The earliest decorated biscuit tin was commissioned in 1868 by Huntley & Palmers from the London firm of De La Rue to a design by Owen Jones.
The most exotic designs were produced in the early years of the 20th century, just prior to the First World War. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, costs had risen substantially and the design of biscuit tins tended to be more conservative, with the exception of the tins targeted at the Christmas market and intended to appeal primarily to children. The designs generally reflected popular interests and tastes.
Tins shaped like actual objects began to be made in the late 1890s. The earlier tins were shaped like baskets but gradually a whole range of fine art objects appeared. Biscuit tins were no longer aimed merely at children and the Christmas market. They had become useful and decorative parts of the middle-class home.
Replicas of Chinese vases could be used as such when the biscuits had been eaten. Boxes imitating porcelain, Wedgewood china or fine wooden boxes mimicked the wonderful objects found in grand houses or in museums.
Huntley & Palmer’s tins came in all sizes and shapes. They were elaborately decorated, from miniature replicas of vehicles to reusable tins engraved with intricate still life tableaux to street-scene designs inspired by impressionist art.
Prior to the production of Decorated Biscuit Tins biscuit manufacturers supplied grocer’s shops with biscuits packed into large tins, typically containing 7lbs. (3.2 kilogrammes). These would be displayed in the shop, and the shopkeeper would weigh out the required amount of biscuits into a paper bag for each customer. Some tins had a glass panel in the lid, so that customers could see the biscuits inside.
The individual British biscuit tin came about when the Licensed Grocer’s Act of 1861 allowed groceries to be individually packaged and sold.
Double-baked biscuits with a long shelf life were the food of choice for European travellers, and the tins they were packaged in are now collector’s items.