An excerpt from
Collections of Nothing
William Davies King
Then it began, the first real collection of my adult life. One day I started to save the labels of all the food products I consumed—cereal, soup, candy, beer. I did not keep the cans or jars, only the paper or cellophane or plastic labels. Boxes and cartons I cut or dismantled. Everything had to lie flat, like a leaf in a book. Initially I glued each item to a sheet of paper, most of it reclaimed from some other use. Eventually, I decided to keep the boxes unbound, flattened but not cut or glued, so that they could be reassembled if the need ever arose. (“This is a national emergency. We require a Triscuits box from 1986, a complete box! Citizens who can fulfill this demand should report to…”) I did not keep duplicates, but the smallest variations—new graphics, a new incentive deal or coupon, even a change in the quality or color of the printing—seemed interesting enough for me to preserve. Initially I kept the labels in my file cabinet, but soon began to punch holes and place the leaves in a binder. That way I was creating a “book,” and eventually I would have a lot of these books. (“Of making many books there is no end,” Ecclesiastes 12:12) Eventually, though I could not have said it at the time, I would have this book.
The genesis of this collection coincided with the end of parental subsidy. For the first time all my purchases were being made with money I had earned, and I can see now that I wanted to retain some token of my independence and expenditure. The small markets in New Haven, the ones within bicycle range (nothing “super” in sight), were mostly Italian-owned, mom-and-pop, and each provided a range of goods imported from Italy alongside the General Foods and American Home Products of my childhood: Kraft, Sani-Flush, Sara Lee, Mennen, and Pepperidge Farms. Although the imported goods were often beyond my price range, I enjoyed occasional ventures into Il Migliore Pear Tomatoes, Posillippo Rigatoni, and La Famiglia Cribari jug wine. These were walks in the wider world, beyond where I had ever been, and the labels were my snapshots. But I also toured Battle Creek, Michigan, via my breakfast cereal, Pittsburgh via my ketchup, and the ersatz Chinatown of La Choy. Camay, my mother’s preferred bar of soap for us all, suddenly had no more claim to my wet body than Palmolive, Lux, Vel, or Zest. I approached labels differently now, with heightened respect and limitless curiosity. Instead of tearing them open, I inserted a finger along the seam and listened for soft severance at the glue points, the music of another label come to dada.
I got carried away by this new project and began riffling through trash bins for nice labels (by then I was living in a flat above one of those mom-and-pop stores), but I soon stopped that and more or less restricted myself to the record of my life and my consumerism. The bliss of processing also led me initially to paste in other things, like matchbook covers, junk mail, and paperback book covers, that I soon stopped collecting. I did keep the labels of some nonfood items, but the core of the collection has always been eating and drinking. And, for a while, smoking. And pet food and cat litter. And medicines. And hygienic products, like shampoo and deodorant, toilet paper, and my girlfriend’s tampons. Lightbulbs. Sponges. Nails. And…it is clear to me now that the discipline of the collection was virtually nonexistent. Partly I was driven by a desire to see my binders fill, first one, then two, then more. Within a month I was already a prodigious collector. Other people came to know of this and would save particularly nice wrappers for me, a carton from their favorite brand of microbrew from Scranton or a Darkie toothpaste box from Hong Kong. I never refused such a gift. Had they instead dumped the package after guzzling or brushing, I might have fished it out of their trash in any case.
