In its 4 November 1914, The Tatler featured on its front cover, a portrait of the seventeen year-old Princess Mary, only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary under the somewhat saccharine but oft-used caption - "Our Little Princess". The reason for her appearance on the magazine's cover was to promote an appeal - the Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund, "for Christmas presents for the Front."
"The Princess is providing boxes of smoking requisites as Christmas gifts for the troops at the front, and we are sure that our readers will respond generously to this very excellent appeal. A special photograph of the Princess will be embossed on the covers of the boxes."
Not only did the Princess's profile appear on the lid of each brass box, but inside was her photograph and a Christmas card for each lucky recipient of this 'gift from the nation'. The rest of the contents varied depending on who it was intended for. The tins were destined not only for servicemen abroad, but also nursing staff, wounded soldiers and the parents of those men who had been killed. The majority of boxes delivered to the front contained two packs each of cigarettes and tobacco in distinctive, monogrammed yellow packaging, along with a pipe and tinder lighter. Non-smokers (most definitely in the minority - see our blog from a fortnight ago) received acid tablets and a writing set, nurses were given chocolate while Indian troops received sweets and spices. For servicemen not at the Front or at sea, each was given a bullet-shaped pen.
Approximately 335,000 of Princess Mary's tins made it to their destination before their Christmas 1914 deadline, though there were many who did not receive theirs until well into the New Year (in which case, the card inside wished them, "a victorious New Year"). The appeal was also hampered by a shortage of brass, needed for the box lid. Much of this was designated for armaments manufacture, and the majority was imported from America. When the Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo in May 1915, part of the cargo lost included a large consignment of brass. Consequently, the Christmas tins of later years, made from a cheap alloy metal, tend to be of inferior quality. Nevertheless, by the time the fund closed in 1920, over £200,000 had been donated and over two and a half million tins had been distributed.
Princess Mary's Christmas tin remains an interesting and collectible memento of the Great War, and, as might be expected for an item produced in such quantities, they can still be picked up today at auction. We have some interesting examples via our representation of the David Cohen collection, showing the contents looking spick and span. One box apparently still contained a single cigarette!
Almost a century on, there is a new appeal by the Shorncliffe Trust, to revive Princess Mary's Christmas tin for service men and women spending Christmas overseas in 2014. Follow @shornclifftin on Twitter to find out more.