Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Biscuit Tins Never Get Stale

QUESTION: I’ve inherited my mother’s collection of English biscuit tins. She had been collecting them since she made a trip to England at the end of the 1960s. Her collection includes over four dozen tins, some are fancier than others. I love these old tins and want to continue collecting them. When my mother began collecting, she had to buy them during several trips to England. But today, I figure I can purchase them online. Can you tell me more about their history? Also, do you think I can add to her collection?

ANSWER: Biscuit tins are a fascinating part of British cultural history. They’re even tied to the monarchy. And while today manufacturers don’t make them as fancy as some of the ones from the early part of the 20th century, they’re still very popular with collectors. The peak of biscuit tin production ran from the late 1890s to the 1930s. Though originally meant to hold biscuits—the British term for “cookies”—they eventually became collectible works of art in themselves.

The history of the biscuit tin began with the passing of the Licensed Grocer’s Act of 1861 which allowed groceries to be individually packaged and sold. This coincided with the removal of the duty on paper for printed labels, so printing directly on to tinplate became common.

The bakery of Huntley & Palmers pioneered the use of metal tins. In 1832, Joseph Huntley’s son, who founded Huntley, Boorne & Stevens in an ironmongers opposite the bakery, began handcrafting large square seven- to ten-pound tins with glass inset tops for retailers. Grocery store clerks would measure out the amount of biscuits from these tins and place them in a paper bag for the customer. However, they didn’t stay fresh for very long once the customer returned home.

So Joseph Huntley began creating smaller tins without the glass insets so that customers could purchase their biscuits in a container to keep them fresh which they could take home. The tins were of such excellent quality that people began to reuse them to hold other things. The tins needed decoration but the only way to do that at the time was to paint them by hand.

In the early 1860s, all that changed with the invention of direct tin printing. This was a complicated and time-consuming technique. Then along came London printer Benjamin George George (That isn’t a typo.), who invented the lithographic transfer method.

In 1868, Huntley & Palmers commissioned the first lithographically decorated tin using George’s method from the London firm of De La Rue. Buckingham Palace granted the bakery permission to supply biscuits to the Royal Family. In order to create an appropriate design befitting the Royal Family, they hired Victorian designer Owen Jones to create a pattern which they could use on the biscuit tins using George’s new method. The result was a richly decorated oblong tin with the Royal Coat of Arms on the lid, now known to collectors as the “Ben George tin.” 

But George’s direct lithographic process, which involved laying an inked stone directly on to a sheet of tin, made it difficult to line up the colors. The breakthrough in decorative tin plate production was the invention of the offset lithographic process in 1877, which consists of bringing a sheet of rubber into contact with the decorated stone, and then setting-off the impression so obtained upon the metal surface. With this method, printers could use any number of colors, position them correctly, and apply the design to an uneven surface if necessary. Thus the elaborately embossed, colorful designs that became a hallmark of late Victorian biscuit tins became technically possible.

It became possible to make tins in almost any shape imaginable. Biscuit lovers bought baskets, windmills, cars, locomotives, globes, tables, and even mailboxes as much for their decorative qualities as their contents. Between 1868 and the outbreak of World War II, Huntley & Palmers issued around 400 tin designs with a lots of variations.

The most exotic designs appeared in the early years of the 20th century, just prior to the First World War. In the 1920s and 1930s, costs had risen substantially and the design of biscuit tins tended to be more conservative, with the exception of those targeted at the Christmas market and intended to appeal to children.

One of the most unique and most popular of biscuit tin designs resembled a stack of books held together with a belt. This 1901 Huntley & Palmers tin, known as “Literature,” was so realistically done that the covers and spines of the books appear to have been deeply tooled and inked and the page edges convincingly marbled and swirled in a rainbow of colors.

Most popular, however, were the tins shaped like vehicles. It was no coincidence that car, train, airplane, and boat tins bore a striking resemblance to similar toys sold at British department and toy stores since toy companies often crafted them from the same molds they used for their products. An example is Carr & Co's double-decker bus tin, made especially for them by Chad Valley and virtually identical to Chad Valley's toy bus except for the internal clockwork mechanism and different advertising.

But Huntley and Palmers were by no means the only company that made unusual biscuit tins. Some of the other famous biscuit tin sellers were Carr & Company., William Crawford & Sons, MacFarlane, Land & Company., and Peek, Frean, and Company. 

During the Second World War, all production on biscuit tins stopped so that factories and materials could be used for the war effort. When the war ended in 1945, production resumed but the tins weren’t as popular as before the war.

Peek, Frean, and Company, McVitie’s, and Jacob’s all became household names but for collectors Huntley & Palmers stands out. Collectors are particularly attracted to the decorative novelty tins. Condition is of prime importance, perhaps even more so with biscuit tins since they rust easily. Many also become worn or dented, giving the novice collector an opportunity to acquire interesting examples relatively cheaply.

Today, biscuit tins range in price from $10 to $200 online. However, the prices of those in British antiques shops are climbing into the stratosphere. This is due mostly to the antiques tourist trade. The most expensive tin sold at auction for over $20,000.

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