A Christmas Toy Party: 1898

toy costume party 3

HERE’S A CHARMING CHRISTMAS TOY PARTY.

Ever Hear of the Like?

Delightfully Novel Entertainment for the Children in the Yuletide Season.

Thirty boys and girls in less than half as many homes were in a flutter of excitement. Little girls asked to go see other little girls—“just for a few minutes”—and boys gathered in knots and with curious gestures, seemingly explanatory, discussed an apparently important subject.

Sometimes the boys and girls would meet, and one would hear, “what are you going to be?” or “I’m going as an elephant.t”

Then some young wiseacre would say, “Really, I do not think we ought to tell each other,” and another wiseacre would respond, “Why not? We are going to wear our own faces, and, as everybody will know everybody else, I think it is much better to tell each other, ‘cause then there will not be so many of one kind.” Now this was a very sage and philosophical conclusion, as it afterward proved, because at the toy party that occasioned all this animation there were scarcely two toys alike to be seen.

Each as a Favorite Toy. The invitations to the party had been sent by a young lady—a pet friend of every boy and girl asked—and she had requested each small guest to appear in the character of his or her favorite toy. She also suggested that as girls might not care for animals or manly toys, each of them come dressed like her own dearest doll, and that the boys appear as bears, dogs, wolves, elephants, monkeys, goats, horses, lambs, donkeys, &cc., or as firemen, policemen, soldiers or sailors, like those seen on toy engines, boats, &c., or else that mechanical figures like dancing Sambos, organ grinders, gymnasts, acrobats, &c., supply ideas for some of the costumes. She said she preferred to have them mostly animals, but would leave the matter to them and their mothers.

One thing, however, she must insist upon—every boy and girl must be in a costume representing a toy or a doll, and any boy or girl coming in any other costume would be sent home. Of course, this seemed rather arbitrary, but the young hostess was simply endeavoring to make the party a perfect success, and to do this there must be no strangers among the toys. Mammas very soon saw the point, and right heartily entered into the sport of attiring their young hopefuls for this particular occasion.

Naturally there was some argument as to which doll a little daughter or two should represent, for with the strange perversity of childhood in such matters several of the best beloved dolls were minus a limb or so, had lost an eye or the tip of a nose, or proved to be rather ragged and soiled specimens of homemade manufacture. This matter was finally satisfactorily adjusted.

In the meantime other mothers were having troubles of their own with the young sons of their families, who wouldn’t stand still to be fitted to costumes made of fuzzy stuffs like canton flannel, astrakhan, &c., and who insisted on having their say as to the cut of an ear or the hang of a tail. Then openings had to be devised for faces so that the heads of the animals would not smother the wearers nor obstruct their vision.

All this was successfully accomplished at last, and on December 26, about seven o’clock, the guests were to come early—lovely dolls and great big toys were seen walking out of houses that were not toy shops and into a large brown stone one uptown that had always been known as a private residence.

The hostess beamed, cordially upon each, and when they were all gathered in the large parlor you never saw a prettier, more novel sight.

toy costume party

Poodle and Donkey.

A French poodle—as a boy, he once had a black astrakhan coat that looked just like his present fur—minced along, waving his paws and wagging a tasseled tail and looking hungry. Later on his little tricks secured him many a bonbon and tidbit. A donkey, who wore in addition to his canton flannel costume a high, white swell collar, had bad luck in securing smiles from the dolls; a big policemen helped them, beautifully, to cross the room in escape, and then returned to the pretty nurse maid doll he had found sitting in a corner. It was all quite natural, you know.

About nine o’clock the tapping of a drum was hear and the hostess said she would now present her guests to Santa Claus, who had dropped in quite unexpectedly and been asked to stay and assist her with the rest of the entertainment—what that meant they did not know. Well, she drew back the doors and there was a fine Christmas tree. The children—no, the toys—were much surprised and wondered if little boys and girls were going to be given them as presents. As for Santa Claus, he threw up his hands in great astonishment and looked half frightened at the sight before him.