Still, the core of the collection could be described as tokens of all that I had personally touched as a consumer, what I refer to briefly as labels. Whole marketing divisions labor over the question of how to situate this product in the public eye: with symmetry, asymmetry, blood red, royal purple, shocking pink; “New,” “Improved,” logo or no logo, slogan or blurb; rosy-cheeked child or elderly black man; photo of the product, watercolor of the impression, cartoon of the concept; coupon, clip-and-save, how-to pic; a little sex, a little sport, a joke, a jinx, a leering chicken, a smiley heylookeeme nota bene “over here, sailor” eye-grab. Printing presses have stamped ever more smashing colors, ever more gaudy graphics, ever more penetrating phraseology, onto cardboard, cellophane, paper, and PET, liminally and superliminally and subliminally enhanced by photos, foil, stickers, glitter, holograms, “magic pictures,” celebrity signatures, games, contests, Hollywood tie-ins, free stuff, LPs, CDs, DVDs, MP3s, recipes, and scratch-and-sniff scents. As a result of these efforts, a certain chemical and physical and social and economical reaction took place when my hunger or thirst or need to blow my nose met this product, and that led to my purchase. Since packages generally conceal the thing itself, that reaction usually takes place right there on the surface of the label, in that swirl of color and connotation, where desire fuses with seduction, message with massage, hunger with lust. My psyche has been there, alert and rapacious, and the upshot has been that my hand reached out. Political economy begins with that grab.
I was, in my early twenties, a member of a visionary, progressive food co-op, the sort of place where you begin your membership by listening to a lengthy Marxist lecture in the basement (rough draft of the manager’s poli-sci dissertation). Four or five sidewalk sofas, discolored plaid, bare lightbulb overhead, Danish schoolbags, slightly damp from the afternoon drizzle, cigarette butts in coffee mugs—that was the décor set by the bored, proto-Gramscian co-op mensch, exhausted from a morning of haggling with wily cheese wholesalers and applying for tenure-track positions at elite liberal arts colleges. For an hour or so, the word “capitalism” got bashed around the basement like a Nerf ball. This store was not friendly to labeling, which was, after all, a celebration of surplus value, so a lot of stuff came from bins, none too clean. Of course, the New Haven Food Co-op itself was a giant package, but inside were scoops and ladles, towers of beans, vats of yogurt and peanut butter, wheels of cheese (purchased at a premium from those thieving bastard wholesalers!), and not much in the way of meat. To stock Kellogg’s or Nabisco in this place would have been a crime against society. Jif was capitulation. Nestlé was murder. Far be those slick labels from me. Still, even in this store one could buy locally produced honey in a labeled jar or Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap, the stuff you could use to wash your hair or brush your teeth. Between the co-op and my cowardly, counterrevolutionary purchases from the library vending machines (Hostess, Little Debbie, Moon Pie, PayDay), I intercepted a steady stream of labels. If you leave behind the world of progressive food retailing, as I did when I had had my fill of the guilt trip and bugs in the garbanzo beans, then it is hard to find any unlabeled consumer product. Nowadays, virtually every vegetable or piece of fruit is individually tagged. Trader Joe’s labels every single egg. Soon it will be every gene.
Some labels are inaccessible and a source of great annoyance. I have always disliked and dismissed wine labels because they are typically stuck on with glue that is not water-soluble. After all, you would not want one smashed bottle of chardonnay to ruin a whole case. But you have to work hard, too hard, to peel off just one clean label. Worse are the new labels found on jugs of Cascade, liquid Tide, and many cleansers. You think you could peel them off, but they are fused to the plastic, which is sad because they are so garish and aggressive, even assaultive. I would love to have those hard-sell screamers in the collection. Very large cartons I don’t save, also labels that do not flatten, like shrink-wrapped skins on bottles of exotic beverages, including almost everything containing ginseng. I do not save labels painted on metal (like many sardine cans and the gorgeous tins of Italian olive oil) or glass. Coke bottle collections are refreshing but require a warehouse. Mostly I save paper, polyurethane bags, cellophane, and cardboard. If a label is badly damaged I don’t bother, but a little tear or stain or wrinkle is okay. Labels that have been in direct contact with sticky or greasy foods (like chocolate milk cartons or Crisco wrappers) I usually don’t save, but some, such as bacon boxes, are so appealing I cannot resist, even at the risk of a little grease stain. The prospect of having a binder filled with bacon boxes was one of my early dreams and one of the justifications I offered when people asked why I was collecting this stuff. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a book of bacon? Then, a few years later, I more or less stopped eating bacon. Even so, I have thirty-five different bacon boxes.
