Jobs They Love: Candy Historian
Updated: May 30, 2021
Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.
Do you know what Double Brunch, Denver Sandwich, Idaho Spuds, Chicken Dinner and Seven Up all have in common? No, they’re not the daily specials on a Bob’s Big Boy menu. They’re vintage candy bar names. Just ask Jason Liebig, America’s foremost candy historian. He has been researching the origins and brand evolutions of our favorite candy bars, chewing gum and novelty confections -- archiving their colorful packaging and advertising -- since 2007. His collection is massive, with more than 70,000 items occupying every square foot of storage in the office of his apartment in Queens, NY.
Liebig loves to talk about candy products and has been a consultant about vintage food and candy for many TV shows, including “Mad Men,” “The Goldbergs,” “Stranger Things,” “Young Sheldon,” and the hit Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit,” as well as Stephen King’s 2017 movie thriller “It.” He’s also been interviewed in The New York Times about the Willie Wonka candy brand, and been a featured guest on the Food Network and The History Channel. Liebig hosted the “Food Flashback” show on the Cooking Channel, telling the stories about America’s favorite junk foods of days gone by. His CollectingCandy.com blog and CollectingCandy Instagram page are avidly followed by thousands of candy fans.
Liebig established his pop culture cred in his 20s, as an editor of the X-Men franchise at Marvel Comics.
It’s safe to say that you have the largest collection of candy and snack wrappers and packaging, advertising, and ephemera in the world. But, is there one elusive candy artifact you’re still missing that you’ve spent years hunting down?
I wouldn’t presume to have the largest collection of anything. It might be possible that it’s true based on some metrics, but it’s nothing I’ve concerned myself with. I will say that my archive of materials is probably the most actively referenced and most voluminous archive of historical materials of this kind available online. It’s thousands upon thousands of pieces, though what has been published is only a fraction of what exists in the archives.
As to elusive pieces? Oh geez, there’s many. MANY. One thing about this category of material is that, in terms of scarcity or the ephemeral nature of it, it blows away what other established hobbies consider as far as “rarity” is concerned. There’s no contest. This material exists in its own orbit, with regard to that. So, yeah, there’s lot of pieces that elude me, and may well elude me all my days.
I’ll give you one example: A Caramel Tootsie Pop wrapper from the 1970s. Unlike the flat colored wrappers of the standard flavors, the Caramel wrapper had a red-and-blue stripe design wrapper. I don’t know of a single example of that to exist.
Do you collect the actual candy too, or just the wrappers?
I do not endeavor to save physical candy or contents, no. It’s generally not a stellar idea. I can’t tell you how many pieces of packaging I’ve found that have been destroyed or nearly so, from their decades-old contents wreaking havoc on the paper and cardboard packaging. There are notable exceptions and a few pieces I save for the novelty of it, but generally I’m against that sort of thing, for preservation’s sake.
How did you get started collecting?
I’d love to keep this answer brief, but I’m not sure I can, so I’m not going to try.
To start with, as much as I do “collect” things, technically and my online moniker is the delightfully alliterative “CollectingCandy,” I do like to consider myself far more historian and archivist than collector. Yet, I am certainly a collector in so many ways, at least to some degree – I have those collector passions well within me.
I was always a collector growing up -- baseball cards, coins and stamps, comic books, Star Wars “everything,” – all that I’d consider the typical stuff of my era. But as an adult, I became involved in the pop culture entertainment business. Really the geekier side of it, with my jobs in the comic book biz. Loving that geekier world, and seeing that world grow and explode out, alongside the growth of the internet, was a fascinating thing. I became keenly aware of how our collective pop cultural past was almost entirely available to us thanks to the internet -- any song, tv show, comic book cover -- just about anything could be referenced and found online. But not everything.
Cut ahead to my shooting a film in Boston back in the early 2000s. I had a day off, so I made my way to a local bookstore near the hotel I was staying in. I think it was a Barnes and Noble. I was very much into design and graphic design at the time, so I was whiling away my time perusing books in the design section that day, when I came across a book called “Krazy Kids’ Food!” by (my now-close friend) Dan Goodsell and Steve Roden.
