Tag Archives: model letter box

Morten Collection Object of the Month: April 2010

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Red letter boxes have been a familiar sight around Britain and are popular with tourists; tins and pencil sharpeners are only some of the many letter box shaped souvenirs available. However, very few people are aware of variations in their design or indeed know anything about their history.

Letter boxes are in fact a relatively recent phenomenon in the British Isles and their introduction has to be seen very much in conjunction with Rowland Hill’s postal reforms, together with the increase in literacy due to the demands of the industrial revolution. With an increase in literacy and therefore an increase in letter writing the old system of a post boy walking around the streets ringing a bell for people to come out and hand deliver him the letters to be posted was no longer efficient. The need for letter boxes, as used in Paris from as early as 1653, became apparent.

It was thanks to Anthony Trollope (who worked for the Post Office before finding fame as a novelist) that letter boxes were introduced to the UK. Trollope installed four pillar boxes in St Helier, Jersey, as an experiment on 23rd November 1852. The trial was successful, and in 1853 pillar boxes were erected in mainland Britain.

A wooden post box which is part of the Bruce Castle postal history collection

A wooden post box which is part of the Bruce Castle postal history collection

In the collection at Bruce Castle we hold a poster that shows the development and variation of pillar boxes prior to the red design familiar to us. Very early pillar boxes differ in two respects. Firstly, they do not bear the monarch’s cipher, and secondly they were green in colour, making them less visible to passers by, resulting in a number of people walking into them!

For this Object of the Month I have chosen a model of an 1857 pillar box, of which we hold two slightly different copies. The model is made of wood, is about 50cm high, has a slot for letters, and a plate with times and prices on it.

More on Letter Boxes can be found on the BPMA website.

Wilkinson Secondary Collection and Issues of Disposal

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections) 

You may have noticed that since my last blog around 850 objects from the Wilkinson Collection have been added to our online catalogue. These are the objects that I have been cataloguing in the past months; however, these are not the full extent of the collection. In the case of the Wilkinson collection we thought that the sheer size of the collection meant that it was unlikely we would catalogue every single object. Moreover, as I have stressed throughout my blogs, the collection is very diverse and contains things that were often not directly relevant to our collecting policy. For this reason we decided to catalogue what we saw as the core of the Wilkinson collection, the model letter boxes and vehicles, which could also include some of the more ‘popular’ items such as the Postman Pat objects. Which begs the question, what have we done with the rest?

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

This Coronation Street tea-towel was disposed of as it is not directly relevant to the collection.

Over 1000 objects have been kept at what we are calling a ‘Secondary Collection’ level. These are objects which we do not consider are the ‘core’ of the collection, things that Ian Wilkinson began to collect later on in his life, rather than those objects that were the original inspiration for the collection. These include items such as mugs, plates, books, badges, key-rings, and ephemera such as birthday and greeting cards. All of these objects have some reference to the postal world on them, even if it was sometimes a challenge to find them!

Information is still recorded about these objects, such as a description of the object (including any defining features), measurements and their present location. However, instead of cataloguing them on the database, this material is kept in the object history file and electronically on our computer system. As a result, if anyone does want to see any of the objects in the secondary collection we can initially provide them with information about the object and, if they want to, arrange for them to view the object itself. This system gives us as a museum much more flexibility. Whilst we will obviously still care for the objects to the same standard as if they were catalogued, we can be a little freer with their use. They can, and hopefully will, be used as a handling collection, and in education sessions, to give people a wider experience of museum objects without them or us worrying as much about damage or breakages.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

A model letter box that has been disposed of due to it’s condition.

As a result, the Secondary Collection not only includes those items that are less relevant but also some objects that fall into the core groups but are not in quite as good condition. Condition of an object is an important issue to consider when cataloguing objects. Some materials can deteriorate quickly and actually affect the condition of other objects as they do so. As a result, some objects, if they were severely damaged, or deteriorating and would continue to do so at a rapid pace, would not be catalogued and would instead be disposed of.