When all of the gifts were distributed Santa Claus announced that if any “animal” present was dissatisfied with a doll as a gift, he was privileged to exchanged it with any “doll” who was not pleased with her present. It was surprising how quickly some of those gifts changed hands.

After a few pretty games and a dance or two refreshments were served in the dining room. They consisted of sandwiches and cakes shaped like dolls and animals; ice cream that was moulded to represent fruit, vegetables, frogs, comic figures and flowers, and lemon and orangeade, both pink and yellow.

New York Herald 11 December 1898: p. 3

toy costume party2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A charming conceit, although the illustration of the cat costume explains why Santa Claus appeared half frightened and the idea of toys being given little girls and boys for presents is a surreal one.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

 

Christmas With the Dyaks of South Borneo: 1893

Christmas With the Dyaks of South Borneo.  

We can not be too thankful, my young friends, that we live in a Christian country where the people are wise, temperate, and rational, and jealously guard the beautiful institutions of the past and, prevent them from being corrupted.

 I am now going to tell you about the Dyaks of South Borneo, who are, perhaps, the most degraded race of savages in existence, and to tell you how they spend their Christmas, so that you may be thankful that you live among a happier and wiser people.

These ignorant savages almost ruin themselves every time that Christmas comes round, by indulging in a horrible custom which they call “Giving Presents.” Every Dyak feels it incumbent upon himself or herself to give presents to every one of his or her family, even to the remotest branches; and no matter how little the giver may be able to afford it, he or she must give — or lose social position. Upon their children, in particular, they lavish costly gifts, presenting them with elaborate and delicate toys which can only mar and break, and from which they can derive no enjoyment. They also give to their children a peculiar native product called “Candy,” which destroys the digestion and ruins the teeth.

Another horrible practice of the Dyaks is called “Gathering at the Old Home.” People who have left their home in early childhood, and who have had every reason for so doing, and none whatsoever for returning, profane the sacred day that should be set apart for harmony and good-will toward men, by reassembling under the ancestral roof in an unhappy body of relatives inspired with a profound and thorough sentiment of mutual hatred. Thus they make what should be an occasion of gladness and merriment a day of unpleasantness to themselves and each to the other. You would think, would you not, that people whose tastes do not lead them to meet oftener than once a year would know enough to keep away from each other? Well, the Dyaks of Borneo know no better than this.

Let me tell you one more thing about the Dyaks of Borneo, and you will see how completely they manage to spoil this beautiful crown of all the year’s holidays. They fix for these horrible gatherings an unusual and inconvenient dinner-hour, generally arranging it so that they are obliged to wait an hour or two beyond their usual time of taking food. Thus, when they do sit down to their meal, they eat too much, and become stupid and uncomfortable, as well as cross to each other.  

Are you not glad that you live among a wise, temperate, sensible people, who know how to enjoy their blessings rationally, and not among benighted savages like the Dyaks of Borneo, who have such a disagreeable Christmas?—Puck.

 The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 5 December 1893

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil hopes that you have been blessed with families more sensible and more agreeable than the aforementioned tribes.  It is shocking, is it not, to find that the same complaints about the expense and familial discord of the holidays persist even today?

 

Christmas Presents Given by Royalty: 1910

 

Early 20th-century carnelian frog, similar to the one mentioned in the story. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2008/imperial-and-royal-presents-l08911/lot.91.html

Early 20th-century carnelian frog, similar to the one mentioned in the story. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2008/imperial-and-royal-presents-l08911/lot.91.html

Christmas Presents Given by Royalty

Although many people nowadays affect to despise the good old custom of giving presents at Christmas time, the members of the royal family of England show no sympathy with the new fad. Indeed present-giving seems likely to always continue a leading feature of the royal Christmas, for both the King and the Queen are great upholders of the custom, and their Majesties are kept busy for several weeks before the festive season making a careful selection of Christmas presents form the many novelties sent for their inspection by the tradespeople of London and Windsor. These are brought to Buckingham Palace and arranged on tables in the reception-rooms, which resemble nothing so much as smart bazaars by the time all the goods are laid out, each marked in plain figures that leave no doubt as to their exact price. The King and Queen, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and most of the members of the royal family make the majority of their Christmas purchases in this manner, although some of the younger royalties are to be met in the West End shops buying their Christmas gifts like all the rest of the world.

