You will probably catch Diamond Jubilee fever if you are in Britain at the beginning of June. But don’t be anxious. This is a healthy condition characterized by succumbing to a magnetic pull to attend a party celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 60th reigning year – be it on your street, the village green, a city avenue, along the sea shore, at a restaurant or friend’s abode. Perhaps you’ll help to organize an event. All over the land neighbours and visitors will be warmly welcomed to celebrate; and who could fail to appreciate the community spirit engendered by the occasion and the invitation to join in and dance to the music of the time?
Although your memories of the jubilation may blur in time, history will never forget the occasion. Snapshots, reports, diaries, recordings, and the Jubilee souvenirs we save will all keep the coals of nostalgia burning. Moreover, another permanent reminder, which we tend to overlook, will be the artful packaging with Jubilee images of the household products most people use regularly. Preserving the wrappings helps to ensure that future generations will be able share our special moments.
And there isn’t likely to be anyone in the land who appreciates this more than Robert Opie, the founder of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, as I know for sure from my visits to the Museum and writing about this unusual attraction. Packaging, as Opie says, is a ‘whole wealth of history’ – a visual recording of domestic life on an everyday level. If you throw away the packaging, you’re throwing away some of the riches of history.
Since the early 1960s Opie has collected over half a million items of consumer culture in order to preserve the packaging from the past 150 years. Of course, we can’t save the actual products – the yogurt in the yogurt container, for example, but the pot, the packaging, can be kept indefinitely. The images, materials, shapes, colours, they all convey messages about the lifestyles and intellectual preoccupations of folk of the past and the present.
The use of clear, simple green lettering with sketches of chickens and cows can evoke a concern with the environment; pictures of people smoking cigarettes in meadows confirm there were times long past when smoking was considered harmless; watercolours of women knitting while wearing aprons, rather than striding in front of high-rise offices wearing suits imply…well, say no more.
Indeed, packaging can be really rather pleasing to look at, in some cases ornamental, involving a range of artistic skills – sculptural, graphic, painterly, photographic. It is likely to have universal appeal, hence it can be unifying and cohesive. Everyone can share the experience of using the product, regardless of race, gender and religious, social or political or economic background. You don’t have to be a patriot to savour the product. Everyone can embrace the ‘ordinary’ goods and services.
Robert Opie’s latest endeavour is to gather as many of this year’s commemorative Diamond Jubilee products with their wrappings as he can. At the time I write, his Museum showcase is almost full to bursting, and there are still more products with Jubilee images arriving.
I see a Marmite pot with ‘Ma’amite’ inscribed on the blue, red and white label with a crown in the centre. Marmite is the legendary, over one-hundred-year-old, nutritious savoury spread; Ma’am is the correct mode of address to The Queen, after an initial introduction. The tin of McVitie’s Diamond Jubilee Assortment (474g of biscuits) is royal blue and features the head of the Queen in 1966 – an image of an exclusively licensed Royal Mail stamp. Lyle’s golden syrup classic green tin bears the words ‘Happy and Glorious’, a famous phrase from the national anthem, with a crown atop the print.
Kellogg’s has travelled even further back in time to 1952, when the Queen ascended the throne, and has produced packaging featuring the first ever Coco the Monkey design for Coco Pops and the original Snap, Crackle and Pop characters on Rice Krispies. I see that Heinz baked beans is labelling its tins with the packaging used in 1952 with a circle imprinted with the number ‘60’. The packing for McIlhenny Co Tabasco Pepper Sauce is certainly distinctive because it is decked in red, white and blue. It offers the chance to win a one-carat round diamond set by Royal Warrant holder William & Son of London. If your spicy bottle of sauce has a particular white insert under the cap, congratulations! You’re the winner of the prize worth fifteen thousand pounds! Hurry to the shelves, as there are only six hundred thousand packs available throughout the country. (Except for McVitie’s, all the products mentioned above have Royal Warrants. See notes below.)
British designer and artist Lydia Leith is offering retro-style ‘sick’ bags with a line drawing of the Queen encircled and set against a red or blue background; jelly moulds in the shape of the Queen’s head and shoulders; and temporary tattoos of the young Queen, a crown, a sentry, a Corgi (the Queen’s favourite dog), Buckingham Palace and a horse-drawn carriage. The solar powered Queen Elizabeth figurine, unusually modernistic, amuses me!
As I look at the case in the museum, I wonder if Robert Opie will be including the trendy Harvey Nichols (HN) department store’s Royal Box – created in light of the Jubilee and a former footman’s revelation that Her Majesty keeps her corn flakes in Tupperware. The HN box – with ‘God Save Our Gracious Queen, Keep Her Corn Flakes Pristine’ – comes with six small cakes made with corn flakes and Royal Warrant holder Charbonnel et Walker’s dark chocolate; it sells for £14.95. But the dish is free if, before the 8 June, you take the ‘Not Afternoon Tea’ at the store, which includes ‘decadent’ puddings and cakes and a Beefeater Gin cocktail.
