When and how it all began
In this troubled and uncertain world here in the early 21st century, it is perhaps hard for us to truly imagine life in the Victorian period – a time of Empire, so very different from our own. It was prior to this era, amazingly nearly 200 years ago and still in the reign of King George 4th, that there was born in Newington in Surrey in 1823 a young man by the name of Thomas (Tom) Smith.
As we know, things were very different back then in the world in which young Tom grew up. Forget things like mobile phones, laptops, Xboxes, film and television, radios, motor cars and all those digital “tecky” things which we today take for granted and which hold our "modern" society in their hypnotic grasp.
But picture if you will, a Victorian parlour at Christmas with all the family gathered round, eager to pull these exciting new “all the rage” inventions which we know today as crackers, and finding within them delightful little trinkets from around the globe together with romantic and loving verses as opposed to the cringe making “jokes” that we see now.
In your imagination, cast your mind back to those simpler times when people had to make their own entertainment. I know which I would choose and it was into this scenario that crackers ideally fitted.
As he grew up, Tom Smith was obviously a go-ahead young man and, having started his very early working life in the bakery and confectionery trade, he eventually set up his own business in the late 1840’s. Traditional stories suggest that supposedly on a trip to Paris in 1840 at the age of just 17, he became acquainted with the traditional French bon-bon. From this it is said that he went on to develop the first non- exploding crackers but achieved only moderate sales. After a few more years, Tom decided that he wanted to give his crackers (or “Cosaques” as they were known at one point) that extra something to enhance their appeal, and thus sales. This he did in 1861 when, having purchased the working concept of the “snap” from a chemist called Tom Brown who had worked for many years for the Brocks Fireworks company, he introduced to the public his quaintly named “Bangs of Expectation” – the forerunner of the crackers we know today.
Just imagine for a minute, if you today ran a business and came up with a new concept, who could possibly guess that your idea, your new product - pretty much unchanged, would still be going strong and giving pleasure to the world over 160 years later. Truly incredible.
The Victorians and Edwardians were very keen on all things Japanese
as seen on this 1906/07 cracker box label.©
Tom’s family business, which he ran with his wife Martha (née Hunt), was originally based pretty much on confectionery and cake decorations but very quickly took a big leap forward with the introduction of his exploding cracker to the company’s product range.
But life can be very cruel and Tom sadly died at the unfairly young age of 46 in 1869 (probably from stomach cancer and buried in London's Highgate cemetary) and never lived to see the amazing flowering of his original idea into which he had put so much effort.
Following his death and whilst Martha was still involved, the company passed more into the capable hands of his sons - Walter, Henry and Thomas (junior) and under their stewardship, particularly Walter, in later Victorian and Edwardian times, it was producing many millions of crackers each year. The cracker bandwagon was gathering speed. It would not be uncommon for the company to be manufacturing over 200 different designs each season (as opposed to the very small ranges on offer today) and these would be offered for sale in boxes featuring superbly designed graphic labels on the lids.
Another Edwardian cracker box label design by Tom Smith’s.
Notice the spelling of the word SINBAD.©
Within my archive, I have many examples of early boxes and box labels from the heyday of the cracker which are a tribute to those highly talented and skilful artists and designers who created them all those years ago. And not a pixel or computer in sight! Happy days.
Peter Kimpton (The Kathleen Kimpton Collection) December 2016