Doug Larson described nostalgia as a “a device that removes the ruts and potholes from memory lane” and it’s often true that, almost without knowing it, our hands fumble for a pair of rose tinted spectacles whenever we look back to our childhood or adolescence. And it really doesn’t take much to transport us back across the decades to a time which seemed, and in fairness probably was, so much simpler.
Perhaps it’s the smell of a coal fire, the sound of a particular song or the taste of a favourite meal cooked ‘just right’. Or maybe it’s something as simple as a packet of Kellogg’s Sugar Ricicles, “twicicles as nicicles”. The bright commercial tapestry which formed the backdrop of our youthful lives is tinged with all sorts of bitter sweet emotions.
In 1963 one forward looking young man named Robert Opie began to collect contemporary packaging from all sorts of products. Things which were regarded as being of no consequence and routinely thrown away he would tuck away for posterity. In time, his collecting obsession grew to encompass bottles, signs, tickets, toys, games, postcards, comics and newspapers. Today the Robert Opie collection has a permanent home at the Museum of Brands in Central London and he has compiled a number of fascinating hardcover books stuffed full of visual memories of days gone by. Nostalgia like this is surely what A E Housman described as “the land of lost content…The happy highways where I went / And cannot come again.”
As regular readers will know, Michael Burroughs of Anything Militaria consistently sources the most marvellous historical items for us to feature. However, although this blog has featured some really quite remarkable treasures over the last few years, in my view none of them have been either as poignant or as precious as these: letters written by an inmate of Dachau concentration camp.
A very fitting post for Holocaust Memorial Day, they are a haunting reminder of one of humanity’s lowest points. There are four letters in all, dated 14-2-194, 7-6-1941, 1-9-1941 and 12-4-1942. Written by Johann Jaworski to his wife Maria at an address which appears to be No.(/Apptment?) 37, Horst-Wessel-Strasse, Litzmanstadt. Litzmanstadt was the Nazi name for the Polish city of Łódź, part of which had been turned into a ghetto following the invasion of 1939. It was the second largest ghetto in the whole of occupied Germany.
As for the street name, this was one of thousands of streets which were renamed after figures revered by the Nazis. Horst Wessel was a brownshirt leader who was assassinated by two Communists in Berlin. Goebbels subsequently used his death for propaganda purposes and the Horst Wessel Song became the party’s official anthem.
It is rare indeed to find such letters but even more unusual to have the envelopes which held them. Few people who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis wanted to keep the envelopes bearing a stamp with either his image or former President Hindenburg. Both letters and envelopes bear the camp name, the terms and conditions of use and have been stamped by the camp censor.
The art of letter writing may not be dead but it’s declined exponentially since the advent of email. So anyone’s efforts to communicate with others on paper are always of value. The letters of major literary and political figures are often collated and published for posterity but there will always be notes deemed too trivial to be worth our attention.
And here is a prime example just recently on sale at the market.
Field Marshall Sir Henry Evelyn Wood (1838-1919) was a distinguished British Army officer who won the Victoria Cross for rescuing a local merchant in India who had been ambushed by robbers and taken into the jungle to be hanged. He served in all the major hotspots in the British Empire, being made a Field Marshall in 1903.
Written on War Office stationery, the only date on this note is 5th May. It reads “My Dear Mr Chamberlain, I must, like Sir Charles Coldstream in ‘Used Up’ answer “There’s nothing in it”. Merci mille fois tout le même. [A thousand thanks all the same.] Yours Evelyn Wood”
‘Used Up’ was a comic play co-authored by Charles Dickens and Charles Matthews. The dramatic high water mark of the latter was his role as Sir Charles Coldstream in that very play. Although it is tempting to believe that this was in reply to an enquiry by future PM Neville Chamberlain, their chronology does not really overlap. It is far more likely that the intended recipient was Neville’s father, Joseph, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies from June 1895 to September 1903.
