The Manufacture of Christmas Crackers In The 19th Century | Charles Dickens (1888)

CHRISTMAS CRACKERS.

Among the cheerful things which help to brighten the proverbial dark, dull days before Christmas, are the glowing pictures that adorn every hoarding, and announce the forthcoming crackers of Christmas.

When you see a huge poster, depicting a laughing Cupid shot forth from a huge cracker, while harmless lightning plays about the scene of the explosion, the sight may awaken recollections that go to justify the truth of the allegory. Did not your flirtation with the fairy Paulina somehow hang fire till that fortunate moment when, with charming trepidation, she consented to pull a cracker with you after supper?  No matter that the affair after all ended in smoke; that was not the fault of the cracker.

Or it is some venerable greybeard, who stands and regards an equally familiar picture of the youth and maiden of a period that may be roughly placed between the Battle of Waterloo and the accession of her present Majesty. ” Just such a frill I wore to my shirt,” he may say; ” such ambrosial curls were mine, such pumps and silk stockings, and thus I pulled a cracker with that charming Amelia, the belle of the season, by Jove, at the county ball. Ah, there are no such girls nowadays, either for sense or sensibility.” Perhaps not, indeed; but the crackers are better, it must be allowed.

Yes, there must have been crackers in the days of the Regency. Florizel must have pulled crackers with Perdita. Weren ot the “Cosaques” in Paris just then? Those rude warriors from the banks of the Don had watered their shaggy steeds in the Seine, and the Parisians, taking them not quite seriously, packed them up into crackers and discharged them at dances and banquets in a harmless fusillade.

Truly the cracker is not an affair of yesterday. Its origin may be sought in the mists of antiquity, and, in pulling a cracker, we perform one of those charming little Pagan rites that belong to the cult of youth and love, and of banquets crowned with roses. And, as we hear the crackle of the festive cracker abont the tables, where the young people are feasting, with cries of feigned alarm, the merriment and mummery that follows, who can say that the cracker has not its own considerable i6le in the world?

But the cracker of other days was but a small affair after all, wrapped up in what seemed like scraps of coloured wall-paper. It often missed fire, and there was nothing within but a bonbon — ” pas trop bon “— and a scrap of doggrel, whose eccentric spelling bespoke a foreign origin.

At the present day the cracker is an ” article de luxe.” Above all, it must please the eye; the boxes that contain it, the manifold wrappings of the firework itself—all must be rich yet harmonious in colouring, so as to enhance and complete the decorations of a luxurious table. And in this way art is brought into the field ; and young artists, not yet known to fame, may find a useful patron in the manufacturer of crackers.

Nor is the literary part of the matter altogether neglected. If gems of poesy are not to be bought by the gross, at any rate we may have the sparkle of ready wit, and pleasant vagaries in rhyme and nonsense to vary the conventional method.

And yet, while acknowledging the important development of the modern cracker, it is something of a surprise to come upon a great manufactory of crackers, a building of many floors, rising high above the neighbouring roofs, with counting-houses filled with busy clerks; with show-rooms, work-rooms, engine-rooms; with hoists, and lifts, and cranes outside swinging great bales of crackers into carts and railway vans.

We are among “the sweet walkes of Moorfields,” and not far from that causeway that once crossed the watery waste of Finsbury—a region once noticeable for its three windmills, which have given a name to Windmill Street hard by, and for the isolated chapel, where worthy Mr. Samuel Wesley first held forth—a chapel built upon the site, and, as it were, out of the ruins of the old cannon foundry of Moorfields,. Nowadays the region has become the site of ware and factories, and commercial establishments of various kinds, and such as are left of the solid red-brick houses of the substantial citizens of other days are turned into coffee-houses, lodging-houses, or workshops.

Of the present era, entirely, is the manufactory we have come to visit, with long, well-lighted, and well – ventilated rooms running from end to end of the building. In all there are thirty-five floors to be visited—that is, seven distinct buildings, each of five floors. But a portion of these is devoted to general confectionery, with which we are not at present concerned. There is enough to give us a good breathing in the part devoted exclusively to crackers and their belongings.

Down beneath the level of the street the steam-engine is at work, and shafts and drams revolve with a continuous hum, and endless bands convey the engine – power from one floor to another. Here is a complete printing establishment, with lithographic colour – printing, where huge cylinders revolve, and pictured sheets are evolved, tint after tint, by the patient machine.

