Answers to Correspondents

BUSY CORRESPONDENT
The agony column is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 19th century, earnest readers of The Girl’s Own Paper wrote in to the weekly publication under pseudonyms asking for advice on all manner of problems. It’s unlikely that many girls today concern themselves with pressing issues such as how to remove ink stains from ivory piano keys, the correct etiquette of visiting cards, or, thankfully, how to remove a boil from the eyeball.

The advice they received in the ‘Answers to Correspondents’ page was prescriptive, stern, sometimes harsh and often astonishingly encyclopaedic. Any indiscretions involving the opposite sex were severely reprimanded, while those with poor handwriting usually suffered a withering critique.

The questions themselves were never printed which make many of the answers all the more intriguing, and, we have to admit, occasionally hysterical.  Whoever the Girl’s Own agony aunt was, she refused to suffer fools gladly and her advice perhaps tells us more than many other contemporary sources what life must have been like for a middle class girl in the 1890s.

The First Letter'

ALICE. – A crayon copy is not eligible for exhibition at the Royal Academy.

MADGE. – Yes, there is a verse in the Bible that has all the letters of the alphabet in it. See Ezra vii. 21.

Johann Strauss II
A DALSTONIAN
. – Why do you wish to whiten your face and neck? Of course you could dip your face in a flour-barrel, or get some whitewash applied by the cook next time she whitens the scullery. But what a coarse, orange-peel-looking skin you will soon have if you fill up the pores of the face!

BLACK TOM. – 1. The girl you name as being hopelessly attached to a man she has never met but only seen at concerts, should be sent away from the foreign town where you are both staying. The story is of a most humiliating character; she disgraces the sex, the members of which should be sought, not themselves the seekers. 2. We could not hazard an opinion on what was your disease. Your writing slopes the wrong way.

ALYS and MABELLE. – ‘Nigel’ is pronounced as it is spelt; the last syllable as the first in ‘gelatine’.

SHE READS A LETTER 1889

WORRIED (but not) TO DEATH. – We know nothing of the method advertised. We can only advise you not to try it without the opinion of your own family doctor.

PUSSIE. – We cannot tell you of the diseases induced by the bad habit of eating anything not designed for food. You must be already in a very unwholesome condition. The best means of curing yourself would be to tell your mother, and request her to put a stop to it at once, if you have no strength of mind and will to cure yourself of such nasty habits.

School class in Great Britain, 1930...

MARJORIE. – 1. Your heliotrope dress will probably fade if you wash it. 2. To raise his hat on the first meeting is all that is required of a man. To do so five or six times would be ridiculous.

CUSTOMS/ETIQUETTE

Going Under: Diving Suits through History

Serious exploration of the underwater world began in the early 17th century, when the first submarine was invented by Dutch physician Cornelis Drebbel.  Then, the environment beneath the sea was considered the most dangerous and mysterious on earth – long before the prospect of exploring environments, such as outer space, was even feasible.

The invention of individual diving suits in the early 18th century allowed a more refined exploration of the ocean depths.  The initial drive for the creation of diving suits was to aid salvage missions, at a time when many ships (carrying many treasures) were lost to the ocean on perilous journeys.  The first diving suits were designed in 1710s and in 1715, English inventor John Lethbridge created the first fully-enclosed suit, consisting of watertight sleeves, a pressurised air filled barrel and a viewing hole.

These basic elements formed the foundation for the design of future diving apparatus, the technological advances of which were covered regularly in illustrated scientific periodicals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Expeditions to ships sunken in WWI and WWII, fueled by public intrigue and fascination, were often dramatically illustrated in the likes of newspapers such as the Italian Sunday supplement; “La Domenica Del Corriere” and the French illustrated supplement “Le Petit Parisien”, with bold and vivid interpretations of almost robotic-like diving suits placed in otherworldly environments.

