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Chocolate-box art and commemorative royal souvenirs

Posted in Anniversary, Art, Artist, Arts and Crafts, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Thursday, 29 March 2012

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This edited article about packaging originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 679 published on 18 January 1975.

Sweet shop, picture, image, illustration

Attractive packaging for confectionery was important for occasions like Easter, just as specific designer packaging was used to commemorate state occasions like Coronations, producing chocolate boxes, tins and of course, mugs.

If the packets we see in the shops today are a lot smarter though a little less individual than the packs of earlier generations, this could be due to the influence of professional package designers.

Such designers were almost unknown before the late 1920s, when they came into their own in America and in Germany. In England they were unknown until the early 1930s.

The first package design course in any English art school was included in the 1932-3 syllabus of Goldsmith’s College, London, and it was the first of many.

The designer of packs nowadays is concerned with the size and shape of the package, the choice of materials for it, the way it opens and closes, its colours, and its layout and lettering.

At times he has to compromise between his own idea of what is good design, what his client the manufacturer insists on having, and what the market researchers tell him is “what the public wants”. So a degree of similarity in many present-day package designs is only to be expected.

Before the professional all-round package designer came on the scene, the manufacturer’s thoughts on design – if he thought about design at all – were usually concentrated on the pictures which were to appear on his packs, and who was to draw, or paint or engrave them for him. When we look back, we can trace all the artistic fashions from eighteenth-century classic elegance to modern art in package design. But very often, a style reached packaging when it was being labelled old-fashioned in other art-forms.

There are at least two good reasons why this was bound to happen. First, in the days before advertising agencies flourished, the manufacturer of packaged goods was his own art director, and manufacturers’ tastes in art tended to favour the established rather than the progressive. Second, not many artists were employed in the boxmaking and allied industries. The few that were, earned their living as careful, craftsmanlike followers of style, rather than trend-setters.

This can only be a generalisation, because most of these artists were unknown to the public. It happens, however, that three artists of some eminence were involved in packaging just over a century ago, and it is worthwhile looking into the different skills of these three pioneers – one a gifted amateur, the other two professionals.

The amateur was Richard Cadbury, elder son of the founder of the Cadbury firm. The first Cadbury chocolate assortment was in the shops early in the 1860s, and Richard’s first pictorial box-top design appeared in 1868. It depicted his six-year-old daughter with a kitten. Children were to remain his favourite subjects, and often his own family served as models.

It is said that he painted his pictures in spare moments at home. Holidays in Switzerland gave him an additional range of subjects, such as Swiss lakes, mountains, and Alpine flowers.

The firm gained a lot of publicity in the trade papers of the day, as a result of Richard Cadbury’s artistic ability. He also showed practical ability in finding printers who could satisfactorily reproduce his paintings in full colour. At that time, colour printing was very much scarcer than it is nowadays.

Another, and a more versatile, artist of the same period was Owen Jones. He was an architect and the designer of the colour-scheme for the Great Exhibition of 1851. He had studied the Moorish architecture of Spain so closely, and illustrated it so well in his books, that he was sometimes nicknamed Alhambra Jones.

In the context of package design, we first hear of Jones in 1863, when he designed a label for Allsopp’s ale bottles. Soon afterwards he was designing wrappers for De La Rue’s playing cards, and tins and labels for Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits. They are so ornate as to make a noticeable contrast with most package designs of recent years.

The third name which has come down from the 1860s is that of Fred Walker, R.A. Born in 1840, Walker died young in 1875, and it was not long before he died that he achieved some fame as the first-ever Royal Academician to design a poster. Before that, while still in his 20s, he had been persuaded by Joseph Thorley to draw a farmyard scene for the paper packets of Thorley’s Food for Cattle. The product and the package design both stayed in use for many years.

The first recorded criticism of package designs for being too attractive was made in July 1908, when a writer in the firemen’s journal Fire expressed his disapproval of “the practice amongst match makers of printing nursery rhymes and illustrations on the boxes of safety matches”. He saw this practice as “a thoughtless incentive to play with matches”. In London in the year before, 140 fires had been caused by children doing that.

It is strange that there is no record of outstanding artists being brought in to design the most special of all packages – those which have been produced to commemorate notable events. Such packages have been issued on a great number of great occasions – from the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840, through such assorted happenings as the discovery of the Australian goldfields and the building of Holborn Viaduct, to the coronation of our Queen in 1953.

They have usually been designed to last, as souvenirs should, and have been kept in families from one generation to another. In this respect, they are unlike all the everyday packs, from chocolate wrappers to jam jars, which are thrown away. Many of these special packs have been metal boxes, which have lasted in some numbers. You may still come across them, from time to time, in museums or antique shops.

It is a happy feature of the history of packaging that anyone may discover some evidence of it while digging in a garden, when your spade may unearth a container from the past. While helping an elderly aunt to sort out her workbox or helping your uncle to rummage through his tool shed you may find a coronation souvenir.

During the two world wars, paper and metal were collected for salvage, so that they could be re-cycled for use in the war effort. Despite this, early packages still remain, and finding them provides scope for an interesting hobby.

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