Abstract: Retail Premiums and the Promise of Nothing for Something

Wendy A. Woloson


A spate of promotional schemes first appearing in the mid-1850s fostered a new marketing strategy that continues, in various forms, today. Long before kids in the 1920s began retrieving prizes from Cracker Jack boxes, retailers and their agents were getting consumers to purchase products by giving away free things, commonly called "premiums," "gifts," and "inducements." Premiums made purchasers think they were getting something for nothing—a bonus item. And premium systems were also conduits enabling suppliers to unload inventory they could not sell otherwise. If they were lucky, purchasers might receive inferior goods; as often, they received nothing at all in return for their money. This paper describes the three most prevalent retail premium schemes seen during the second half of the nineteenth century—gift distributions, prize packages, and gift book establishments—and attempts to answer pertinent questions about them. How did they come about? What accounted for their enduring popularity, given that so many were clearly fraudulent or deceptive? What do they tell us about Americans' evolving roles as consumers and their particular vulnerabilities when faced with a rapidly changing marketplace? And what were the significant legacies of retail premiums that make them important for us to study today?