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Brands Museum is an ode to consumer whims

As a self-described “supermarket archeologist,” Robert Opie saves many of the things that the rest of society throws out.

As a self-described “supermarket archeologist,” Robert Opie saves many of the things that the rest of society throws out.

He picks up discarded candy bar wrappers from the street. He buys food products with no intention of actually eating them. And he appears frequently on British TV and radio as a historian of consumer culture and author of numerous books on the subject — he forgets precisely how many.

“I think it’s 20,” says the 61-year-old with owlish glasses who expounds at length, and with little prompting, on such topics as the shape of condiment containers and the texture of toilet paper.

“I’ve got another 200 inside me.”

Opie’s fascination with consumer products has resulted in a collection of half a million items, of which his 12,500 “favour­ites” are on display at his Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London’s Notting Hill.

Crammed into a space not much bigger than a corner store are shampoos, soft drinks, toilet cleaners, toothpaste tubes, breakfast cereals, bottles of beer, cigarette packs, chocolate bars, bags of salty snacks, toys, record albums and just about every other conceivable type of consumer product. They’re displayed chronologically, dating back to Victorian times.

From the vantage point of the 21st century, there are many oddities.

The Baby Daisy vacuum cleaner is a wood-and-canvas contraption from the first decade of the 20th century.

Ramsay’s Medicated Spice Nuts, from an earlier era, are advertised as “the most pleasant, safe and certain remedy for eradicating every species of worms, cleansing the stomach and bowels of everything offensive, and for purifying the blood and correcting the habit.”

But as Opie points out, 50 or 100 years from now people will probably consider some of today’s consumer products just as bizarre. Which is one reason why he finds consumer culture “blindingly exciting.”

“We are consumers from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. That makes our lives.”

A tour through the museum is a nostalgia trip as visitors come across products — Opie calls them “old friends” — from earlier days. Some will remember Heinz Real Turtle Soup, Mackintosh’s Rag-time Candy and Brownie cameras.

A 1930s display features a TV in a wooden console and tiny packs of Player’s, Air Mail and Black Cat cigarettes. From the ‘50s there are monosyllabic detergents and household cleaners such as Daz, Surf, Tide, Fab and Flash (“No Rinsing! No Wiping Dry!”).

 
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