Wrapped Up in Packaging

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

He is interested in things the rest of us take for granted. ``Joe Public does not appreciate the enormous amount of effort that goes into producing. If you go round a supermarket, the amount of energy that has gone into producing two or three or ten or twenty thousand products on those shelves - it's a mammoth organization, it's extraordinary.''

On the question of whether packaging is deliberately misleading, he tends to defend rather than criticize. ``Packaging ... puts the manufacturer in direct contact with his final consumer or purchaser,'' he notes. Even as recently as the 1920s and '30s people were ``buying things out of sacks, still buying them loose. In 1939, 75 percent of all biscuits [cookies] were still being sold loose.''

Opie emphasizes that the history of packaging is scarcely a century old. What packaging means for the consumer is a measure of guarantee. The manufacturer ``can say `Here's my name, here's my guarantee. ...''' You can be sure his product ``will be the same quality as the first time you bought it - the same purity - and that's why you get these emotional words'' on packages, he says.

When asked about Rowntree Cocoa's description of its product as ``grateful and comforting,'' he says he could easily accept such epithets at the end of a hard day.

Packaging, he argues, put an end to the adulteration of products in millions of shops throughout Britain. He also says packaging is fun, and points out the excruciating dullness of packaging in countries where there is little competition.

Supermarkets, where products compete for the attention of fast-paced shoppers, have caused packages to become sharper and more colorful. ``It's brighter. It has to leap off the shelf,'' he says.

The Museum's display cases trace the development of many of the longer-lasting products. Opie calls this social history because it shows how people live. And it shows how manufacturers continually perform balancing acts - juggling appearance, cost, size, shape, color, and chunkiness. They keep the recognizable shape of a jar or box and its familiar graphics, while subtly bringing it up to date. Or sometimes they produce a design that's deliberately out of date to catch the eye. Nostalgic, old-fashioned packaging is a fairly recent phenomenon, sometimes used for products with a market that is slowing down.

Opie maintains that ``products and their packaging become part of your persona. And people can be terribly upset by changes.'' Packaging contributes directly to the experience of a product, he says. A toffee manufacturer told him that, a number of years ago, a small alteration in the packaging brought a rush of complaints that the toffee had worsened in quality. Yet the toffee hadn't changed at all.

Opie believes everyone relates to his collection because no one is unaffected by packaging. He also comments on packaging that has a ``negative'' effect on consumers, for example, those that are tricky to open.

He points to a Bovril jar with straight sides used during a jar shortage in the 1970s. Labeled ``temporary jar,'' it was entirely different from the bulbous jar the beef-extract product has been sold in for many decades. The straight sides made it easier to spoon out the product, but Bovril buyers undoubtedly liked the familiar jar better. ``People prefer the excruciating problem of trying to get the last bit out - it's part of the whole game, I'm sure,'' he says.

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