It’s fantastic what a clear-out can throw up

editorial image

I had a clear-out recently. Several old tins turned up.

The Imperitype typewriter ribbon tin belonged to my mother, the Anadin one to me. They are both about 50 years old, or perhaps a little more.

The Oxo and the John Bull Mend-a-tear came with the house. I found them in the shed. They are much older than the other two, and not in such good condition.

Plastics, when I was young back in the 1940s, all had their own drawbacks so that many things now made of plastic were made of glass, pot or mild steel instead.

The mild steel always came coated with things to make it either rust-proof or more attractive, such as galvanised iron for buckets and watering cans.

Enamelware was more decorative, but in practice it usually came in one colour only, mostly white, brown or yellow. I can remember to this day my infant chamber pot, which was white enamel with a dark blue rim.

Lastly, there was tinplate. Then, as now, it came in the form of food cans with paper labels, though the wartime labels didn't have coloured pictures. But it was also used for all sorts of other containers, and these were nearly always tin-printed.

My oldest tin is probably the John Bull Mend-a-Tear. It has a special interest for me because John Bull was a Leicester firm.

The bold oval on the lid features an ancient flat-iron. An inset shows John Bull in his Union Jack waistcoat, and a note in the corner identifies this as the ‘Fawn Outfit’.

This tin must have been a handsome thing when it was new. The sides were decorated with Regency stripes in gold and black, now unfortunately too faded to see.

The underneath carries the instructions, but they are now almost illegible.

Inside, the lid shows a man in what looks like Edwardian motoring costume, with his goggles pushed up on the front of his cap.

When we look at the lady, however, her coat and shoes are clearly of the 1920s or 30s, so I think the gentleman must be a 1930s’ motorcyclist, rather than an Edwardian motorist.

The legend between them says: “This outfit is designed for repairs to waterproofs, rainproofs, khaki clothing, ground sheets, tents, gum boots, cyclists capes, motor car hoods, dustcoats & overalls, awnings & blinds &c, and for refixing seams and hems. For repairs to dark clothes, umbrellas &c, ask for ‘Black Outfit’.”

My Oxo tin must have been equally handsome. The sides and underneath were gold.

The shape of the ‘X’ in 'Oxo' is instantly recognisable. It’s quite anthropomorphic, and reminiscent of a sailor’s trousers.

The sides say, “6 ’Oxo’ cubes”, “Concentrated Energy of Beef” and “Sole manufacturers Oxo Limited. By appointment to H.M. the King”.

Oxo cubes were first sold in 1910. Edward VII died in that year so he is hardly likely to be the king in question, and I have another tin which says that the firm was purveyor of Oxo to the late King George V, so this tin must date from 1936 at the latest.

The instructions are on the underneath. You put the cube into a cup, add hot water and stir. Interestingly, you didn’t crumble them. Rather, if you wanted it to dissolve more quickly, you cut the cube into thin slices.

The inside of the lid says, “Children love ‘Oxo,’ or ‘Oxo’ with milk, and thrive on it. ‘Oxo’ provides delicious soups and gravies in a few minutes and enriches all meat dishes. ‘Oxo’ — the Cook’s ‘best friend’.”

It surprises me that so few Oxo cubes should be marketed in a tin of any kind, let alone such a splendid one. I wonder if the tin didn’t cost more than the contents.

Cellophane was available from about 1925 and began to be produced in Britain in 1935. It must have been so much cheaper that I wonder if our little tin is actually a lot earlier than 1936.

The Anadin tin is another example of obsolete packaging. It held 12 tablets and is ingeniously impossible to open, except by pressing both red dots at once.

The Imperitype tin is another with a Leicester connection. Imperial Typewriter was founded in 1908 and was enormously successful. Its machines were well designed, and being British made, were used by governments in Britain and throughout the Empire.

But it lost ground to foreign competition and closed in the late 1970s.

The four upright tins are more recent and say something about the change from tin to other materials.

The small tin contained ICI Paludrine tablets for the prevention or treatment of malaria. It is made from aluminium and dates from about 1969. We took the tablets when we lived in Ghana.

The Brasso tin has a price ticket underneath, “Price 19p; inc. VAT 20p”, which clearly dates it to 1973 when VAT first came in. It has a metal lid. Brasso tins nowadays have red plastic lids.

The tins of 3-in-One Oil look much alike, but they aren’t. The left-hand one is made of tin with a plastic nozzle. The right-hand one, which is more recent, is made entirely of plastic.

The four oldest of these tins will be on sale shortly in the Oxfam shop.