Bored with baseball cards and baubles, Jason Liebig turned to collecting vintage candy wrappers—and his Astoria apartment now houses some 10,000 of them.
It’s seven p.m. on election night, yet a steady flow of pedestrians are still streaming in to the London Candy Co. to assuage their sweet tooths with imported delights—and to calm their caffeine jitters with gourmet coffee. Beneath the Upper East Side shop’s Day-Glo paintings and amid its colorful displays of Chupa-Chups and shelves stocked with Curly-Wurly bars is Jason Liebig, shuffling through a sampling of his personal collection of candy packaging—bright plastic and paper wrappers that most would consider trash, or at best a tease.
Liebig, 43, wears corduroys, thick black glasses and, fittingly for the playful setting, which is bustling with adults and kids, Chuck Taylors emblazoned with Union Jacks. He selects a glassine folder from the pile, containing several examples of Kit Kat wrappers dating back to the candy’s official incarnation in 1937, two years after its introduction under a different name.
One of the wrappers is uncharacteristically blue. Liebig begins an enthusiastic disquisition on Kit Kat history, explaining that the cobalt wrapper dates from World War II, when the chocolate-and-wafer confection was impacted by rationing.
“They basically couldn’t make milk chocolate,” Liebig explains later. The wartime creation vaguely resembled the customary Kit Kat but it would have been a darker, bitterer chocolate than normal. So, the radically different label, Liebig speculates, was meant to signify to consumers that the Kit Kat bar was a temporarily inferior confection.
Liebig’s girlfriend of nine years, Amy Monte, sits nearby on a stool sipping Cadbury hot cocoa. She wears matching Union Jack tights and, from her tolerant expression, it’s obvious that she has heard Liebig’s explanations before.
“He really is an expert,” she says approvingly, “an expert in the field of candy.”
For Liebig, the London Candy Co., on Lexington Avenue at the corner of East 94th Street, is more than a sweet shop—it’s a treasure chest, an archive and an art gallery all rolled into one. Liebig is a die-hard candy packaging collector whose sprawling personal trove includes some 10,000 wrappers and boxes spanning from decades past to last Halloween’s special promos, stored entirely in his one-bedroom Astoria apartment. By his estimation, he has the largest, and possibly only, such hoard in New York City.
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All of us remember the childhood thrill of crinkling open candy: silky Snickers, Milky Ways and Take 5’s; tart Sour Patch Kids and Atomic Warheads; and singular creations like the Nerds Rope, a string of red liquorice encrusted with pebbly Willy Wonka confections like some sucrose scepter. Most of us eventually outgrow our candy fixations. But for a handful of adults like Liebig, the excitement of these universal childhood experiences never wanes.
An inveterate collector, Liebig chased action figures, comic books and collectible cards before turning to candy. So the apartment he and Monte share with an overprotective chihuahua named Tish and a placid cat named Lola is a shrine for knickknacks.
The red-walled living room contains an upright spinner rack, the kind you’d see in a corner drugstore, overflowing with comic books. A two-by-two-foot Magic Window, which displays an abstract landscape of Microdium crystals that cascades when moved, is mounted on one wall so that it spins (Liebig has others, but this is the jewel of the collection). And original paintings and drawings by Dan Goodsell, an artist whose book “Krazy Kids’ Food” helped inspire Liebig to collect food packaging, hang next to a charming painting of an owl by Monte. One wall holds a Brach’s salesman’s candy display from the 1970s or ’80s, with original confections intact.
Monte is not put out by the clutter. She once had a book collection so expansive that it ultimately displaced the clothing in her dresser. She has since relegated her reading material to an iPad and Kindle, saving only a few choice volumes.
By his own admission, Liebig has spent thousands of dollars on candy wrappers since he began focusing on collecting them in 2007, though he prefers not to disclose the actual amount. He supports his hobby by bartending during the summer at the Bryant Park Grill, but in the ’90s he had a job that was the envy of nerds everywhere: he was an editor at Marvel Comics overseeing the X-Men franchise, following a brief stint with DC Comics.
“That was a dream job,” Liebig says wistfully. His five-year ascension in the Marvel firmament, however, took place during a tumultuous period for the company marked by two bankruptcies and seven or eight presidents.
“My editor-in-chief got pushed out, and I kept speaking my mind,” Liebig says. “I was used to speaking my mind for five years, and I was taking it incredibly personally.”
Liebig’s arguments with management grew progressively worse, until he was laid off in November 2000.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to be a kiss-ass,’ and that was the biggest career mistake of my life,” he says.
Liebig has since pursued several elusive careers. He went to L.A. searching for work, but ultimately returned to New York where he studied method acting.
He nearly became host of the Spike TV show “Geek Ray Vision,” and starred in a gory horror flick called “Torture Me No More,” among other films. But his acting career has yet to take off, so he continues tending bar and tending to his sprawling collection of candy, which, for the record, often gets freed from its wrapper and tossed in the trash. “I try to avoid collecting the physical candy because that’s a recipe for disaster,” he says. Both he and Monte are slender enough to verify this claim.
