The Art of the Biscuit Tin | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

The Art of the Biscuit Tin

Double-baked biscuits with a long shelf life were the food of choice for European travelers, and the tins they were packaged in are now collector's items

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Huntley and Palmers biscuit tins that were found in Antarctica. Image courtesy of Flickr user pennstatelive

Today, Ziplock bags may be our storage form of choice when it comes to cookies, but old-fashioned biscuit tins were once the favored convenience. Biscuit tins may not seem efficient today: They are bulky and occupy precious kitchen real estate, easily come unhinged and aren’t altogether practical. But they deserve a place of honor in the history of food packaging, and they illustrate the evolution of travel and the art of branding.

Double-baked biscuits with a long shelf-life were the food of choice for European voyagers starting in the 1500s. A few hundred years later, airtight and reusable biscuit tins were invented. They allowed their valuable cookie contents to travel easily, stay oven-fresh and not crumble. Credit for introducing biscuit tins goes to Huntley and Palmers, a Quaker firm in Reading, England, which, by 1900, was the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world, employing more than 5,000 people. In the 1800s, the tins served coach and railway travelers. When cross-Atlantic travel to the Americas increased in the early 1900s, a demand for imperishable food items soared. Biscuits were the rage, whether Garibaldi currant-biscuits (two thin biscuits with currants squashed in between), digestive, or cream-cracker style. For travel-wary explorers, these twice-baked breads were filled with memories from home. And the tins themselves delivered an impression that lasted after their contents were gone.

Huntley & Palmers’ tins came in all sizes and shapes. They were elaborately decorated, from miniature replicas of vehicles to reusable tins engraved with intricate still life tableaux to street-scene designs inspired by impressionist art. Other tin manufacturers rose to fame, each with secured rights to certain designs. The manufactures made sure to feature their names since copycatting was a problem, most famously in this teapot.

Biscuits weren’t a luxury item in the 1800s, but the tins served a Victorian middle class eager to show good taste. The tins became independent objets d’art in and of themselves. For manufacturers, branding gradually took a different tone. The tins came to represent their country, an origin, a pride, an artist’s whim. Occasionally, inadvertently, risqué images slipped into the design.

The tins, like this rare Huntley & Palmers grandfather clock made circa 1929, are hot collector’s items these days and sell at auction for hundreds of dollars. Browse complete collections and savor each tin, a destination in itself.

Sophia V. Schweitzer is based in Hawaii and writes about environmental issues, energy and food trends.

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