The Toucan icy pole was prolific 20 years ago, but proof of its existence was hard to find

Do you remember the golden age of childhood snacks? I'll give you a hint, it was the 1990s.

A time when each school lunch box was a treasure chest filled to the brim with multi-coloured, multi-flavoured treats of questionable nutritional value. 

A time when the Dunkaroos fell from heaven and the Go-Gurts flowed like water.

And king among these snacks was one particular treat.

It was a multicoloured icy pole that came on two sticks, and it used a toucan as a mascot.

I remember it vividly, and so does everyone I've asked over the age of 25. 

Some were even able to recite the advertising jingle (“I can, you can, one or TWO can!”) and list the four colours of the frozen treat.

But inexplicably, when I went looking I was unable to find any photos or records of the Toucan icy pole online.

The Toucan icy pole was prolific 20 years ago, but proof of its existence was hard to find

The childhood favourite seemingly vanished from our nation's service stations and milk bars overnight.(Milk Bar project: Eamon Donnelly)

In 2022, it seems almost impossible for something to not have a digital footprint.

Despite being long discontinued, photos and television ads for vintage treats like Incredibites, Fruity Bix Bars and Sunnyboys are easily found on the internet.

How is it possible that a ubiquitous icy pole beloved by people around the country could just vanish without a trace?

I decided I was going to find the mystery confection.

Who made the Toucan?

Finding the manufacturer of this mythical frozen treat proved near impossible.

I reached out to both Streets and Peters Ice-Cream to find out whether either of the dessert giants had produced a toucan-themed icy pole around the turn of the millennium.

I was met with polite confusion and dismissal.

Not only were there no photographs of this icy pole to be found, but there seemed to be little proof that it had ever existed.

That was until I happened across a document detailing an intellectual property law case brought before the Federal Court of Australia in the late 90s: Kellogg Company v PB Foods Ltd — November 19, 1999.

The Kellogg Company, known for their breakfast cereal empire, was appealing against a move by a firm called Peters & Brownes Group (PB) to trademark the word 'Toucan'.

Along with several paragraphs defining what a toucan was and dialogue transcripts of Kellogg's cereal mascot Toucan Sam in television advertisements, the document revealed PB owned three “Toucan” trademarks.

And buried in the text was one description, which read:

“PB also manufactures and markets throughout Australia the ice confection, 'TOUCAN twin stick icy poles'.”

Jackpot.

There — in a legal document from the Federal Court of Australia — was not only proof this icy pole existed, but a definitive answer as to its manufacturer.

Finding PB Foods in 2022 was another matter entirely.

The document stated the “Toucan twin stick icy pole” was made in a joint venture with Cadbury Schweppes, a company which has since morphed into multinational snack conglomerate Mondelez International.

PB Foods itself was acquired twice, first to New Zealand dairy co-operative Fonterra in 2002 and then again to food giant Nestle in 2009.

What began as an exercise to find a discontinued icy pole had morphed into a financial investigation of multinational food corporations.

To give a sense of scale for the size of these firms, if Nestle was considered a country, its revenue would be greater than the gross domestic product of 150 other countries on Earth.

Spokespeople from both Mondelez International and Nestle told the ABC that they had no records of the product.

So if the seemingly mythical toucan icy pole was to be found, it would not be in the archives of a multinational corporation.

With PB Foods in my sights, I tracked down David Hahn, who worked as Product Manager at the company from 2000 to 2005.

“No, you’re not going crazy. We certainly made that product,” Mr Hahn said.

“It was four flavours from memory, and you’re going to ask me what flavours they were but that’s way back in the dark days mate.”

He believes the Toucan icy pole was still being made by Fonterra until the ice cream business was eventually sold to Australian dairy company Bulla.

“It's probably at that point that the product ceased to be made, and the reason that would have been is that Bulla didn't have the manufacturing — that mould shape with the twin sticks — they wouldn't have had that piece of kit,” Mr Hahn said.

The icy pole quest heads west

Mr Hahn told me that PB Foods had owned the Peters brand solely in Western Australia, having been registered as Peters (WA) before 1997.

I went west.

