Christmas Cheer for Friends at the Front (1917)
This post started out as an exploration of the general concept of Christmas hampers, but quickly devolved into a brief survey of the ‘Seasonable Presents’ marketed by Fortnum & Mason, the famous London providores, specifically for sending overseas.
Firstly, let us look at the word ‘hamper.’ The Oxford English Dictionary definition is:
A large basket or wickerwork receptacle, with a cover, generally used as a packing-case. In earlier times a case or casket generally; but from 1500 usually of wickerwork.
So, an early hamper was simply a packing-case of some sort or another. Almost anything was sent in ‘hampers’ in previous times – Samuel Pepys records receiving a ‘hampire of Millions [melons]’ in 1661, and a ‘hamper of bottles of wine’ in 1666. But what, specifically, of the Christmas Hamper? The OED’s first reference to the phrase is given as appearing in 1859, as the title of a collection of short stories by Mark Lemon. None of Mr. Lemon’s stories are about food however, although they do have a Christmas theme, so the use is purely metaphorical.
I strongly suspect that the concept of a ‘Christmas Hamper’ became a thing thanks to Fortnum & Mason’s seasonal efforts in respect of their gourmet products – although in their display advertisement in The Times of 12 November, 1904, the phrase used was ‘Christmas Box.’ The target recipient was quite clearly the military, diplomatic, and other workers maintaining the British Empire’s various holdings around the world.
FORTNUM & MASON’S
Christmas Dinner Boxes,
FOR EXPORT TO ALL CLIMATES.
AS SUPPLIED TO OFFICERS IN HIS MAJESTY’S ARMY AND NAVY.
HERMETICALLY SEALED AND CONSERVED IN A SUPERIOR MANNER,
FISH, PLUM PUDDINGS,
AT VARIOUS PRICES IN ACCORDANCE WITH REQUIREMENTS.
Specimen Boxes can be seen at from Three to Four Guineas each.
In the Fortnum & Mason display advertisement in The Times of 12 December, 1910, the products were called hampers, and the contents were spelled out in a little more detail.
Hampers of good things from
FORTNUM & MASON’S
Hampers from ONE GUINEA each.
A GUINEA Hamper contains:
1 Prime Mild Cured Ham.
1 Plum Pudding.
1 Jar Mincemeat.
1 Tin Finest Sardines.
1 Globe Finest Stem Ginger in Syrup.
1 Box Elvas Plums.
With Larger Ham, 25/-
FORTNUM & MASON, LTD.,
Purveyors by Royal Warrant of Appointment.
181-184, Piccadilly, London, W.
Telephone: 41 Gerrard.
Telegraph: Fortnum, London.
By 1917, the focus for everyone at ‘Home’ was the men fighting at the front line of WWI. The F&N advertisement in The Times of 23 November read:
FOR FRIENDS AT THE FRONT
“Thirty Shilling” Xmas Box
By Freight, including Insurance, 31/6
By Post, in two parcels, including insurance, 36/6
Purée de Foies Gras
Real Turtle Soup Petit Pois Extra
Salmon Cutlets Haricot Verts Extra
Roast Grouse Christmas Pudding
Roast Turkey Brandy Sauce
Devilled Ham Cherries in Brandy
Latest date by which parcels by post
can be accepted for delivery by Christmas:
FRANCE – DECEMBER 14
WAR CATALOGUE ON APPLICATION
182, Piccadilly, London, W.1.
FORTNUM & MASON, Ltd. Regent 41
For the dish of the day, I choose the Elvas plums. These are actually greengages, and were prepared in the form of ‘sweetmeats’ by Portuguese nuns in the region of Alentejo from medieval times onwards. By the nineteenth century in England they had become an expensive imported Christmas treat. Most often it seems they were eaten straight from the box, but there is a recipe for stewing them in The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie. Lady Charlotte Clark was born in Tillypronie in Scotland and was an avid collector of recipes her whole life. Her collection of recipes in notebooks and on scraps of paper was published posthumously, at the behest of her husband, in 1909, although they cover the period from 1841.
“Elvas Plums” Stewed.
Soak 1 lb. of green Elvas plums 1 hour in cold water, drain them, put them on the fire with 2 qts. fresh water quite cold; simmer fully 2 hours very gently. A quarter of an hour before taking the prunes off add ½ lb sugar to make the syrup.
Serve cold in the syrup thus made.
(Real prunes must soak 2 hours. “Pistoles” plums cook in 1 hour, and do not require swelling in cold water: they are less rich and very good, and have no stones.)