by Taylor Moore
photography by Abelina J. Nuñez
It’s the mid-1970s, and a teenage Darlene Lacey is roaming the aisles of a Diamond Bar, California, 7-Eleven with best friend Diana Williams. They don’t know it yet, but they’re about to start an unconventional but soon-to-be-famous collection.
The two spend a fair amount of their free time there, especially when two or three candy bars can be had for under a dollar.
Darlene had been thinking of starting a collection, but wasn’t yet sure what to round up. Some of her older friends had started collecting beer bottles from around the world. While that was intriguing, she knew she didn’t have the money for that kind of collection—and she also was underage.
Then it hit her. She’s got a never-ending sweet tooth, and is near a 7-Eleven with an almost endless supply of candy. That afternoon, Darlene Lacey’s Candy Wrapper Museum was born.
Darlene tells Diana about the idea, and her friend decides to get in on it right then and there. “You pick out something and I’ll pick out something,” Darlene tells her. “I want to do this.”
While wrappers ultimately became the focus of her collection, the first item Darlene chose was not a wrapper at all, but a box of a candy called Nice Mice. She liked its cartoon drawing of a mouse on the box. It seemed to her the box was something people might be nostalgic for decades later.
Diana chooses a companion box called Cinnamon Teddy Bears, which has a similar design on the box, but with a cartoon bear. These two boxes became the first of the Candy Wrapper Museum collection.
“When I started, I was thinking about collecting candy wrappers that were unusual, things that people would remember when they saw them on the shelves, but which might not be around forever,” says Darlene, who today is curator of the Candy Wrapper Museum as well as the author of books and articles about candy’s role in pop culture. “I wanted to go for this sort of ephemeral element. One of the things I noticed as a teenager was how there were all these different colorful and imaginative brands, wrappers and names that were coming and going. I knew they weren’t going to last long. I started looking for eccentric and weird stuff for my collection.”
Eccentric is the perfect word to describe Darlene’s collection. Over the years, she has accumulated so many candy wrappers that even she does not know the exact number in her collection. All she knows is that her collection fits in a stack of boxes that reach nearly four feet high.
Darlene acknowledges that she did not collect all the wrappers on her own. More of her friends decided to get in on the action once they realized the wrappers from candy they were eating had interesting designs that would fit in nicely into Darlene’s collection.
“I collected candy wrappers because they were affordable,” she says. “You could walk into any store and just look around and have fun, like a collecting safari.”
Some wrappers in her collection may be recognizable to mainstream candy lovers, while others no longer exist. One of the discontinued pieces in her collection is the Tom’s Full Dinner chocolate bar. This mixture of chocolate and peanut butter was launched sometime in the 1920s as a meal substitute for kids, hence the name. The combination might sound appealing, but Lacey writes on her website that the Tom’s Full Dinner was one of her favorites to collect because it was always awful in some way.
In addition to friends, many others have donated to her collection over the years upon learning of it through the media or through her website, CandyWrapperMuseum.com. One of those pieces is Rambo Bubble Gum, a raspberry-flavored chewing gum shaped to resemble shrapnel or flak.
Darlene writes on her website that Alex Urso III, a Candy Wrapper Museum guest, was cleaning out his bathroom cabinet of childhood treasures from the 1980s when he came across the wrapper. He donated it to her collection. Darlene wrote in the description of it on her website: “On this wrapper, John Rambo has come to chew bubblegum and kick ass.”
Over the years, her collection has grown to include a few things beyond just wrappers.
“This is my little Mickey Mouse triptych,” she explains. “I thought this would be a good way to show off some of the art,” she writes underneath pictures of the Morignaga Mickey Mouse candy wrapper on her website. “But I wonder whether this is bootleg Disneyana or officially licensed…. I personally really like the weird versions of Disney characters that you see when someone’s just bootlegging them.”
Getting back to her first collection piece: Nice Mice, while this candy wrapper was significant to her, it also was significant to someone who would become very important in Darlene’s life, and to her collection’s future.
By early 2004, Joe Lacey had spent several years searching for the Nice Mice candy packing in hopes of revisiting memory lane. He had mentioned it to people, hoping someone might remember it, but no one did. “People thought I was crazy,” he says when recounting the experience. He had tried to describe the look of the wrapper, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, Darlene had just launched her website, with the Nice Mice wrappers being one of her first posts. It was that post that ended Joe’s lengthy search.
“I wrote a letter to her, saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you have this, I’ve been looking for this for years and all I’ve wanted was to see a picture of it,” he says. “We had probably bought the candy around the same time, only I was in Pennsylvania and she was in Los Angeles.”
That letter to Darlene became the first of many. The pair exchanged letters via email, first centered around candy, but eventually their conversations drifted toward hobbies and favorite music. They eventually met face-to-face in Los Angeles after a year of online friendship. Two years after that, they were married.
With Joe’s skills in graphic design and Darlene’s quirky writing, the couple turned her website into a lively treasure trove of candy wrapper history. Joe came up with the idea to make the border of the website icons of candy wrappers, each linked to a separate page on the site that takes readers further down a sugary rabbit hole.
The couple set up pages on Instagram and Facebook, but did not do much with them until the past couple of years. After realizing that the interactivity of social media can draw in a crowd, the two made it a point to post more. Today, they work together to co-run the Candy Wrapper Museum website, as well as their Instagram and Facebook pages. To make the website more interactive, Darlene added a sub-website where she has her own blog: CandyWrapperMuseum.net. There, she dives more deeply into the history of candy wrappers and artifact. She also offers articles, interviews and events surrounding the Candy Wrapper Museum.
Since the growth of the Candy Wrapper Museum, Darlene has made appearances on the History Channel and the Food Network, as well as Time magazine and CBS Radio.
She has written five books, her latest works being “Necco—An Epic Candy Tale” and “Necco—The Archive Collection,” both released in 2022.
Diana Williams has remained a close friend Darlene’s since that fateful afternoon in the Diamond Bar 7-Eleven. She says she is proud of Darlene, and is glad Darlene is receiving praise for all of her hard work.
“I think the Candy Wrapper Museum is made most interesting by Darlene’s gift of storytelling,” Williams says. “Her writing style is very relatable, and I’m sure it’s also why she is a successful author of several books. I’m happy for her success and proud that I can be a part of her story.”
Joe says it has been amazing to be a part of the Candy Wrapper Museum. He says he and Darlene are always amazed at how interested people are in candy wrappers.
“People may contact her about being in a show in Los Angeles, or doing an exhibit,” Joe says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s always exciting and fun. It’s been one of the highlights of my life and career. It’s very rewarding to see how, on the surface, something may seem like a trivial thing, but is really a very large thing.”
He adds that it has been phenomenal watching Darlene achieve such great accomplishments, not just as her business partner, but also as her husband.
“I never expected fame or anything else from my collection,” Darlene says. “Becoming an author and a sought-after expert on candy history and its role in pop culture has all come as a great and much-appreciated surprise. This has been the magic of collecting without any expectation of making money or gaining fame through it; these experiences just came to me. I never know what new adventure will come from the Candy Wrapper Museum. It’s a great feeling, and really the greatest reward for doing something that I would just do for fun anyway.”
As long as there is candy in the world, Darlene Lacey’s collection will continue to grow.