Monday, December 28, 2015

Royal Focus: Princess Mary 1914 Christmas Gift Tin

They were meant to bring comfort and boost morale to those fighting in the front line during the First World War. The Princess Mary Christmas tin from 1914 is possibly the best known wartime royal memento, but she was not the first royal to send a thoughtful item to the troops. Her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, had done something similar in 1900 during the Boer War.

Imperial War Museum © IWM (EPH 3347)
As a personal New Years gift, Queen Victoria sent tins filled with chocolate to British soldiers serving in South Africa. The chocolate was supplied by three British chocolate manufacturers: Cadbury's, Fry's and Rowntree's. The red, blue and gold tins were designed by Fry's and copied by the other companies. Although they vary in size, all feature a portrait of Queen Victoria with her royal monogram and South Africa 1900 written beside it. Below the portrait, written in cursive is 'I wish you a happy New Year' with her signature below it. As Quakers, the companies were reluctant to support the war effort because of their pacifism but loyalty to the Queen won out. Following Queen Victoria's example, in 1901 Queen Alexandra sent a Christmas gift to the Boer War troops in the form of 5,500 monogrammed silver mounted briar pipes.

In 1914, the same year of Princess Mary's gift tin, her grandmother, Queen Alexandra the Queen Mother, also sent a similar gilt-tin as a personal gift to members of Household regiments. These tins contained a card and 18 cigarettes, each printed with her name. Alexandra's tins were not as widely distributed as Princess Mary's making them rarer.

Imperial War Museum © IWM (EPH 2716)

However, it is the Princess Mary Christmas brass tin from 1914 which is the best known. Inspired by her hospital visits to wounded soldiers, Princess Mary, the seventeen year old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, sent out a public appeal in national newspapers for the 'Sailor and Soldiers Christmas fund' to provide a Christmas gift for ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front'. In the first week the fund had received £12,000 in donations. The following week this amount had risen to £31,000. By the time the fund closed in 1920 it had raised £162,591.

Photo © Marilyn Braun

The embossed brass tin boxes were designed by Messrs Adshead and Ramsay. They feature a profile portrait of Princess Mary surrounded by laurel leaves with two Princess Mary 'M' monograms on either side. Inscribed on a cartouche at the top of the box are the words 'Imperium Britannicum', with a sword and scabbard on either side. In other cartouches around the edge and sides of the box are the names of Britain’s allies in the First World War; France, Russia, Belgium, Servia, Montenegro, and Japan. France and Russia are each superimposed on three furled flags. At the bottom is inscribed 'Christmas 1914.' flanked by the bows of battleships forging through a heavy sea.

There were challenges in producing the brass tin itself and its contents. Some items were considered luxuries and with metals being used to create munitions, brass was becoming harder to come by. Sheets of brass had to be ordered from the United States and a large quantity was lost in the 1915 tragic sinking of the US Lusitania. As metal shortages increased, many of the subsequent tins were made of cheap alloy metal. Despite the difficulties, the boxes were a success. The recipients were divided into three classes, and there were different variations in the contents, which you can read about here.

With over 2.5 million tins distributed, unlike Victoria and Alexandra's tins, Mary's are neither unique or rare. But they were no doubt cherished by appreciative recipients serving in the Great War.


Harewood: A Christmas Legacy Continues
Kinnethmont: The Princess Mary 1914 Christmas Gift
Australian War Memorial: Princess Mary's Christmas Gift 
National Army Museum: Queen Victoria's Gift Chocolate Box, 1900
Presentation Pipes with particular reference to the Queen Alexandra Pipe
 Museum Victoria Collections
Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra's tin images from Imperial War Museum

© Marilyn Braun 2015

Thank you for enjoying this article. If you use the information for research purposes, a link to credit the work I've put into writing it would be appreciated.

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