Okay, so maybe we have candy on the brain lately. Advertising dollars aside, big brands devote tremendous resources to the design of their packaging. Nothing is random. Fonts, colors, shapes, logos and layout are all tailored to make us psychologically want the product. Otherwise, what could possibly explain the retro packaging craze?
We recently had the honor of chatting with Jason Liebig, a passionate Manhattan candy enthusiast who has collected thousands of wrappers dating back to the early 1900s. He catalogs, photographs and stores his candy packaging like an archivist from the Smithsonian. Perhaps his collection will ultimately wind up there.
To Jason, preserving a meticulously opened King Size Kit Kat is culturally as important as a turn-of-the-century box of Cracker Jack. He’s documented more than 40 different packages of Milk Duds and sometimes candy companies even come to him for archival material.
Founder of CollectingCandy.com, Jason warns of the dangers of trying to save the candy itself for future generations– it’s meant to be eaten now! He shares much of his always-expanding wrapper collection on his Flickr photostream. You can follow Jason Liebig on Twitter @CollectingCandy.
Our Interview with Jason Liebig, Candy Wrapper Historian
Q: When I told my wife about your collection, her immediate reaction was, “So this guy collects TRASH?” and then she rolled her eyes. How common is that view of your hobby versus the percentage of people who appreciate what you’re archiving?
Jason: I’m the first person to state that “I collect trash.” I think it’s a novel thing to document and preserve what other people throw away. Even the companies that produced these wrappers over the decades have tossed them out. Many brands have very little corporate sense of history, and no archives to speak of — only a very few have any kind of packaging archives. So I consider this material a wonderful element of our shared pop culture and our shared consumer culture.
Most folks consider what I do to be fun and fascinating, especially folks with an artistic or design eye. Artists and designers are the biggest fans and supporters of my work. I recently received an e-mail from a designer who overhauled the website of Pearson’s Candy (Bit-O-Honey, Nut Goodie, Salted Nut Roll). He pointed to my work as inspirational for the look he created for them. That was pretty cool. A lot of pop artists consider my work an invaluable resource. Helping artist Paul Rousso develop his amazing 3D candy wrapper sculptures has been one of the highlights of my candy work thus far.
My archival work provides a nostalgic window to countless people, but it’s also an academic resource that has afforded me the chance to work with New York’s Museum of Food and Drink, among others. And I’ve provided archival resources for a few of the candy companies themselves, including Life Savers and Just Born (the Mike and Ike folks).
Q: What is the appeal of candy wrappers? What compels you to hunt for rare ones and save ones that you may see countless thousands of?
Jason: For me the initial appeal was just a tiny nostalgic itch that needed scratching. But as I went further down the rabbit hole, it became about design, history and the idea that this colorful part of our culture was virtually undocumented.
I’m compelled by what any primary researcher is compelled by. I want to discover what hasn’t been discovered, to bring understanding to things that are not currently understood or appreciated. I’m trying to rescue these wrappers from being lost to time.
Outside of what you can find on the shelves right this minute, they’re all exceptionally rare. These aren’t old baseball cards or comic books where tons of people saved them. They ALL get tossed in the trash. I’d even challenge you to find specific Mike and Ike boxes from 2009 – it’s impossible.
Q: What’s your technique for removing candy from their wrappers? Do you slice off the sides and slide them out or slit the backs on the seams like gutting a fish?
Jason: I’ve got countless techniques, but my goal is to always preserve the wrapper in its intact pre-candy state as much as possible. I try to unseal what the glue or heat/pressure has sealed at the factory and avoid “gutting” if at all possible. But in some cases, like with many thicker plastic packages, that is the only option. Through trial and error I’ve come up with ways to rescue the wrapper the best way I can.
Q: Do you have to clean any leftover candy residue off the wrappers you save? What’s the easiest candy to clean? The toughest?
Jason: It’s always a good idea to clean out residue. Cleaning candy wrappers makes you feel like a madman, though. Hard to take oneself seriously when you’re hunched over a sink cleaning taffy from a piece of plastic. The toughest things to clean are older unopened packages where the candy has broken down or melted and bonded with the cardboard or paper. In some cases, pieces can be beyond recovery. And Charms Blow Pops… Good luck getting a wrapper off one of those without it shredding away. Charms wrappers are very challenging to preserve in any real way.
Q: How much candy DO you eat — and is there a particular brand you find irresistible?
Jason: Not nearly as much as you’d expect, but more than I ever did in the past because it’s always around me now. I’ll consume about a chocolate bar a week now. And sometimes I’ll dig into a pack of Brach’s Butterscotch Discs or Cinnamon Discs daily. Lately, Sugar Babies have been dangerous for me. Mike and Ikes and Hot Tamales are also a treat I like to sample in small amounts somewhat regularly.
Q: You’re a former comic book editor. Visually, what are candy companies doing right with their package design and logos? Do wrappers help or hurt sales — or just keep bugs from eating the yummy contents?