Early diving suits, far away from today’s equivalent, continue to be well-received in popular culture as a representation of the quirky and bizarre, due to their odd appearance and design aesthetics and for their kitsch, retro-futurist elements.  Film and television characters in early diving suits have appeared in cult productions, think the Ghost of Captain Cutler in Scooby Doo – this eerie, glowing and growling deep sea diver is of the show’s most popular villains (Below: Captain Cutler in SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection).

SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
For anyone enchanted by the exploration of the undersea world and have an appreciation for unusual design; the photographs and illustrations of early diving suits held by the Mary Evans Picture Library are a joy to behold.

FREMINET'S MACHINE

Above: French inventor Freminet’s ‘Machine Hydrostatique’ which incorporates something like a  modern diving suit combined  with an air tank.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Pesce, ‘Navigation sous- marine’, 1772.

KLINGERT'S DIVING SUIT 1

Above: Klingert’s diving suit and apparatus.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la Science’ volume 4 page 637, 1797.


AMBER-HUNTER'S SUIT

Left: Cabirol’s diving suit combines effective protection with considerable ease of movement, the two basic requirements for working underwater.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Above: Diving dress and equipment of an amber hunter.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Right: A state-of-the-art diving suit of the late 19th century, made of rubber and fitted with an emergency air tank, just in case the unthinkable should happen… Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 655, 1875.


DIVING SUIT 1922

Left: Diving suit designed for work on the ‘Lusitania’, sunk during World War One and lying at a depth of 80 metres.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 17 December 1922

Right: Divers explore the wrecks of vessels torpedoed during World War One: the amazing suit on the left is specially designed for very deep dives.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 23 May 1920.

 Deep-sea diving suit, for salvage work on HMS 'M1' subrine

Above: A German deep-sea diving suit brought from Kiel for examining the lost submarine ‘M1’. On 21 November 1925, while on an exercise in the English Channel. The ‘M1’ submarine sank with the loss of her entire crew, the crew members appear to have tried to escape by flooding the interior and opening the escape hatch, but their bodies were never found. At the time the submarine was lying too deep to use ordinary diving apparatus. So the decision was made to ask for the assistance of Messrs. Neufeldt and Kuhnke, of Kiel, who specialized in deep-sea diving apparatus.

Diver in metal diving suit attached to cable

Left: A diver in an iron diving suit developed by a German company in Kiel, seen here being lowered into the sea, 1922.

Centre: A diver in an electrically controlled metal diving suit attached to a cable, ready to be lowered into the sea, c. 1924.

Right: A diver in a special iron diving suit is lowered into the sea attached to a cable, c. 1920.

Diving suit used during Lutine salvage operation

Left: Full figure of man in underwater diving suit, c 1940.

Centre: A man holds up a rubber diving suit used during one of many salvage operations of HMS Lutine, which sank off the Dutch coast during a storm in 1799. Photograph c. 1934.

Right: American inventor H.L. Bowdoin with his deep-sea diving suit. On the shoulders are two 1000 watt automobil lamps. 15th August 1931.

DIVING SUIT STRUGGLE

Above: A German underwater photographer struggles to get into his rubber diving suit, with a little help from his friends. Unattributed photograph for Barnaby’s Studios Ltd c. 1930s.

Diver

Above: William Walker, diver, who worked under Winchester Cathedral between 1906 and 1912.

 

Top 10 spookiest photos in the archive

It’s October, the spookiest month of the year and Halloween is only four weeks away.   At Mary Evans Picture Library we have plenty of images to give you a good scare, thanks to our collection of several thousand images on the subject of the ‘paranormal’.

Co-founder of the library, Hilary Evans (1929-2011) was a leading voice and author on the paranormal and helped to co-found the Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena in 1981.  Due to Hilary’s extensive research on the subject, the library amassed many thousands of images on all things otherworldly. In addition he also formed relationships with external paranormal collections which we continue to represent, including the renowned Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, which we exclusively represent along with other collections from independent paranormal investigators and collective societies.

