A Light-Hearted Look at Curation on the Cheap

…and a trip down memory lane

Written by John Cooke, Mineral Enthusiast and Part-Time Volunteer Curator

Whilst idling my time going through an old collection that came into my possession many years ago, I became interested in the concept of curation by the previous owners. With my mind still wandering and having a computer to hand I asked the black box for the definition of curation. This was described as “the action or process of selecting, organising and looking after the specimens in a collection or exhibition”. Ok, nothing new there! Then I considered that different people would “look after specimens” in their own personal way and according to their means. This collection had its origins in the 1920s and was inherited by an acquaintance in the 1960s and the owners had not used the “posh” professional black card trays, some of which had the benefit of a glazed top (Fig.1).

Figure 1: High quality glazed specimen boxes. © John Cooke

This collection was not in that category, but more of a home-made nature. A variety of trays was evident which used household items such as match boxes and others whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Nevertheless, some of the trays were evidently made from that portion of the base of a loose leaf tea packet, in this case with enclosed specimen (Fig.2).  This is ideally suited for the standard mineral specimen being 1.75 x 2 inches and cut to a depth of 1 inch. Can you imagine the amount of tea consumed to generate enough tea packets for the average collection? Noticing that some of these packet bases were of the Typhoo Tea variety made me wonder if there was a possibility that a dating system could be derived from a study of the packets over time.

Figure 2: Specimen of calcite within a home-made tea packet tray. © John Cooke

Whilst checking the Typhoo Tea website and emboldened by this course of research, I contacted customer services.  Whilst they were interested in this concept they were unable to advance my quest because the company, over time, has been absorbed by other concerns and so had apparently lost the archives (if there were any!)

An aside:  The founder of the company, a Mr John Sumner, established Typhoo Tipps in 1903,  and chose the name typhoo,  it being the Chinese word for doctor (as a certain Mr Michael Caine observed “not many people know that” and I’m sure one day that fact will be a question on University Challenge).

Anyway, I digress. So, is there a way to date these packets? The first packet base (Fig.3) is equivalent to the original design from the 1930s but I suspect that this design was in production for a long period of time. The lack of the rest of the packet where a price would have been displayed causes difficulty in dating the packet. There are others that fortunately advertise offers that give a precise date and these are usually associated with photos of football celebrities. I note from an online source that Typhoo produced a series of football cards which at that time were printed on the side of the packets and required to be cut from the cardboard. These were marketed between 1963-1973. The example in my collection required the purchaser to collect 12 white football logos from the top of the packet and post these to Typhoo to receive a colour photo of a football star. These were offered during the period 1973/1974.

Figure 3: Early design of TyPhoo tea packet. © John Cooke

Other tea packets exist and in this collection are examples of Brooke Bond, one of which can be dated because it refers to an offer expiring on the 28th Feb 1974 (Figs.4&5).

Figure 4: Brooke Bond PG Tips tray. © John Cooke


Figure 5: Brooke Bond tray dated 1974. © John Cooke

An aside: Brooke Bond was founded by Arthur Brooke in 1845. There was never a Mr/Ms/Mrs Bond, it was just that Arthur Brooke liked the name.

Back to the article.  So, there are a number of people interested enough in this out there that a lot of work on dating has been done, especially of packets with football cards. The only snag, I hear you say, is that the base may not have the information which will secure the date. Nothing is simple and I think I’m going to pass the burden of accurate tea packet dating to a Ph.D. student!

An aside: In the early 1960s teabags made up less than 3% of the British tea market but by 2007 it was 96%. Another question for University Challenge

Get-out clause: Before I get howls of protest from other tea manufactures and purveyors of breakfast cereals for not considering their products and to further demonstrate that I am not subject to bias, I present Figure 6 to show the bases of well known individual portion cereal packets which have the added advantage of being able to accommodate the slightly larger specimens, viz 2.5 x 1.75 inches and 2.75 x 1 inch. It is highly likely that the designers of these cartons had the best interests of mineralogists and palaeontologists at heart!

Figures 6: Cereal packet tops. © John Cooke

So much for the home made specimen trays which, before I get responses to the article, is not an indication of the age of accession of the current incumbent specimen.

I now present the stalwart of home-made labelling; the border from a sheet of postage stamps. Even I remember asking “the postie” to save the gummed edge of the sheet. Just for interest there may be someone out there who has made an in-depth study of these borders to see if there is any possibility of a dating scheme. Now, that would be a project. I actually got in touch with the museum department of the Royal Mail and enquired as to whether there was a dating method, and I did get a response to my request which enquired of me that if any information was available in which publication it would be presented? It felt a little like 007 breaking into Fort Knox. I responded to their question but I have to report that after all this time I am still not in receipt of an answer.

Anyway, for those of a younger more tender age, I present Figure 7 which shows just such a label in situ, having being gummed onto a specimen of oakstone from Arbor Low, Derbyshire. The owner kindly put the date of labelling which is given as 1911.

Figure 7: Oakstone specimen labelled with postage stamp border. © John Cooke

For now, I have reached the end of my journey down memory lane and I promise to be more scientific in my next article… Hmm, well we’ll see!

(Good luck answering any questions on University Challenge).

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