The need to keep manufactured food fresh led to the development of the metal tin which excluded air. Soon the tin, now viewed as a marketing aid, was lavishly decorated.
In 1822, Joseph Huntley began making and selling pastries and biscuits in Reading. His premises were on the mail coach route and his business grew as he sold his wares to weary travellers. The only problem was the pasteboard containers, which didn't keep his produce fresh on a long journey.
Joseph Huntley had two sons: Thomas, who was to follow in his father's footsteps, and Joseph, who ran a successful ironmongery and tin-smithing business. The father took his problem to Joseph and, as a result, Huntley's biscuits were encased in airtight tin boxes.
Business expanded on both sides. George Palmer joined the biscuit company in 1841 and increased the turnover still more with his invention of a continuously running biscuit making machine. Joseph Huntley (junior) now run a metal box manufacturing company in conjunction with Messrs Boorne and Stevens. Later expansion in 1921 led the firm to amalgamate with Barclay & Fry of Southwark and Hudson Scott of Carlisle under the banner of Allied Tin Box Makers, later to be known as the Metal Box Company.
PRINTING ON TINS
The first biscuit tins were uncomplicated, with the addition of simply a paper label or paper covering. There were experiments with direct printing onto the tin and onto an alloy mounted
on the tin, but both these methods proved unsatisfactory. The breakthrough came with the advent of transfer printing. The first tin to
be decorated using this process was designed in 1 86 by Owen Jones, who worked for Huntley & Palmer, and who was the compiler of The Grammar of Ornament and Superintendent of the Great Exhibition in 1851. Queen Victoria had graciously allowed Liuntle & Palmer to supply biscuits to the royal household and Owen's tin was made to commemorate this fact.
The next breakthrough came in the 1870s with th development of offset lithography. This method of colour printing had been patented by Barclay & Fry for use on tin surfaces. The patent was sold to Bryant & May who licensed its use to Huntley, Boorne & Stevens. It proved possible to print onto curved surfaces, making it practical to produce tins in a variety of shapes and designs. By the time the patent ran out in 1889, there was a general free-for-all as competitors and manufacturers of other goods, such as sweets, sought to jump on the bandwagon.
Customers could order their tins from a catalogue at the grocers. Designs ranged from the merely pretty to the imaginative and convoluted, making one wonder what shape the biscuits were to fit such unlikely containers.
As manufacturers came to realize the advantages of packing their goods in attractive and desirable tins, more and more designs were produced. All tins were intended for use after the contents had been eaten, and some were made as simulated toys with children in mind. The heyday for these creations was between 1900 and 1915, although decorative tins continued to be produced long after that.
The illustrations on tins are very varied, and they therefore make an attractive display when the tins are grouped together. Displaying them on shelves can be highly effective. The collection shown here features British royalty, and the tins are decorated with a variety of portraits of recent kings.
Biscuit tins were some of the most superb tins ever produced. At first they were simple in shape. Corners were rounded and lids were scrolled or fluted. More complicated designs appeared in 1888 but the heyday was from around 1900.
The tins were intended to appeal to all sections of the public. Tiny powder compacts containing Huntley & Palmer's Iced Gems were aimed at women, while a Sevres casket added elegance to the tea table. Vases in reproduction styles included a stunning Egyptian urn and one that imitated the finest Japanese porcelain. More homely domestic items such as laundry baskets, kitchen ranges, a gilded and veneered chest of drawers, and a fish bowl complete with painted fish were all made of tin.
Men were wooed by wicker fishing creels, world globes, ships and cars, books and bookstands, a longcase clock decorated in Chinoiserie style, and a carriage clock made for McFarlane Lang, which was the first known example of a tin with moveable parts.
Some of the tins produced with children in mind were specially designed to be played with once the contents had been eaten. One example, made for Jacobs, was a splendid gypsy caravan decorated in yellow and green. Windmills, fire engines, dolls' prams with accompanying baby and wheels that turned, log cabins and spinning tops were made in great quantities.
Biscuit and chocolate tins can be extremely difficult to date, unless they were issued to mark certain events. For example, the launch of the Lusitania in 1908 was commemorated by a tin, as was one of Peary's expeditions to the Arctic in 1898. Jacobs and Company replicated the coronation coach in 1937.
Huntley & Palmer's collection of around 12,000 tins has been lodged at Reading
Museum and many of their numerous catalogues have also been preserved. Other museums also have collections of tins, all of which an help with dating.
Very early tins had the maker's name incorporated into the design on the box but by the mid-1880s the name was placed on the inside of the lid or the base of the tin.
Some designs for tins were issued over a period of time. The bookstand was issued in more than one form for about ten years. Sometimes a date can be found printed on the spine of one of the books. But to confuse the collector stil further, more than one manufacturer used or copied the same design. The 'Bluebird', thought to be based on the Martin Brothers' grotesque pottery birds, was produced by no less than four different manufacturers at different times.
CLUES TO THE DATE
Styles, fashions and events give clues to age, such as the Egyptian Vase which has a definite art deco feel and which was made for Huntley & Palmer ii 1924 to coincide with the finds of Howard Carter in Egypt. Transport and ships also reflected the times, so a Crawford's fire engine can be dated to the 1930s.
Sizes of tins vary. Huntley & Palmer and Peek Frean produced miniature tins around 1890 which contained Ginger Nuts, Fancy Shortbread
and Opera Wafers.
The more adventurous the design of the tin, the more collectable. A favourite with collectors is the bookstand or library, and also the tin designed as a group of eight books held together by a leather strap. Over 650,000 of these were issued over the years but they are still extremely desirable. Any tin with moving parts will be at a premium; the fire engine mentioned above was sold at auction in November 1993 for a staggering sum. Decoration, too, plays its part in desirability. The
longcase clock is stunning, with
designs in black and gold.
Crawford and Sons copied Persian designs in glowing colours for one of their tins, while Huntley & Palmer produced a Middle Eastern table in 1903 that imitated inlaid hardwood. It was additionally decorated with religious symbols in blue, red, green, white and gold.
CHECK THE CONDITION
When buying tins, condition is all-important. They were much used, not only for biscuits or chocolates, but as tea caddies, button boxes, and containers for just about everything and, as a result, suffered hard usage. Check for dents, splits and for deteriorating transfer and litho work.
Early transfer-printed tins should never be allowed to get wet as this will cause a bloom on the surface, ruining the tin. Litho-printed tins can be dabbed gently with damp cotton wool and a little good quality soap to remove surface grime. They should then be dried by placing them in an oven at a very low heat. While still hot, cover them with a coating of plain, clear white wax (not a silicone polish) ensuring it covers all joints and hinges. When dry and hard, polish gently with a soft cloth.
The Rowntrees chocolate tin that was sent to British troops in the French trenches in 1915. Painted to look like leather, it is stamped with the date and decorated with a portrait of George V and the home countries' flags.