Vintage lithographed tin boxes are little time machines, bringing you the charming kitsch of the late 19th century
It was in grandpa’s wardrobe for as long as I had known. A slim tin box with a removable lid featuring a bonny blue-eyed girl holding a snowy dog. It was a gift for his sons, and once its contents were over, grandma had decided it was perfect to store grandpa’s pocket squares. And quite a collection he had of jewel-tones in silk and satin. Grandpa was a stickler for discipline, so it was a treat for us grandkids to be allowed to open this box, select a piece that matched with the tie and turban.
Grandpa passed away a few years ago at the ripe age of 90. His box, however, continues to be at the same spot in his wardrobe, and opening it now is like unlocking a treasure trove of memories, with each kerchief bringing alive a story, some that go back to his newly-married days in Rawalpindi. All these years it was the inside, rather than the box itself, which had held a charm. That was until recently when, by accident, I came across the vintage section of an e-commerce site selling a box similar to the one in grandpa’s cupboard. I nearly fell off the chair when I noticed it had a price tag of $51 or Rs 3,400 approximately. The seller’s description read ‘Morton Pure Confectioner litho tin box with girl and dog picture’.
I immediately reached out for grandpa’s box. On flipping it over, as in the online image, I found Morton written in small golden letters. It was a toffee box, from a brand set up in 1849 by JT Morton in Aberdeen, Scotland. The firm later became C&E Morton, which had commercial interests in India and, in 1928, a local magnate bought its rights. The Morton brand was registered here in 1947 and is now owned by Oudh Sugar Mills Ltd. A simple tin box had opened up chapters of a remarkable legacy, hidden away from the limelight.
Morton was among the few early-20th century companies that had opted to package its confectionery items in lithographed tin boxes. Today, like a lot else, these have far outlived their original purpose to become collectors’ items and there’s a whole legion of enthusiasts out there in the cyber world sharing their collection and tales of what those boxes held: from chessmen to toy train sets to sewing essentials, laces, locks and a lot more.
Lithographed tin boxes, the kind we’re familiar with now, emerged on the shelves in 1882 when chromolithography was invented. A series of colour plates were used for the process, as a result of which multi-colour tin-sheets could be produced. By 1890, embossing was also introduced in the design and brand names began appearing in relief, often in an attractive gold finish.
The birth of the tin can, the predecessor to the box, however, goes back to 1810 when British merchant Peter Durand was issued a patent for his idea of “preserving food in an iron can coated with tin”. The early 19th century saw the rapid growth of industrialisation and cooking food out of a tin, as opposed to preparing fresh food, became a status symbol. By 1820, tinned food was being widely sold across England, France and the US.
The early cans/boxes had paper labels on them. The first lithographed tin box, not multi-colour till then, with removable or hinged lid, is said to have been commissioned in 1868 by British biscuit manufacturers Huntley & Palmers. As the popularity of their decorated containers grew worldwide, litho tins were renamed biscuit tins and, soon, other confectioners followed suit, offering cakes, toffees and later chocolates. Idyllic landscapes, picturesque town scenes, famous paintings, exquisite regal settings, floral designs or happy baby faces were used generously in an effort to woo the target buyer — women and children. Christmas, coronation and royal births saw limited-edition theme boxes.
Litho tins arrived in India at the beginning of the 20th century and became fashionable soon enough. Till a few decades after the Partition, most tins were decorated with European themes. Mid-Sixties onward, the Indian sensibility crept in and, alongside Victorian patterns, calendar art gods-goddesses, mythological tales, protagonists of folk legends, grand palaces, national symbols such as the tiger, lotus and the Tricolour graced tin boxes of companies like Nutrine and Parle as well as a host of mithai and confectioner shops throughout the country. Unlike today, when brand names are splashed boldly across a product, the images did the talking while the trade name stayed almost hidden, usually on the rear or the sides in small font.
Over the centuries, the charming patterns and shapes were what appealed to buyers, who would put the boxes to good use long after the goodies inside had been polished off. While tin boxes were being lovingly preserved and recycled in homes across the world, who could have thought these would become collector items some day.