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Wrapped Up in Packaging

Robert Opie collects tomorrow's archaeological finds - cereal boxes, Bovril jars, spray cans ... MUSEUM

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 1989


YOU could say that Robert Opie is fascinated by that burgeoning 20th-century phenomenon of packaging. But this would be a vast understatement. Mr. Opie has amassed about a quarter of a million items - packages, cartons, cans, bottles, jars, labels, advertisements, promotional leaflets, objects used for shop-window display, leaflets - spanning ``the whole gamut'' of our ``Pack Age,'' as he calls it.

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Five years ago he put seven or eight thousand items from his collection on display in an enormous Victorian warehouse, one of 17 in Gloucester's inland port undergoing redevelopment. Open to the public, the Opie Collection is now called the Museum of Advertising and Packaging. It's certainly the first of its kind in Britain, and is on the verge of further ambitious expansion inside the warehouse.

Its contents elicit vociferous enthusiasm from bands of school children who have instant rapport with Cadbury's Dairy Milk Chocolate and Fry's Turkish Delight. But they could not possibly remember Edward's Desiccated Soup (Brown) from the 1900s or Poulton and Noel's Belgravian Boiled Ox Tongues or Active Service wartime soap (in envelopes complete with writing paper for sweethearts to send to soldiers at the front), or Crosse and Blackwell's Mushroom Ketchup from the 1940s. These items give just as much delight to nostalgic adults who do recall - or think Granny used to use - such products.

Opie says he is ``interested in the story of the product,'' not just its packaging and advertising. But the packaging is the ``manifestation'' of the product. He points out that when looking at a box of Bob Dates, or an earthenware jar of Golden Shred Marmalade, ``it doesn't make much difference to you whether it is full or empty.'' The package is associated with its contents. He is a kind of archaeologist amassing remnants - often the packaging is the only thing that remains of a product. Yet a surprising number of old items in his collection still have contents because totally empty containers are usually thrown out.

``The little bit of polish left in the bottom of the tin of polish - you're going to use it, so you put it at the back of the cupboard,'' he explains.

Some items have eluded his search for years. He tells how he eventually found a prewar Brylcream jar with a label. He once mentioned on TV that he was still looking for one. For two hours afterward the phone never stopped ringing. He added all the offers to his collection, but without exception they turned out to be postwar jars. Some time later, ``in a chemist shop in Evesham,'' he says, ``the owner found a prewar Brylcream that had been stuck behind one of his cabinets since the '30s!''

Certain items are extremely hard to find: early frozen food packages, for example, and early aerosols, both from the 1950s, ``because nobody in his right mind kept these,'' he says with a laugh. ``And cereal packets [boxes] - though some people do hold onto them to keep buttons in.''

Opie saves items from the shelves of today as well as yesterday. ``For the first six years I only collected things that were on the shelves,'' he says. He never even considered old items. He would ``swipe things from the school dining table,'' or ask his mother not to throw them out.