History in a Biscuit Tin: Something to Digest

In 1861, England passed the Licensed Grocer's Act, which allowed for food to be individually packaged and sold. At the same time, trans-Atlantic travelers and British explorers who were investigating the farthest-flung corners of the world needed sustenance that would keep. British tin ore mines were in full swing, and tinned food was born. And of course, being British, one of the first things the English tinned were tea biscuits. In our March Gallery Auction we are offering a single-owner collection of tins, including some of the most sought-after collector's items.

Huntley & Palmers was the first, and best-known, biscuit company to take the biscuit tin beyond the purely utilitarian. They first began to decorate the standard rectangular tin with popular copies of Chinese porcelain patterns and the like, and soon were making the tins in every imaginable shape. After the biscuits were long gone, tins made in the shape of vehicles, toy soldiers, baby prams and more were kept as children's toys, and tins made to look like baskets or vases were used in place of actual baskets and vases.
fullsizeoutput_9aA Selection of Five Biscuit Tins

The tin trend spread to other foodstuffs, and the containers for things like chocolates and throat lozenges also got imaginative upgrades. The tinned food companies soon realized that anything related to the royal family sold well, and tins were made to commemorate royal weddings and jubilees. Queen Victoria had tins of chocolate with her face on them sent to the soldiers in the Boer War, and during WWI the young Princess Mary sent gifts of Christmas tins to soldiers on all fronts.
fullsizeoutput_9bAn Assortment of Tins Relating to British RoyaltyAn Assortment of Tins Relating to British Royalty

Biscuit (and other) tins were at their most elaborate just before WWI. The course of European relations and tensions can be traced in some of the most collectible tins, such as the one below that was made featuring a German soldier, until German aggression on the Continent caused the biscuit manufacturer to replace the German soldier with a Belgian one.

belgian-soldier "Sentries" From A Group of Military Related Biscuit Tins

During WWII, production of decorative tins stopped all together as metals and food were rationed for the war effort. When the war was over, the tins never quite regained their former popularity. For today's collectors, that means that the fanciful tins from days past are particularly interesting, as they capture a bygone era so well.

View the full selection of tins in the March Gallery Auction

Content created by the Leland Little editorial team