Christmas Past: A Historical Christmas Stocking

Article by Martin Pitt CEng FIChemE

Martin Pitt reminisces on Christmases past, and brings with him a sackful of facts and figures

IN THE 1950s, my brother and I would wake up early on Christmas morning and feel around in the dark to see if Santa had filled our stockings (Dad’s stockings, of course, because they were bigger). The contents were supposed to keep us occupied until Mum and Dad said we could come down to see the presents under the tree.

Usually, they would contain the following:

  • something wrapped in silver foil – a satsuma if you were good (a treat in the middle of winter), a piece of coal if not (we never got coal)
  • money to spend – sixpence (2.5p) at the beginning, rising to half a crown (12.5p) in later years
  • something to eat – a few sweets or a Mars Bar
  • something to read – a comic or a little book
  • a puzzle – for example a plastic maze which you had to tilt to work a ball bearing to the middle. A harder and better one had some mercury,
  • initially scattered around the labyrinth. It took ages gathering it together into a single blob to work to the centre. It would get broken releasing the mercury, so they were banned in the 1960s
  • a toy, often a vehicle – my brother liked racing cars, while I preferred ones that did something, like a tipper truck or fire engine

This wave of nostalgia gave me an idea for a history of chemical engineering Christmas stocking to reflect my childhood gifts.

Something wrapped in silver foil

We called it silver, but it was very thin aluminium, and my parents called it tin foil, for the very good reason that silver foil had formerly been made of tin. In 1810, inventor Thomas Hancock (1786–1865) produced the first tin roller system to make it widely available (his other inventions will be dealt with in a later article).

Aluminium is difficult to extract from its ore, so in the 19th century it was more expensive than gold. French president and emperor, Napoleon III (1808–1873) had aluminium cutlery for his most important guests, gold for the others. In 1886, by a remarkable coincidence, two 22-year-olds, American chemist Charles Martin Hall (1863–1914) and French inventor Paul Louis-Toussaint Héroult (1863–1914) both came up with the idea of dissolving alumina (Al2O3 – melting point 2,072°C) in the mineral cryolite (Na3AlF6 – melting point 1,012°C), allowing electrolysis of alumina to take place at just under 1,000°C, greatly reducing the cost.

In 1910, Swiss industrialist Robert Victor Neher (1886–1918) patented his process for rolling thin strips of aluminium foil and in 1917, the (Swiss) Tobler company used it to wrap their iconic triangular chocolate bar. It was next used for packets of soup, then cigarettes.

The big change came in 1941 when the US declared war on Japan, which controlled 70% of the world’s tin supply. The US switched to aluminium wherever possible, and a salesman discovered foil could be used for cooking. So, after the war, aluminium cooking foil came to the UK, though still called tin foil by older generations.

Silver foil for wrapping

Silver foil had been dropped by German bombers to reflect searchlights and confuse gunners during the Second World War. It was picked up by the people below and used for Christmas decorations.

Money and the Mars bar

In 1970 as a chemical engineering technician, I earned £820 (US$1,968) a year, or £16 per week. That doesn’t sound much, but of course things were cheaper then. How can we compare? In 1988, Financial Times columnist Nico Colchester suggested that in place of gold, the little luxury of a Mars Bar (invented in 1932 in Slough) would do as a standard. He described it as “a basket of staple commodities (cocoa, vegetable fats, milk solids, sugar) packaged with great consistency in the form of an ingot”. The Mars Bar Standard (MBS) could be used to see how salaries and prices have gone up or down irrespective of inflation.

He gave as an example a graduate joining chemical company ICI. In 1940, they typically earned £275 a year. Since £1 would buy 120 bars, this is an income of MB 33,000. Someone joining the same company in 1988 might expect £5,700. However, as the price of a bar had risen, that would be MB 38,000, only a moderate increase. As a Mars Bar cost 7d (2.9p) in 1970, my salary was MB 28,000. Various authors have used it to compare prices of things at different times. The standard worked well until 2015 when the weight was reduced from 58 g (similar to the 1940 two-ounce bar) to 51 g, supposedly to aid in calorie control.

In 1986, Economist writer Pam Woodall suggested the Big Mac Index to compare the value of money in different countries. This “burgernomics” has now been going long enough to have some historical value as well.

Aluminium is difficult to extract from its ore, so in the 19th century it was more expensive than gold. French president and emperor, Napoleon III had aluminium cutlery for his most important guests, gold for the others

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