Some quasi-Precambrian candy survives, however. Liebig has a “box of death” with sealed treats dating back to 1980 or ’81 on a shelf in his living room. He and Monte say the oldest pieces they have consumed were cherry Chiclets from the ’70s that held up “disturbingly well.”
Liebig mostly keeps flattened wrappers or boxes, which he stores in larger plastic and cardboard boxes he crams into a closet.
“I don’t want anything I can’t flatten; no tins, nothing cylindrical, no glass,” Liebig says.
But opening the candy packaging in such a way that it’s worth saving takes creativity and patience.
“I figured out certain ways to open candy bar wrappers without ripping it,” Liebig says. “And one of those ways is running it under hot water. And I’ve never questioned my sanity, but when I’m at the sink running hot water over a Snickers wrapper and my hands are burning, I kind of think, ‘What am I doing? There have to be more productive ways to spend this time.’”
To be sure, Liebig’s archive is vast, but it is reined in by the reality of life in New York.
“I have a closet,” he says, noting that he tries to limit his collection to that single space. “I like to be able to put it all to the side and close the door and have a candy-free life.”
Luckily, Monte recently completed her Master’s degree in archival preservation and library science from Queens College so she’s handy when it comes to cataloguing the items, which Liebig “very intricately” organizes, she says. “I don’t know how much space we’d need if it wasn’t so organized,” Monte adds.
Nevertheless, the collection sometimes pops up in unusual places—like the couple’s produce crispers.
This year, when they forgot to buy Halloween candy, “I said ‘Quick, go to the fridge,’” Liebig recalls with a grin.
“It’s terrible,” he admits, rolling his eyes.
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Liebig’s passion for candy packaging “started rather innocently,” during a movie shoot in Boston in 2005. He had some downtime and wandered into a bookstore where he found a copy of “Krazy Kids’ Food” by Goodsell—whose paintings are in Liebig and Monte’s apartment—and Steve Roden. Liebig checked out Goodsell’s web site, and was intrigued, initially drawn to a wider array of nostalgic kids’ foods. Liebig’s first food packaging acquisition was a vintage Super Sugar Crisp cereal box on eBay, and he soon began searching for a vintage Hot Tamales box and the original packaging of the Marathon bar, a braided chocolate and caramel candy from the ’70s. A childhood favorite of Liebig’s, he now has an original Marathon wrapper hanging on his wall, framed like a pop-art masterpiece.
Some collectors only seek pieces that convey personal nostalgia, but Liebig goes deeper. He sees himself as an archeologist recovering evanescent artifacts.
“Candy is part of our shared pop culture that is really not documented anymore,” he says. “The amount of candy out there, it’s like the fossil record. So for every candy bar, every M&Ms, every Bit-’O-Honey, there are hundreds that I don’t have.”
Liebig started a blog, Collecting Candy, last February, and has posted almost daily. Every wrapper he accumulates is also posted on his Flickr account. The pursuit is practically endless, and finding rare pieces and establishing their provenance is both difficult and serendipitous.
“It’s a lot like primary research,” Liebig explains. “There is no central archive, Wikipedia is a wasteland of bad information.”
Liebig says he was inspired by DC Comics’ extensive library, which even contained Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman.
“It was like walking into Yankee Stadium,” he says, “They had everything they’d ever published.”
He doubts that such a comprehensive account of candy is possible, but, still, Liebig wants to illuminate as much of it as he can. He contacts retired and current employees of companies, scours eBay for individual pieces and, with luck, entire collections, and refers to his bound copies of National Candy Wholesaler, other confectioners’ trade magazines and reference works on candy like Steve Almond’s “Candyfreak” to try to unearth more lost history.
The Candy Wholesaler magazines, which have been out of print since the late ’80s, are collectors’ items themselves. “The only other place to find these things is at the Library of Congress,” Liebig says proudly.
The key is persistence. Liebig acquired an enormous collection after spying an insignificant photo credit in “The Chocolate Chronicles” by Ray Broekel. He was able to locate the man who had shot the photograph and persuade him to sell his collection.
The search is harder because of the intended impermanence of Liebig’s quarry. He is collecting garbage, after all.
“Because it’s disposable, it’s lost,” he says. “I’m definitely the trash collector.”
“Rookie packs,” or a candy’s first packaged incarnation, are especially prized. Confirming that a given package was a first is difficult and rarely exact. For instance, Liebig thought he had found the earliest package for Razzles gum only to discover one that predated it.
But ever the optimist, he sees this challenge as a positive thing. Every newly discovered wrapper is a potential Honus Wagner. “Eighty percent of my collection, the pieces are unique,” he says. “That’s sort of the rule rather than the exception.”
And every piece has a story. Liebig has a box of Strawberry Duds, for instance, one of a short-lived line of fruity Milk Duds released in the ’70s.
“It was found by a guy who was redoing his bathroom and he found it inside a wall, with the original wax wrapper,” Liebig says. “These things were in every mom and pop store in the country, millions and millions of them, and good luck trying to find them.”