The late King favoured jewelry and novelties in the form of tie-pins, studs, enamelled buttons, jewelled cigar and cigarette holders, walking-sticks, snuff-cases, and rare editions of valuable books for giving to friends and relations at Christmas time; while his Majesty’s public and private bounty to retainers was wide-reaching. The King’s Christmas doles (given by the lord High Almoner at the Royal Almony, St. James’ Palace, each Christmas, and known as the minor bounty, and the Royal Gate Alms) provided for no less than a thousand old people chosen by clergymen all over England and Wales.

QUEEN’S GIFTS OF OLD LACE

The Queen gives beautiful embroidery, old lace, fans and costly Russian enamels to her friends as gifts; and apropos of this, a story is told concerning an agate frog of small dimensions with diamond eyes given to a lady by her Majesty a little while ago. A friend having admired it, the recipient ordered a replica to be made, and, to her horror and surprise, got a bill for eighty-eight guineas for the trifle.

Of great interest are the special gifts designed by her Majesty for old friends, these take the form of ivory and tortoise-shell crochet and knitting pins, surmounted with a diamond and enamelled crown, while below is an A in diamonds.

Snapshots taken by her Majesty, mounted and inscribed with the Queen’s autograph and Christmas greetings, are other favourite presents. To the cottagers and servants at Sandringham her Majesty is especially generous, giving the children on the estate scarlet cloaks and toys, while the servants receive black silk dresses and books from their royal mistress. Perhaps the most carefully-chosen of all the Queen’s Christmas presents are the toys destined for her little grandchildren. These are presented on Christmas afternoon, off the Queen’s own Christmas tree, the gifts being handed to her Majesty by a gentleman-in-waiting, and the Queen bestowing every one herself. Nor are these the only little ones who receive toys from her Majesty at Christmas.

During the weeks preceding Christmas Day royal omnibuses are often to be seen outside the various hospitals, while royal footmen deliver great packages of gifts bearing a label inscribed in her Majesty’s own handwriting: “Toys from Queen Alexandra, for the little children at the hospital.”

The Princess of Wales also gives largely to hospitals, her Christmas gifts taking the form of quantities of linen, also clothes of her own making and toys from her children’s nursery. Like the Duchess of Argyll, the Princess favors artistic Christmas gifts, and buys quantities of rich embroideries, carvings, pottery, water colors and enamels for distribution.

Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 25 December 1910: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: As is often the way when the American press reports on the activities of royalty, certain inaccuracies have crept in. King Edward VII had died on 6 May 1910, so he is correctly referred to as “the late King.” However, at the date of this printing, there was no Prince and Princess of Wales to shop at the Buckingham Palace bazaar. Edward, who became Prince of Wales on 23 June 1910 was unmarried. Given the context of the article, it is apparent that the Prince and Princess of Wales are actually King George V and Queen Mary. One suspects that this was an article written during the lifetime of King Edward VII and slightly touched up for a later printing, carelessly leaving in the outmoded information.

What is accurate is the royal fondness for bijoux novelties such as tie-pins and cigarette cases and carved hardstone animals from the house of Fabergé, although that distinguished atelier is not mentioned by name. Queen Alexandra commissioned Fabergé to create hardstone portraits of some of the King’s favourite animals at Sandringham. Queen Mary was even more of an enthusiast for Fabergé’s trifles in enamel and gemstones. See this link for information and photographs about the Royal Trust Collection of Fabergé.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

Reginald on Christmas Presents by Saki: 1904

Useless, homemade Christmas gifts, 1906

Useless, homemade Christmas gifts, 1906

The incomparable Saki on Christmas presents.

