Reading, one of England’s most important market towns, a port on the River Thames, and the county town of Berkshire, was celebrated in the nineteenth century for its biscuit factories. A large collection relating to the most famous of them, Huntley & Palmers, is held by the town museum, which originated in 1883 when the town corporation accepted a cabinet of curiosities donated by one Horatio Bland.
Huntley & Palmers began in 1822 when Thomas Huntley began to manufacture biscuits in his bakery. He was joined in 1841 by his distant cousin George Palmer who urged the construction of a large factory which was completed in 1846. The business grew rapidly and by 1900 the factory was producing more than 400 varieties of biscuits and employed more than 5,000 people.
Huntley & Palmers employed the latest technology but their success was due more to inspired marketing than to their production methods. In 1832 Joseph Huntley, an ironmonger, began to make tin boxes for transporting biscuits, which led to the formation of the company Huntley, Boorne & Stevens which made tins of many kinds for Huntley & Palmer. Large, almost square tins were used to despatch biscuits to grocers, who then weighed out the biscuits for customers into paper bags. These tins were from 1851 identifiable by a garter and buckle log designed by Owen Jones. The company introduced paper packets for some ranges of biscuits in 1905. Biscuits were also sold in presentation tins which might take the form of a casket, a cannon, a motor lorry, a box camera or a steam boat. Some tins commemorated special events, such as the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to North America in 1939, or the local football team’s successful season in 1926. Each year a catalogue was produced with designs of ornamental tins for the Christmas season. Marketing also included vigorous advertising, particularly with posters displayed at railway stations, and also small presentation tins containing three or four biscuits that were given free of charge to first class passengers on trains of the Great Western Railway departing from Paddington station, London, with suggestions that they should look out for the Huntley & Palmers factory when they passed Reading 56 km. down the line. Similar tins were distributed to customers by the company’s representatives, who were also able to use folding tins to display to buyers the full range of biscuits available. The collection in the museum includes about 300 tins, a range of advertising and marketing ephemera, and what is considered to be the earliest surviving film of operations at a factory in Britain. After the company experienced several takeovers, production was transferred from Reading to other factories in 1976 and nothing now remains of the factory buildings.