It is a well-known fact that London is home to a rich array of archives and collections. As part of this blog, I want to stick my nose into those that relate more directly to food, and report about their historic contents on this platform. This article will be about my recent visit to the Fortnum and Mason archive, which is housed within the company’s grandiose shop in Piccadilly. Managed by Dr. Andrea Tanner, the small but nevertheless substantial collection mainly consists of catalogues (the earliest dating from 1849), advertising material, photographs, press cuttings, label books and some original artwork. This is the bulk of what survives; a considerable part of it was bombed during World War II. Focusing specifically on one of Fortnum and Mason’s icons, the picnic hamper, the archive provided original documents that are useful in tracing the history of this quintessentially British institution.
It is safe to say that Fortnum and Mason picnic hampers have become synonymous with outdoor eating. By the 1730s, Fortnum & Mason supplied customers travelling by coach to destinations such as Bath, or to their country estates with delicatessen packed in traveller’s baskets. Game pies, cooked fowl, fresh bread, West Country butter, scotch eggs, cheese, hot house fruit, and rich fruit cake: these were the dishes that hungry travellers could gorge on during their journey. The Romantic Movement that started at the end of the 18th century inspired members of the upper social strata to eat outdoors and enjoy the English countryside.
One of Manet’s most famous paintings depicted outdoor eating. A basket used to carry fresh fruit and bread can be spotted in the bottom left corner. During the 19th century, F&M supplied picnic hampers for the numerous outdoor events scheduled in London’s vibrant social calendar. Today, the company is well-known for its high-end Christmas hampers. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that F&M hampers came to be associated with this festive season, although when exactly this occurred is still unknown. F&M have a long list of famous clients that once included Oscar Wilde, Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Charles Dickens and even the Emperor Haile Selassie, whose hamper was adorned with the red, green and gold colours of the Ethiopian flag. I am hoping that somewhere out there, there is an image of the Emperor’s hamper waiting to be discovered.
Below is a selection of images from the F&M archive. They illustrate how the iconic picnic hamper was advertised and used during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In this rare Victorian image, a distinctly F&M picnic hamper can be seen in the bottom right hand corner. The logo, stencilled in bold letters on the front of the hamper, is an unusual sight. This was probably a basket used for deliveries which would have been returned to the store. Non-returnable baskets became mobile canvases for the company’s logo around the 1950s, when the growing advertising industry put an emphasis on company branding. Judging from the size of the hamper, wine bottles or other drinks would have been carried in it. The archive also contains a wine hamper from the 1920s which came with its own foldable bottle opener:
Punch, 1865: Can you spot the F&M hampers? Safely strapped to the underside of this horse-drawn transporter, the baskets are barely discernible. In this case, their shape lent itself well to being transported in this manner.
An advertisement for F&M’s ‘Motoring Hampers for Easter Picnics’, from British magazine The Motor, 1937. An illustration of a winged chauffeur clutches a square Fortnum and Mason picnic box. Customers could choose between two motor-inspired delicatessen menus ‘The Two-Seater’ or ‘The Tourer’, which included simple dishes that could easily be packed and transported in the boot of a car. This product responded to the growth of the ‘motoring class’ in Britain.
This F&M hamper dates back to the 1950s and came stocked with a full cream-coloured plastic picnic set and wicker-covered flasks. The type of plastic could either be Beatl or Bandalasta, a light material which literally lessened the burden of having to carry around such a large hamper. Cutlery, cups, saucers, sandwich boxes, and a wine bottle opener (missing): everything you needed for a picnic in the 1950s had its designated place in this particular model.
The F&M catalogue from the 1970s shows a picnic hamper that could be closed and carried like a suitcase. (Notice how the champagne bottle has its own little umbrella to shade it from the sun.)
According to Andrea, the DNA of the F&M hamper has not changed since it was introduced in the 18th century. The baskets have always been made out of wicker, a traditional and ‘readily-available quintessentially English’ material. Wicker is a natural material that can be bent and woven into receptacles of varying shapes and sizes which are sturdy enough to carry heavy loads with. The wicker traditionally used for F&M hampers came from Somerset, which has a long-standing history of wicker cultivation. It seems almost superfluous to say that wicker baskets have always been used for storage or to carry, for example, fresh produce. This rather ordinary, everyday object has accompanied all walks of life throughout history, which turns it into a rather extraordinary thing. Below is a selection of objects that depict baskets used in diverse contexts, ranging in time and geographical focus. When you get to the end of this article, I promise you, dear reader, that you’ll be seeing hampers and baskets everywhere you turn.
This 1898 photograph by French photographer Eugène Atget, depicts a woman pushing a basket on wheels through a street. From the lettering, it is clear that she is transporting baked goods.
An undated French volume contains numerous illustrations of mobile traders in Peking, China. In this particular image, woven baskets filled with coloured eggs are seen placed on the ground. The baskets, attached to a wooden pole, would have been carried on the vendor’s shoulder through the streets, enticing passersby to purchase something. The vendor remained mobile, but could also ‘set up shop’ anywhere with this easy to carry system.
Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller, 1580.
This artpiece was painted for the Fugger family of Augsburg and depicts a woman selling a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. The weave of the baskets are rendered in as much detail as the freshly picked bounty. In particular, the weave of the large, square-shaped basket in the bottom right hand corner is too similar to modern baskets not to draw a comparison.
Below is a close-up of a woven F&M chest from the 1950s that reveals just how little the principal of wicker weaving has changed since the sixteenth century.
Not much is known about this photograph, entitled ‘The Brighton Fancy Basket Maker’ from the 1860s. In a comical way, it depicts the maker, sitting in the middle of the picture working on the base of a basket, completely dwarfed by his surroundings.
These two ornamental porcelain figures hold baskets for serving dry sweetmeats, such as sweets, chocolates or nuts. ‘Porcelain figures were first made as table decorations for dessert’.
A Japanese netsuke of an octopus and a fish in a basket. ‘The main inspiration for netsuke subjects was the natural world, most commonly animals, birds and sea creatures’. The netsuke carver has introduced an element of humour here; the octopus looks like it’s trying to escape from the basket. Perhaps the basket can symbolize how man lives off of nature’s bounty, but also equally depicts his domination over it.
We have come a long way from the starting point of this article, and have leapt from the archives of Fortnum and Mason to review how woven baskets have been used historically through a selection of additional case studies. From a container used to facilitate the transportation of food and eating implements for outdoor dining, to a platform on which food is displayed, the basket has long been a part of everyday life. It is safe to say that F&M picnic hampers are a part of the wider history of baskets, and that research about it can lead to unexpected and intriguing territory.
A special thank you goes to Andrea Tanner for kindly taking time out of her busy schedule to show me the treasures kept in the Fortnum & Mason archive, and for providing me with the history of the picnic hamper and images that feature in this article.
 Judith Woods, ‘Fortnum & Mason: spiritual home of the Christmas hamper’, The Telegraph, December 3rd, 2011.
– Fortnum & Mason: The First Three Hundred Years, (London: Fortnum & Mason, 2007)
– Judith Woods, ‘Fortnum & Mason: Spiritual home of the Christmas hamper’, The Telegraph, December 3rd, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/8931560/Fortnum-and-Mason-spiritual-home-of-the-Christmas-hamper.html
Zenia Malmer –
Zenia graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in English and Arts Management. She worked at the Ministry of Culture in Luxembourg as a project coordinator for three years before embarking on the History of Design course. Her current research interests lie at the intersection of food and design history: from the nineteenth-century tools and technologies designed to make smooth and creamy ice cream, to the link between wedding cakes and architectural theory.
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