The Strange And Surprising History of Pogs

Of all the fads that we were gifted in the ’80s and ’90s, the simplest and most colorful was undoubtedly pogs. Looking back on it now, it seems almost strange how we all became so obsessed with what were little more than small cardboard disks and plastic coins with pictures on them. The game itself was fairly simple, you had pogs – the small cardboard circles – and slammers, which were heavier, thicker, and usually made of plastic. First you’d decide whether or not you were playing for keeps (aka keeping the pogs you won, giving up the ones you lost) Each player would contribute an equal amount of pogs to a stack, then each would take turns throwing a slammer at the pile and collecting any pogs that landed face up.

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While some of us never actually played with them and only collected them (I still have my collection!) they were definitely one of the toys we all had to have, at least until all of our schools banned them. But it was a strange and winding road that led to pogs’ explosion in popularity and somehow the story of how they came to be makes them even cooler. Join me now on the adventure that is the bizarre history of pogs.

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For the origins of pogs we have to travel all the way back to 17th century Japan.  During the Edo period, people started playing a game known as Menko. The “cards” originally were made of wood, clay, or ceramics and typically sported images of samurai, ninjas, and other cultural icons. The gameplay of Menko is not all that different than its modern day westernized version: two or more players would place their pieces on the floor, then throw more pieces at them in an attempt to flip them. If they succeeded they would take both pieces, and at the end the player with the most pieces won.

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As time passed, the pieces became cards made of heavy paper or cardboard, and the images on the cards changed to reflect popular culture. The cards themselves were available as both rounds and die-cut. Before the Second World War, popular images included fighter planes, tanks, and other military vehicles. Postwar, the popularity of cards with images of anime characters, manga characters, and baseball players grew. The cards of baseball players became especially popular, and spawned their own sub-culture of collectors.

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The Strange And Surprising History of Pogs
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The popularity of the game migrated to Hawaii along with Japanese immigrants In the 1920s and ’30s. Its popularity spread as it acquired a new name, Milk Caps – named after the milk caps that many kids used to play the game since they were about the right size and easily acquired. For an added level of difficulty, many of the caps would have staples through them so that when they were stacked they wouldn’t simply lie flat against one another.

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The Strange And Surprising History of Pogs

The game remained popular for decades, but it was put at risk in the 1950s when the local dairys like Haleakala and Hawaiian Orchards stopped using the glass bottles for milk and juice, however thanks to demand they continued to manufacture just the cardboard caps. This is how pogs would eventually get their name. In 1971, the Haleakala Dairy released a new juice called POG, because it contained passionfruit, orange, and guava. While it was never released in glass bottles, a marketing manager at Haleakala had the clever idea to capitalize on the popularity of milk caps by branding some with the POG name and giving them away as a promotional item.

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The Strange And Surprising History of Pogs

To find out how pogs expanded to the mainland, and the mainstream, head on over to the next page

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While the game of milk caps/pogs never really went away, its popularity certainly waned. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it would make a comeback and move beyond the shores of Hawaii. The explosion in popularity is credited to school teacher Blossom Galbiso. Having grown up loving the game, in 1991 she taught her fifth grade students how to play it. Her thinking was that not only would it help them learn math, but that it was also a non-violent alternative to common schoolyard games like dodge ball.

The Strange And Surprising History of Pogs
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As her and her students began collecting pogs, the popularity of the game began to spread throughout the Hawaiian islands. Within a year, the Canadian company that manufactured the caps – STANPAC Inc – began shipping millions of the caps to Hawaii try and satisfy the demand. Before long, the game had spread to the mainland, showing up in schools in California, Texas, Oregon, and Washington. By 1993, it was being played all over the world.

As the popularity of the game grew, it also began to evolve. Soon the cardboard caps were joined by plastic slammers. You could also get metal slammers, but anyone using them was quickly branded a cheater since they made flipping pogs so much easier. You also had to worry about the pogs getting wrecked since the metal slammers were so much heavier. As well, production of “milk caps” – which were more and more frequently being called simply “pogs” – began to shift from dairy companies like Haleakala to toy companies like Canada Games Company.

In 1993, Alan Rypinski – who, fun fact, also founded Armor All – bought the rights to the “POG” name from Halakalea Dairy. Along with the Canada Games Company he founded the World Pog Federation. It was the World Pog Federation that faciliated pogs’ evolution from schoolyard game to full blown fad. They organized tournaments and gave away millions of pogs thanks to promotional partnerships with brands like Coca Cola, Disney, and McDonalds.

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For a while in the mid ’90s, it seemed like every brand and franchise had its own pog. McDonalds had them to promote both Power Rangers and Batman Forever. Disneyland, Kool-Aid, Taco Bell, Nintendo, Knott’s Berry Farms, and even Bill Clinton all got in on the action. But pogs’ fortunes were about to change for the worse.

The Strange And Surprising History of Pogs

The descent began as it so often does with fads – schools ruining all the fun. The “for keeps” style of play meant that not only did schools and teachers consider pogs to be a distraction, but also a form of gambling. The arguments and issues that would pop up on the playground only made teachers, administrators, and parents more convinced that pogs had no place in schools. Schools all over North America, Europe, and Australia almost simultaneously began banning them. Fortunately, they didn’t have to worry for long, since by the mid ’90s pogs’ popularity had vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

But they haven’t disappeared completely. They’re actually still used today by, of all things, the U.S Military. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs stores, restaurants, and theaters at U.S. bases and installations around the globe actually use pogs as currency. They adopted them since the cardboard caps are significantly lighter than metal coins, and therefore much easier to transport. The pogs come in different denominations, and even have a variety of images on them, just like the ones we collected as kids.

Considering how everything ’90s is new again, no doubt we’ll see a resurgence of pogs any day now, just like we’ve already seen Crystal Pepsi and the NES make a comeback.

Emma C
Freelance Writer