Exhibition: Tobacco, Bexhill Museum, Bexhill, until October 2011
© Courtesy Bexhill Museum
Until the 20th century there was no political correctness on the health and safety surrounding tobacco, with product packaging, posters and signs stating the wonders of pipe, cigarettes and cigars.
This prompted enthusiasts to turn to the unlikely art phenomenon tobacciana, collecting ashtrays, cases, lighters, match holders and snuffboxes as they went.
This exhibition, which curator Julian Porterquite has simply named Tobacco, displays a devotee’s cherished childhood collection. The owner of the items - ironically a non-smoker - is a member of the Cigarette Tobacco Club.
Without revealing his surname, tobacco fan Gareth reveals where his fascination started: “My grandfather gave me my first tin at one month old," he recalls. "It contained five old pennies of my birth year.
“Then in the 1970s, when my grandfather moved to Bexhill, he smoked St Bruno. I was interested in the design of the tins. He bought various sizes and the designs changed.”
Gareth soon began visiting shops for empty tins and asking classmates at his primary school whether their fathers had any, offering his friends 5p or 10p in return.
© Bexhill Museum
During a school trip to the former pipe museum at Bramber, Gareth discovered how only one colour at a time could be added during the enamelling process of a tin. When created, many were minor works of art in their own right.
Visitors to the museum can see display cases packed with carefully labelled tobacco tins from an era when manufacturers fought in a highly competitive market.
Collecting was encouraged by the manufacturers, who would often create an entire series of incentives, such as cigarette cards in their packs. Eventually, many collectable items were sold separately instead of being used as marketing tools.
The oldest item in Gareth’s hands dates back to 1878, and he also shares one of his examples of the still-remembered Players Navy Cut sailor, from the 1890s. There are other items by well-known brands Gareth possesses, such as Star cigarettes and Baby’s Bottom tobacco.
Bexhill Museum does not endorse smoking, but it does want to engage visitors with a fascinating insight into a compelling art form - one which many people may never even realised existed.