The Weird History of Pogs

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During the neon-tinged days of the late '80s and early '90s, slap bracelets hit wrists, GameBoys consumed hands, and Trapper Keepers cracked. But while new playthings flooded the marketplace, there was one decidedly lo-fi toy that every youngster wanted—without realizing that they weren’t the first cool kids to demand brightly-colored milk bottle caps for their amusement. 

You didn’t forget that pogs were originally milk bottle caps, did you? Surely you heard tell of their provenance on the playground at some point in your youth, some whispered bit of rumor around the tetherball, but it might not have entirely occurred to you that the random bits of cardboard or plastic got their start as something else. Or at least that they got their start as something actually useful.  

The Game of Menko

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The actual gameplay behind pogs has long been attributed to the classic Japanese game of Menko (above), which has been popular since the Edo Period (between 1603 and 1867) and also centered on players attempting to flip the cards or pieces of their opponent. Much like modern pogs, the original Menko playing pieces were roughly the size of milk caps and featured images of Japanese cultural icons, like wrestlers and warriors. These pieces weren't made out of cardboard or plastic, but shaped from clay, wood, or ceramics (though Menko later included cardboard pieces that are considered the forerunners of trading cards).

Japanese immigrants then brought the game with them when they settled in Hawaii in the early 20th century. Industrious kids started using milk bottle caps as Menko playing pieces—they were, after all, rigid enough and the right size—and the game of Menko started evolving. 

The Hawaiian Connection

For decades, Menko was a favorite game of Hawaiians, including the woman who helped transform it into one of the early '90s hottest fads. In 1991, teacher Blossom Galbiso reintroduced the game to the world when she taught her beloved childhood diversion to her students. Galbiso favored the game because she believed it helped teach math skills and provided her pupils with a fun game that didn’t require any dodgeball-style potentially dangerous physical activity. 

Galbiso and her kiddos started collecting milk bottle caps for their games, especially ones from the Haleakala Dairy on Maui, and as the game spread around the island chain, the Canadian packaging company that made the caps found themselves inundated with requests for extras. 

By 1993, the game had hit the mainland, first coming to rest in the West, before it took its charm across the United States, and then the world. In short, it dominated, just like any good childhood fad should.

Gameplay

Playing pogs doesn't just involve random throwing and slapping, no matter how it might have looked at middle school lunchtime. Like Menko, the point of pog playing is to flip your opponent’s pieces. Most schoolyard battles went for the blood—or, really, for the pog, with players playing “for keeps." Players face off by contributing the same number of cardboard pogs to a large stack, all placed facedown. The first player aims, shoots, and slaps down that slammer on the stack, and any pog that flies out and lands face up is suddenly their pog. Repeat. Fun, right?

The Cap and the Slammer

Pogs as we know them sprang from a brand of juice popular in Hawaii around the time Galbiso and her students were bringing the game back. POG juice was made from passion fruit, orange, and guava, giving the drink its name. Like classic milk bottle caps, POG tops were round, flat, and made out of cardboard.

Can you guess who made POG juice? Why, the Haleakala Dairy, of course!

But as pog play progressed, the cardboard tops were no longer cutting it—players needed something stronger, tougher, and cooler to get that flipping done. Hello, slammers. Where pogs were slim and made of cardboard, slammers were thick and made of metal, rubber, or plastic. As pogs evolved (no more milk caps! The addition of fun imagery!), slammers did too, even though bigger and heavier slammers were often considered the work of cheaters (it didn’t help that metal slammers dented up the cardboard pogs, which was just rude).

The World POG Federation

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As the pog craze grew on the islands, a forward-thinking businessman named Alan Rypinski snatched up the “POG” trademark from the Haleakala Dairy and founded a little something called the World POG Federation. Pogs are like the Kleenex or Windex or Chapstick of the toy world—not all pog playing pieces are genuine “pogs,” but everyone still called them that anyway, all thanks to the WPF. The WPF started up tournaments, minted their own mascot (“Pogman,” obviously), and decorated their pog products with snazzy-looking graphics (often pop culturally relevant images, just to make them even more irresistible to consumer kids).

Pog-ularity

Photo by Erin McCarthy; pogs from the personal collection of Ethan Trex

As pogs caught on across the country and the world, they became the go-to delivery service for all kinds of images—not just cool movies or toys or sports, but also people and places (Bill Clinton even got a pog with his face on it!). Pogs with more altruistic aims were also put into circulation, like the kind the touted drug prevention and fire safety, or ones made to advertise charitable organizations. If you could shrink an image or a logo down to the size of a milk cap, you could put it on a pog.

Pogs were readily available for purchase at toy stores and comic book shops, but they also swiftly became a solid promotional item. Plenty of fast food joints got in on the action—McDonald’s, Del Taco, Taco Bell, Burger King, and other big chains would give away branded pogs with purchase. Other products also turned to pogs for tiny ad space, from Disneyland to Knott’s Berry Farm to Nintendo to Kool-Aid. Everyone had pogs and everyone could advertise on them. It was a genuine phenomenon, and one that didn’t even require gameplay for enjoyment.

The Bannings

But there still was plenty of gameplay going on at schools around the world, and that didn’t exactly fly with parents, teachers, or administrators. For one thing, there was the tiny problem that pog play was essentially kid-sized gambling, the kind that distracted students and sparked into recess scuffles. Schools in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Iceland, Germany, the UK, and Australia all banned the pieces, which spelled the beginning of the end for the pog craze.

By the time the mid-'90s rolled around, no one needed to worry about banning pogs anymore because, like any flash in the pan fad, they had already faded out on their own, joining slap bracelets, Furbies, and Cabbage Patch Kids in some kind of cool toy purgatory—at least until they become coolly vintage and make a comeback, which should happen pretty much any day now.

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