Reginald on Christmas Presents.

I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.

There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.

There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road. It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds–for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder aesthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.

There is my Aunt Agatha, par exemple, who sent me a pair of gloves last Christmas, and even got so far as to choose a kind that was being worn and had the correct number of buttons. But–they were nines! I sent them to a boy whom I hated intimately: he didn’t wear them, of course, but he could have–that was where the bitterness of death came in. It was nearly as consoling as sending white flowers to his funeral. Of course I wrote and told my aunt that they were the one thing that had been wanting to make existence blossom like a rose; I am afraid she thought me frivolous–she comes from the North, where they live in the fear of Heaven and the Earl of Durham. (Reginald affects an exhaustive knowledge of things political, which furnishes an excellent excuse for not discussing them.) Aunts with a dash of foreign extraction in them are the most satisfactory in the way of understanding these things; but if you can’t choose your aunt, it is wisest in the long-run to choose the present and send her the bill.

Even friends of one’s own set, who might be expected to know better, have curious delusions on the subject. I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyam. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald’s notes, to his aged mother. Lift-boys always have aged mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.

Personally, I can’t see where the difficulty in choosing suitable presents lies. No boy who had brought himself up properly could fail to appreciate one of those decorative bottles of liqueurs that are so reverently staged in Morel’s window–and it wouldn’t in the least matter if one did get duplicates. And there would always be the supreme moment of dreadful uncertainty whether it was creme de menthe or Chartreuse–like the expectant thrill on seeing your partner’s hand turned up at bridge. People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.

And then, of course, there are liqueur glasses, and crystallised fruits, and tapestry curtains, and heaps of other necessaries of life that make really sensible presents- -not to speak of luxuries, such as having one’s bills paid, or getting something quite sweet in the way of jewellery. Unlike the alleged Good Woman of the Bible, I’m not above rubies. When found, by the way, she must have been rather a problem at Christmas-time; nothing short of a blank cheque would have fitted the situation. Perhaps it’s as well that she’s died out.

The great charm about me (concluded Reginald) is that I am so easily pleased.

But I draw the line at a “Prince of Wales” Prayer-book.

Reginald, Saki, 1904

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: As the receipient of many ill-advised Christmas boxes, Mrs Daffodil is not surprised to find that there was once a movement (with, it must be admitted, an absurd acronym) to aid the victims of Christmas atrocities such as pictured above.

SOCIETY FOR PREVENTION OF USELESS GIVING IN N.Y.

New York, Nov. 5. The S.P.U.G., which may be recognized as the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, met with such success in its campaign last Christmas that it is on the warpath early again this year against the useless Christmas present.

“The Spug” are mainly department store girls, who under the leadership of Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont, Miss Annie Morgan, and others who found the years’ savings annually depleted by the obligation to contribute towards presents for men and women “higher up.” The idea of freeing themselves from this “Christmas graft” and all forms of useless giving spread like wild fire and many others joined the crusade.

The leaders liken the movement to that of the “Safe and Sane Fourth” idea which has been so widely adopted. The campaign this year is to be begun with a great rally on November 11. The object of the society is “to eliminate by co-operative effort the custom of giving indiscriminately at Christmas and to further in every way the true Christmas spirit of unselfish and independent thought, good will and sympathetic understanding of the real needs of others.”

Winston-Salem [NC] Journal 6 November 1913: p. 7

A slightly later article added: “Every Spug must wear a membership pin and pledge himself to aid in the fight against the useless Christmas present. The cost of the pin is covered in the membership dues, which are 10 cents a year. Five hundred persons enrolled in Washington in one day, according to reports received by the Spugs’ headquarters here.”

Mrs Daffodil has previously written on little Bertie’s quest for hand-made presents, choosing presents for soldiers, and hints for gentlemen attempting to choose presents for ladies. That generous person over at Hauntedohiobooks.com tells of “Leeches, Radium, and a Corpse in a Box:” strange Christmas presents of the past.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

 

A Children’s Christmas Cottage: 1850s

orianda house

Orianda House, on the Winan’s Crimea Estate near Baltimore, Maryland

CHRISTMAS IN THE CRIMEA.

