When it comes to collecting and nostalgia, there is almost nothing that’s off the table. We all have our own personal reasons for curating the collections we cherish, and because obsession is a weird and twisted beast, it can lead us into places we never imagined we’d go. When I first started my own nostalgic journey back in the winter of 2000 I had no intention of sinking any money whatsoever into the new hobby. It just so happened that I entered that ripe age of 23 (around the time when a lot of folks from my generation seemed to get bitten by the bug) at a time when the internet was going through it’s initial boom, and enough time had passed that there were already a couple hundred personal websites uploading all sorts of content ranging from downloadable midi and mp3 files of television and cartoon theme songs, pictures of toys, popular clothing, and food packaging, and scans of comic book and book covers out the wazoo. I had a goal that year to do two things, curate a digital collection with pictures over every toy, book, comic book, and special food item that sparked that feeling of nostalgia in me, and to create a list of every single cartoon, television show and movie I’d ever watched so that I’d never forget my past again.
Over the course of a year and a half I managed to create this personal digital archive and I felt pretty good about capturing a weird snapshot of the stuff I loved growing up. But then the DVD boom got into full effect and all of a sudden affordable sets of TV show and cartoon series became available and I started to rethink what a digital collection looked like. This might not seem like a big deal now when most seasons of a television series are readily available at our finger tips in both streaming and physical media format, but back in the early 2000s television on DVD was rare and expensive. Hell, even before, with the 20+ year boom of VHS television on home video was sporadic and extremely expensive. At best you might find tapes or DVDs with three or four cherry picked episodes of a series selling for $20-$30. If the series was popular enough there were were entire seasons available, but usually in the $90-$120 range. Per season. At one point in the early aughts the X-Files was being released in full season sets that were $120 retail, and maybe, MAYBE, $100 on sites like Amazon. Think about that. In order to pick up the first 10 seasons you’d have to plunk down a thousand dollars for the DVDs. Back in the VHS heyday of the 90s, if a series was popular enough to get the full season treatment, like say Highlander the series, the seasons were broken up into 10-11 2-episode tape sets that you could either buy individually for $15 or the whole series in a nice collector’s box for $140. To put this into perspective, I was working at a grocery store back in the late 90s, 1995-99, making minimum wage ($4.25/hr) + a $0.35 night shift premium, so $4.60 an hour. My take home pay after taxes was about $138. I was living in an apartment with two roommates, and with all the shared bills split, I would still of had to save every single available penny for over a year to have enough to afford the entire run of Highlander on VHS. And trust me, I very seriously considered it at the time. Now, you can pick up a season of the series on blu-ray for $25 or $15 digital. Hell, you can stream it free with Amazon prime.
Swinging this back to the point, is that when TV on DVD became way more prevalent and cheap, it altered my idea of what I “needed” in a nostalgic collection. All of a sudden the focus shifted a bit and I felt the urge to try and pick up at least one episode or season of every cartoon and live action television show I loved as a kid. I’d already started tracking down ever movie on DVD that I loved from the 80s, but now this started to feel like a true collection, and it actually required money. By the time I started this site, things began to shift in my mind again as I started getting the urge to pick up things specifically to talk about on the podcast and blog. At that point the flood gates burst and all of a sudden I was becoming a regular bidder on eBay as well as starting to scour all of the antique and vintage toy and comic shops in the area looking to replace things from my childhood as well as picking up stuff I never had that I thought would be fun to write about. That was around 2007 or 2008. For the last 12 years, not a lot has changed in terms of my collecting except that I’ve been noticing that year after year my focus sharpens to more specific things. Instead of picking up a broad range of nostalgic movie stuff, I pretty much try and stick to Monster Squad related items. Instead of picking up a bunch of 80s era toys, I try and focus on just picking up things that I had as a kid, and only one or two pieces (the absolute favorites) per toy line.