Here are the top 10 most creepy and unsettling images from our paranormal archive, guaranteed to send a chill down your spine.

RAYNHAM HALL GHOST (CL)


1.) The ghost of Raynham Hall, Norfolk.  This figure is not seen but is unknowingly photographed on the staircase; it may be the ghost of Dorothy Walpole, known as ‘The Brown Lady’. 
The image was first published in the December 26 edition of Country Life Magazine 1936 and has since become one of the most famous ‘ghost photographs’ in the world to date.

Image courtesy of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, University of London.

Phantom priest in the church at Arundel, Sussex


2.) Phantom priest photographed in the church at Arundel, Sussex, date unknown. 
Image courtesy of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, University of London.

EASTRY CHURCH 1956


3.) Eastry Church Ghost, Kent, 1956. 
When Bank Manager Mr Bootman took this photograph of Eastry Church in 1956, he claims it was empty.  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.

Ghosts on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen's House

4.) Ghosts on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen’s House, Greenwich, London 19 June 1966.

Figures photographed on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen’s House during normal opening hours of the museum, though the photographer saw nothing.  This image was taken by Rev. R W Hardy of White Rock, British Columbia, Canada whilst on holiday in the UK.  Image courtesy of Peter Underwood.

PHOTO/ENIGMATIC FIGURE


5.) Enigmatic Figure, 23 May 1964. 
When J P Templeton photographed his daughter on Burgh Marsh, Cumberland, this enigmatic figure appeared behind her.  Image courtesy of Peter Underwood.

Ghost of Lord Combermere


6.) Ghost of Lord Combermere 5 December 1981. 
Sybell Corbet’s photograph of the library at Combermere, taken between 2-3 pm, seems to show a figure, resembling Lord Combermere, at the time he was being buried.  Image source: Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol V December 1895 page 167.

ANCIENT RAM INN GHOST

7.) Ancient Ram Inn Ghost, 5 June 1999.  This photograph appears to show an apparition just before an ASSAP (Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena) night vigil at The Ancient Ram Inn, Wotton- Under-Edge, Gloucestershire.  A murder was committed years earlier on this staircase.  We like to fondly refer to this image as ‘The Malibu Ghost’!  Image courtesy of Julie and Mark Hunt.

WATERTOWN PHOTO

8.) Watertown Photo, 1924.  When sailors Courtney and Meehan of American ship S.S. ‘Watertown’ are accidentally killed, then buried at sea, their faces are seen following the ship and photographed.  Image source: Captain Tracy, the vessel’s captain, reproduced in Gaddis, ‘Invisible Horizons’.

GHOST/EALING


Ealing Ghost

9.) Ealing Ghost, date unknown. A figure seen at an upstairs windows of a house where murder and 20 suicides have taken place (possibly the ghost of Ann Hinchfield who killed herself in 1886).  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.

LEEDS POLTERGEIST


10.) Leeds Poltergeist, 1970.
The photograph seems to show papers flying through the air.  This was photographed during a case investigating the disturbance in the offices of Air Heating company, Leeds, centred around  a 16-year old typist : the phenomena continued for six months.  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.


A Transcontinental Metro and other dreams of the future – as illustrated in the past

I always love delving into the unusual here at the archive and from spooky spectres to spoon-bending we have it all, but one area I’m particularly fascinated with is the collection of imaginative illustrations dating pre-1960 which fantasise on what the future may hold in the year 2000 and beyond.  These popular images regularly appeared in scientific and general interest periodicals, children books, collectables and magazines.  Common illustrated themes included wonderful and complex infrastructure, high capacity and ultra hi-speed transport, space exploration and domestic living with machines for every chore you could think of.

Much of the ideas depicted were entirely plausible at the time, for example video calling, but equally some imaginations of the future were a good way off reality and really delved into the realm of fantasy;  ideas such as life on Mars in 50 years time and underwater bikes being used for the casual commute across the English Channel!

