Don Rowe speaks to Steve Williams, a Palmerston North man who has curated the most incredible collection of packaging materials in New Zealand – and possibly the world.
There once was a time when sliced cheese came in a Ninja Turtle box. A time when chewing gum was sold with stickers, and Georgie Pie pies were endorsed by Batman. To Steve Williams, a postman from Palmerston North, it was a golden age.
Williams owns what is almost certainly the most extensive collection of packaging materials in New Zealand. A veritable history of the art form, the more than 5000 individual pieces stretch back through time and space to our distant and murky past as a South Pacific backwater feasting on the crumbs of international culture.
His collection also serves as a history of pop culture itself. Just as that blonde girl from Frozen currently stares unblinking at the world from a million lunchboxes, pencil cases, school bags and anything else kids want, so too did Spock and Spiderman and that ugly dude from the Goonies look out at the youth of their own eras. Transformers on Tip Tops, bears on biscuits, even what looks like the Goodnight Kiwi onboard a Team New Zealand yacht flying a BNZ flag – the history of our consumerism is rich indeed.
“I’ve always been a collector, even when I was growing up in the 80s,” says Williams. “I collected stamps for a while, then I went on to beer cans and soft drink cans. But my main hobby has always been collecting trading cards and stickers from New Zealand. I sort of gave up in the late 80s, then in the early 90s I got back into card collecting again and joined the Cartophilic Society [cardcollectors.org.nz]
“I started collecting the packets of things that had a promotion like ‘collect all 12’ or whatever, so that’s how I first started collecting packets as such. But it wasn’t until maybe ten years ago that I decided to really go hard out, full guns, and get everything I could get my hands on that I found interesting.”
Garage sales, TradeMe, university libraries – Williams says it’s all a matter of looking. But the hunter must fall in love with the hunt itself, because people tend to throw shit out, and packaging cartophiles are a threatened breed. To make things more difficult, Williams is something of a connoisseur, selecting for more than pure aesthetics alone.
“A lot of people collect the 40s, 50s and 60s, older style stuff, but I’m more into the contemporary,” he says. “I cut off at about 1970 – there’s just more pop and fizzle to me. I like the bright packaging and it’s just more interesting to me, especially all the licensed stuff like Superman and Star Wars and all that kind of stuff from when I was a kid.
“In New Zealand if you have a holy grail you’re after, you just may never get it,” says Williams. “Even in America, I know people over there who are still trying to find packets from the 80s, and there’s 100 times the population. So you imagine what it’s like over here.”
But Williams is a master hunter. From time to time, through persistence, studious intensity, or just plain luck, he hits the jackpot.
“I’ve found a few things in the last couple of years which were quite amazing, and they were things I thought I’d never, ever find. For example I’ve always wanted the GI Joe ice cream wrappers, and I had none until a couple of years ago, but within two years three lots have popped up on TradeMe. So things are out there, it’s just a matter of if you’re looking. Unfortunately a lot of stuff does get thrown in the rubbish.”
For the most part, Williams limits his restoration and preservation to storing items away from light or dust damage. There was a time when he had three cabinets on full display, but the birth of his son James meant the collection was moved into storage. One day he’d like a “lounge-sized” room, with space for the entire collection, but for now he focuses on holy grail items.
“Normally I’ve got so much stuff that I can’t put everything in protective packaging, but for something really good I will. For top end stuff I spend quite a lot of money on acid free plastic wrapping to keep it in the same condition for the next 20 years.”
“It can be expensive but my wife has got used to it. Even now when she goes shopping she’ll go ‘Aw, have you got this packet? Did you see that one?’ It took her a while, and she still doesn’t get my enthusiasm when I pick up something really amazing, or spend $100 on something, she doesn’t really like that. But she’s got used to it.”
“My generation is getting more nostalgic. If you go on Facebook there are quite a few ‘Growing up in New Zealand’ ‘Remember this?’ sort of pages. Ten years ago people kind of laughed at me, and now they say ‘wow actually this is pretty cool!’
“I’ve got 110 odd followers [on Flickr], and you’ve gotta keep the content going eh. It gets kind of hard sometimes, like ‘what do I do now?’ so I go up to Massey [university] and scan through literally 20, 30, 40 magazines at a time trying to find decent ads or something cool I’d forgotten about.”
Even businesses are getting in on the boil-up. Bluebird has introduced a range of retro themed chip packets: “They’re supposed to be based on the packets from 1985, but they’ve kind of got the date wrong there,” opines Williams. And rival company Eta has also entered the market, rolling out old-school Monster Munch, 1990s Munchos and even the 1970s Cheeseballs packets too. McDonald’s even lifted some of Williams’ own photographs.
“McDonald’s started putting together a Georgie Pie Facebook page, and most of the photos were my photos. That happens quite a bit. I’ve noticed a lot of companies for promotions or whatever will grab a lot of my photos. But it’s really cool, I don’t mind at all. Even when people share photos on Facebook, slideshows of 30 photos, and maybe 10 of them will be mine. But it’s cool, it’s quite funny really. It’s great that people get a buzz of it.”
And that’s because more than a collector, curator or hoarder, Williams is a fan of the medium. He would like to see more retro packaging, not less – albeit with a caveat.
“I just think some of the companies could do a bit more. Some of the designs of packaging these days are quite poor, to be honest, compared to what they were 20 or 30 years ago. Real cheap designs, nothing that really stands out. I don’t even bother collecting much of it because it’s just not very exciting. I think they should do more retro stuff – we’re quite behind on that. America has been doing it for a long time, and when you look at some of the American stuff from the 70s or 80s, it’ll stand up today in a shop. It looks that modern and well done. If you look at New Zealand stuff it always looks a bit dated.
“I just think we could do more.”
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