Along the way there were things on the periphery, items that I loved seeing and things that I wish I had (mainly for imagery for this site), but never in a million years did I think I would seek out or really want to own. This category is where we get into the kind of things that just should not exist anymore, mainly stuff like food packaging. It’s not impossible to find this stuff, but it’s highly unlikely. For instance, visit any antique store in the country and the chances that you’ll find a 30 year old sealed glass bottle of coke is actually pretty high. There were so many commemorative bottle made over the years, and the brand is so pervasive in our culture that there is a healthy market for Coke collectors. And it’s also fairly common to find things like cereal boxes that have been emptied and flattened, though usually only brands that feature sports stars on the boxes. So boxes of Frosted Mini Wheats with NASCAR drivers or Wheaties with Basketball stars are not unheard of. But the likelihood of finding a box of Gremlins or Nintendo cereal floating around is pretty much nil. Every once in a while you’ll spot something like old coffee cans or super old personal care items, stuff that was either kept because it was used to store things (coffee cans) or things that have surpassed that 75-year mark and feel like they came from another century (bars of soap from the 30s and 40s, detergent from the 20s, or maybe even old candy wrappers from the 30s and 40s.) But stuff like this from the 80s? Nonexistent. There are no sellers with old boxes of Runts, packages of Bonkers candy, empty Hungry Man dinner boxes or labels from cans of Chef Boyardee. This stuff is trash, and it’s recently enough that nobody thought to preserve it.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not out there, it’s just that it’s not typically readily available in all of the places where people tend to buy stuff like this. This is the kind of stuff that marks a line of delineation between common and serious collectors, because once you cross over things get nuts. There are a handful of serious food packaging collectors out there with amazing collections. Folks like Jason Liebig of Collecting Candy, Dan Goodsell of Mr. Toast fame, or Matt over at Dinosaur Dracula. Chances are, if you’ve seen a nice scan or picture of an extinct food product, it was sourced from one of the three. But for the most part, this stuff resides in tiny collections with folks who don’t share them publically. To find stuff like this you have to take consider completely different tactics and think a little more outside of the box. Instead of antique and thrift stores, you have to start scouring estate sales, which is a fairly morbid practice of bidding on or buying stuff from the estates of folks who have passed away. Some of these folks, especially those who lived very long lives, have stuff in their cupboards and fridges that is decades old, like a can of Chef Boyardee X-Men pasta that was purchased for a grandchild’s lunch but was never eaten. Similarly there is a slight epidemic of hoarders across the country that have stockpiles of literal trash in their houses, apartments, and storage facility rentals. From time to time this stuff will be sold or auctioned off in an effort to help the person involved and the likelihood of finding some old food packing is pretty high. You might have to dig through piles of grunge to find something good, but it’s an option. There are also companies that have flat files of samples and proofs on hand and those are tossed or sold from time to time. Or folks who worked on the design of these products might have samples, proofs, or mock-ups in their personal files. Of course, figuring out who these folks are is difficult to say the least, but not impossible.
Over the past year I’ve found myself orbiting around this niche of pop culture collecting more closely than I ever thought I would be, and in a few cases I’ve actually picked up some items that I never thought I’d have in my collection. I recently mentioned some of this stuff in a piece I wrote about weird Star Wars stuff I’ve found myself gravitating towards, stuff like bars of soap, toothbrushes, empty boxes of cookies, and figural erasers. During the hunt for these things I stumbled on a handful of items that I could not pass up on. If I already had a couple boxes of old Star Wars cookies, why not pick up some other childhood favorites if they were cheap enough and available? As of right now, I’m restricting myself to only picking up the rare odds and ends that I find on eBay, but that venue has been surprisingly fruitful over the last six months. Take this box of Nabisco DC Comics Super Hero cookies from 1984…
In the early 80s, if I wasn’t munching on Peperidge Farm Star Wars cookies, it was probably because I was stuffing my face with the DC Comics cookies. These came in a number of different boxes, most that looked like this package, but featured a different character on the front, and the rest of the characters decorated the sides and back of the box. So there were boxes for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam, Robin, Batgirl, The Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin. This Supergirl box was a special run towards the end of the life of this cookies that was a tie-in to the 1984 Supergirl movie. If memory serves, these were very similar to the classic Nabisco Animal Crackers in flavor and texture, but they were in molds shaped like the heroes and villains. I believe they were introduced around 1982 and were phased out around 1985, though maybe as late as 1986. When I saw this pop up on eBay for $5, I had to have it. I spent a good chunk of my life collecting comics and highly identifying with super hero stories, and I know that these cookies were a big part of what led me down that path. Between these, the Incredible Hulk TV series and movies, the Superman movies, and the Marvel Ideals books, I was primed to love comics at an early age.
Is there a food product like this that speaks to your nostalgia?