't letting go. Eventually the fear of my mother and the dire warnings of my older sister caused me to yank out my arm. But who could blame me? Although my mother would give us pennies for the gum, she was immune to our whining and we'd never get 5 cents for the elusive nickel gumball machines. And being a lazy child without much forethought, it never occurred to me to save my pennies. I still have a fixation with gumball prizes and will often return from the supermarket with a shiny new Hulk Hogan finger puppet, religious sticker or superball.

I got to wondering if there are other people out there with the same interest in gumball prizes--perhaps even vintage prize collectors. I decided to check it out online. One of the best sites I found was Jeffrey Maxwell's Alphabet26 site. An ode to gumball and cracker jack prizes, it is full of information and links.

According to the site, gumball machines started as just that. Machines with gum. Then, to attract more business, in the 40s and 50s, loose prizes were added to the mix so people would get the gum and/or the prize. Later, prizes were held in gumball sized capsules so you'd only get one or the other. Finally, someone came to their senses and only had prizes.


Now without further ado, a man after my own gumball prize coveting heart, Jeffrey Maxwell...

Q: How did you get interested in collecting gumball prizes?

A: I have collected things made of plastic for nearly twenty years. Due to space limitations, I decided that I would need to stick with smaller things, so I became interested in collecting plastic Cracker Jack prizes in 1990. Whenever I would buy collections of Cracker Jack prizes, there would often be some gum machine prizes mixed in the lot, so I just put those aside in a separate place. After several years of accumulating gum prizes that way, I started identifying favorites. I really like the advertising ones, and the ones that have words on them, such as slogans, street signs, record albums, and the grocery and consumer products. Also the prizes that have moving parts are cool. Once I started organizing my collection by putting them into categories, I was hooked. I actually set out to buy gum prizes at the flea markets and online auctions, and at one time actually spent as much time working on the gum prizes as I did Cracker Jack prizes. I still buy gum machine prizes regularly, but only in some of my favorite categories. I especially like the prizes that feature alphabet letters.

Q: It looks like you're pretty specialized in the alphabet ones, is there a reason?

A: I suppose there might be several reasons why I have specialized in collecting the prizes with an alphabet theme. I could say that it is because I was an English major in college, or that I am attracted to various forms of communication, or that I prefer to use the symbols of language instead of sounds for communicating, all of which are partly true. But the real reason is actually more superficial than all that. I recognized, partly due to space limitations at my house, that I would not be able to collect everything I saw. So I would, of necessity, have to specialize in a particular area of collecting. The alphabet prizes met several criteria -- it is a subject that is easy to identify with (for anyone who uses the same alphabet), it is easy to know how many prizes should comprise a set, and the set of 26 letters in the alphabet is sometimes considered to be one of the larger "sets" of prizes. But, perhaps more importantly, it was an area of specialization that I had never heard of anyone else concentrating in, so that was the biggest appeal for me -- to do something different.


Q: Where do you usually score your finds? Has Ebay changed the way you collect?

A: At first my collecting was limited to whatever showed up at the local flea market. Every once in a while I would come across some prizes in the toy shows, but that isn't usually the best place to look -- at least in Oklahoma where I live, there are not too many gum prizes at the toy shows. Another source for prizes has been other collectors, but most of them I have learned about through transactions on eBay. My friend Maureen McCaffrey puts out a newsletter once in a while where charm collectors can place ads, so I have made a few contacts that way as well.

A lot can be said about eBay. I was buying gum machine prizes on eBay as early as 1997. There weren't very many gum prizes on there at that time, but it was enough to keep me checking back regularly. Today, it is possible to collect many things through eBay that would be difficult or nearly impossible to collect by any other means. It is also easier, and in my case necessary, for collectors to specialize in a particular area of collecting. I still buy mostly alphabet related prizes, because I cannot afford to buy or find storage space for everything that I like. It is certain that gumball prizes don't take up much room individually, but when put together they add up, and by the time I add in all of the other items I collect, there have to be some sort of limitations.

Q: Would you say there's a particular kind of person who collects gumball prizes? If so, how would you describe them?

A: I don't pretend to speak for anyone else, because most of the people who collect gum prizes are pretty cool. But if they are anything like me, they must also be a little nuts. Who else but crazy people would put so much value on tiny bits of plastic? Also, a couple of my favorite things to do are to sort and collate. I know that to many people that might sound a little weird, too, but many collectors will be able to relate to that. The act of organizing a collection is what attracts many collectors to assemble and build a collection like this. So, among collectors, I am probably fairly normal. One thing that could probably be said about collectors of bulk vending prizes is that they are motivated by the love of collecting and not profit. That is different from, say, baseball card collecting, for example, where you will also find investors and dealers and those who have monetary gain as a motive for collecting. You won't find too many people like that in collecting bubble gum machine prizes. I have in fact, been given many alphabet prizes by collectors I didn't even know, because they knew their alphabet prizes would find good company in my collection. That is something that I find unusual and very refreshing today.


Q: What do you think of the current state of gumball prizes?

A: I stop at the entrance to the grocery store or the movie theater quite regularly to see what is being sold through the bulk vending machines. Usually I am not surprised by what I find there. But every once in a while, I see something really cool -- but my wife tells me to just keep moving and keep my quarters in my pocket. Sometimes I listen to her. People who don't follow bulk vending closely might be surprised to take notice of the increase in prices. I never would have dreamed when I was a kid that a piece of plastic would sell for $1 (four quarters) in a bulk vending machine. I could buy twenty charms for that amount of money in the early 1970s. But I suppose that it is no different from what my parents thought when I spent a nickel to buy a charm that would have cost only a penny in their childhood days. Judging from what is being sold in vending machines in our area, I would say that if I grew up a few years later than I did, I might have become a sticker collector instead.


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