String Theory

This has recently arrived in the post, contradicting my previous assertion on here that there are no more eBay bargains to be had.

Lander british railways luggage poster
Admittedly it is not an outstanding piece of graphic design history (although I quite like it) and is rather battered round the edges too.   But it’s by Lander, which is always a good thing, and it’s also a rather intriguing bit of social history.  Because it’s a reminder of the days when things had brown labels and were tied up with string, or in this case cord.

Nobody does that any more, do they?  I have sometimes been known to wrap a parcel up in brown paper, but I don’t think I’ve ever tied it up with string.  This is something I’m sure that my mother could do though, coming as she does from an age before jiffy bags and sellotape.

Without all these modern parcel technologies, it was clearly possible to wrap a parcel very badly.  At least that’s the only conclusion I can arrive at from the sheer volume of posters that the GPO put out on the subjects.  Most of these are quite general, and I’ve written about the Properly Packed Parcels series on here before.  But there were plenty of other similar exhortations too, and here’s just one.

Tom Eckersley cow jug pack parcels carefully GPO poster

Actually, seeing as it’s Tom Eckersley, let’s have two.

Tom Eckersley cat ornament poster GPO pack parcels carefully

Judging from the posters though, (these are all from between 1950 and 1953) there was a Post Office standard approved way of packing parcels carefully.

Caswell 1953 GPO poster

Dennis Beytagh 1952 parcel wrapping poster

So that’s two pieces of string round the long side, one round the other, although I still have no idea how to knot it.   Hans Unger, meanwhile, is even more specific about rigid boxes and string in 1950.

Hams Umger 1950 poster wrapping parcels GPO

This one, though, is the most instructional I have managed to find (it’s artwork by the way, artist not known).

Artwork for a poster. Subject: Careful packing of parcels. Artist: Not known. GPO 1950

I think even I could have had a go at the process now, although I still don’t know how to knot the string.

Of course (and you might have guessed that the whole post has been leading up to this) the real challenge that faced the Post Office was blackberries.  Sent in a non-approved fashion.

Karo soft fruit by post genius GPO poster

Did people really send them in a basket?  And expect them to get there?  I am boggled at that thought.  But the GPO weren’t, they produced more than one poster, which means that it must have happened at least twice…

soft fruit packing gpo poster

The GPO weren’t alone though, British Railways also had problems with parcel packing and addressing.

'Address your package clearly and help the Railway Staff to help you'. Poster produced for Great Western Railway (GWR), London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS), London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) and Southern Railway (SR) to remind customers to address packages clearly, as illegible addresses cause delays. Ar'Address your package clearly and help the Railway Staff to help you'. Poster produced for Great Western Railway (GWR), London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS), London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) and Southern Railway (SR) to remind customers to address packages clearly, as illegible addresses cause delays. Artwork by Miles Harper.twork by Miles Harper.

The problems might have been similar but it has to be said, the GPO’s poster design was infinitely superior.

You also get the feeling from their posters that they don’t actually like parcels that much.  They’re just trouble really, when your main business is really running trains.

British Railways staff poster. 'Don't Accept Packages which are Unfit for Transit', BR staff po'Don't Accept Packages which are Unfit for Transit', BR staff poster Artwork by Frank Newbould.

That, incidentally is apparently a late Frank Newbould from 1960,  It’s also quite mild in tone compared to some.

But nothing gave them an excuse like the war.  At last they could say what they really thought.

Fewer parcels World War two christmas poster british railways

Can you even send a parcel by railway now?  Probably only if it is tied up with string.

  • Such a lovely post. I keep to convince my mother to send one of her fruit cakes to me, carefully packaged to withstand the 5oo mile journey. She continues to refuse 🙁 If I send her this link it may just change her mind.

  • My grandmother kept a stash of brown paper and string in her clothes cupboard – why, I’m not sure, except that these were essentials of life at the time you’re talking about here. There were no jiffy bags or specialised packages – if you didn’t have brown paper, you couldn’t send anything anywhere… Great post, as ever – thanks.

  • I think the salvaging and recycling mentality of the war never really left that generation. I have heard a story of one couple with a drawer neatly labelled ‘Pieces of string, too small to use’…

  • I really love these – especially the ‘soft fruit’ posters. I have a vivid memory of my father at home in North Wales posting us tomatoes from the greenhouse when we spent the school holidays with my grandparents in London! I seem to remember they arrived safely and in good order – perhaps he’d taken advice from the GPO. :o)

  • Excellent, it’s really good to hear about people doing it properly. More of this kind of thing please.

  • When I was a teenager in 1952, I was sent to the post with a small parcel. I had wrapped it very neatly, using Sellotape . I was told this was not allowed unless I was registering it.
    I had to return to work and repack the parcel – without Sellotape !!

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