Today we have an interview with the curator of The Candy Wrapper Museum and author of Classic Candy: America's Favorite Sweets, 1950-80, Darlene Lacey.
I’m the curator of The Candy Wrapper Museum, where candy wrappers are to be enjoyed as art, nostalgia, and humor. It’s an unusual museum, not only because of its theme, but also because it is only online; this way, I can share it with the world with none of the complications and overhead associated with running a museum. It’s located at www.candywrappermuseum.com.
The museum is comprised solely of my personal collection, which I began in the 1970. It includes thousands of wrappers spanning the decades and dating back to the 1920s. Therefore, it is a “real museum” in the sense that everything in it physically exists, but I keep it safely stored at my house in the Los Angeles area.
How much does it cost to visit the Candy Wrapper Museum and what are your hours of operation?
It is free and “open to the public” round the clock. Right from the start, I never intended to make money from the museum, so it is simply there for guests to enjoy.
Why the Candy Wrapper Museum? What motivated you to start it?
When I was a teenager, I was impressed by some older friends’ collections of beer bottles from around the world. I thought the idea of collecting and displaying them for their artistic qualities was quite interesting. I wanted to do something like this, but I was too young (and too broke!) to collect beer bottles, so I decided to start keeping something I bought all the time, candy wrappers. However, I didn’t want to just create a catalog of everything out there; I wanted to only collect wrappers that I thought had some interest or merit. Therefore, I came up with the concept to collect with an eye toward artistic merit, humor (as in “What were they thinking!”), and nostalgia. I aimed to collect not only the “icons” of the industry, but also the oddball candies that quickly came and left the shelves.
Were there any particular challenges you faced starting a museum? Are there state or municipal regulations you had to adhere to?
Absolutely none. I was one of the earlier people to see the advantages of presenting something that is normally a physical experience into a virtual one. I launched the museum online in 2003. With the advent of sites like Pinterest and Flickr, sharing one’s collection may seem ordinary now, but not back then. It still is unusual to present a collection on a dedicated website rather than a blog.
How do most visitors find out about the Candy Wrapper Museum?
A lot of people share links from it. They get a kick out of the unusual concept, or they find a hard-to-find wrapper from their youth via an online search, and sometimes they will post their findings on a chat board, etc. The CWM was also featured on The Food Network’s Unwrapped, it was About.com’s Funny Site of the Week, and I have been interviewed for various major news sites over the years. Part of my collection was even featured in an art exhibit in Los Angeles that centered around the theme of food.
Are you still adding to the museum and if so do you yourself consume the candy that used to be in the wrapper?
I’m always adding to the museum. Candy wrappers are great to collect because you can just buy a piece of candy for relatively little expense and save the wrapper. Holidays are especially good for new finds. I usually at least sample the candy so that I can know what it was like, but I often don’t eat the whole thing. Even I have my limits, ha ha!
Before moving on to your book, "Classic Candy," do candy companies ever send your wrappers or memorability for the museum?
Not very often. I can count the times I’ve received any complimentary candy or anything else on one hand. However, I have had people who have enjoyed the museum send me donations of wrappers they’ve saved. There are some really nice people out there.
Your book, "Classic Candy," is published by Shire Publications. Did you approach them or did they approach you with the idea for this small guide about candy in America?
They came to me with the idea to write a book on American candy. We worked together to decide upon its focus, and then I set to writing. They have been a wonderful publisher to work with. Very supportive.
Where can our readers find your book?
Mostly online at the usual places: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Shire’s site, and other online booksellers. The Smithsonian Museum has decided to sell my book in their gift shop, so I’m excited about that!
I’m also on Goodreads, Pinterest, and Twitter. Look for Darlene Lacey and/or The Candy Wrapper Museum.
In your book you discuss several topics about candy in America but what was your favorite topic to research and write about?
My favorite topic in general is candy with celebrity endorsements or tie-ins. That topic alone spreads so far and wide and is full of surprises. The celebrities run the gamut from Reggie Jackson to Neil Sedaka to The Smurfs. It’s just a great topic.
Was there a topic you wanted to write about that you left out?
No, I covered all the bases that I considered vital, but I would love to still write books about other time periods, other countries, and/or delve into any of the topics in the book in greater detail.
You write a bit about the changes in advertising and marketing candy over several decades in your book, calling the "golden age" the 1950s-1980s. What are a few of the big differences you can see between those four decades and 2013, today?
The primary difference between that period and today is the variety of candy and the number of companies making candy. Starting in the early 1900s, cities across America often had several candy companies working hard to compete and catch the public’s eye with a catchy candy bar name or a new twist on the candy itself. The candy bars sometimes had far-flung themes like the Denver Sandwich, which was meant to be as satisfying and nutritious as any lunch, and then we saw new inventions like Pop Rocks, which took the country by storm but still faced problems when an urban legend spread that kids’ stomachs were exploding from eating them. Rumor even had it that adorable little Mikey from the Life cereal TV commercials (“Mikey likes it!”) had died from this ghastly fate. Of course, this was untrue.
Of course here we focus on chocolate so we have to ask some chocolate related questions. What is your favorite chocolate candy over the years?
As you might imagine, this is difficult to answer! When I was a kid, I particularly loved the old Hollywood candy bars like the Milkshake, which was their version of the Milky Way. I also really miss the big braided chocolate and caramel Marathon bar. As an adult, I find my biggest weakness is See’s candy. Any of their candy, really, but especially their chocolate and cocoanut candies, or bonbons like their Maple Walnut with brown maple sugar and walnuts covered with dark chocolate.
Would you say that your tastes in chocolate candy have changed as you've gotten more mature?
I still enjoy it all, but I have developed more of an appreciation for the more refined chocolate from Europe from companies like Droste and Milka. Usually the European candy is better if it is not a special version made for Americans; what you want are the bars that are made for the Europeans and imported here. You can tell by the labeling on the wrappers.
In general how much has chocolate candy today (2013) changed from chocolate candy of the "golden age"?
The quality of chocolate has taken a nosedive in America over the years. Many of the candy bars have substituted higher quality chocolate with less expensive fillers. Due to this, the chocolate in my many bars has a chalky quality and tastes more sugary than like chocolate.
You also discuss regional candies in your book. What allows a regional treat to become nationally known?
It can vary, but word-of-mouth has had a lot to do with it. Some regional candies develop a cult reputation that spreads. This can lead to a larger company acquiring the smaller company and then the candy can get national distribution. With the exception of candy from the “Big Three” (Mars, Hershey, Nestle), most candy bars began as regional favorites.
Do you think the variety of candy is going to increase or decrease over the next decade?
If the current trends continue, it will decrease. If you look at the candy on the shelves, you’ll see many variations on the same candy such as Reese’s or Snickers, but these are just variations on the same thing… they’re lighter, darker, larger, smaller, nuttier, etc. You don’t see many unique candy bars being introduced anymore.
Finally if you could be very bold for a final question, what do you think is going to happen to candy in the next decade or so?
It’s easy to predict continued dominance by the Big Three since they have acquired most of the smaller competitors, but I hope that a secondary market with new regional companies will start to grow in the same way that we’ve seen the craft beer industry take off. In my opinion, the more variety the better!
Thank you so much, Darlene, for your time.
Thank you for inviting me here, TammyJo! It’s been my pleasure.
Sisters and Brothers go check out the online museum and come back on Saturday to read our review of the book Classic Candy: America's Favorite Sweets, 1950-80.