By Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)
A large part of the Wilkinson Collection consists of model china letter boxes and it is these that I have been cataloguing over the past weeks. Although many of the objects collected by Ian Wilkinson were collected for their visual interest – the fact that they depicted a letter box in some way – they were normally manufactured as partly functional objects, such as money boxes. However, the model china letter boxes are unusual, in that they are purely decorative.
One of the main jobs of a cataloguer is to describe each object as well as possible without spending a day on each object! The main aspects that are recorded are the size, material, colour and condition of the object as well as any distinguishing features such as inscriptions. This information helps to identify objects and allows potential researchers to judge whether an object is of relevance or interest to their research. This also prolongs the life of the objects, as it decreases handling, which can affect an object’s condition.
The object in plate 1 shows the standard form these models take. They are usually, but not always, white, with some form of decoration and motto on them. Many of them celebrate a particular town or county and it is easy to see how they would be attractive to residents as well as holiday momentos for tourists. The two common mottos found on these letter boxes – ‘I can’t get a letter from you so send you the box’ and ‘If you haven’t time to post a line, here’s the letter box’ – also suggest that these were bought almost as 3D holiday postcards. Indeed, the letter box in plate 2 says ‘Good Luck from Worthing’ on the top.
The letter box in plate 1 celebrates the town of Chesham, where Ian Wilkinson lived. As is the case here, a lot of the model china letter boxes show a coat of arms for the town or county in question. These can be useful for dating the objects as for some places their coats of arms were granted relatively recently. For example, plate 3 shows a letter box with the coat of arms for Rugby, which was granted in 1932. However, in the mid 1970s the borough was enlarged and a new coat of arms was granted in 1976. As a result it is likely that this letter box (bearing the old coat of arms) was produced sometime between 1932 and 1976. However, dating objects using this method is not always reliable as the coat of arms shown on Chesham letter box (plate 1) is a different coat of arms than the official one used by Chesham.
Having said that these model china letter boxes take a standard form this is not to say that they are all the same. As plate 4 shows they come in different shapes, some have apertures (letter slots) on the front, some have inscriptions on the top, some on the back, some are quite elaborate, others quite plain. As with the Wilkinson collection as a whole, variety is the spice of life!