“The Crimea is the home of a country estate within pleasant driving distance of the city of Baltimore, belonging to Mr. Thomas Winans of Russian railway fame.

Close by the suburban mansion is a cottage, or rather, an elegant and commodious playhouse, which Santa Claus erected in a single night for the Winans children about twenty years since. Grace Greenwood, a frequent guest of the family, says of it:

“The small mansion was constructed in sections, and the furniture manufactured to order in town; everything marvelously complete. The children knew nothing of it. There was nothing on the lawn before their windows when they went to bed on Christmas Eve, but while they slept there were mysterious arrivals of wagons and workmen from Baltimore, and great doings by moonlight and lamplight. All night they worked, the carpenters and upholsterers, and at dawn gathered up their traps like the fairies and as silently stole away. In the morning the mother going to take the children, happened to look out on the lawn, and with an excellent imitation of innocence, exclaimed at the surprising sight, and then of course, the children ran pell-mell to see what the marvelous thing could be, and beheld the charming little villa, gay and bright, its windows flashing in the sun, and a fancy flag floating from its tower. The edifice was not of such fairy proportions that they could not keep house in it handsomely, and entertain their little friends and mamma and even papa, if he could stoop a little and make himself as small as he comfortably could. Washington Letter to N. Y. Times, May 4th, 1874.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A charming fancy!  Not unlike the parents who assemble toys and bicycles on Christmas Eve, only rather on a more extravagant scale.

The Winans residence on the Crimea Estate, known as Orianda House, still stands.  The children’s villa was a miniature replica. One can judge by the photo-gravures of the elaborate mansion how charming it must have been. Mrs Daffodil is told by the caretaker that the structure survived until the 1950s, but it has vanished. However the mansion is open for visitors and events. Here is more information on the house and the Winans family.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

 

An Excellent Likeness of Miss Mavis Martincourt: A Supernatural Tale: 1906

 

Wife of "spirit photographer" William Mumler and her spirit guide "Benjamin Rush." http://events.unc.edu/event/spooks-and-spirit-photographs-a-special-halloween-tour/

Wife of “spirit photographer” William Mumler and her spirit guide “Benjamin Rush.” http://events.unc.edu/event/spooks-and-spirit-photographs-a-special-halloween-tour/

Another supernatural tale to tell at Christmas-tide.

Is the Soul a Substance?

Surpassing in its miraculous qualities all the astounding things ever before predicated of so-called physico-psychic phenomena is the story of what happened to Miss Mavis Martincourt through the devilish magic of a London photographer’s camera lens. The facts of the story—a story which is now agitating all scientific England—are briefly these: A certain young woman (Miss Mavis Martincourt, as she will henceforth be known in the public discussion and investigation of her strange case, it being desirable for obvious reasons to conceal her real identity to all save the scientists immediately concerned in her examination), who lives with her mother in one of the fashionable residential districts adjacent to the English metropolis, made an appointment with a certain well-known London photographer.

On the day specified—which happens to have been only some four or five weeks ago —Miss Martincourt appeared at the appointed hour. The photographic exposure was made and the young lady departed, after receiving the customary assurance from the photographer that proofs would be sent her in due time. A week elapsed and a letter came to Miss Martincourt saying the photographs were not a success and asked for another sitting.

She responded at once and a second photograph was taken. A short time elapsed, and as no proofs were sent she wrote making inquiries. In reply came a most apologetic letter, saying that once again the photographs had been failures and asking for a third sitting. Miss Martincourt is a good-natured, merry girl, and without the slightest display of annoyance she came up to London a third time, though she was seriously inconvenienced by it, being at the time in the midst of trousseau preparation for her wedding to an English officer in India, which had been set for the coming June.

