Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The (elegant brass) Christmas Box--Anno 1914

Whenever possible, I like to use images and objects in teaching. They can provide insights into specific aspects of life in the past in the past or simply help to make tangible a world that can seem irredeemably distant and alien to students.

One of the favorite objects in my collection is this one. It's not terribly rare (you can still find them fairly easily, and they don't cost a fortune), but it is special.

hinged embossed brass box, 37 x 125 mm (click to enlarge)
The Imperial War Museum calls this brass box, created as a Christmas gift for British troops in1914, "one of the most enduring mementos of the First World War."

In the center, enclosed in a circle within a wreath, is a profile of Britain's Princess Mary facing left, flanked by the cursive initial "M." Above, center, in a cartouche in the decorative border, the words "Imperium Britannicum" (British Empire) set over a garlanded sword. Below, center, a cartouche with the words "Christmas 1914." flanked by the bows of warships.

The names of the major allies, France and Russia, are set within circles over tripods of banners at left and right, respectively. In the four corner cartouches, diagonally facing the center of the lid, are the names of the other allies. Clockwise: Belgium, Japan, Montenegro, and Servia (sic).

The story is as intriguing as the box is beautiful. The War Museum, which holds the documentary and material record of the undertaking, provides the fullest recounting on its website, but here are the essentials.

'every Sailor afloat and every Soldier at the front'

The story began in the early months of the war, when Britain's Princess Mary (Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary; 1897-1965), daughter of King George V, wanted to do something to honor and cheer the troops.

The undertaking proved far more complex than anyone had anticipated, and indeed, can serve as an illustration, on a microcosmic scale, of the challenges of morale-building efforts and industrial activity in the era of nascent total war. Virtually every aspect of the project, from concept, funding, and contents, to manufacturing and distribution, had to be modified.

Although the Princess's original plan had been to make a true personal gift from her own resources, it soon became apparent that a public effort and fundraising appeal were required, so in October, she wrote:
I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?
The gift was to consist of the hinged and embossed brass box, "one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and photograph [of the Princess]." The Executive Committee then decided to produce several variant versions for those for whom the smoking-oriented contents might be inappropriate. For the non-smokers, "a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes" took the place of the tobacco and related products. Nurses at the front received chocolate instead. As for the Colonial troops: "The Gurkhas were to receive the same gift as the British troops; Sikhs the box filled with sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the Christmas card; all other Indian troops, the box with a packet of cigarettes and sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the card."

the smoker's version (Imperial War Museum)
the nonsmoker's version (Imperial War Museum)
The fundraising campaign was so successful--bringing in nearly £ 163,000, most of it from small donations--that it allowed for boxes to be given to all troops, but this proved to be a mixed blessing, given the sheer number of recipients, estimated at some 2.6 million. The Executive Committee thereupon decided to do a sort of triage, aiming to reach recipients in Class A--essentially, the Navy, frontline troops, nurses, prisoners and internees, and families of the deceased--by Christmas, and those in Classes B (British, Colonial, and Indian troops outside the UK), and C (troops within the UK borders) later on. Because these latter were distributed after Christmas, the card proffered New Year's greetings instead.

As it happened, just fabricating the box proved more than challenge enough. The manufacturers were not eager to take on the task in the first place, but the largest problem consisted in the shortage of appropriate brass metal, even after the Committee was forced to intervene and supply it directly. In the event, there proved to be enough for the Christmas issue, but the Committee struggled to find the remainder, even turning to American sources. Nice bit of historical trivia: most of the US shipment was aboard the Lusitania, famously torpedoed by the Germans in 1915.

426,724 boxes were distributed by Christmas 1914. This meant that 1,803,147 still had to reach the other two classes, a daunting number that prompted the Committee to streamline things yet again by settling upon a uniform gift consisting of only the box, New Year's card, and pencil. After the final accounting was done in 1919, the surplus went to Queen Mary's Maternity Home, which aided the wives and newborns of men in the service.

* * *

One of the things that is so fascinating about the rise of the web and social media in museum and historical work is the possibility for dialogue, among members of the public, and between the public and professionals. There is a nice representative collection of responses--from Massachusetts and the UK to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India--on the web page of the box from Museum Victoria in Australia. Some of the commenters knew what the box was, some were learning for the first time about this mysterious object that they had in their homes. One collector and writer used the opportunity to add to his knowledge base prior to issuing a new publication. One of the most intriguing and laconic posts seems to come from a British soldier who found one in an abandoned house in the course of the current war in Afghanistan.

This sort of engagement (though presumably lacking the direct personal connection) is what I hope to bring out when I show the box in class. One can begin the conversation via any one of multiple avenues:
The striking elegance of the design and quality of the product, for example. Do they reflect a soon-to-be antiquated aesthetic?
What of the relationship between monarchy, state, and public? How do the texts and images of the box feature in the construction of a patriotic ideal?

Are students surprised to see Japan featured on the box? Why?

What do the design of the box, along with the production and distribution problems, tell us about expectations of the course of the war? Were the initiators of the project naive?

What do the contents such as tobacco and writing products tell us about the culture of the era and the daily life, hopes, and fears of the soldier in the trenches?

And what about the substitution of spices and sweets in the boxes destined for Indian troops? How did the Empire understand cultural diversity and pluralism? Why has the significant presence of Colonial forces failed to become part of our popular image of the war? (1, 2)
And then there is the now-fabled "Christmas Truce" of 1914 in which the soldiers of the opposing sides climbed out of their trenches, and for a day, at least, met face to face as friends rather than foes. Among the gifts they exchanged were cigarettes. What if this box was there? What if this box could talk?

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