For about 20 years, generally from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, America basked in the glory of radio heroes and gathered up the golden premiums that they offered.
As if adventures on the airwaves were not enough, sponsors of the great radio serials were moved to offer badges, booklets, whistles, pedometers, rings and decoders for just some small change and a few boxtops.
As great as it turned out it be, it also had a very practical purpose. Kids of that era were a powerful consumer group drawn to the radio dial by thrilling network programming. What better proof of that appeal than thousands upon thousands of boxtops pouring into offices of product sponsors?Ovaltine was one of the most savvy sponsors of that golden decade, and not surprisingly was one of the most successful. They pioneered the premium idea by first offering listeners sheet music and a photograph from Little Orphan Annie in 1931. Soon afterwards they began offering a LOA drinking mug to hold lots of good ol' Ovaltine.
The company soared with the stars of comic book-drama radio, including Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger, and Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy. They found still another winner in the early 1940s with the super-aviator Captain Midnight.
Captain Midnight was big on fighting evil around the world, and his writers were big on involving Secret Squadron members and their trusty decoder badges or whatever. For a dime and an Ovaltine proof of purchase, kids everywhere could join the action.
A 1988 issue of Air and Space Magazine observed that Captain Midnight's crisp command to "stand by for another Secret Squadron code session" was magic in itself. It "gave the listeners the thrill of participation as they decoded strings of numbers into secret messages. These messages often concerned Ovaltine, the consumption of which seemed to be the primary duty of every Secret Squadron member."
The decoders, usually a wheel device which could be turned to various numbers and letters, were vital to Captain Midnight's pals, as they often were to followers of other radio fantastics.
Some collectors feel the classic Captain Midnight decoder badge came in the early part of 1942 with the issue of the Photomatic Code-O-Graph, which included a photo of Midnight himself. For one thing, it was one of the last of the fine metal premiums for awhile, as the shortage of materials used in the war effort led to the use of paper and plastic. By 1948 the decoder, this time a dated Mirro-Magic Code-O-Graph, contained both metal and plastic.
Probably the most sought after Midnight item is a ring rather than a decoder badge. Collectors consider the intact Mystic Sun God ring to be rare because the plastic stone, which came off to reveal the secret compartment, was easily lost.
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Thousands were mailed out to eager kiddies in 1946, yet the few that remain in good condition today command prices of $200 to $350.
All of these things have perhaps led to the confusion about the Captain Midnight decoder ring. There isn't one.
"There is a strange phenomenon connected with Captain Midnight," explains Tom Tumbush, author of the splendid and now revised Radio Premium Catalog and Price Guide. "Nearly everyone who has ever heard of the program can conjure up a decoder ring. Yet, exhaustive research has failed to prove there ever was such a premium.
"They remember the decoders and the rings, and every time their memory seems to put them together," he adds. "At parties, when people find I wrote a book about radio premiums, it's one of the first things that comes to mind."
The wealth of radio premiums may also have been part of the problem. One collector and radio historian in the Midwest concludes, "The Captain Midnight people gave away so many rings and decoders, and other shows had rings and decoders too, so people got the wrong idea."
The myth surfaced so many times that a few years ago a spokesman for the Ovaltine company issued a clarification saying it was "an error in folklore, not an error of fact.
"Throughout literature there are constant references to Captain Midnight decoder rings," said the spokesman. "The Ovaltine people laugh when they hear this. They are always hearing reactions to decoder rings, and frankly it is very funny."
So, while some Captain Midnight decoder badges and even rings list at $25 to $50 in the Radio Premium Catalog, apparently the Captain Midnight decoder ring is not around at any price.
With respect to Tumbush and the others, there is another theory. Perhaps the decoder rings were manufactured by Ovaltine with the ability to eventually disappear.