Amid the pleasantries of meeting and greeting, it's not uncommon for the collection of old tins, jars and packets, displayed in cabinets in the entrance hall of Richard Wolfe's Freeman's Bay villa, to go unnoticed.

Attention is primarily on the host; next the eye is drawn to a bookshelf groaning with titles, and finally, a large, striking floral canvas painted by his wife, artist Pamela Wolfe. And that's the way the author of Crikey! Talk about Kiwiana likes it.

"I enjoy the fact that these items were not perceived as having any value. They were ordinary, everyday ephemera and often overlooked."

But not by Richard, who gathered them with passion - a collection initially spawned by a love of graphics.

As a young boy growing up in New Plymouth, Richard recalls that his mother, like other mums of her generation, baked regularly. Since there was no such thing as self-raising flour, Edmonds Baking Powder was an essential pantry staple. Richard was drawn to the positive, sunny nature of the design on the tin.

At art school in the 60s, his love of such imagery was finally vindicated when the Pop Art phenomenon made it unexpectedly respectable. Andy Warhol was designing labels for Campbell's soup tins while fellow artist David Hockney made his mark on Typhoo Tea.

"Suddenly, the world of high art and commercial art collided. One happily exploited the other," says Richard.

Today, in his kitchen there is a wooden cabinet painted with the cheery yellow and orange rays of Edmonds fame, and his appreciation of these once-commonplace objects has grown beyond the aesthetic. "I see them in the context of social history," he says.

Still, giving consumables such as Jaffas, Chesdale cheese and Weet-Bix iconic status is a recent development and it wasn't before the 80s that the term "Kiwiana" was used.

"With economic deregulation, life began to change. Whereas we had been insulated for so long, in the late 80s we signed up to the real world. It was only then that we started to catalogue aspects of New Zealand life we had so long taken for granted."

And who better to do that than Richard? He had not only worked at the Auckland and Canterbury museums and thus developed an understanding of the need to preserve our history (albeit recent), but had amassed a collection of more than 300 products that he stored in boxes in the basement of his villa.

In 1989, with friend and co-author Stephen Barnett, he published New Zealand! New Zealand! In praise of Kiwiana. A new word and a new movement was born.

"The time was ripe for it," recalls Richard. "As New Zealanders started to travel more, we noticed little differences in the way we did things. Because of our isolation and youthfulness, we wanted to hold on to those things that allowed us to forge a separate identity from England and Europe."

Yet he is no wool-over-the-eyes advocate of our glorious society. Nostalgic indulgence does not allow him to gloss over reality.

"I think there is a need among New Zealanders to feel a bit special.

" Yet while the notion of Kiwi ingenuity, for example, does exist here, is it any more than in other cultures settled from Europe in the 19th century?

"Germans, Italians and Britons had settled all over the globe, so ingenuity was the very least of their requirements."

Customs such as the six-o-clock swill are not to be lauded either, says Richard, and even some items we hold dear, such as the beloved Buzzy Bee, had their origins elsewhere. "That idea came from the US, as a flat version in the same shape brought here in the 1940s." With our timber resources, we were able to make it in 3D and, since there were few competitors in the marketplace, it became a preferred toy.

Though he is loath to point it out, it actually took an Australian to properly exploit the potential of our most famous flightless bird as a symbol. Kiwi polish was developed in Melbourne by an entrepreneur who had a New Zealand wife. It was these empty tins of boot polish that littered the fields of battle in World War I. "That's how the Kiwi rescued us from an identity crisis," explains Richard. "Before that we were variously known as Fernlanders, Maorilanders or New Zealanders."

Such pragmatism aside, he can't help but bring out some of his treasures: a bottle of Renco for making junket that hails from the mid-60s and a bar of Taniwha soap, prevalent in wash-houses from the 1900s to the 1950s. Its packaging features Maori mermaids lathering up in a hotpool, a smoking volcano in the background. "We were very culturally indelicate at the time - but we weren't alone. Native Americans and Australian Aborigines were used as symbols on products too. They gave an instant sense of identity."

Kiwiana as a phenomenon is now 20 years old. It's introduced at primary school, a Waikato town claims to be the Kiwiana capital, and NZ Post has issued several sets of stamps in its honour. Richard's latest book is meant as a dictionary of the subject, grouped into categories and surely a must-have for recent immigrants to this country who crave an instant understanding of our popular culture.

It's a part of history we can all relate to, one we all own. "I've already been told about some oversights: the cheese roll, for instance. White bread and slices of cheese rolled up, popular in Otago."

He admits he hasn't tasted one, doesn't often wear jandals and hardly ever eats hokey pokey ice cream. But as a Kiwi, he reserves the right to. And his display of paraphernalia at the front door more than makes up for it. "They're like little time capsules of history - of a lifestyle that has disappeared."

* Crikey! Talk about Kiwiana by Richard Wolfe (Random House, $24.99) tells the stories behind the objects, events and people that have defined our popular culture.