One particularly charming example in the archive is the promotional sticker book published c.1950 by Belgian chocolate company ‘Aiglon’, titled ‘L’An 2000 / ‘t Jaar 2000’ The album features many unique future scenarios such as the dredging and reclaiming of the Mediterranean sea between France, Spain, Italy and North Africa, aeroplanes the size of cruise ships and post sent by intercontinental rocket.  How I would have loved to collect each individual sticker with the purchase of a chocolate bar!  At Mary Evans we are lucky enough to hold the full completed album (images below).

As much as some of the ‘guesses at futurity’ are hard-to-swallow, the images offer a fantastic insight into the vivid, thought-out and often humorous imaginations of our forefathers at what our world may look like by the new millennium.  There are hundreds of images of the ‘future’ for your perusal on our website, which are available to license and you can find them here, but below you can see some favourites from a variety of sources – I do hope they delight!

Future 1

Future 1a


Cityscapes of the Future:
 

New York of the future

Left: Autogyros and other aircraft land on rooftops in the London of the future, by Henry Woolley in ‘The Wonder Book of Aircraft’, 1931.

Centre: Postcard showing the New York of the future, date unknown.

Right: A city street of the future by Henry Woolley in ‘The Wonder Book of Aircraft’, 1931.


Transport and Infrastructure:

TRANSATLANTIC TUNNEL

Left: Transatlantic tunnel, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Observation of the sea bed from transparent-bottomed boats, using atom-ray illumination, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

MEDITERRANEAN RECLAIMED

Left: Reclaiming the Mediterranean for agricultural use, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Transcontinental metro travelling underground beneath continents, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

 

SUPER-JUMBO AIRCRAFT

Left: Super-jumbo aircraft carrier, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Submarine motorbike, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

 

CHANNEL ROAD BRIDGE

Left: Channel road bridge between Calais and Dover c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Jet-propelled snow mobile, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

 

FUTURE MONORAIL

Left: Traffic control centre, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Monorail proposal, March 1941.  Illustration by B und H Romer- Munchen, in Delhagen und Klafigs Monatshefte.

 

CIRCULAR AIRPORT PROJECT

Left: A prediction that aircraft will be guided to their destinations by beacons – vertical lights positioned beside motorways, indicating the route from town to town, c. 1935.  Collectors’ card by Byrrh, French aperitif.

Right: A suggested central London overhead airport at King’s Cross showing aeroplanes landing on the runways of a huge wheel-shaped structure. Illustration by Charles W Glover in the Illustrated London News, 6 June 1931.

 

TRAIN OF TOMORROW

Left: Prediction of what the railway train of tomorrow will look like.  Totally streamlined for greater speed and economy, c. 1935.  Collectors’ card by Byrrh, French aperitif.

Centre: Future Transatlantic passenger liners, which will be aerodynamically shaped for faster travel. This vessel is based on a project by American designer Norman Bel Geddes, c. 1935.  Collectors’ card by Byrrh, French aperitif.

Right: Landing spot for airplane, parking space for cars on every storey, France, circa 1930.


Domestic living:

future, vision In the year 2000, television-phone,

Above: Future vision un the year 2000, television-phone, colour lithograph, France, 1910.


future, household, automatic floor polisher with

Above:
Future vision in the year 2000, an electric scrubber, colour lithograph, France, 1910.

Futuristic home, with chores done automatically

Above: A futuristic home, with chores done automatically. The housewife’s life will be an easy one in which she can sit back, read the paper and listen to music.  Allers Familj Journal (Sweden), 24 May 1929.


Robot servant polishing shoes

Left: A futuristic device to help a gentleman get dressed in the automatic home of the future. At the press of a button, a mechanical arm holds out his suit, top hat and walking stick, while a platform on wheels delivers his shoes. Allers Familj Journal (Sweden), 24 May 1929.

