A tale of misguided thrift.
If you’re old enough, you may remember trading stamps. They were a popular retailing gimmick in the 1950s and 1960s. S&H Green Stamps was the best known brand. Supermarkets would give them out—a certain number of stamps for every dollar’s worth of items purchased. You’d paste the stamps in special books, and when you filled up enough books, you’d take them to a redemption center and trade them in for consumer items like toasters or glassware sets. The idea was to encourage buying by making it seem like saving.
Trading stamps have mostly disappeared. Nowadays, people use credit cards to write themselves loans and get the toaster or glassware set right away. To a large extent, they order online without ever visiting a physical store. The thrift mentality has yielded to the psychology of instant gratification.
I remember the S&H redemption center in Ann Arbor, located on Packard
Road across the street from the Big Ten Party Store. When
trading stamps went out of fashion, it became a supermarket. During
the heyday of video rental, it was a video rental store. When that
collapsed, it became something else—I don’t remember what.
“What does all this have to do with smoking?” you ask. Well, I’m
getting to that.
In the mid-1960s, my older sister Lana, a sociologist, married Jack, a historian. They both taught at a small but highly respected liberal arts college in Ohio. On occasional weekends I’d drive down from Ann Arbor to visit them. Jack was very much of a thrifty bent, and both he and my sister were heavy smokers. So at Jack’s urging they smoked Raleigh Cigarettes, a brand with a gimmick similar to trading stamps. Every pack of Raleighs contained a coupon; when you collected enough Raleigh coupons, you sent them off to a mail order place in exchange for items—like toasters or glassware sets—in the Raleigh catalog.
Jack really got into this—it seemed like he was always talking about all the things they were going to buy with their coupons. Raleigh wasn’t my regular brand—for one thing, they had filters on them, which I disdained—but to be a good sport and partially repay them for their hospitality, I’d purchase and smoke Raleighs when I visited Lana and Jack and turn the coupons over to them.
For all of Jack’s talk, I don’t think they ever purchased much with the coupons. The problem was that it took an inordinately long time to accumulate enough coupons to buy anything at all, even if one consumed Raleighs at the rate of two packs a day, which they did. In fact, the only Raleigh catalog item that I can remember ever showing up in their household was a teflon frying pan. This was in the 1960s, when teflon was a new thing, a by-product of the space program. Jack never let anyone forget that diligence at saving Raleigh coupons was what had made possession of this space-age frying pan possible, but to put it quite bluntly, it was a lousy frying pan. Within a few months the teflon coating had completely worn off and the inner surface of the pan was covered with deep scratches that probably harbored all manner of harmful stuff. Nonetheless, they continued to use the pan for several years—another aberrant manifestation of the thrift mentality. In terms of the health risks involved, this was a very costly frying pan indeed—not thrifty at all.
Now, Jack was an excellent historian and a fine teacher, but I must say that in the matter of the Raleigh coupons he showed a certain vulnerability to popular fads and errors of reasoning. This taught me that academics are just folks like everybody else when it comes to matters outside their specialty, a humbling fact that I tried to keep in mind during my own academic career.