The coloured pictures are chiefly for the boxes which contain tha crackers, boxes destined to heighten the Christmas decorations of shop-windows all over the world, and to grace as well the tables of the opulent as the Christmas treat of the poor workhouse children. And under this last head it may be noted that the benevolent contribution of our firm of cracker manufacturers for the forthcoming treat to the children of the poor in London, is a handsome parcel of some twenty-five thousand crackers.

Amongst the machinery for cutting and fringing the outer cases of the crackers, is a clever, simple device of a couple of steel rollers, which fringe the ends of the sheets of coloured gelatine that so gaily adorn the outside of the crackers. Many other labour-saving contrivances present themselves, but still the greater part of the actual business of putting together the crackers is performed by hand; and some three hundred people are at work in various departments of the factory, of whom the chief part are young women.

Indeed, one of the most pleasing sights in the establishment is the immense workroom, with its long tables stretching from one end to the other, where circulation is difficult from the great piles of materials and boxes of finished work. And seated at these work-tables—standing if they please—or moving about from place to place, is a throng of girls, nicely dressed, and by no means wanting in personal attractions, who are all busily making crackers.

Here for the first time we come upon the central feature of the affair, the cracker itself; that is, the thing that cracks, or the cartridge, it might be called, to avoid confusion; the two slips of cardboard, with an infinitesimal morsel of fulminating powder between, the pulling asunder of which brings about the mimic explosion, with the thunder and lightning on the same diminutive scale.

Now this manufacture belongs to “fireworks,” and is conducted elsewhere; the finished article alone finds its place here, and one of the first processes in the evolution of a cracker, conducted by a portion of the swift and neat-handed young women already alluded to, is to paste the ends of the cartridge to the inside of the wrapper. If the cracker misses fire now, it will be for want of a straightforward pull.

Girls used to have the way of shutting their eyes, turning aside their heads, and giving a kind of desperate circular wrench to the affair that often caused a misfire. But the latest improvement is a linen-faced material for the ends of the cartridge, which will resist transverse pulls, and may be trusted to bring off a shot, if anything wilL

The loaded wrappers are passed into the hands of other young women, each of whom, with piles of such papers before her, as well as of the glittering outer shells of gelatine, arranges them deftly with one hand, while in the other she wields a brass ube upon which the cracker is to be moulded. A quick turn of the wrist, and presto ! the ornamented wrappers are rolled round the tube, so that they project at one end some inches beyond the tube. Into this projecting roll is thrust a stout wooden cylinder just far enough almost to reach the end of the brass tube, but leaving a little space between, round which with a dextrous twist, the young woman passes the end of a string, which is pulled tight next moment, and behold, the cracker is fairly ” choked.”

Notwithstanding this choking it must be made to swallow its appointed charge, which may be anything in the world almost—a doctor’s hood and gown, such as Portia might have worn ; a jester’s cap and bells; or a terrier pup, in china; or a balloon, or Professor Baldwin’s latest parachute; anyhow, whatever the charge may be, toy or trinket, garment or gimcrack, it must go down the throat of that magic tube, and then with another dextrous twist or two of string, the cracker is complete.

All this is going on in twenty different directions, and as the piles of glittering trifles increase in volume, so they are carried away, sorted, examined, boxed up, and packed away, to come to light once more — in festive scenes no doubt, but whereabouts within the four corners of the wide world, who can say ? For our crackers travel to every part of the globe, and their cheerful fusillade follows the roll of the British drum, as the reveille follows the blush of morning all round the world.

It is a charming employment for young women, this making of crackers—everything is clean, and dainty, and pretty about them; there are no noxious fumes or extremes of temperature to contend with ; and it is a labour light and pleasant, to which the nimble fingers alone are wedded, and which leaves the mind free and unruffled.

The girls seem happy and light-hearted enough, and knowing that the faster their fingers fly the more satisfactory will be the weekly reckoning, their pretty fingers do fly with a wil Is there fog and gloom without, and darkness brooding over the City 1 The cheerful rows of lights, the brilliant colours, the smart coquettish costumes, the life and movement of the scene, keep everything in tune here and drive dull care away. In the sludge and mud of the streets, amid reeking omnibuses and dripping umbrellas, who would think that such a pleasant scene were visible behind the plain, substantial walls of this factory of fairy trinkets ?

” But there is an immensity of detail about this business,” remarks the chief of the establishment, no other than Mr. Tom Smith, a name tolerably familiar to the public in this connection. Yes, there are cares upon cares in catering for the amusement of a volatile public—to keep up the supply of novelties and devise always something fresh and taking to pass within the narrow round of a Christmas cracker.