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Liebig hopes his efforts at documenting candy, both online and off, will prove useful by making it more accessible.
But he paradoxically appreciates that his hobby attracts a narrow, devoted following. There are only a handful of candy package collectors in America, though Liebig says there are more in Britain, where candy culture is more deeply ingrained.
“I can count on two hands the people who actively collect candy,” he says. “It’s such a fringe hobby, and it’s so esoteric. There are no set rules.”
There are no conventions, so candy packaging enthusiasts find one another by stumbling upon blogs, websites or watching who’s bidding against them on eBay.
“It’s like being the fan of an underground band,” he says of the tight-knit community of collectors. “You can see them in a club with twelve people, and I selfishly want to keep it small, keep it from getting big.”
Liebig is uncomfortable discussing the cost of his collection for precisely this reason. He would like to keep candy packaging from becoming another unusual investment for the wealthy, like stamps, say, or baseball memorabilia. Ideally, collections like his would remain rare and relatively affordable.
“There is no valuation,” and hence no regular pricing, he says. Collectors pay at the whim of sellers, who usually are not trying to turn a big profit.
So Liebig walks a tight rope between promoting his collection and protecting his hobby.
“I won’t bring it up on my website, I’ll never talk about value or cost because once people get obsessed and start looking at that side of things they lose an appreciation of the thing without that,” he says. “I want to share it and document it. I am the end consumer.”
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Liebig’s first blog post, a thorough history of Big League Chew, the tobacco-themed bubblegum in a pouch, went viral and got 20,000 hits in two days.
Other writings explain how packages have evolved over the years, the intricacies of shifting ownership behind key brands, and actor Paul Rudd’s appreciation for vintage candy, as seen on “The Daily Show.”
For me, though, it was even more fun watching Liebig dig through boxes to reveal memorable artifacts. There was chocolate based on Michael Jackson, a “Goonies” candy bar, a box that once contained sweets based on Dungeons & Dragons and even a promotional biscuit wrapper for “E.T.”
The thrill of discovery goes beyond the wrappers. We ended an evening at Liebig’s apartment by sampling bizarre Japanese Kit Kats. Flavors included melon, green tea and pumpkin pudding, for Halloween. Liebig said he planned on ordering more of the pancakes and maple syrup flavor, which we all enjoyed (though the ensuing sugar rush and roiling stomach were not so great). Lately, I catch myself examining candy wrappers whenever I go to the deli.
Liebig does have an endgame in mind. He hopes to publish a book or series of books on candy collecting, host a TV show about candy enthusiasts, or perhaps hold a gallery show focused on candy design.
But since Liebig does not hold the rights to the images he posts his labors generally go unrewarded.
In one incident, a set decorator asked to use a vintage Milk Duds box for a short starring Jason Schwartzman tied to the film “Moonrise Kingdom.” Liebig claims that he offered to provide a free reproduction of the box if he was credited and permitted to photograph the set. The set decorator liked the idea, pending director Wes Anderson’s approval, so Liebig emailed the image. A day later, however, he was informed a set visit would be impossible and that he would not be credited for the photograph; the price he quoted the crew to use the image was refused, he says.
Interestingly enough, Anderson’s short film contains a candy box that looks remarkably like Liebig’s scanned version, but his emails seeking an explanation from the crew were never returned. Liebig’s contact at the studio, who asked to have her name withheld, told me they used an image from Wikipedia. Liebig objects, citing a variety of specific differences between the box in the short and the only vintage photo on the Milk Duds Wikipedia page. I’m no expert, but the scan Liebig showed me looked a lot more like the box in the video than the one on Wikipedia.
Still, he says, “I’m not here to expose the seedy underbelly of candy.” Liebig is just a man with a quirky passion.
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Our chat at the London Candy Co. is winding down. Liebig approaches the counter with some new acquisitions: a StarBar, a Kit Kat with a GPS-based contest on the label, a Lion Peanut bar and a small, British pack of M&Ms. He pays and bags the treats, then starts talking about a collection he purchased earlier this year that nearly doubled his own. The collection came from an older man who had been saving candy wrappers for decades and, like Liebig, wanted to share them with the world but never found an outlet.
“You really felt like you were taking on the curation of something extraordinary,” Liebig says. “If I hadn’t gotten it, it might’ve been thrown out when he died.”
Liebig hopes to meet the man, who lives in California, when he and Monte go on a cross-country trip in February.
“For him it was great because I was finally doing what he had wanted to do with it,” Liebig says with a grin. “It sounds silly, but for me it was so joyous.”
“This is still a strange person’s hobby,” he adds. “Let it be weird. I’m like what a comic book collector was in 1969—it’s a weird guy who wanted to save things.”
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Daniel E. Slotnik is a contributing editor for Narratively. He has worked at The New York Times since 2005, has written for several Times sections and blogs and is a frequent contributor to the obituaries department. Follow him on Twitter @dslotnik.
Brad Horrigan, a contributing editor for Narratively, is a photojournalist and multimedia storyteller based in Queens.