By Hayley Pugh
They’re a great British tradition sure to make any Christmas dinner go with a bang – and as these vibrant images show, the humble Christmas cracker has always been an important part of the festive season here in the UK.
These beautifully illustrated cracker boxes provide a stunning visual history of British social and political evolvement over an entire century.
The colourful images, dating back more than 100 years, document iconic moments and eras in history with many of the striking designs coming from the man credited with inventing the cracker, Tom Smith.
Tom, a confectioner’s apprentice was on a trip to Paris in 1840 when he saw some almond bon bons wrapped in tissue paper with a twist at each end.
He worked on introducing something similar to the people of London and for seven years he developed the idea.
He added mottoes and poems inside each one and the cracking mechanism – inspired by listening to the crackle of a log fire – was a strip of paper impregnated with chemicals which, when rubbed, created enough friction to produce a noise.
His sons, Tom, Walter and Henry took over the business when he died and it was Walter who introduced the paper hats and toured the world to find unusual gifts to put inside.
The company was very aware of current affairs and as these vibrant images show, they created many sets of crackers to mark occasions.
Among those pictured are the Russo-Japanese War crackers, printed in 1907, just after the Russian and Japanese military conflict ended.
Also featured are the Motoring crackers printed in 1907 and the Telephone crackers designed in 1878 – two years after the man who invented the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, was first granted a patent for the phone in 1876.
Contents were tailored to each box with grotesque or artistic masks, puzzles, conundrums, tiny treasures, jewels, games and mottoes.
Most of the beautifully illustrated boxes, crackers and hats were made by hand and the company still produces crackers today.
Another British company strongly associated with the cracker business is Batger and Co.
Like Tom Smith, they sold a wide variety of crackers in highly decorated boxes and once again many were themed or in commemoration of a special event.
Featured in this collection is the Wireless Crackers set which shows Santa wearing headphones and taking a call from a little girl in bed. This label was printed in the 1930s during the early days of radio.
Another box called Television Crackers shows a family watching a television set, with children using the crackers to scare their elderly relatives. This label was printed in 1950 during the early days of television.
Crackers were an incredibly expensive luxury at the time costing from 14 shillings to 30 shillings a box.