Fascinating finds in an old tin box of Oxo

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I found some old tins around the house and in the shed recently. They are now on show in the Oxfam Shop in Bridge Street, Morpeth.

As well as a small Oxo tin that held six cubes, I also found a much larger one. It has suffered much and isn’t very attractive. It does, however, say that the firm were “purveyors of Oxo to the late King George V”, so must date from 1936 or later.

To the nearest inch, it’s 7ins x 5ins x 3ins. It held that excellent, but now forgotten quantity, a gross, of Oxo cubes in packets of six. It was clearly a wholesale item, for supply only to shops.

There were no supermarkets then. Most shops were small. Micah Elliot’s, in Oldgate, Morpeth, was typical. Even big city centre grocery shops were comparatively small.

Customers did not take what they wanted from the shelves. All the shelves were behind the counter. Or, if built up on the counter, were secured by a brass or wooden bar so as to be accessible only from the shopkeeper’s side.

You asked for what you wanted, and the shop assistant got it down and placed it on the counter. The same process was repeated until you had everything you wanted, assuming, that is, that they had it in stock.

The purchases were then rung into the till and you put them in your shopping bag. Or, if it was a superior establishment, the shop assistant did it for you.

In its day, therefore, our tin of 24 packets of Oxo would have lived on a shelf, where intending purchasers could see it, but not reach it.

The contents have proved to be more interesting than the tin. We moved into the house 36 years ago, and the tin is as the last people left it.

Most of the contents are electrical, but there was a quaint brass widow catch and one half of a trunk catch.

Going from left to right in the electricals picture, the first thing is a Bakelite ceiling rose, then a piece of two-core twisted lighting flex. The cores are rubber insulated and have an elegant white cover, or braid, probably of rayon. Finally, we have a wall-mounted light switch and a bayonet lamp socket, both again made of Bakelite.

Dark brown was the usual colour for Bakelite. It isn't very strong and had to have fillers, such as sawdust, to improve its strength. The fillers are dull so dark colours were essential to mask them.

The next four items are a roll of insulating tape, a two-way adaptor for a bayonet socket, a white pot connector for an electric iron, and a black rubber cable protector.

The insulating tape is a cloth tape impregnated with some sort of black composition. This kind remained in use until the 1960s when brightly coloured plastic tapes came on the market.

Next are three items that were used, amongst other things, for a very risky way of using your electric iron.

You placed your ironing board under the ceiling lamp, then plugged the adaptor into the light socket, replacing the bulb in one socket of the adaptor.

The iron flex had a bayonet plug on the end. You plugged that into the other socket, and away you went.

Apart from the usual risks with adaptors, this meant that the iron was not earthed. But people who had electricity installed in the 1920s and 1930s often only had the electric light so their only power supply was the lighting circuit.

The boxes on the right are Crabtree two-pin, five-amp plugs. One such plug, with a bit of wire still attached, is shown at the bottom right.

When we moved into our house in 1981, there was just one 13-amp socket. It was in the living room so must have been for either an electric fire or heater, or a TV set.

The rest of the wiring was probably installed in the 1930s. The cables ran in black japanned tube conduits made of pressed steel.

Apart from the one 13-amp socket, all the other outlets were of the two-pin, five-amp variety, as above.

Pot or porcelain, or other ceramic materials, were and are used as insulators. Early electric irons had two prongs projecting upwards at the back of the iron, surrounded by a metal shroud.

The metal strip in the middle of the connector pressed against the shroud so that if you had a three-pin socket, the body of your iron would be earthed. If not, and it became live, it earthed itself through the person using it, which could kill them.

Bottom left is an in-line glazed ceramic connector. It has a bit of cable sticking out, and I have propped it up on some yellow card so that you can see the two screw holes.

Top left is an unglazed or ‘biscuit’ insulator. Our meter and main fuse, though renewed quite recently, are still fastened to the 1930s mounting board. The screws that fix it to the wall go through insulators like this one.

Top right is a bobbin insulator, purpose unknown.

Bottom right is a kidney-shaped insulator. It is glazed and has a hole and channel for a cable. Another hole and channel are set at right-angles to it on the side.

Although it probably had other uses, one was for wireless aerials. Aerials then were cables, strung rather like a washing line, but higher up. An aerial couldn't be fastened to the post or wall that supported it, but hung instead from short cables joined by these insulators.