Is New York’s increasingly renowned vintage candy wrapper collector, Jason Liebig, collecting offbeat art or merely living out some unfulfillable boyhood fantasy? And why are we, the public, so intrigued?
Jason Liebig isn’t just like a kid in a candy store; in many ways he is one. Except he’s 43 and the candy store is actually his Queens apartment where he houses over 10,000 neatly preserved vintage and modern candy wrappers.
What’s more, he tosses out any new candy prior to its wrapper’s preservation, a fact which would likely bring joy to no child anywhere. Liebig believes he has the only such collection in the city and that nationwide very few people, if any, share his particular hobby.
Liebig and his Willy Wonka-esque tendencies have only recently emerged from semi-anonymity. His collection and the website where he archives his ongoing project, CollectingCandy.com, were just featured on the long form journalism site Narrative.ly. His story was then quickly nabbed by the Huffington Post. At least one of his blog posts has gone viral, receiving more than 20,000 views in one day.
For Liebig, a former Marvel Comics editor and present day bartender, this is not about reliving a childhood love of sweets, or even really the candy itself; his collection is about art.
“In a way, my appreciation started out of my love of graphic design and art,” says Liebig.
“My dream has never been to work in the candy industry,” he explains. “I’m interested in a very specific niche part of it, that has thus far been ignored by much of the candy historians, which makes sense, since the packaging designs are often forgotten and lost.”
“But that’s what I love about it,” he adds. “I realized there was the whole segment of consumer goods packaging that really was an art world and history of art unto itself.” It’s this segment Liebig chronicles on his website.
Nearly everyone collects something, most without realizing it. These collections vary in size from a couple tokens to essentially every item found in a pathological hoarder’s domicile, and in type from buttons to real estate. Many would argue “collecting” is more about the psychology that drives one to accumulate rather than the physical items themselves.
New York-based psychoanalyst Dale Karp explains: “People collect things for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they collect just for the sake of it, sometimes the art of it, sometimes the value of it.”
“Amassing lots of things one loves should not be confused with the compulsion to possess or own things,” he continues. “There can be a fine line separating a hobby from a drive which might be pathological.”
Karp equates “pathological” with those who “hoard purposeless quantities of meaningless things.”
Don’t accuse Liebig of hoarding though; he is careful to note he keeps his apartment relatively clean of trappings from his candy-related endeavors. Walking into his apartment you may have an inkling from the decor, but until you start digging you could never know the true extent of his fascination.
Some experts say collecting items, particularly those reminiscent of childhood, is simply nostalgic. Other times they observe collecting to be about gaining a sense of control over a lost period of time.
According to life management expert Kimberly Friedmutter, “to the collector, collecting childhood symbolism is simply a subconscious way of rectifying and making amends with the time when we were the most vulnerable.”
“Collecting is protecting,” she says.
Without knowing him personally, Karp is quick to dismiss the theory that Liebig’s hobby necessarily has something to do with, say, some unfulfilling trick-or-treating experiences from his youth. Further, despite the amassment’s uniqueness, does it really differ in any way from a more ubiquitous comic book or baseball card collection?
“Candy wrappers can have pop culture significance in America,” Karp says. “They might represent our values about food, vintage art, advertising, wastefulness, consumption, etc.”
“Do we question Andy Warhol’s interest in Campbells soup in terms of his personal concerns about food?” Karp asks. “You can wonder about the significance of candy to this particular collector, of course, but any conclusion about the unconscious symbolism of candy wrappers is over the top pop psychology.”
Liebig’s earliest memory of engaging with candy wrappers — or candy — on a more profound level than the average individual dates back to 1992 when he first saved an M&M’s peanut butter wrapper, which remains neatly maintained to this day.
“It really struck me graphically,” he says.
Though Liebig emphasizes the process is in large part artistic, he often finds himself wondering how some long vanished candy might have tasted. Moreover, he wonders at the accuracy of his memories of childhood tastings past.
“I loved the Mars Marathon bars of the 1970′s, and I’ve found that they were very much like the Cadbury Curly Wurly bar,” says Liebig. “In the last few years, I’ve had many of the UK’s Curly Wurly, but I still wonder if there were subtle differences from these, and what I had as a kid in the Marathon.”
Why are we, the viewing public, so fascinated with Liebig and his collection? Why all the blog hits — why is the media catching on? According to Karp, “maybe deviations from the norm tap in to our unconscious wishes to be extreme and simply act out for us what we don’t dare do, like eat a million candy bars.”
Liebig points out many collectors like him have a specific goal in mind: “To most buyers, what’s best to them is getting the ‘one they remember’ from their personal life. And I can agree with that,” he says. “That’s what got me started on the whole thing.”
“It’s my way to add to our collective nostalgic consciousness,” he adds. Perhaps then we the viewers are merely reaping this nostalgia Liebig and his archives confer.
While this is where the experts might nail Liebig on the connection to his childhood memories, the issue of what psychoanalysts may think of Liebig’s passion is one he approaches with dismissive caution.
“I’ve often said that, in the modern age, we have extended adolescence well into adulthood across the board,” Liebig says. “We are a progressively fun and silly culture.”
“Of course, New York City extends adolescence in a host of other ways,” he notes.
“I don’t know that my hobby is so much extending a childhood fantasy, but I think it is a fascination with the trappings of adolescence, and in a way a kind of literal extension of it,” Liebig explains. “I don’t see myself as stuck in some phase of incomplete development though, anymore than the historian who studies the Beatles is stuck in the 60′s.”
Liebig is also wary of promoting his collection too much, as he told Narrative.ly, for fear of who might similarly glom on to his hobby and exorbitantly run up the memorabilia’s valuation. Scarcity does not make Liebig see dollar signs, it just makes him excited, like an art-lover stumbling upon a rare work.
His biggest hopes for his collection are a coffee table book or perhaps a television show. “I don’t want to have an empire, but I would like to make a living and have a lot of fun with it,” he says. So far, it sounds like the project is at least living up to the “fun” requirement.
Liebig likely won’t be listening to the head-shrinking naysayers anytime soon either.
“I have a sense of humor about this stuff because it’s just a bunch of things,” he notes. “But when I sit down to tackle the history of it, I do so as an adult, and as seriously as I do anything.”
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