Here's the original entry from the book:
The Million Tickets (and other pointless collections)
In the Opies’ Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, there is a fascinating section on the widespread belief that some eccentric millionaire had offered a big prize to whoever could collect a million used bus tickets (which littered the ground of the UK at the time). By the 1950s, generations of Britons remembered collecting tickets in hopes of getting to a million. Some believed that the number on the tickets had to end in a 7, or that, even if you didn’t get to a millions, the bus company would pay out big time for a ticket with a certain combination of numbers.
Similar pursuits were certainly going on in my day, and it’s easy to connect these stories to modern e-mail chain letters stating that Bill Gates is going to pay off everyone who sends an email along, for some reason. While bus tickets were pretty well unknown to us when I was a kid, I recall two things in particular:
One was the “Sixty Years with Mickey” game celebrating the 60th anniversary of Mickey Mouse. Candy bars came with a letter printed inside — M-I-C-K-E or Y. Rumor went around that anyone who got all six of those would win a BIG prize. Y was the hard one to get — when I got one and my neighbor’s mom threw it out, I was furious. We here at the staff have yet to find a definitive source on what the actual rules of the game were, though I imagine that getting all six letters was merely step one.
The other was the phenomenon of getting a star on a Tootsie Roll Pop wrapper. What getting one of those meant varied depending on who you ask — one friend told me it meant three months of good luck. Another was quite sure that a wrapper with a star on it could be exchanged at any store for a full bag of Tootsie Roll Pops (possibly the same kid who told me that if you reached a certain score on Pitfall, your Atari would print out a certificate for a free frozen pizza from the grocery store). Another thought a star could be exchanged for fifty bucks.
The Tootsie Roll Pop mystery sure as heck didn’t start with us — this is one of those myths that everyone seems to know some version of. But the more common (and reasonable) version seems to be that kids thought a wrapper with a star could be mailed in for a free Tootsie Pop (which, one would think, would cost less than the postage to buy). The good folks down at the Tootsie Pop offices on South Cicero Avenue say they’ve been turning down requests for free lollipops that come with star wrappers since the 1930s. Since 1982, they’ve sent back a letter saying that the TRUE story is that if you get a star, it means that your lollipop was personally inspected by the Grand Indian Chief for the chewy candy center (dude better not have licked it; I don’t want chief germs on MY Tootsie Pop. Or owl ones, for that matter).
“Since we enjoy them so much,” the letter says, “aren’t we all kind of lucky that the chief still cares?”
I’m sure the kids who get a copy of the letter instead of free candy feel lucky, all right. REEALLLLY lucky.
In any case, some insist that a couple of local stores DID exchange free suckers for stars, but no one seems to be able to get a definitive source on this.
And believing that there was some hidden reward for finding junk goes back quite a while — the Opies found a thing on it from an 1883 letter to Notes and Queries stating that a lot of young people were in the habit of collecting used postage stamps. No one could give a good reason for it, but some believed that the post office would pay out a reward to anyone who got a million.
Others, the letter said, believed that stamps needed to be collected in order to get someone treatment in a hospital, which neatly connects it to more modern legends about pop can tabs being redeemable for time on dialysis machines (or some variation on that). Numerous schools have collected pop can tabs for things like this, even though it’s basically a myth. No one ever seems to know where the pop tabs go. In theory, one could sell them for scrap and use the money for health care, but it would take a whole heck of a lot of them to earn any real money.
A 1905 issue of The Spectator also speculated on the origins of the “million stamps” legend, saying that it was a legend that it seemed “almost uncharitable to expose.” At the time, a rumor was going around that a million stamps would get someone into some charitable institution or another. The magazine stated that everyone had, at one time or another, come upon a guy tying up postage stamps into lots of a hundred and saying, “Hullo! What a lot of stamps. How many are in that box?” To which the reply is “nearly fifty-thousand…to help get a person into the hospital. I’m trying to get to a million. You might give me that one off that letter you had on Tuesday, by the way.”
Back in 1893, a London magazine called Today also ran a story on the idea of a million used stamps getting someone into a hospital or asylum — and noted that stamp dealers would pay about four shillings for a hundred thousand used ones. As such, a million would have been worth two pounds (pretty good money in 1893, but not enough that you could retire or anything). The author related, though, that he had once come upon a lady who was about to send a hundred thousand stamps in to a dealer and, knowing he was a collector, let her look through them first. He found about a hundred collectable ones for which he paid her four shillings (and for which he would have paid about a pound — twenty shillings — to buy from a dealer), which gives one a pretty good idea of why dealers would have made such an offer for a hundred thousand used ones.
Punch, an old humor magazine, was ready with a smart aleck response to the legend that a million could be exchanged for admission to an asylum: that if you did, in fact, go through the necessary efforts to get a million used postage stamps, any asylum would be happy to take you “without having to pass the entrance examination.”
No one, though, could say what any hospital would ant a million postage stamps for.
Variations on legends like this abound. The issue of The Spectator quoted above went on to say that every schoolboy knew that on one day in 1864, the mint got gold and copper mixed up and made a lot of solid gold pennies, making 1864 coins especially good finds.
I remember that the custom in my elementary school was turning in Campbell’s Soup labels (and, in some cases, pickle jar lids) on the belief that Campbell’s was providing school supplies for schools that turned enough of them in. I’ve heard a lot of stories about things like this turning out to be urban legends, but the “Labels for Education” seems to be legit.
What surprised the Opies (and us) the most was that the postage stamp story appeared to have a grain of truth behind it — in 1850, an article appeared in the usually reliable London Illustrated News stating that a certain young woman was going to be placed in a convent by her father if she didn’t collect a million used postage stamps, prompting people from all over England to send her MASSIVE amounts of used stamps — one particular mailing contained 240,000!
Urban legends about similar things still come up, and sometimes facts get mixed up with reality. In the late 1980s, a boy named Craig Shergold was diagnosed with brain cancer and decided to try to break the world record for receiving the most birthday cards. He received millions (including a couple of dozen, I believe, from my second grade class). It generated enough publicity that a benefactor arranged for him to have the necessary surgery, and Craig is now a healthy adult. But people who heard the story, without noting the time frame, are apparently still sending cards to Craig (who has them recycled). His requests that people stop sending him cards don’t seem to circulate as well as the stories and legends.
If we were him, we’d probably check the cards to make sure no one included cash first, but he’s probably been down that road enough by now.
What went around like this in YOUR town?