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.

 

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