And a wonderful sight are the stores where are kept an infinite variety of the infinitely little ! The toy – shops of all Europe contribute to the stores of these almost microscopic wares, and thousands of gross of tiny objects come from Japan. Here are all kinds of Japanese trifles— real bric a-brac in their way—tiny cups and saucers, jars, and dishes, sweet little fans, marvellous umbrellas, swarms. of grotesque little animals, mostly with a touch of that sly humour with which the Jap can invest the smallest production of his or her patient fingers. Or if it is jewellery that is in question—what wealth of rings, wedding-rings, posy-rings, and others that glitter with diamond, ruby, and emerald; what brooches, what necklaces of pearl and coral; the pretty toys of Nuremberg, the nicknacks of the Black Forest, the trifles from the mountain land of the Switzer l

Now the fancy takes to conjuring business, and thousands of little boxes appear with thousands of yellow half-guineas, which appear and disappear according to the will of the necromancer of the occasion; or jagged nails that seem to pierce the finger and that yet leave no wound behind. Or is it chiromancy that is the question—here you shall find the art and mystery of that fascinating science—dangerous in its way when bright eyes are concerned in telling fortunes beneath the Christmas mistletoe.

Or if martial deeds delight, behold in tissue paper all the distinguished head-gear of the British army; the modest infantry shako ; the fierce busby of the artillery; the lancer’s complicated cap ; the helmet and nodding plume of the bold dragoon. For young gamesters there are cards and dice, tops that spin and sing, and little toys of every description. It would be easier, indeed, to set forth what is not, than what is to be found in these wonderful storerooms.

But whatever of new or strange may be looked forward to in the Christmas cracker of the future, one thing is and probably ever will be indispensable—the sweetie may, perhaps, eventually disappear as an obsolete survival, but we shall always surely have a motto. No, there is not a poet locked up in the establishment bound to produce so many yards of mottoes per diem. There are poets enough at large to keep up the supply.

The simple sentiment of other days is only now brought forward ” pour rire.” There must be a touch of cynic humour, an atmosphere of easy badinage about your Christmas cracker. There have been motto competitions, and there may be more hereafter. The existing stock of appropriate flowers of poesy is by no means a small one, and there is a growing taste for the infinitely little in matters poetic, which promises well for the future literature of the Christmas cracker.

Last scene of all is the gaily-decorated showroom where, in handsome glass cases, repose the pattern crackers of the coming season in all their brilliance and glitter. Would you know what the Christmas novelties are to be? Are they not announced on every hoarding, on the walls of railway stations, in the corridors of hotels and public buildings ? Wherever you go you can hardly fail to meet with a reminder of the coming glories of Mr. Tom Smith’s famous crackers.

It is something of a disillusionment to leave the scene of all this pretty manufacture, and to come once more into the crowded, muddy streets where all the world is hurrying along with anxious, careworn looks, to which such lovely things as crackers seem as foreign as possible.

But Christmas will show another sight. Then the children will be in the ascendant— dainty little figures that might themselves have come out of Christmas crackers, will be driving here and there, where bright scenes await them, the ball, the supper, the feu de joie of crackers, a masquerade of quaint paper costumes. Or it may be a family dinner, slightly heavy from bounteous Christmas fare and the gloom attending the meeting of loving relatives, where the box of crackers infuses a new spirit into the assemblage.

“What a terrible scrape I got into through pulling crackers with you, Maria,” observes John; and Maria shakes her head wistfully, as if not quite certain whether to ban or bless the occasion alluded to. Bat the young people are not to be warned off by the experience of their elders. They, too, must struggle playfully for those dreadful mottoes, that are far from embodying the results of a wise experience.

There are still jolly supper parties, too, no doubt, where corks pop, and the girls are full of fun, and laughing eyes and smiling lips look doubly dangerous under the quaint head-dresses that have fallen to them from the Christmas crackers. And, pull away as much as you like, the cracker leaves no headache behind it. The utmost excess in crackers will involve no visit from Dr. Jalap next morning, it will not leave your face as yellow as a guinea and your eyes sunk into the recesses of your forehead.

No, such pleasure as the cracker may bring us, is altogether pure and unalloyed, and it may be that you will preserve some little toy or trinket as a souvenir of some of the happiest moments of your life.

Source: All the year round: a weekly journal, Charles Dickens

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