From a distance of over a hundred years, we have no way of knowing what the original question was. But it’s fun to guess. There’s “nothing” in what exactly…? Rumours of war with another country? A spat between the army top brass? Calls for independence in one of the colonies? Or something much more mundane like the War Office tea fund?
No fancy name for this one – it’s exactly what it says on the tin. What began in the 1880’s as a simple scorecard with players’ names and positions has evolved into the modern matchday programme. It is still a decent source of revenue for some clubs (and printing them was required by the English Football League until 2018) but has also become a famously niche area of sporting memorabilia.
The traditional matchday ritual of a pie, a pint and a programme is still a possibility at many grounds (if you allow for variations like Forest Green Rovers’ delicious vegan Q Pie!) but paper shortages in the forties and fifties limited the size of post-war programmes. Certainly they are a far cry from today’s glossy, advert laden magazines. And, as one might imagine, the rarer the programme the more likely it is to command a high price.
Programmes which attract the strongest interest are still ones from the various FA or World Cup Finals. A record £35,250 was paid for the 1882 FA Cup final between Old Etonians and Blackburn Rovers. A programme from Manchester United’s first FA Cup victory in 1909 realised £16,000 the same year. Original price: one penny. But print run anomalies and the significance of the occasion (such as Manchester United’s first game after the Munich Air Disaster and featuring a blank team sheet) can make a huge difference to the price.
Well, lots of money potentially. If that name is George Washington and it’s a matter of his signature on his personal copy of the US Constitution then some way north of $10 million. If it’s star of the silver screen Sophia Loren, who signed many thousands of autographs during and since her heyday in the sixties and seventies, then you’re probably talking at least £60. While the age of the autograph may have given way to that of the selfie, there are any number of notable figures from the past whose personal presence can still best be obtained in the form of a signature.
Autograph collecting has enjoyed a close association with the cult of celebrity and autograph hunters were once the bane of many a star’s life. Such was the commercial appeal of signatures from the great and the good that some hunters were able to make a handsome living from it. Many celebrities, such as basketball star Michael Jordan, flatly refused to sign autographs at all for years. John Lennon’s killer approached him in New York with a request for an autograph because he knew this would be a common enough request. On the flip side is the experience of sportsman Joe DiMaggio who was able to earn more from signing baseballs than he ever had on the field. Anyone badgering comedian Steve Martin could be out of luck though. He has been known to hand out business cards stating “This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent and funny.”
Ah, Pheasant Margarine! Had we but been alive in 1917, who amongst us could have resisted the shilling a pound delights of its “dainty” packets bearing the red white and blue riband of the ‘Pheasant’ seal? Why buy butter when there is Pheasant to be had? Originally developed in 1869, the first plant-based spread was created by Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès for Napoleon III due to butter shortages. Pheasant margarine later went on to merge with the Lever Brothers to become Unilever.
Or how about Wingarnis health tonic, ‘The Wine of Life’? How could its “four-fold power as a Tonic, a Restorative, a Blood-maker and a Nerve Food” fail to invigorate you in every fibre of your being? Prepared by another household name, Colemans of Norwich, Wingarnis is especially formulated for the weak, the nervy, the anaemic or the run-down. The fact that this cure-all is “recommended by over 10,000 doctors” reminds us that it the Advertising Standards Agency would not be established for another 45 years….
Other than the Great War’s Baron von Richthofen, German ‘Flying Aces’ of the Second World War are much less well known. Yet a number of them had extremely distinguished careers, flying with a degree of skill and bravery which earned them Germany’s highest military medal: the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross (more commonly known just as the ‘Iron Cross’).
History buffs may know that Hitler himself was a recipient during WWI when he was just a corporal but these signatures are from WWII pilots who flew a range of planes that wouldn’t look out of place in an Airfix catalogue. All the classics are here from the plane which claimed more kills than any other in the whole of the war on either side, the Messerschmitt Me-109, to the most frequent shadow over London during the Blitz, the Heinkel He-111 heavy bomber.