“Krazy Kids’ Food!” was a bit of a revelation for me. Years earlier when I was still in the comic book business, I was also freelancing in the toy business and was an avid toy collector (mainly action figures). During that time, I was somewhat aware and appreciative of cereal box collectors. But this kids’ food book was wild, as it showcased all manner of kids food packaging from the 1950s up through the 1970s and I was completely captivated by it.
I was so inspired by that book that I thought I would track down three pieces of kids’ food packaging from my own youth, and I assumed it would be simple: A 1970s Post Super Sugar Crisp cereal box, a 1970s Marathon bar wrapper, and a 1970s Hot Tamales box.
Well, hitting the internet and eBay, and I would soon learn that not only were these items pretty much not available to buy on the open market, but that most of them hadn’t really been documented. In the specific realm of vintage candy packaging, about the only sources of images or information at that time came from two sources, Dan Goodsell’s “Imaginary World” website, and Darlene Lacey’s wonderful CandyWrapperMuseum.com. And in total, they probably published a few hundred images between them.
That Marathon bar wrapper I sought from my youth? I couldn’t even Google a proper image of one. I found that quite remarkable. A product put out by Mars, sold likely in the hundreds of millions over a decade, and there wasn’t a single decent image of a wrapper anywhere online.
So, I started out just wanting to have those three pieces, but as I hunted for them (unsuccessfully in the early years), I became ever more fascinated by the category. And things started to click for me. How much fun the material was, and how undocumented the entire category of its history was. So, I started out collecting to collect, but also primarily to properly document the category in a robust, some might say “excessive,” way.
So that’s how it started. That’s the long story. The short is that, I set out to revisit my youth in a very limited way, and became obsessed with the category along the way.
What was your favorite candy bar as a kid?
Favorite candy bar was the Marathon bar. Favorite candies? Willy Wonka’s chocolate/peanut butter Oompas, and Hot Tamales.
Can we still buy candy cigarettes?
Yes, you can still buy candy cigarettes. But they haven’t been called that for a few decades. Now they’re simply candy (and bubblegum) “sticks.”
And most folks don’t remember, but as recently as the early 70s, some of those candy cigarettes used actual cigarette packaging designs, names and trademarks. Which sounds insane now, but it is probably my favorite thing about the history of candy cigarettes.
I love it, but only because it’s so insane. It was obviously not a good thing to be offering to our kids, building brand loyalty to cigarettes. It’s scandalous! :-)
Candy wrappers are colorful, whimsically designed come-ons, carefully conceived to make the brand leap out off the shelf and get purchased. But the wrappers always get tossed in the trash, first thing. Your collection represents an amazingly rare chronology of this facet of consumer culture. What is your endgame with all of this? A candy museum? A documentary?
The endgame for my archive of materials personally is multi-pronged. First, I’m going to be publishing a book, and hopefully a few. I’ve certainly got the material for it, and I know people would love to own the books I have in mind. That’s one thing, and an important one.
I think a “candy museum” is an adorable idea, but probably not one that is very tenable, long term. That said, I absolutely have plans to do gallery shows and exhibits of different kinds in the coming years. Pre-pandemic, I was in conversations with several galleries and locations about the idea. And it’ll come around again. But those are temporary.
At the end of it all, if I do my job well, and curate the history of this material successfully, using my archives to do so, I would love to put the historical archive I’ve built (and optimistically will have continued to build over the coming decades) in the hands of The Smithsonian Institution. A place that would preserve it, even if they might not fully understand it. Though again, I’m hoping that if I do my job correctly in the coming years, the ability to appreciate this material will be more fully realized and accessible to all.
I think a permanent candy exhibit at the Smithsonian showcasing not only the history of the brands and brand packaging, but the industry itself would be an incredibly popular spot to visit and explore.
Photo: Krista Schlueter