POGs: What They Were, Why They Took Over, & Why They Ultimately Failed
For those of us born in the ‘90s, looking back in time can be an incredible amount of fun. We had pretty much the best of everything. Cartoon Network actually showed good cartoons, with legendary shows like Dexter’s Lab, Courage the Cowardly Dog and The Powerpuff Girls always taking center stage. Personally, if I got home from school after Samurai X or Dragonball Z was finished, my evening was pretty much ruined. Unless of course, I got to go outside and ride my bike, Beyblade, or stomp my neighbors in Yu-gi-oh.
Being a kid in the ‘90s was arguably the best time to be a kid. Hell, even our commercials were better back then. I’d often catch myself singing the songs and not minding their presence. Nowadays, I can’t wait to get past those first five seconds so I can skip the remainder of the ad.
Among the things that are simply better about the ‘90s are POGs a.k.a. milk caps. For those of you who didn’t live through this phase, you missed a craze that swept practically the entire western world. Lucky for you, we’re taking a short, nostalgic trip to the ‘90s to see what they were, how they took over, and where they are now.
What are POGs and Where did they Come From?
Put simply, POGs are simple, round discs that were initially used to seal gallons of milk produced by the Maui-based company, Haleakala. Among the line of dairy products produced by the company was a drink known as Passion Orange Guava, which would become the namesake of our favorite little collectibles. In 1955, Haleakala would stop packaging milk in glass bottles, but would continue the production of collectible caps to facilitate continued play of the game.
Funnily enough, there's some debate about the origin of POGs. The actual shape arguably came from the caps used to seal glass milk bottles when it was still commonplace for milk to be packaged in glass. The trading and collecting aspect of POGs, however, has a couple possible origin stories.
One plausible origin for the game of collecting and trading POGs was Hawaii’s plantations during the ‘20s and ‘30s, when trading of milk caps was popular. The other plausible origin dates back a few hundred years to the 17th century, when Menko, a Japanese card game extremely similar to milk caps, became popular.
In 1991, a school teacher named Blossom Galbiso would revolutionize the use of POGs by teaching her class a non-violent game to be played at recess, using the disposable lids from Passion Orange Guava. Interestingly, the version of the game she taught her students had been inherited from her grandparents, who played it in the 1920s and ‘30s in Hawaii. The rules used in this version of the game were practically indistinguishable from Japanese Menko and very quickly caught fire among the youngsters.
So Why did POGs become so popular?
At this point, you’re probably a little confused as to how something so simple could become so popular. That is almost missing the point of POGs, however. Their simplicity is a large part of the reason that they became so popular so quickly.
At a basic level, POGs were simple snapshots of common culture at the time. If you were to dive into any collection of POGs, you’d be likely to have a solid understanding of what was happening at the time. POGs commonly referred to political figures like presidential candidates, popular movies, and even high-profile criminal cases like the OJ Simpson trial.
To draw a parallel to current times, POGs were like memes. They were “cheap to manufacture, easy to understand… easily spreadable, and rooted in a shared, collective memory” according to historian Burl Burlingame, who co-authored a book on the topic of POGs. When described in this way, it's easy to see the parallels as to why POGs may have become so popular so quickly.
Why did They Fall off?
By 1994, a mere three years after the initial implementation of POGs as a recess game, over 350 million POGs had been purchased in the United States alone and their popularity was still increasing. At this point, Alan Rypinksi had already purchased the POG trademark from Haleakala Dairy and had brought the trend to the mainland, forming the World POG Organization as he did.
Soon, Rypinski was entering into licensing agreements with every cartoon, sports team, and food brand seeking to expand their marketing to children and capitalize on the POG fad. Even the Roman Catholic Church had 50,000 POGs created to commemorate the visit of Pope John Paul II to New Jersey in 1995.
The popularity of POGs would ultimately become its downfall. Alan Rypinski’s desire to maximize and capitalize on the viral popularity of POGs, flooded the market with them. The fact that POGs were cheap and quick to reproduce encouraged thousands of businesses to begin printing their own and expanding on them in attempts to make them unique.
Ultimately, people began to take POGs for granted. There were so many of them so widely available that by the late '90s, less than a decade later, POGs began to die off. Around the same time, POGs came under public scrutiny as the game played by young children began to closely resemble gambling and patterns of addiction. Even D.A.R.E. began to home in on POGs as part of their curriculum for preventing drug abuse in schools, which contributed significantly to some negative press on POGs at the time.
As POGs saturated the market completely, they became less valuable as a marketing tool and eventually companies simply stopped using them to promote products to children. The fad died almost as quickly as it started, leaving millions of POGs to be sold as possible collectors’ items today.
How Much Is a POG Collection Worth Today?
If you’re hoping to finally cash in on your POG collection for thousands of dollars, it may actually be possible depending on how many you have and how well they’ve been kept. For example, a full Marilyn Monroe POG set can be worth over $1000 USD today. Most POG collections can expect a return of anywhere from $20 to a couple hundred dollars of today’s currency.
Have fun looking through the attic!