A phone call to the State Library of Western Australia revealed there were over 70 files of financial records, photos, samples of packaging, inventory catalogues and more in the Peters (WA) Ltd. archive — each file containing up to 200 items.

With the help and patience of an extraordinarily dedicated library team, a photo was found.

The Toucan icy pole was prolific 20 years ago, but proof of its existence was hard to find

This photo of a Browne's Dairy truck was taken on February 21, 2005 in the Albany suburb of Mira Mar.(Supplied: Peter Laurence)

The photo was taken by Canadian Peter Laurence in about 2005.

What is more, the team were able to use the National Library of Australia's digital catalogue Trove to find more evidence of the toucan icy pole.

As part of the Copyright Act 1968, every publisher in Australia must send a copy of every single item they publish to be preserved in the National Library.

But the National Library also hosts a vast collection of weird and wonderful artefacts documenting daily Australian life through the ages.

For example, this 2004 canteen menu from Burwood East Primary School in Victoria that clearly states you could get a Toucan icy pole for 95 cents.

The Toucan icy pole was prolific 20 years ago, but proof of its existence was hard to find

This primary school canteen menu provided more proof that the toucan icy pole did indeed exist, as well as a stark measure of inflation.(Trove: Burwood East Primary School)

And I would have been satisfied with these little snapshots as proof that this childhood delight existed.

But fate had one more surprise in store.

Meeting the ice-cream collector

I initially reached out to Will McGowan on the back of advice from Nestle.

“Unfortunately, our archives are limited,” a Nestle spokesperson said.

“You might like to try an online search for collectors or enthusiasts that may be able to provide more information.”

Will is the co-owner of Melbourne's Vintage and Modern Toy Fair and is a hobbyist who collects bygone relics of Australia's ice-cream past and documents them on his blog, Toltoy's Kid.

The Toucan icy pole was prolific 20 years ago, but proof of its existence was hard to find

Will McGowan of Toltoy's Kid has been collecting vintage ice cream packaging for decades.(Supplied: Will McGowan)

From a 1978 icy pole based on hit television show M*A*S*H to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ice creams dating to 1988, Will is a certified icy pole laureate.

Over the course of decades, Will has accumulated and archived a vast collection of vintage ice creams, toys and other ephemera on his personal website and Instagram.

His love affair with ice-cream packaging started when he was taken to see Star Wars in 1977, and immediately became desperate for any merchandise from the film.

He kept everything from icy pole wrappers and the sides of cereal boxes to toy packaging and posters, before starting to collect old cardboard advertisements in milk bars.

In 1999, eBay came along in Australia and Will joined up right away to dive into a global market for old merchandise.

The Toucan icy pole was prolific 20 years ago, but proof of its existence was hard to find

Many icy poles from Australia's past can only be found online in Will's collection.(Supplied: Will McGowan)

The hobby, while quirky to some, is the only way to preserve many cultural treasures that Australians grew up with.

Will owns multiple pieces that are the only ones of their kind left, and has even more photos of items that only ever appeared once on the internet in all his decades of collecting.

He said rarer items were often housed in private collections, with many thousands of dollars required to free them for public viewing.

When I sent a desperate message asking about a toucan icy pole, he got to work.

“When you said Toucan, something rang a bell,” he said. 

Will dove into his own personal digital archive of photos dating back to 1999 to try find it and, buried in his trove of ice-cream merchandise past and present, he found this.

The Toucan icy pole was prolific 20 years ago, but proof of its existence was hard to find

Will provided the ABC with perhaps the only surviving photo of the cardboard Toucan icy pole advertisements.(Supplied: Will McGowan)

“It took about five minutes of scrolling through stuff to find it, which is really bizarre because I could have spent two hours and not found anything,” he said.

Will has his own white whale. Despite searching online for nearly 23 years and helping saps like me find our own mythical icy poles, he has never been able to locate his own dream item.

“The biggest white whale is the milk bar sign for the Empire Strikes Back icy poles, of which I have the box and the wrapper,” he said.

“But I've never ever seen a photo even of the sign. If anyone out there has got the sign for the Empire Strikes Back icy poles, I'm your buyer.”

If you or someone you know has information about the Toucan icy pole, please contact me at boaz.judd@abc.net.au.

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