Biscuit tins – a bite-sized history

Our collection includes over 800 biscuit tins, produced between 1868 and 1939. Together they offer a tantalising snapshot of changing tastes, consumerism, and technological innovation.

The word 'biscuit' has been a part of the English language since the 14th century, and biscuits became a staple food when the Navy began supplying them on long sea voyages in the 17th century (as they kept longer than bread). But there were no British biscuit tins until the Licensed Grocer's Act of 1861 first allowed groceries to be individually packaged and sold. Around this time Britain also became a leading world supplier of tin plate, which was produced by coating sheets of steel in tin to prevent rusting. Tins offered a hygienic solution to keeping biscuits fresh and protected, while the surface of the tin – which could be bent into various novelty shapes and sizes – offered great creative potential for advertising and decoration. Our remarkable collection of biscuit tins was given to the V&A in 1983 by Michael J. Franklin. Explore some highlights in our slideshow:

The earliest decorated biscuit tin, 'Ben George', was commissioned in 1868 by Huntley & Palmers to celebrate the firm's supply of biscuits to Queen Victoria's household. The tin was designed by the prominent Victorian architect and designer Owen Jones, and featured the Royal Coat of Arms and the firm's name surrounded by a red and green floral background. The tin's name comes from Benjamin George, who first developed the transfer printing process for decorating biscuit tins, having seen the technique demonstrated at the 1862 London International Exhibition. It involved applying transfers onto the surface of prepared sheets of tin and when dry, soaking the backing off leaving the design fixed to the surface.

'Ben George', biscuit tin, designed by Owen Jones, printed by Benjamin George, for Huntley & Boorne, 1868, England. Museum no. M.190-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1877 Huntley, Boorne & Stevens acquired exclusive rights to an important new method of printing on tin, the offset lithographic process. The design was first printed onto flat, glazed cardboard (later onto rubber-cover sheets), and then offset onto the tin plate. This allowed for many more colours to be used and correctly positioned for printing – major advantages over previous printing techniques. Huntley, Boorne & Stevens patented this method until 1889, but when their patent expired, metal printing firms rushed to have the same machinery installed.

Sporting, biscuit tin, made by Huntley, Boorne & Stevens for Huntley & Palmers, 1889, England. Museum no. M.225-1983 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Biscuits weren't strictly a luxury item, but when bought in a tin they could be expensive – over a shilling in the late 1800s (roughly £4 or £5 today). The tins were aimed at the middle classes, and were typically decorated with floral patterns, pastoral scenes or landscapes, as is often still the case. Firms also began designing Christmas themed tins for biscuits, cakes and treats which were intended to be kept long after the festive season was over. The Grocer, the grocery trade journal, began producing a column each autumn in which they reviewed the season's new tins.

Christmas Cake for Children, tin, W & R Jacob and Co., 1936, England. Museum no. M.487-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 1890s many firms began creating biscuit tins which were designed to appeal to children – typically smaller than standard tins and decorated with a child-friendly picture or story. 'Our Darlings', for example, depicts two children sleeping with their favourite toys at the foot of the bed. The tin itself is charmingly bed-shaped, complete with a protruding headboard.

Our Darlings, biscuit tin, by Barringer Wallis & Manners, made for Gray, Dunn & Co., about 1913, Mansfield, England. Museum no. M.188-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Biscuit tins were issued by most manufacturers to celebrate significant Royal events such as Coronations and Jubilees. 'Jubilee' was made in 1887 for the Carlisle based biscuit manufacturer Carr & Co., to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The lid depicts a portrait of Queen Victoria and the sides show four of the royal residences: Windsor Castle, Osbourne House, Holyrood Palace and Balmoral Castle. 'Coronation Coach' is a later example, resembling the ornate coach used by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on their coronation day on 11 December 1936.

(Left to right:) Jubilee, biscuit tin, made by Hudson, Scott & Sons for Carr & Co., 1887, Carlisle, England. Museum no. M.40-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Coronation Coach, biscuit tin, made by Barringer, Wallis & Manners for W & R Jacob and Co., 1936, Mansfield, England. Museum no. M.484-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the late 1890s, manufacturers began producing tins shaped to mimic other objects. Baskets, in a variety of shapes and materials, were especially popular. Some were rectangular tins with a wicker design printed onto the surface, while others had a real wicker or straw outer and a metal liner within. This 'trompe l'oeil', or visual trick, in which the tin is disguised as another object, was used to great effect to create whimsical, novelty tins which are often surprising.

