This time on Vintage Vending, I’m quintupling up. I usually feature just one set of old vending machine prizes in each edition, but this time, you’re getting five.
(And okay, I’ll admit that that’s largely because none of the sets featured here deserved individual tributes.)
If you’re new to this series, it’s where I evaluate yesteryear’s best and worst vending machine prizes — and by “vending machines,” I mean the ones stationed near the exits of supermarkets and department stores. You know, those little areas that let you trade quarters for everything from gumballs to neon-colored sticky hands.
All of the sets featured below are from the mid to late ‘80s — precisely when I was paying very close attention to vending machines. As such, many of these prizes are awfully familiar. See if you can say the same!
Mix of Madness!
As a kid, many of my favorite vending machines lacked anything resembling a central theme, instead favoring an air of “mystery” to lure us in. With its impossibly eclectic prizes, this set is a perfect example.
As was usually the case with mixed assortments, its makers were sure to include one “chaser” item — something clearly more valuable than every other potential prize — on the teaser card. This time, it was one of those battery-operated keychains that blasted various sound effects — most typically guns, more guns, and something approximating “space alien guns.”
Your chances of receiving that particular item were almost nil. If we can assume that no government officials ran fairness tests on suburban vending machines, it’s more likely that such big ticket items were never even in those machines.
If you knew your heart couldn’t handle a shitty prize, this wasn’t the machine for you. The risk averse should never gamble on a vending machine that clearly advertises a two-inch butterfly-shaped hairpin.
Animal Pencil Toppers!
This set offered a more generic version of something everyone my age grew up loving: Those adorable animal pencil toppers with the fuzzy felt fur. Featuring rabbits and kittens and all other archetypically “cute” critters, their skin felt like a pool table, and they made doing our homework seem so much less lonely.
Unfortunately, the toys in this set lacked the fuzzy highlights. Still, even “plain plastic” animal pencil toppers were worth our quarters, and at least with this machine, you knew exactly what you were getting.
English was not always the first language of those who produced these sets, evidenced by such on-card gems as “COLLECT ALL.” I’m even more charmed by the advisory in the lower left, which reminded us to buy cheap pencil toppers for our mothers, sisters, friends and “others.”
What might seem plainish by today’s standards was freakin’ awesome in the ‘80s. I’ll remind you that these quaint ninja figures came out during the reign of M.U.S.C.L.E. and other tiny action figure lines. Little warriors were the in-thing!
One of them was clearly inspired by Bruce Lee, but they’re all well-detailed. (So well-detailed, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if these were also sold as a straight-up retail set… albeit in the kinds of stores that people only went into when they needed lottery tickets or cough drops.)
While the figures couldn’t hold a candle to the stuff we grabbed from TRU, they still felt enough like “real toys” to pass as such. Getting “real toys” from a vending machine — at least to an eight-year-old — brought a sense of euphoria almost without parallel. I swear.
Jewels of the Orient!
With vending machines, it’s all about the presentation. Surely I skipped over a hundred machines with the exact same sorts of cheap fake jewelry, but here, with the pretense of them all being “jewels of the orient,” I’m all the fuck over it.
Children are imaginative, sure, but if you give us a good lead-in, that’s when we really run with things. Had I won prizes from this machine as a child, I absolutely would’ve treated them like literal treasure. Fake gold would be real gold, plastic jewels would be sapphires. I could even see myself keeping them in my own little treasure chest, which probably would’ve just been our family’s sugar bowl.
(And yes, this was the kind of jewelry that turned our necks and fingers green. In effect, we paid 25 cents for skin irritation. Fashion comes with a price, and it isn’t always monetary.)
Happy Face Trinkets!
While “Put on a Happy Face” references an entirely different song, I’d wager that this set only came about thanks to Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 classic, Don’t Worry, Be Happy. (The card is dated 1988, after all. You might’ve run into this vending machine directly after buying the Cocktail soundtrack!)
Don’t get me wrong — “happy face” items were popular even decades prior, but if the movement had peaks and valleys, McFerrin’s song definitely ushered in one of the peaks. I was still in elementary school when that song debuted, and I can tell ya, happy face nonsense was suddenly EVERYWHERE.
(Hell, in our school lunchroom, there was this little storage closet that had been converted into a “store.” That’s where you went for higher-end snacks, like bags of Doritos or cans of Coke. Out of nowhere, they started selling happy face buttons. Not a day went by without dozens of sales. By the end of May, each student had more happy face buttons than any one person could reasonably need.)
What I like most about these prizes is that they’re actually not all wearing happy faces. Some look sad, others ambivalent. Buy the whole set, and rotate through ‘em to match your moods. Shitty day? That’s when you wear the pink ring with the “stoic pissface” on it.
PS: Sorry for the lack of updates this week — been planning and building things for Halloween! (See first comment down below on this front, too.) If you don’t want to miss anything re: Dino Drac, follow me on Twitter!