At first, assembling the collection was just a matter of rounding up every label in my life, but I soon found my life itself was changed. When I went to the store for supplies, I scouted for new and edgy labels. Sometimes I made a conscious choice to pay more (or less) for a product simply because I wanted a different label. Instead of remaining loyal to a brand, even one I had always used, I started exploring all the other brands, and the crunchy as well as the smooth; cinnamon as well as plain; small, medium, “convenient family,” and jumbo (inconvenient family). A collection that was initially “about my consumption” began to shape my consumption as I became a self-conscious collector. I was trying to form an autonomous world in my binders, and this had come to mean encompassing the world of labeled goods. Of course, having every label was impossible. I could not consume (or ingest) the world but only the portion of it for which I had appetite and cash.
Still, when I bought soup, I thought, I want all soup, and even if Progresso’s Hearty Bean does not agree with me, or Campbell’s Scotch Broth appeal, still I must have those labels. And I do have those labels, through several successive generations of labeling styles. My soup label holdings are now approaching eight hundred examples. Once the FDA mandated inclusion of nutritional information on all labels in 1990, I knew exactly how nourished I would be by the soup or sauce or sardine, but my collection was nourished by the label itself.
When I bought toothpaste, again, I wanted it all. I have had my teeth now whitened, now cavity-guarded, now peroxicared, with gel and regular, mint, herbal mint, and “original,” by Crest, Colgate, and a number of other dentifriciers. I’ve been promised “rejuvenating effects,” “fresh confidence,” “total protection,” and other too-marvelous fantasies. Would my teeth look better if I had stuck to the one best brand? Who knows? (I wish!) All I know is that I have a twenty-five-year array of toothpaste packaging (120 different boxes), but hardly a complete history. I buy toothpaste maybe four times a year, and I have not always been the one to make the purchase. Sometimes, when my motivation is low, I use the same old brand and eventually throw the duplicate box away. But other times I’ll think, Why not Close-Up or Stripe or Tom’s? A store around the corner from me now sells toothpaste costing five or six dollars a tube, brands swimming upscale on the basis of their herbal enhancements or organic conciliations. I don’t buy those, any more than I would an Eames chair or a Tiffany lamp. My collection fits me more exactly, ordinary but extreme.
Cereal is the category where I have adapted myself most radically to the product. I am at the mercy of the marketers when I stand before their tremendous array of overpriced grain. Any new flavor, shape, puzzle, movie tie-in, sports celebrity, free toy inside, or CD-ROM game included is likely to draw my eye and motivate a purchase. I make it a rule, though, never to discard the cereal (or any other product) unless it is truly vile, like a few chocolate and/or marshmallow cereals (e.g., Post Oreo O’s, rejected by me and my children alike) or a health cereal called Uncle Sam, which included whole flaxseed and promoted regular bowel movements. Mostly, though, when I buy, I eat.
Cereal boxes were my first literature. I spent virtually every morning of my childhood reading the box while ruminating on the cereal, long before I ever perused a morning newspaper. Cereal manufacturers have always strained to keep up the illusion that their puffing or flaking, sugaring or coloring, has enormously inflated the value of a handful of rice or corn. I once heard that it would be just about as nutritious to eat the Wheaties box as to eat the cereal, but the psychological boost of staring at a photo of the Massillon Tigers as you suck sugar through limp flakes should not be underestimated. It is the Breakfast of Champions, and I have always welcomed those heroes home. Still, if I ever lack for fiber, I have a supply.
