A Neatly Packaged Obsession: Confessions of a Collector
Do you ever wonder what happened to that brand of sweets you loved as a child? Why a brand disappeared or how the brands and the corner shop that sold them has evolved? These are the sort of questions that have spurred on my collecting of old packaging for over twenty three years.
I was thirteen when I purchased my first chemist’s bottle, a small blue poison bottle containing formaldehyde. I still have the bottle and when I look at it I can still remember the feeling of euphoria as I travelled home with the piece that sparked my collection. That first bottle cost me three pounds and was found in a little antique shop (a former mill) that was run by Phil Tranter a butcher who retired into antique dealing. After this initial purchase I scoured every antique shop, flea market, car boot sale and junk shop for bottles. Initially I think it was the coloured glass that inspired me to collect and certainly my early purchases were mainly glass bottles, but then when I was sixteen a family friend Vinny Raine bought me a small collection of items for Christmas that would change my pattern of collecting. Knowing that I was collecting chemist’s bottles, she had been looking for a gift that would add to my collection and eventually she came across a small collection of tins, bottles and packaging that had once formed the contents of someone’s medicine cupboard. In the collection was a bottle of Sloane’s Liniment complete with its original box, tins of ointment, a bottle of camphor oil, curious cures and a bottle of medicinal olive oil. The various lotions and potions all had their original labels and this started a new fascination for me, my interest suddenly moved away from the beauty of the glass bottles and became about the brands and the people that used them.
Old packaging often tells a story of forgotten brands and changing trends. For me every piece of packaging tells a story and is a peep into British culture. In my life nostalgia is certainly not a thing of the past instead it is something that I try to lovingly preserve for the next generation to cherish. My home has been taken over by collection and in my 1930’s home all the rooms are filled with advertising ephemera, old shop stuff, chemist’s bottles, packaging and tins.
I add to my collection on a weekly basis and I am always looking for things to add to the collection. When I take packaging along to talks or festivals that I am involved in people are often surprised to discover how far back some brands go, for example people don’t expect to see 1930’s packaging for Milky Way or Polo Mints.
Perhaps collecting old shop items and grocery packaging is truly in my blood as in my maternal lineage is a history of shop keepers and I was delighted to finally find a photograph of my ancestors shop courtesy of local historian, Bill Mayo. I can’t help wishing that I could time travel and go back to see the inside of this shop for it must have been a dream for a packaging collector like me.
My collection revolves around packaging from domestic life; so things you would find in the pantry such as old glass jars of Shipman’s paste, flour bags, and powdered milk tins; tins of butter, coffee and tea packets and even early crisp packets with the contents. I then have a collection of domestic cleaning items such as Sunlight soap, early washing powders such as Rinso and even early floor and furniture polishes, these all show how our tastes changed and how our domestic cleaning has changed. I have a shoe box that contains brands of shoe polish that are long since gone, such as canary polish, but what I love is the advertisement inside the box for a 60’s Ronsons Roto Shine, an electric shoe shiner. It shows how trends were changing and gadgetry was becoming ever popular, but a pair of highly shined shoes was still a requirement of ‘modern’ life.
Then there are the things that belong in the medicine cabinet, I love reading the claims of old cure all remedies such as ‘Bile Beans’ and who could resist chemist compounds with statements such as ‘’the ointment’’ handwritten on the pot? One of my favourite items is a Wright’s Coal Tar Inhaler and Vaporizer, dating from around 1910. Originally this device was used to cure anything from influenza to croup. It may seem strange to breathe in cold tar fumes nowadays, but this is from an era when Doctors would tell the mothers of children with chest complaints to take them to the site of roadwork’s and allow them to breath in the tar fumes to clear their chests, how times have changed.
Like any collector I have my favourite pieces and as the collection grows my favourite pieces often change, but my collection of fairy dyes will always be special as I just adore the vibrant colours and beautiful artwork. There is sentimentality attached to the early pieces in my collection, but also to my collection of cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottles, for every time I dust these bottles I think of my late Grandmother, Minnie. Milk of Magnesia was used for generations to combat indigestion, ulcers and upset tummies and whilst it has now been outlawed by the European Union when I was a child this was my Nan’s favourite cure-all remedy and so in a way these bottles are a snippet of my childhood.
I have a particular love of chocolate, sweet and packaging because this is an area that manufacturers just keep trying to re-invent. The sedate Victorian chocolate boxes with their refined designs are such a contrast to the designs of the 60’s that were bold and brash. These changes were linked to the changes in how we shopped. During the 1950’s and 1960’s brands needed to update for the new self-service supermarkets. The corner shop and traditional grocers was being replaced by the self-service store and therefore brands had to create a greater visibility, because instead of the grocer filling up your basket, you had to do it yourself. Suddenly if it wasn’t a bright and bold brand, you wouldn’t see it and packaging started to be more about design and less about practical, necessity. For example a product like Typhoo tea in the 50’s had a long term strategy of changing the colour from grey to red.
When I look at old packaging I always reflect on how much brands mean to people; I appreciate how people grow up with brands and they become a well-loved friend; the buying of a particular brand is comforting and gives a sense of security and perhaps even memories of childhood as tastes change people stop buying brands and they disappear being resigned to the dusty shelves of brand history. There are more brands that have disappeared than have survived things like Mazawattee tea (once a market leader), Palethorpes sausages and Packers chocolate. Then of course there are some things that never change for example Tate and Lyles Golden Syrup is still in a tin bearing a design that was launched in 1885.
I am passionate about collecting the tins, containers and packets that represent our shopping and consumerism. I still get a buzz when I buy a new piece and with thousands of items in my current collection perhaps I should think about opening a museum.