Robert Opie’s obsession with packaging began as a teenager, and he remembers the exact day—September 8, 1963—as well as the reason. He was traveling in Scotland and bought a pack of Mackintosh’s Munchies, a chocolate-covered sweet with a caramel and biscuit center, from a vending machine.
“It suddenly dawned on me, while consuming the Munchies, that when I threw the Munchies pack away, I would also be throwing away a small fragment of history,” he writes in Sweet Memories, one of the many books to come from Opie’s lifelong devotion to hoarding the ephemera most consumers consign to the garbage without a thought.
Today, his private collection runs to 500,000 items. More than 12,000 of them are crammed into his Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, which he opened in London in 2005 after having housed it in Gloucester. The collection covers every conceivable kind of packaging, from Victorian custard powder, cocoa essence, and liver
salts to the globally familiar brands of today. Recently, the museum put together a temporary exhibit titled “Sweet Sixties,” focusing on the packaging of chocolates and candy during a decade that saw Britain’s economy boom. As a child of that era, I was drawn by the same nostalgic urge to revisit the throwaway, half-forgotten tokens of my youth that clearly inspires many other visitors.
The museum’s presentation style is more like a stockroom or an old-fashioned walk-in pantry than like the fastidiously edited arrangements of a contemporary design museum. The chronologically arranged collection, which occupies a single floor, is displayed in a kind of warren, consisting of a single narrow corridor under a low ceiling that turns this way and that between the cabinets as you travel forward in time. Each new decade has a brief introductory text, but hardly anything is dated precisely or sourced. While Opie clearly knows his subject inside out, few visitors would have the appetite for a glut of information, even if the space could be found. The museum’s charm lies in its singularity as a loaded-to-the-gunwales cargo of mostly bygone curiosities.
“Sweet Sixties” filled just one room, although Opie managed to pack in a fantastic amount of material. Entering the space walloped me in the mouth with the shock of realization. I have sometimes reminisced with my other half, also a child of the 1960s, about how many sweets we used to eat—how they formed the chewy center of so many of our childhood rites of passage in a way that certainly wasn’t true for our daughter at the same age in the 1990s. Yet these were untested recollections, subject perhaps to distortion, and I had never before confronted what now emerged as the evidence of a sweet tooth, if not a dietary habit, seriously out of control.
I have never possessed such an exhaustive knowledge of the merchandise available in a single product category as I did for these treats. Toothpaste, deodorant, breakfast cereals—I have preferences, but I don’t know the full range of what’s available, nor do I care. When it came to 1960s confectionery, I now realized, I had been a highly trained
and demanding connoisseur, familiar from the regular exercise of my jaws and taste buds with the entire range of sugar-filled distractions that manufacturers had to offer.
The room contained hundreds of packages, and even the ones I hadn’t thought about for decades were all luridly familiar. Browsing the shelves, I was almost experiencing sugar-rush flashbacks. Here were the chocolate bars: Aztec, Aero, Bounty, Toffee Cup, Toffee Crisp, Fry’s Chocolate Cream, Cadbury’s Bourn-ville Plain, and the dearly departed Caramac, a caramel and chocolate fusion. Then the goodies wrapped to form tubes: Munchies (of course), Rollo, Toffo, Mintola. And the one-of-a-kind classics: Payne’s Poppets, Bassett’s Jelly Babies, Wilkinson’s Pontefract Cakes, Terry’s Neapolitans, Lindt’s Milk Chocolate Bears. I’m being selective—there were oodles of the things. But let’s not forget the lavish boxes of chocs: Black Magic, Roses, Quality Street (no Christmas gathering complete without them), Matchmakers, Week End, After Eight, Dairy Box, All Gold. It was a relief to see a handful of products I genuinely couldn’t remember.
The packaging was always important, a Pavlovian visual trigger already cocked by brilliantly memorable TV advertising—“The Milky Bar Kid is strong and tough / And only the best is good enough / The creamiest milk, the whitest bar / The goodness that’s in Milky Bar.” Looking at it now, I can see how the lettering, the colors, the crafted simplicity of image, the absolute rightness of the wrappers as an expression of the consumer’s delicious craving, gave 8-year-old candy fiends like me a basic grounding in semiotics. I wasn’t the only visitor thinking this way. “The more I look at them, the more I realize they had a real touch of elegance in the packaging,” said a woman to her companion as she studied the yellow roses adorning a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray.
One example, a particular favorite, will have to serve. Even to my juvenile eye, it was obvious that Callard & Bowser’s Celebrated Butter-Scotch was a superior kind of candy. In size, shape and feel, the packets resembled a pack of slim panatellas. You removed the cellophane and opened the paper wrapper at the top. The butterscotch pieces were individually protected in silver paper printed with Callard & Bowser’s perky crest, a thistle. Each precious buttery ingot was meant to form two pieces, or so an indented break-point tried to hint, but naturally you consumed it whole. Even then, I appreciated the traditional typography, though I wouldn’t have known that the essential elements of the design hadn’t changed since the 1890s. Incredibly, the pack carries a quotation attributed to The Lancet, a distinguished medical journal, declaring that the sweet—no longer available today—was “Really wholesome confectionery.”
A dubious claim, it turned out. Less welcome memories of my 1960s childhood involve regular trips to the dentist, so he could drill out the decay caused by all those Easter eggs, Christmas selection boxes, and the endless daily munching. By the time I was a teenager, my adult molars were a mass of fillings, usually installed without anesthetic. British water was not fluoridated, unlike in the U.S., and this degree of tooth damage is common among my generation. One might wonder why parents—who had grown up in the dental dark ages before Britain offered free care to the entire population—didn’t put two and two together. We once watched a boy eat a chocolate Mars bar in the dentist’s waiting room before going in for his appointment. Sweet Sixties indeed.
Lingering over the candy packaging was a chastening experience. Its visual promise is so exciting, even decades later, that it’s hard to see clearly the hugely costly public health problem it represents. The British had been deprived of sweet tastes during the years of confectionery rationing from 1942 to 1953, and you can feel naïve excitement in the 1950s ads for candy displayed elsewhere in the museum: “Tender-fresh coconut” . . . “Taste the Fruit!” . . . “Taste the Cream!” Adults wanted to give children a pleasure they themselves had been denied. Nevertheless, these promotions were used to exploit a vulnerable public, particularly the young. This bittersweet exhibit was a reminder that the sanest attitude toward the persuasive power of brands is always a healthy dose of skepticism.