“Who stole the cookies in the cookie jar?” is a well-known lyric, but I doubt if one has been written about the English equivalent - the biscuit barrel. That alliteration just lends itself to a catchy tune! Britons have used biscuit barrels to keep their homemade biscuits since the 18th century. Their air tightness for long term storage was however much less effective than our modern tins and plastic containers, therefore they were more useful for transporting or presenting one’s fragile baked concoctions. The term ‘biscuit box’ was originally used to describe a smaller rectangular vessel, the precursor of our ‘biscuit tin’, while a ‘biscuit barrel’ most commonly labelled a small barrel-shaped biscuit tin, similar to large storage barrels. Today, the term ‘biscuit barrel’ is used to label antique biscuit jars of various forms, not just the barrel shaped. Several decorative examples are in Whangarei Museum’s collection.
Biscuits, as a favoured snack for people at any time, rendered biscuit barrels essential items in most homes, alongside tea caddies. A new fashion for taking afternoon tea along with increased availability of bulk tea, coffee and commercially made biscuits, led to an increased popularity in biscuit barrel use during the 19 th century. Victorian biscuit barrels, like many other domestic items, became highly ornamented with frilly applique and floral transfer prints, perfect for guests to admire at the tea table. One of the domestic items in Whangarei Museum’s Bedlington bequest is a Royal Doulton ceramic biscuit barrel. A rounded cube shape, its white body is covered in delicate under-glaze hand painted flowers surrounded by a cobalt blue border. Gilded filigree designs gently overlap the blue sections and the floral design. Its brass lid has been embossed with botanical wreaths and topped with an ornamental handle. Similar biscuit barrels could be made from silver, silver plated tin, or glass, but Royal Doulton specialised in ceramic wares. Founded in 1815 by trio John Doulton, Martha Hones and John Watts, Doulton started producing ceramic ware like jars, mugs and industrial pipes. While initially focusing on utilitarian products, the company gradually turned to decorative wares. In 1882 they expanded their production in Lambeth, London, by adding a new studio in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, the pottery hub of northern England. John’s son Henry took over in 1873, bringing with him a greater artistic focus and collaborating with local artists and art students. The new pieces became so popular that Henry Doulton was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1887, and, after Henry’s death in 1897, the Burslem factory was granted a Royal warrant from King Edward VII. Many Royal Doulton biscuit barrels were matched in design with a tea set. You will find these can be marked with the signatures of Doulton & Watts, then Doulton & Co. or, from 1902, Royal Doulton. Our biscuit barrel dates to the 1920s, the last big era of the biscuit barrel, before they were surpassed by biscuit tins which could be purchased readily filled with biscuits from the grocers. This period was also the biggest period of growth for Royal Doulton’s decorative figures and tableware. Doulton’s designers favoured floral designs and nature scenes but also started introducing Art Deco styles. With their pretty designs and fine materials marking them as decorative pieces, not just food receptacles, it is not hard to see why antique biscuit barrels are collectable items today. The colourful floral decoration, hand painting and ornate gold details mark this particular barrel as both a piece of art and an important symbol of Royal Doulton’s manufacturing history, which is still going strong today.
Exhibitions Curator, Whangarei Museum
27 May 2020