Centre: The servant of the future – a robotic servant polishes a man’s shoes while he sits reading in his armchair. Le Petit Inventeur (France) c. 1929.

Right: A futuristic invention for the lazy person — no need to leave your seat when you need a drink, in the automatic home of the future. A man sits in his armchair, smoking a cigar, while a mechanical arm drops through the ceiling to offer him a tray of drinks. Allers Familj Journal (Sweden), 24 May 1929.

SUBURBAN HOME, ROCKET

Left: Suburban home with garage for family rocket, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium

Right: Kitchen of the future, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium

Bizarre Best Wishes – the Weird & Wonderful World of Victorian Christmas cards

Children attacking a large pudding on a Christmas card. Date: circa 1890s

10997093: Children attacking a large pudding on a Christmas card. Date: circa 1890s

For any student of Christmas festive facts, they will know that first Christmas card was designed in 1846 by John Calcott Horsley at the request of Sir Henry Cole, later Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.  About one thousand hand-coloured copies were produced, printed by Mr. Jobbins of Holborn and published by Joseph Cundall of Old Bond Street.  The design incorporated two scenes of charity flanking a central picture of a typically Victorian family cheerily raising a glass to toast the recipient of the card.  Although Horsley’s card is the acknowledged ‘first’ Christmas design, another, even earlier card, was designed by Mr. W. N. Egley, and sent by the artist to friends and family in 1842.  Whichever can claim to be truly the first Christmas card, they triggered a trend that became a festive tradition as familiar as trees and mince pies.

These early examples had been private ventures but by the 1860s the firm of Messrs. Goodall had begun to issue Christmas cards to the trade.  In the decades that followed, Christmas card sending rose to prodigious proportions.   During the Christmas period of 1882 for example, more than 14,000,000 letters and packages were delivered in the London area alone.  Such was the demand for new designs of good quality that in 1879, card publishers Raphael Tuck held an exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London, with well-known Academicians as judges and 500 guineas in prizes.  The contest attracted nearly 900 entrants and was so popular that a second and grander competition, judged by Sir John Millais and Marcus Stone, was held in 1882.  This time £5000 was awarded in prizes.  The result was that many famous artists, including Stone, George Clausen, G. D. Leslie and W. F. Yeames, entered the Christmas card market, with one firm paying out £7000 for drawings in a single season.  Years later, a 1936 interview with Desmond Tuck of Raphael Tuck published in The Sphere, revealed that each season the company rose to the challenge of creating no fewer than 3000 original Christmas card designs, achieving this with a permanent staff of fifteen designers, freelance commissions from outside artists and licensing works from art galleries and museums.  Tuck were undoubtedly market leaders.  They exclusively produced the royal family’s Christmas cards each year and ensured that the designs were distributed to the press who duly published them (many featured patriotic scenes or historic royals from the past), and they pioneered novelty cards alongside more sedate, traditional designs.  In 1901, The Tatler magazine commented on a box of Christmas cards sent by the canny marketeers at Raphael Tuck:

“All Raphael Tuck’s cards are pretty and artistic, but what struck me as the most ingenious were the expanding cards, i.e., those cards by which a slight manipulation can be transformed into ships, soldiers and horses of a real shape and form.”

An 1842 design for a Christmas card by Mr W. N. Egley, though the general consensus is that the first was by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in 1846. There is some debate over whether this one was designed in 1842 or 1848. Nevertheless, a very early example, perhaps the earliest! Date: 1842

11657256: An 1842 design for a Christmas card by Mr W. N. Egley, though the general consensus is that the first was by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in 1846. There is some debate over whether this one was designed in 1842 or 1848. Nevertheless, a very early example, perhaps the earliest! Date: 1842

Reputedly the first Christmas card, this was designed by Horsley in 1843, and a coloured version sent out by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 Date: 1843-1846

10021527: Reputedly the first Christmas card, this was designed by Horsley in 1843, and a coloured version sent out by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 Date: 1843-1846