Apart from the strong retro theme in much of the Jubilee packaging, Opie enlightens me about another interesting 2012 packaging phenomenon, that is the use of the British flag – known as the Union Flag, or the Union Jack when flown at sea – and variations of its shapes and colours, without any distinctly Royal imaging. ‘The flag is very attractive,’ believes Opie. ‘It translates well into a variety of messages and styles.’ In his view, it is easily adaptable while variations on the visual theme are recognizable.
Configurations of the Union Flag evoke thoughts of both the Jubilee and the Olympics, which Britain will host this summer, as these events are unmistakeably associated with British nationhood, which is symbolized by the flag. Opie shows me the ‘Fuel Britannia’ Weetabix packaging, which is meant to celebrate the Olympics, the Jubilee and also Weetabix’s 80th anniversary. The company has created a brand-centric connection by substituting its iconic ‘fuel your day’ phrase with ‘Fuel Britannia’. We see bunting – the triangular flags are Union Jack like – displayed across a field of wheat and designed to run from one pack to another when arranged side by side on shop shelves.
Soreen, a favoured malt loaf, also has Union Flag-inspired packaging. Opie will also be saving for posterity a host of souvenirs that are not associated with any particular named product, such as paper weights, paper bags, cups and plates and cut-out figure patterns, such as those for horse-drawn carriages or coaches.
At the museum there are other cases showcasing products associated with Royal events such as the Royal Wedding, where you learn that Castle Rock brewery celebrated the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton by brewing a special ale with British hops and barley called ‘Kiss Me Kate’. The bottle has a pink label with stylized figures of the groom and bride, which do not, frankly, resemble the real persons, but rather Barbie-Doll-like characters! Looking further back in time are the cases of products with packaging honouring the Silver Jubilee. I note Co-op’s strawberry flavoured ‘Jubilade’ drink can. Also commemorated are the Coronation, and milestones in Queen Victoria’s reign, when product packaging was not as prevalent as it is now as there were not as many products for sale at these times – the industry and artfulness of advertising were relatively underdeveloped. Here, souvenirs are more likely to jog the memory.
When you visit the museum to see the new displays alongside the more familiar ones you will have time to savour the variety and virtuosity of packaging, how the wrappings ingeniously remind our consciousness of both the realities of everyday life and special events in Britain‘s nationhood, in the past and forevermore. Enchantment and education go hand in hand. Thank you, Robert Opie, for your unique and unparalleled achievement – a tribute to the UK’s heritage.
The Royal Warrant is a mark of recognition (Royal Coat of Arms) granted to companies that have regularly supplied goods or services for at least five consecutive years to The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh or The Prince of Wales. It expires five years after the death of the grantor. The company may display the Royal Warrant on their products. There are over 800 Royal Warrant holders, holding over 1000 Royal Warrants between them. The Warrants, seen as marks of excellence and quality, are a valuable marketing tool. Warrants are held by e.g. rifle making, picture framing, dry cleaning, and conservation firms and producers of baked beans, cereals, flowers, chocolates and champagne. Holders may be traditional craftsmen or multinational firms. Some holders, such as Elizabeth Arden, Kellogg’s or Cadbury’s are household names, while others may be far less well known, such as Swaine Adeney Brigg, suppliers of umbrellas to The Prince of Wales. Warrant holders do not supply goods and services free of charge to their Royal patrons. A warrant is granted for five years initially.
The Union Jack (officially, the Union Flag) is the national flag of the UK. It is a composite design, combining the crosses of the three countries united under one monarch – the Kingdoms of England and Wales, of Scotland, and of Ireland (although since 1921 only Northern Ireland has been part of the United Kingdom). The principality of Wales is not represented as at the time the flag was designed, about 1800, Wales was part of the Kingdom of England. The design features a red cross against a white background (for St George, patron saint of England); a diagonal white cross on blue ground (for St Andrew, patron saint of Scotland); and a diagonal red cross on a white field (for St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland). The origin of the term ‘Union Jack’ may derive from the Latin name of James I, Jacobus, or it is inspired by the ‘jack’, a small Union Flag flown by a ship on a staff – a jackstaff – attached to the bow. The term came into use during the early 20th century.
For further information about the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising see www.museumofbrands.com and www.robertopiecollection.com. See also the feature in artisticmiscellany about the Museum of Brands.
Photograph of Tabasco sauce Jubilee pack, courtesy of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and and Advertising.
This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the June 2012 issue.