I was surprised to discover a few years ago that Wheaties boxes have become part of the boom in sports memorabilia, and many of the older boxes have become precious. If I had my dad’s cereal boxes, my mother’s dolls, and a lunch box or two from my grade school years, I could summer in Gstaad, courtesy of those crazy collectors! Despite my best efforts to restrict my collecting to the worthless, some Total trash has accrued value. People have sent me articles about the prices paid for an original Shredded Wheat or the first Wheaties box featuring Michael Jordan (I think I might have that one). I’ve read about a collector who saves the entire cereal box, including the cereal, in special air-locked rooms. Most of the other collectors specialize in one brand or category of boxes. Some, I suspect, go to fanatical lengths to get rare items and fill out their collection. As for me, I just have the boxes from all the different sorts of cereal I have spooned up over the past two decades and a half. Of course, I am a fanatic (from Latin, inspired by a deity, frenzied, from fanum, temple) in my own way. It’s just that I am on the altar. My consumption is the point, or my reluctance to discard, and that has nothing to do with being a fan of Tiger Woods or the Chicago Bulls or needing every Star Trek relic or observing, socioculturally, how the word “sugar,” as in Sugar Smacks and Sugar Pops and Sugar Bear, completely disappeared from the marketing nomenclature around 1990.
A Web search also turns up collectors of candy wrappers, full sugar packets, and beef jerky wrappers depicting NASCAR drivers, but I have not yet located a collector of Philadelphia Cream Cheese boxes or Doritos bags. Honeycombs does not figure prominently on the Big Board, ditto Frosted Mini-Wheats and Maypo. Few have attended as closely as I have to the labeling of mushrooms (I have a whole binder for mushrooms, with more than fifty varieties) or the tagging of asparagus. Some corners of my collection are peculiar to my travels, like the tamarind candy labels from Oaxaca (Mexico also merits its own binder). McVittie’s biscuits, from London, are represented among all the other horse-feed cookies from Britain and the United States, but of them all are the most delicious.
Immense binders labeled “Candy,” “Candy 2,” “Candy Bar,” and “More Candy” attest to my sweet tooth. A relatively thin book, “Prepared Foods,” shows that I prefer to cook my food fresh and from basic ingredients rather than frozen or takeout. Soup is the exception. Andy Warhol brought forward the simple glory of a soup can, and that is a celebration I repeat in as complex a way as I can manage, including a frequent return to Tomato. I will eat soup often just to snag a new labeling gimmick, a subtitle (“Hearty Choice,” “Classic Recipes,” “Chunkier”), or an enhanced view of the steaming bowl.
I cut as wide a swath as I can through the field of consumer products. Since, after all, I am shopping at Albertson’s or Ralph’s, not a five-star restaurant, I can afford to exercise my market position freely, opting for the latest five-grain-plus-blueberry cereal rather than someone’s generic flake or, worse, the cereal that shows up naked and undocumented in plastic bags. My freedom meets itself in the mirror when I face the expansive limits of my imperial desire, and I balk at yet another new lentil soup because I know I cannot bear the flatulence.
At this point, I estimate there are seventeen to eighteen thousand labels of all sorts in the collection, and it continues to grow daily. There are also about five hundred crown bottle caps (the metal kind with crinkly edges), also kept in binders, in plastic pages meant to hold photographic slides. I recently discovered that there are other bottle cap collectors out there, especially in Europe. One Polish lady has a Web site where you can browse her collection of about fourteen hundred caps while listening to “House of the Rising Sun.” I have several she does not have. She has many that I do not. But I have never bought a bottle cap as a collectible, nor traded with another collector. My collection reflects me and me alone, on the lookout, rampant.
It took me several years to find the bottle opener that does least damage to a bottle cap. It’s a double-pronged, curved-flange lifter, and it was to me a vital piece of equipment before the era of twist-tops, though in fact I get most of my bottle caps from the sidewalk, because I rarely drink beer. Again, the nothingness I cherish dovetails with the valuable goods discarded by others.
I love it all. I love you, for what you do not love, what you throw away. There’s a sad paradox in that. I love you for your lack of love for what I love.
I have to say that my pride in this label collection, and my determination to keep it up, are balanced by my annoyance with it and my sporadic resolve to give it up, even to throw it out. By now it has swollen to such proportions that no one would ever have the time or interest to explore it all. I have seen people—friends—visibly repelled by it, as if it were a monstrosity, a huge boil or wen, gruesomely fascinating but still disgusting. I wonder if those guys who save string on enormous balls have a similar experience, or the hoarders who save every newspaper, every piece of junk mail, every oily rag and unused bus transfer. I myself find it terribly unwieldy. Individual binders seem always to be on the verge of bursting, forcing me to decide how to split the contents into two binders. Division does not come easy to a man who craves wholeness.