During this third sitting the photographer inquired as delicately as he could regarding the condition of her health, whether she suffered from headaches, sleeplessness, etc. —inquiries which at the time puzzled and amused her, for she had never felt better or been happier before in all her life.

The photographer, apparently somewhat chagrined that he should have failed twice-hand running, took extraordinary precautions to have everything right on this occasion. Miss Martincourt went away assuring herself that this time her patience should be rewarded.

Imagine, then, her consternation when two days later she received instead of the proofs, an urgent letter asking her to come up to London immediately and to bring a friend with her to the studio. As a result of this letter Miss Martincourt, her good nature now quite put to the test, was obliged to leave her modiste and milliners a fourth time and journey up to London. She took with her her mother, the widow of a well-known Kentish country gentleman. Arriving at the studio, the photographer attempted to explain—or apologize for what they at first assumed to be a third failure to take the young lady’s picture, and then he exhibited the amazing results of the three sittings.

What the astonished mother and daughter saw on all three negatives was an excellent likeness of Miss Mavis Martincourt, but in each plate there was to be seen standing behind her the figure of a man holding a dagger in his uplifted hand. The features, though faint, were clearly discernible, and to her horror Miss Martincourt recognized them as those of her fiancé, an officer in the Indian army.

The young lady went back to the quiet old seventeenth century house in Kent, orders were given to the modistes and the milliners to suspend operations and a brief and formal letter, accompanied by a ring, dispatched to a far-away military station in the hill region of Northern Burmah.

The incident, vouched for by the photographer and by the family of Miss Martincourt and proved by the unmistakable evidence of the negative plates themselves, has set all England by the ears. Clerical no less than scientific circles see in the phenomenon indications of vast import. The scientist sees in it but one more of the strange possibilities to be looked for from the development of the principle involved in the violet rays and the all too little known science of optics, while the clerical clement sees in its almost incontrovertible evidence not only that there is such a thing as a human soul, but that that same soul is a substance. The Mountain Pine, Volume 1 1906

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has no opinion about the nature of the soul, but she has grave doubts about the nature of so-called “spirit photographs.” Often sitters went to photographic mediums hoping to obtain an image of a lost loved one. Less often a “spirit” simply appeared on the plate to the astonishment of all. One can only speculate about how much grief and longing had to do with a sitter’s recognition of a blurry and frankly unsatisfying likeness.

However, the story above does not fall into any of the usual “spirit photograph” categories, and is the more puzzling. A Spiritualist might say that a guardian spirit, knowing of the young lady’s approaching nuptials, projected the image or impersonated the fiancé in order to warn her. It is as good an explanation as any, one fears.

That photogenic person over at Haunted Ohio has written about spirit photography here, here, and here.  And here is a previous post about a man whose wife sent him to find her spirit photograph.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

 

The Romance of the Christmas Cracker: 1899

From the Erddig Museum

From the Erddig Museum

COSTLY CHRISTMAS CRACKERS.

THE ROMANCE OF CHRISTMAS PRESENTS.

One somewhat naturally associates the Christmas cracker with the good old times when sentiment was a recognised attribute of human nature.

Nowadays, when the hurry-scurry and bustle of business, the cult of the prosaic and the matter-of-fact, have killed many another fine old custom, it is refreshing to find that the cracker is still with us.

Not only has it kept pace with the times, it is even ahead of them. To this fact it undoubtedly owes its increasing popularity and its avoidance of the fate of many another famous institution—relegation to the shades of oblivion.

The cracker started life in the guise of a slip of fancy paper, containing a sweet and a love motto, called a “kiss motto.” The kiss motto flourished in what we are wont to dolefully describe as the good old days, yet its popularity was as nothing compared with the ever-increasing vogue of the up – to – date cracker.

It is not often that a fancy trade of this description flourishes in this country. Where ideas, artistic treatment, and delicacy of suggestion are required, the phlegmatic British temperament seems to be out of it, and the foreigner rules the roost. However, the cracker trade is largely a British monopoly, which satisfactory condition of affairs is principally due to the enterprise and inventive genius of the firm of Messrs. Tom Smith and Co.  They practically supply the world with its Christmas crackers, and their output has increased year by year till it has reached the colossal annual total of 13,000,000.