In all, there are nine autographs from these pilots, none of whom are still alive today, making these eminently collectable. Indeed, the first signatory, Major Erwin Fischer, is one of only 882 recipients of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves.
Created in 1931 by accident, the Pea-nut club was an organisation which had huge success in raising thousands of pounds for the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. This was the same hospital featured in last week’s blog post about the Guinea Pig Club and the pioneering plastic surgery carried out there by Archibald McIndoe.
The hospital had long needed a children’s ward and the money for this project was raised by the Pea-nut Club. A comic newspaper carried a parody article by Mrs Gordon Clemeston, offering a bag of peanuts to any child who gave twelve pennies to help fund the ward. When a young child arrived at a bank with the required pennnies demanding her bag of peanuts, Mrs Clemeston was quick to seize the opportunity. The offer was formalised and in seven years the enormous sum of £14,000 had been raised. While much attention was (deservedly) given to the injured airmen of the Guinea Pig Club, it is all too easy to forget the civilians, especially the children, injured during the Blitz and in domestic house fires which were then much more common than today.
The Pea-nut club lasted for many years beyond WWII and funded a range of gifts for children on the hospital’s Burns Ward. Some of the membership cards, letters and (rarest of all) birthday cards signed by ‘Aunt Agatha’, the pseudonym of Mrs Clemeston can be seen in the photos along with the highest level of membership, a gold peanut.
Although card collecting could mean a passion for baseball, football, Pokémon or even Magic: The Gathering cards, for a significant period of time, it really meant the cards from cigarette packets. What began in the United States in 1875 (featuring boxers, actresses or Indian chiefs) was soon copied in the UK. The cards’ original purpose was to stiffen the packet and provide some measure of protection to the cigarettes inside but manufacturers soon saw them as a valuable piece of, firstly, advertising real estate and, later, a way to add novelty to their product. As such, the earliest examples are mainly advertisements but it was the advent of John Player’s ‘Castles and Abbeys’ series in 1893 that showed just how collectable they could be.
In 1895, Wills produced their first set ‘Ships and Sailors’, followed by ‘Cricketers’ in 1896. In 1906, Ogden’s produced a set of association football cards depicting footballers in their club colours, in one of the first full-colour sets. As ever, when it comes to an individual card’s value, the primary factor is its condition. Any card which has been stuck down or mounted will be worth a fraction of what it would have been in mint condition. A leading player in this still very vibrant market is the London Cigarette Card Company. A quick browse through their listings give an idea of just how valuable these cards can be with many priced into the hundreds of pounds.
And while you would be right in thinking that it was legislation that put an end to the practice of adding collectables to an already addictive product, you’d probably be mistaken on the reason. It was Britain’s wartime government in 1940 which banned cigarette cards because there were severe shortages of board and paper. Post-war rationing and the high price of raw materials meant they never returned although there are still occasional runs in the US. And it is to the US that we must look for the world record price for a single card: some way north of three million dollars.
While collecting beer mats has the grand name of tegestology, the only name for last week’s hobby of toby jug collecting is, well, toby jug collecting. Today though, we have a fine example for those of you into philography, or autograph hunting.
Although modern autograph hunters are becoming a rare breed nowadays (the preferred method of recording a meeting with a celebrity being the ubiquitous ‘selfie’), the market for authentic signatures of those who are no longer with us remains strong. A uniquely personal record of our passage through the world, authenticating letters, contracts, marriages and treaties, our signature has always been considered important. Arguably, this is even more true today in an age where our identity has largely been digitised. Many younger people today have never, and will never, write a cheque for example.
And autographs don’t get much bigger than this. We know that Churchill, like his father before him, was a freemason and also dabbled in several other esoteric organisations, one of which was the Ancient Order of Druids. A photograph of 1908 shows him at one of their meetings quite prominently. However, this festival programme of 1920 describes him as the Order’s Chairman suggesting that he retained his interest in the Druids rather longer than had previously been thought. Either way, we think the signature of perhaps our Greatest Briton certainly epitomises the phrase, a ‘collector’s item’.