Early on, I picked out of the trash at the Yale library six identical blue binders that had previously held lists of books and articles put on reserve for various courses. At a certain point the whole collection was contained in these binders. One was labeled “Canned Food,” another “Jar Food,” and so on. Now the collection comprises eighty-three binders of flat labels and fifty-one boxes of miscellaneous boxes, not including the cereal boxes, which are in such an array of containers that it is difficult to count. Those original six blue binders now house “Butter, Oil, Margarine,” “Fish, Meat,” “Tobacco,” “Spirits,” “Bags,” and “Fresh Food—Vegetables.” Actually, “Fish, Meat” has just split into “Fish” and “Meat,” the latter going into a new binder, but I have not yet rewritten the label. Their bindings were weak when I recovered them from the trash, and now they are worse. “Maintenance” is a perennial problem; infrastructure decays. Having ages.
It did not take long to realize that the earliest pages, which I had punched for the three-ring binders, were tearing. So I started placing the pages in plastic sheet protectors, but soon I discovered that these were not all of archival quality. Some get brittle or yellow or stick together. They tear, they crease, they feel…like plastic. Was that ever what I wanted? Where are the polyurethanes of yesteryear? In youth, we imagine that materials will last forever. In middle age, we experience the first tears and fraying at the edges. Colors go flat, edges fritter, and a whiff of acid hits the nose. Some collected things will obviously endure for decades, while others seem just minutes from the grave. Ephemera happens.
Another, even more oppressive problem is the taxonomical one. A label for canned peas clearly belong in the remaining “Canned Food” binder (from which I long ago extracted canned soup, canned fish, canned olives, canned tomatoes, canned beverages). And a label for fresh peas clearly belongs in “Fresh Food—Vegetables” (minus “Mushrooms” and “Fresh Tomatoes”). Frozen peas goes in “Frozen Food.” But where do dried peas go, or wasabi peas, a delicious snack? When I was a kid, I did not like peas in any form, and now I find myself regularly having to digest them twice, inside and out. I face this problem—the labeling of labels—each time I process new acquisitions. Does honey go in “Sweets” or “Basic Ingredients”? Are pretzels still in “Snack foods” (exclusive of “Potato Chips”), or should they go in a new, dedicated “Pretzels” binder? What about bread sticks? In “Crackers” or in “Baked Goods”? Aren’t they pretzel-like? Sometimes, it’s hard to recall the current system across the several months in between sorting sessions, and I have no Dewey Decimal System, no Excel database. The world offers food in sloppy profusion to the middle-class American consumer, and I know well how far short of Linnaeus I fall in arranging the genera and species of groceries.
Then, too, even within a category I fuss over the order. I like to have similar products together in the same sheet protector or opposite one another: all blueberry labels together, earlier and later variations of the South Alder Farms Bleuets label next to each other. But that means remembering just where particular blueberry labels are, among the various berries, and shifting labels around to insert a new one into the collection. Sometimes I let the pages pile up for half a year or more before I finally face the task of integrating them. Even then, at the end of a long evening, I will have a pile of problem labels that require special handling. Some have remained in the problem pile for years—my baggage.
The bigger the collection gets, the harder it is to keep. The bigger the collection gets, the more completely it represents me and my history, and the more I feel oppressed by it. The bigger the collection gets, the more extraordinary and “valuable” it is, and the more I mourn the thousands of hours spent assembling it. In the hole and on the peak, I love this collection and hate it, and I keep it because it expresses me, though rudely. It is a poor collection wishing it were rich. It is a celebration of material culture wrapped around a contempt for material culture. It is a burgeoning collection full of emptiness. It is a collection of nothing. That is my title, and I am its lord, its consumer and author and subject and victim.