The designing room at Raphael Tuck & Sons, fine art publishers of prints, cards, Almanacks and postcards, staffed largely by women. Tuck were one of the leading card and postcard publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Date: 1903

11657260: The designing room at Raphael Tuck & Sons, fine art publishers of prints, cards, Almanacks and postcards, staffed largely by women. Tuck were one of the leading card and postcard publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Date: 1903

Several examples were shown but it is notable that not one single card appears to us to be particularly festive – there are donkeys on the sands of a coastal resort, a Chinese pleasure boat, circus horses and their riders,  a man-o-war in full dress and eighteenth century dandies carrying a lady in a sedan chair.  Not a single snowflake or twinkling bauble in sight.

211657259 (left): Adolph Tuck, Sir Adolph Tuck, 1st Baronet (1854-1926), fine art publisher and chairman of Raphael Tuck & Sons, pictured with his son passing a design for a Christmas card in 1903
10999514 (right): Invoice from Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd, to Mr Frank Blackley, for the supply of one hundred greetings cards, total cost ten shillings and ten pence.

We have an eye-bogglingly varied array of historic Christmas cards in the archive representing this rich period in card publishing.  Many have arrived via our representation of the fabulously bonkers David Pearson Collection featuring designs that range from the mildly inappropriate to the unashamedly weird, most from the late 19th and early 20th century.  We may blame our modern-day sensibilities and taste for laughing at such unfathomable festive themes, but even in 1894, Gleeson White, editor of The Studio, wrote a monograph on Christmas cards in which he commented on the increasingly bizarre and inappropriate styles of card available to consumers.

“It is amusing to note the pictorial accompaniments, considered fit to illustrate the very mundane wish for a ‘A Happy Christmas’.  To accompany this prosaic and wholly carnal greeting we find, often, monsters of nightmareland, pictures of accidents dear to the farce writer, and in short, the subjects, which are in vulgar parlance weird and alarming on the one hand and distinctly uncomfortable on the other.”

Gleeson White, aesthetically sensitive, might have been particularly averse to ‘jokey’ and strangely macabre cards but there was undoubtedly a market at a time when the scale of card-sending meant that designers had to cast about for novel ideas and not all card buyers were discerning enough to prefer the worthy work of an Academician.   Nevertheless, whoever came up with murderous frogs and dead robins, cards in the shape of a hand gun or plucked turkeys lying limp and lifeless on kitchen scales, had perhaps spent rather too long at the drawing board, scraping the brandy barrel of festive ideas.  We don’t care.  Whether it’s Christmas or not, weird Christmas cards continue to be a source of great mirth and amusement at the library.  We’re just waiting for a mischievous someone to select some for a cool and off-beat Christmas card selection box.  We’ll be at the front of the queue.

9

A saw on a Christmas card -- the basis of a fairly excruciating pun. Date: circa 1890s

6

Little dog with a toy gun on a New Year card. circa 1890s

4  A frog murders another frog for money - a somewhat bizarre Christmas subject ! Date: circa 1880

5

The Maurice Collins Collection

Mary Evans’ reputation as purveyors of the quirky and unusual was given a boost last year with the welcome addition of the Maurice Collins Collection to the library’s offerings. A cornucopia of gadgetry and bizarre inventions, Maurice’s unique collection is a celebration of technological advancement, manufacturing prowess and rampant consumerism over the 19th and 20th centuries (not to mention a heavy dose of Victorian eccentricity). Among the thousands of peculiar and often dubiously useful objects Maurice has collected over the years are such curiosities as hen peck protectors, adjustable skirt lifters (to protect long hemlines from muddy puddles), bed linen smoothers, cricket bat string applicators and chewing gum holders. We thoroughly recommend whiling away an hour or so browsing his fascinating collection online. Click here to see the entire collection.