This in itself is an amazing fact. Thirteen million crackers placed end to end would reach from London to New York. Packed tightly into one pile they would form a solid vertical column considerably larger and wider than Nelson’s monument. For the purposes of illustration we have taken the liberty of erecting a gigantic cracker in Trafalgar Square in the place of the historic column. It is composed of the crackers used in the British Isles annually, and gives a capital idea of what we spend in this way; yet there are pessimists who tell us that the Christmas cracker is a thing of the past.

Mr. Walter Smith, who may be described as the Napoleon of the trade, was good enough to show me over the works devoted to the industry. They reminded me more of a newspaper office than anything else. As a matter of fact the work of both offices is largely analogous. Both require an extensive printing plant, lithographic and engraving departments, and editorial and artistic staffs.

The Editor-in-chief is Mr. Walter Smith. From his fertile brain emanate the thousand and one ideas that make the firm’s crackers popular throughout the world, and to him every literary and artistic suggestion must be submitted ere it is finally adopted. Many months of hard work and study are often expended on a single idea before it assumes a tangible commercial form. Nor is this to be wondered at when the enormous amount of detail work is taken into consideration. For example, among other novelties for 1898 Messrs. Tom Smith and Co. are producing “crackers from Klondyke,” “Motor-car crackers,” and “Arctic Expedition crackers.”

Contents of some of the up-to-date crackers mentioned.

Contents of some of the up-to-date crackers mentioned.

Each of these crackers requires the most careful study in order to ensure accuracy. The legal crackers contain, in addition to paper wigs, various legal documents. There is a comic bill of costs, a lovers’ agreement, and so forth. Each is beautifully engrossed, and the whole is an absolutely correct model of legal phraseology. Mr. Smith informed me that many weeks of hard work had been expended on the composition of the documents, and I can readily understand it.

Many of the verses are written by casual contributors, and our readers who have a turn for versifying might do much worse than submit their literary efforts to the great cracker firm. Anyway, if accepted, there is something more substantial in prospect than the barren honour of a public appearance in print; a reward too often considered sufficient for the minor poet.

Once the idea and its artistic and literary details are decided upon, a dummy cracker is prepared, and on being finally approved the actual manufacture begins.

As may be supposed, the production of 13,000,000 of these gaily decorated rolls engages the services of an immense staff. Considerably over 1,000 people are employed all the year round in their manufacture, and the consumption of raw material is enormous. In the course of the year more than 100 tons of cardboard are used in the making of cracker boxes. These figures are not surprising when it is remembered that in the height of the season as many as 30,000 boxes are often turned out complete. Another five tons of cardboard go to form the tiny explosive strips known in the trade as detonators. Glue and paste form another heavy item, more than twenty tons being used in crackermaking in the course of the year.

Although Messrs. Smith and Co. are chiefly concerned with the manufacture of the ordinary cracker containing the usual complement of verses, toys, sweetmeats, and caps, they occasionally leave the beaten track and in the case of special orders produce a variety containing presents of much higher value. Not long since they were asked to manufacture a box containing one cracker in which were a pair of gloves and a motto specially composed for the occasion. Needless to say the order came from a masculine source; we safely hazard a guess that it was yet another rendering of the old, old story. How the gentleman ordered affairs so that the particular fair one chose the right cracker from the box must ever remain a mystery.

Generally speaking the largest crackers made are some 12 inches long. They glory in wrappers of the most beautiful design, and are sold singly in specially made boxes. However, on occasion the firm have produced much larger specimens. They have manufactured crackers over three feet in length, containing a full-sized suit of clothes. Their record cracker, however, was that constructed for the harlequinade at Drury Lane pantomime; it was seven feet long. On being pulled by the clown and pantaloon a miniature explosion took place, and a youngster dressed as a sprite emerged from the centre.