Jason: I have my opinions, but I tend to hold those opinions privately. I love revealing how design for specific brands changes and evolves, in many cases revealing the culture of the time. Broadly speaking though, I don’t think there can be any doubt that packaging is a hugely important factor in sales.
Q: Any childhood memories of saving candy wrappers and sending away for prizes?
Jason: I don’t think I ever sent away for a prize from a candy bar. I did mail away for a Quik Bunny Mug from Nestle Quik. And I know I sent away for a set of 3D baseball cards from Kellogg’s cereal. I mailed away for embroidered patches from Hot Wheels – but never anything from candy.
My brother and I were big Star Wars card collectors as kids, and at one point Hershey had six-pack bar packs with cardboard trays that had Empire Strikes Back cut-out trading cards on the bottom of them. My brother and I saved a couple of those. Still have them, too.
Q: How comprehensive is your documentation of a particular brand? Would you, for example, save a King Size Snickers, a regular Snickers, a Fun Size Snickers and a Mini Snickers to showcase the entire family?
Jason: Initially, I wasn’t terribly comprehensive but that has changed. As I’ve seen brands change and evolve, and seen more variety in my research on the history of brands, I’ve found the subtle variations more compelling. I also have an affection for Fun Size wrappers so I always try to get Fun Size editions of standard brands whenever I can.
Of course, I also try to get holiday editions. I did a feature on the contemporary Mars 2-to-Go and 4-to-Go editions of their standard brands, and the array of Hershey King Size wrappers. It’s fun to showcase all these different wrapper designs that have a unifying design feature.
Q: What is the Holy Grail of elusive candy wrappers for you?
Jason: I’m fortunate that over the years, I’ve tracked down quite a few. But there are many more, and I often discover amazing things I never knew existed that become Holy Grails. An example is a 1970′s Fun Dip 10-pack of just flavored Lik-A-Stix – the packaging invoked “Ten Little Indians” and featured the classic 1970′s/1980′s Fun Dip illustrated mascot dressed up with Native American costume elements.
That’s the fun thing about candy — the sense of discovery. Even now, the vast majority of releases and packages have never been found. And you don’t have to go too far back to see that. There are packages and wrappers from the 1990′s that might as well be from the 1890′s – because I’ve never seen them. Before I wrote about many of the things I’ve covered, they were un-Googleable. Before I published images of Cherry Duds and Banana Duds (fruit-flavored Milk Duds), you couldn’t find a single image of them anywhere online. Even Hershey didn’t have images of them. So discovering things like that and documenting them can be thrilling at times.
Q: Has globalization taken some of the wind out of your sails? Now that you can buy imported candy from virtually any country on earth right in downtown Manhattan, does it dampen the thrill of the hunt for you?
Jason: Not at all. My focus are the products released in the USA. But even when I branch out, as in the case of Japanese Kit Kat or Bubblicious releases, even here in New York City, the Japanese stores might get 1% of the releases that can be found in Japan. Even with contacts in Japan and around the world, it can be hard to find things, because they’re not in every store and not out for very long. Even USA releases can be very difficult to find, due to limited or regional distribution.
Q: I am a Kinder Egg addict and have friends bring me back them when they travel. Do you have a favorite foreign candy brand or variation?
Jason: That would be Cadbury’s Curly Wurly. It’s been a fun brand to document and track. After that it would be the Japanese Kit Kats. I think they’ve produced over 100 different flavors of Kit Kat in the Japanese market at this point. It’s pretty amazing. And the packaging for Japan’s Kit Kats are beautiful. I’ve got a thing for foreign editions of well-known brands sold in the USA like M&M’s and Snickers. Japanese packages of M&M’s and Skittles are just fun to see. One of my favorite M&M’s packs is from the Middle East, and it’s gorgeous.
Jason: Well, Rambo is a good one as far as weird. There was so much “gross-out” confection produced in the 80′s and 90′s that the award would likely go to something like that. But there was a novelty candy in the late 60′s or early 70′s that was a hypodermic needle that I’d love to find images or examples of. For now, that one remains a weird mythical release I’ve yet to substantiate.
On the front of weird that’s not-meant-to-be? I’d say there are quite a few Cadbury releases where they’ve taken their Dairy Milk chocolate bar and added other elements, like jelly beans, fruit, popping candy, jelly candy and more. And Musk Life Savers from Australia – very very weird.
Q: Have you had any communication with any of the candy brands about your hobby?
Jason: I have had wonderful communications and conversations with a number of the candy companies out there. Candy is a big business and fiercely competitive, but the hard-working folks working in the industry have almost always been lovely when I’ve interacted with them. I’d like to think they all appreciate my work, as my work celebrates theirs. I have been called upon to assist in companies historical efforts – and that’s always satisfying.
(Pongr is a mobile advertising technology company that uses computer vision and Photo Response Marketing to make brand logos and product packaging interactive for shopper contests, sweepstakes and promotions.)