(Left to right:) Oval Basket, biscuit tin, made for Huntley & Palmers, 1905, England. Museum no. M.311-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Straw Basket, biscuit tin, made by Barringer, Wallis & Manners for A1 Biscuit Company, about 1898, Mansfield, England. Museum no. M.696-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Manufacturers also produced tins to imitate famous works of art. Reproductions of ceramicwares by important factories such as Royal Derby, Royal Worcester and Wedgwood enabled consumers to purchase their own version of objects displayed in museums around the world. Some tins were designed to replicate famous paintings. 'Louvre' depicts a framed image of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun's painting Self-Portrait with Her Daughter, Julie, in the collection of the Louvre museum in Pars. A small hook attached to the inside of the lid meant the tin could be hung on the wall as a painting, once the biscuits had been eaten.

Louvre, biscuit tin, made by Hudson, Scott & Sons Ltd. for McVitie & Price, 1909, Carlisle. Museum no. M.613-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tins were produced in all manner of shapes and sizes, and manufacturers were increasingly inventive with how the tin could be opened and used. The spherical 'Globe' tin depicts a map of the world which separates into two halves at the line of the Equator. Like the Louvre example, many tins were designed to have an alternative function once the contents had been eaten, becoming a toy, general storage or decoration for the home. Moveable components were particularly popular for tins destined to be played with. 'Windmill' features rotating sales which can be spun, while 'Scales' has a hinged balance to imitate a set of household or grocers' weighing scales.

Two biscuit tins in the shape of a globe and a windmill
(Left to right:) Globe, biscuit tin, made by Barringer, Wallis & Manners for William Crawford & Sons, 1938, Mansfield, England. Museum no. M.170-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Windmill, biscuit tin, made by Huntley & Palmers, England, 1924. Museum no. M.388-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Modes of transport was another popular theme, with many tins offering ingenious representations of trains, carriages, boats, trucks and cars – some even with battery-operated headlights! 'Lifeboat' was inspired by the famous lighthouse keeper Grace Darling who became nationally famous for rescuing survivors from the shipwrecked boat Forfarshire in 1838. The tin includes working removable wheels which allow the boat to be moved around either on land, or as if it had been launched into the water.

Lifeboat, biscuit tin, made by Hudson, Scott & Sons Ltd for Carr & Co.,1925, Carlisle, England. Museum no. M.84-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Few names of Victorian and Edwardian biscuit tin designers were recorded, but in the 1930s some manufacturers commissioned well-known British artists to design their tins. The much-loved painter Edward Bawden designed a series for Kent-based biscuit makers Romary & Co., including one design based on a print showing the young Princess Victoria on a visit to Tunbridge Wells in 1882. The design was reviewed by prominent figures including the painter Paul Nash and the editor Noel Carrington.

H.R.H Princess Victoria at Tunbridge Wells in 1822, biscuit tin, designed by Edward Bawden for A. Romany & Co. Ltd., about 1934, England. Museum no. M.746-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Manufacturers often produced small sample tins to be sent to shops to promote their latest products. The samples often have the firm's name or logo on the lid: a 'Macduff Shortbread' tin is decorated with a faux tartan pattern and a sprig of white heather tied with a ribbon, motifs which have become synonymous with Scottish shortbread ever since.

Macduff Shortbread, biscuit tin manufacturer's sample, made for Huntley & Palmers, about 1931, England. Museum no. M.793-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The production of biscuit tins halted during both the First and Second World Wars, when the Government restricted the use of metal. Production was slow to resume in the 1920 as material costs had soared, and manufacturers were unsure of public taste. Some manufacturers reverted to standard shaped tins, but others chose to create more unusual shapes in the inter-war period, in an attempt to re-engage consumers. The development of new materials meant decorated tins were never quite as successful following the Second World War, though they continue to be produced today, especially around Christmas time.

See more biscuit tins from our collection.

Header image:

Macduff Shortbread, biscuit tin manufacturer's sample, made for Huntley & Palmers, about 1931, England. Museum no. M.793-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London