Throughout the museum sector there is a strong presumption against disposal. However, it is recognised that in some circumstances disposal is the sensible option for the benefit of the museum collection as a whole, as well as the individual object. In the past museums have often collected anything and everything without any clear idea of why or how they can benefit the museum. This has often led to problems of space and stretched resources. Nowadays, museums are much more aware of these problems and put in place measures to ensure that nothing is collected or kept that cannot be properly cared for, or might damage other objects in the collection.

The BPMA’s ‘Acquisition and Disposal’ policy states that ‘Material will not usually be acquired if identical, or significantly similar, items already exist in the Collections’ and that ‘Existing collections [eg. Wilkinson collection] will be subject to regular professional reviews to ensure they are in line with [this] current collecting policy.’

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

This letter box candle was disposed of as the material – wax – could be harmful to other objects in the collection.

It is this review process that I have been carrying out as I have catalogued the Wilkinson Collection. Many of the objects in the collection were duplicated either within the Wilkinson Collection itself, or occasionally in the wider BPMA collection. When I found a duplicated object I would get both objects out of the store to compare their condition. If one was in a worse condition than the other, for example, in the case of the model letter boxes, if one was more scratched or the paint work was peeling, then I would put that object to one side to consult with the curator what the next step should be.

Once a decision had been made as to whether an object should be disposed of, all relevant information about the item is recorded: this includes a description of the object, whether copyright is known; measurements are taken and the object is photographed. All of this information is stored physically in the Wilkinson collection’s history file, and electronically on our computers, like the Secondary Collection. As you can see, the disposal process is very similar to the cataloguing one. This way, we still have a lot of the information about the object but the condition and/or material of the object is not a threat to the collection.

Different uses of objects in the Wilkinson Collection

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

I mentioned in my last blog that a large number of objects in the Wilkinson Collection, whilst collected because they had a letter box on them, also had a particular use or function. It is this wide ranging group that I thought I would focus on in this blog.

Mickey Mouse money box

Mickey Mouse money box

The most common functional item that Ian Wilkinson collected is the money box in the shape and design of a letter box. These are as varied in their design as letter boxes themselves, and probably deserve an entire blog post. Some have characters such as Mickey Mouse on them, others are traditional reproductions. Most have a small plastic plug in the base to retrieve the money. However, some designers seemed to have forgotten this important item, resulting in a few of the money boxes having scratch marks around the apertures from attempts to rescue the money.

Sammy the Stamp Bug stamp wetter

Sammy the Stamp Bug stamp wetter

Some of the functions of the model letter boxes are postally relevant. For example, there are a couple of models that also act as letter racks as well as some letter openers with models of the Penfold letter box at the end of the handle. Perhaps the most postally relevant and unusual item is the model letter box that is a portable stamp wetter. This consists of a plastic container in the shape of a letter box in red and black. On one side is inscribed the instruction ‘Fill capsule with water and use to wet your stamps’. This ingenious device also features ‘Sammy the Stamp bug’ who was a promotional feature of the Royal Mail Stamp Bug Club, founded in 1980 to encourage young people to collect stamps. After the first six months the club already had 25,000 members; the cost of joining was just 50 pence.

Postman Pat pencil case

Postman Pat pencil case

Other model letter boxes have uses across many different areas. For example, in the kitchen you might find a letter box teapot, jug, or salt and pepper shakers. In the office you could keep your letters in a letter box letter rack and keep your papers tidy with a letter box paperweight. Brush your hair with a letter box comb; keep your place in your favourite book with a letter box bookmark. Kids can keep their pens and pencils in a letter box pencil case with Postman Pat on the front, and finally, when you leave the house, you can lock the door with your keys firmly attached to a letter box key ring!

All of these items and more can be found in the Wilkinson Collection. This not only shows the wide ranging influence of the letter box but also shows the many different directions that collecting can take you in. I’m sure Ian Wilkinson had little concept of the diverse range of objects that portrayed letter boxes when he started to collect them, yet the collection is all the more interesting for it.

A group of novelty items in the Wilkinson Collection

A group of novelty items in the Wilkinson Collection