7-foot cracker framework

7-foot cracker framework

The wickerwork skeleton of this famous cracker is still preserved by the firm, and those who remember its appearance at Drury Lane will regard our photograph with additional interest.

Our inquiries to the existence of Christmas crackers of unusual value and design have resulted in some facts of unusual interest. Last year a firm in the Midlands were deputed to prepare a special presentation box of crackers for a well-known millionaire. The box took the form of an elegant silver casket, the handiwork of an eminent firm of London silversmiths. millionaire cracker

It contained six crackers, the wrappers of which were composed of figured satin, edged with valuable old lace. The centres were formed of octagonal caskets, fitted with tiny silver doors. Each door was fitted with a tiny lock, and a tiny silver key hung suspended from the body of the cracker by a silken cord. Each cracker contained a valuable ring or brooch.

gold ring crackers

The crackers were presented to the bridesmaids at a fashionable Christmas wedding. It was, undoubtedly, the most expensive box of crackers ever produced, having cost over £250.

However, this is by no means a record, since more money has been paid for a single cracker, which enjoyed the distinction of being the smallest ever made. It measured exactly four inches. By the courtesy of its present owner, we are enabled to publish a photograph showing its actual size. It is constructed of gold, in imitation of a sheaf of wheat.

A golden sheaf cracker which contained a gold ring set with pearls and cost £400.

A golden sheaf cracker which contained a gold ring set with pearls and cost £400.

It was made by one of the first living goldsmiths, who spent six months of hard work upon it before its completion. It is considered one of the most beautiful specimens of modelling extant, and, as a work of art, is valued at nearly double its actual cost. It contained a ring set with rare pearls, and from start to finish ran its purchaser into the comfortable little fortune of £400.

The world’s record cracker is in course of erection in the North of England at the present moment. It is the idea of a well-known sporting baronet, who has gained considerable notoriety in the locality by reason of the sumptuousness and novelty of his Christmas parties. The baronet is particularly fond of the little ones, and the piece de resistance at these functions is invariably designed for their edification.

This year he has built an immense cracker, over thirty feet in height. It is being erected under the dome of the ball-room in his country house, and has already occupied the services of some half-dozen workmen for some time. It is composed of an understructure of light wire lattice-work, stayed and riveted to a centre pole, and stands firmly on a specially constructed wooden base, which forms a receptacle for the electric batteries to be used for lighting purposes.

building a giant cracker

It is covered with coarse paper, which has been specially painted by scenic artists. The whole is to be lighted by electricity, and some dozens of lamps will be utilised. Our illustration shows the great cracker in course of erection, and gives a very tolerable idea of how it will appear when completed.

A huge detonator runs through the centre of the structure. A cord hooks on to the upper end, passes upwards through a pulley, and then descends to a stand by the base of the cracker. On being pulled, the detonator will explode with a loud report, and the whole structure will be momentarily enveloped in coloured fires.

The explosion of the detonator will also connect the electric circuit and switch on the festoons of coloured lamps. The effect of the simultaneous illumination of the electric lamps amid the mist of coloured fire should provide a spectacle of unusual beauty. The cracker itself is to be filled with sweets, paper caps, and expensive toys. There will also be a number of presents for adult guests.

A tiny spiral staircase runs round the central support in the interior of the structure, and by this means the attendants will be able to reach the contents and hand them down. G. M.

The Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine, Volume 1, 1899

SOME NEW CAPS IN THIS SEASON’S CRACKERS.

cracker hatscracker hats 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Well over a century later, the Christmas cracker continues to be a popular favour at the festal board. Even the luxe cracker is still with us, as in these 2014 crackers containing a Cartier necklace or an Aston Martin. Mrs Daffodil will not be purchasing these for Christmas festivities at the Hall. If his Lordship wishes a yacht or an Aston Martin, he can always purchase one, but what good is a Christmas cracker without a paper crown or a joke?

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.