Every single surface in the home of Seren Evans-Charrington is like a shrine to packaging – from Victorian medicine bottles and biscuit boxes to 1930s Oxo tins, retro cleaning product jars and gadgets from the 1960s.
‘I was 13 when I bought my first item, a small blue chemist’s poison bottle, which contained formaldehyde. I still have it, and when I look at it I can remember the feeling of euphoria as I travelled home with the piece that sparked my collecting,’ Seren explains as we sit in her dining room, which, as in every other space in the house, is full of fascinating objects spanning the centuries. ‘From that point onwards I scoured every antiques shop, fleamarket, car boot sale and junk shop for bottles,’ she adds.
Seren’s collecting habits widened when a family friend gave her an eclectic selection of packaging that had once formed the contents of someone’s medicine cupboard. ‘It included a bottle of Sloan’s Liniment complete with its original box, tins of ointment, curious cures… The various lotions and potions all had their authentic labels and this started a new fascination for me: my interest suddenly moved away from the beauty of glass bottles and became about the brands and the people that used them,’ she explains.
Even packaging for practical household tacks, wire or adhesive holds a charm
A food historian and period cook, Seren’s collections now comprise about 6,000 pieces, many of which are hidden away in storage awaiting their turn for display. She is continually adding more on a weekly basis. ‘It is an obsession,’ she admits. ‘My four-year-old daughter, Harriet, did once ask me: “Why do you collect other people’s rubbish, Mummy?”’ she laughs. ‘But it’s obviously contagious because she now has her own little collection going, too.’
Old packaging often tells a story of forgotten brands and changing trends, ‘and for me is a peek into British social history,’ Seren explains. Centered on products from domestic life, her collections include many items you would have found in the pantries and sculleries of yesteryear: old glass jars of 18th-century Shippam’s sandwich paste; plain wartime-era National flour bags or powdered milk tins; tiny tea packets from when it was an expensive commodity; even Sunlight soap or Rinso washing powder. ‘These all show how our tastes and cooking habits changed, and advancements in domestic cleaning.’
‘Then there are the things that belonged in the medicine cabinet,’ she adds. ‘I love reading the claims of old Victorian “cure all” remedies, such as Bile Beans, which would help “Biliousness, Debility, Sallow complexion, Impure blood…” to name a few, or Potter’s chest and lung wafers that could “keep the fog out”, and others that would “cure women’s hysteria”. It’s the idea that households would have a bottle of Vin Mariani in the cupboard, a tonic mix of wine and cocaine! These would have been found in the corner shops of the 1800s or 1900s, and they tell a tale of how people lived.’
This eclectic corner display includes a World War II unopened Rinso packet, 1970s Fairy household soap, varied teas from the 1920s to 1990s, and a 1960s Hacks cough sweets shop display tin
It was in the Victorian era that companies began to explore the power of advertising, and so enamel signage and ornately designed packaging began to emerge. ‘Before then people would buy items loose,’ explains Seren, whose maternal ancestors owned a corner shop. ‘It was a luxury to have sugar or chocolates, for example, so tins or boxes were fancy and designed to be kept. People used over-the-counter services, so packaging could be muted because the shopkeeper would suggest products.’
The sedate Victorian items with their delicate, refined designs are a contrast to the bold and brash packaging of the Mad Men era of the 1950s and 1960s. These developments were linked to the changes in how people shopped. ‘Brands needed to update for the new self-service supermarkets, which were replacing the corner shop and traditional grocers. Products needed to have greater visibility, because instead of the grocer filling up your basket, you had to do it yourself. Suddenly they had to jump out from the shelves at you – packaging started to be more about design and less about practical necessity. For example, in the 1950s Typhoo Tea developed a long-term strategy to change the colour of its packets from grey to red,’ says Seren.
Only a handful of long-standing household products have not changed over the eras. One such is Lyle’s Golden Syrup, the design of its distinctive green and gold containers unaltered since 1884. ‘Our culture has changed and people are no longer loyal to a particular make, but instead value price over family-trusted products, and so the likes of Horlicks tablets or Fairy Dyes disappear and are resigned to the dusty shelves of brand history,’ says Seren. ‘So my collections are all about the things that time forgot, and which now rekindle childhood memories and a sense of nostalgia.’
This Victorian formaldehyde bottle is what triggered Seren’s collecting habits
Seren’s advice on starting a collection
- Trawl around and look for pieces anywhere and everywhere. I’ve bought collections from other people, house clearances, car boots, fleamarkets and antiques shops. Take care when buying on Ebay, however, because you can’t be sure of the quality of what’s being sold.
- Packaging needs to be legible to have any value. Wear and tear is expected, but the advertisement must still be clear.
- Try to have a distinct focus – for example, household cleaning products, medicine products or food tins – or you could amass everything. I have filtered mine so that I now have distinct collections.
- Prices for pieces can vary from 50 pence to a few hundred pounds for a rare item. People are getting savvier. Big brand names, such as Fry’s Chocolate, are more collectable. (For Seren’s recipes visit Bubbling Stove)