MAU BLOG 4
Image numbers (left to right): 11041344, 11041464, 11041359 & 11041457

In the first of a series of contributor interviews, we talked to Maurice to find out more about his fascinating hobby and collecting habits.

How did you start your collection?

I began collecting when my children were younger in the 1970s. My daughter was handicapped, and in order to spend time with my son, we used to go bottle digging on old Victorian rubbish tips to see what we could find. We uncovered pot lids, old bottles and I recall finding a particularly unusual bottle – a genuine Hiram Codd mineral water bottle, with a pointed bottom and a marble in the neck to stop the contents’ gas escaping and the drink going flat. That was the beginning and I’ve been collecting ever since.

MAU BLOG 1
Image numbers (left to right): 11043914, 11043905, 11043895 & 11043869

What is the scope of the collection? What are the qualifications an item must have to be included?

I look for anything unusual or something I simply like the look of. They might be every-day items for their time, though seem curious in retrospect. But the main rule I have is that the majority of objects fall roughly within the century from the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The collection now numbers around 2000 individual items, and they are catalogued in so far as they are stored eight to a box, with a description of each piece.

Do you have a favourite particular piece?

It’s my clockwork teasmade dating from 1902. The Science Museum have one in their collection. Other than that I’m intrigued by security devices, such as traps in coat pockets against thieves, or products that were powered by clockwork. Also escape items – I have button or collar stud compasses, or compasses disguised as razor blades, used by the RAF during the Second World War.

And a preference for a particular period?

I admire the aesthetics and design of the 1930s and the Bauhaus movement, but for sheer variety and invention, the gadgets of the late 19th century take some beating. Some were essential advances to improve the health and well-being of the population such as Royal Doulton’s water filter or the Jennings toilet as shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition (George Jennings invented the first public flush toilet). There are other gadgets that demonstrate society’s increasing quest for comfort and ease such as car seat heating or coachman’s belly warmers. Others are just plain bonkers such as a tin of South-end air you could send as a refreshing alternative to a postcard!

Where do you find your treasures?

I’m always looking – antiques fairs and markets, eBay of course now, which makes searching internationally so much easier.

What is the most recent acquisition?

A clockwork alarm from around 1820 consisting of a small clock connected to a bell and ratchet. It is very beautiful and the mechanism is very effective.

MAU BLOG 3
Image numbers (left to right): 11041331, 11042765, 11041461 & 11041660

As an inveterate collector yourself, are there other collections you admire?

It has to be Robert Opie and his marvellous collection of advertising, packaging and brand ephemera.

And do you collect anything else other than gadgets?

I have a sideline collection of ephemera consisting of graphic design material, adverts and posters, particularly a major collection of WWI and WWII posters. I was a compositor and then owned my own printing business for a number of years, so am naturally drawn to this sort of material.

What projects have you got lined up for the collection?

I have always lent objects to museums and for exhibitions – any fees are donated to disability charities. I will be at the Gadget Show in Birmingham this year (the show runs from 31 March to 3 April at the NEC) showing a selection of objects. I have written books based on the collection (Ingenious Gadgets and Eccentric Contraptions) and have another planned.

MAU BLOG 2
Image numbers (left to right): 11047261, 11047192, 11047000 & 11044365

What do you think your collection tells us about society over the past two centuries?

It’s commonly assumed today that we buy and own too much stuff. But there is a rationale behind this and that is that society is dependent on the production and sale of goods. All wealth is created by someone buying something over a shop counter which in turn means that people are buying products, meaning employment, which allows taxation, which is then spent on the infrastructure of a democratic society, from health, roads, education and even the preservation of our past through provision of museums. It is a principle of economics that has remained constant over the centuries. My collection of objects and gadgets, whether life-changing, ground-breaking, totally pointless or utterly obsolete, represents this perennial rhythm of industry and consumerism.

The Maurice Collins Collection is exclusively represented by Mary Evans Picture Library, with 3800 images available to search. Click here to see the entire collection.