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Notes from the sticks: The tealeaf academy


THOSE of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s (and earlier) were lucky to live in an age when knowledge was considered a good thing to have, not a sign of nerdiness. Although it was not so easily available – if you wanted to find out about stoats, for example, as I did for this column last week, you would need to walk to the reference library (remembering not to go on Thursdays when it was closed), ask the librarian in a whisper for the right section, take down two or three books and make notes from them at the big central table – there were plenty of sources.

Among them were tea cards. These were inspired by the American sets of cigarette cards which were inserted into packs from 1875 to the 1940s (apparently partly to stiffen the packaging). Several British brands of tea started giving away cards from the 1940s, including Hornimans, Twinings, Lyons, Tetley, Browne’s, Empson, Typhoo, Lamberts and Swettenham, many of them long since gone. My brand of choice was Brooke Bond, mainly because you could get albums to stick them in for 6d (2.5p), and they were nearly all on nature topics, such as birds, flowers and butterflies. So in an early example of pester power I would ask my mother to buy Brooke Bond.

My family were great tea drinkers. It was bought in quarter-pound packs of loose leaves (tea bags were available but they were more expensive and everyone knew they used the sweepings from the floor) with one card in each pack. The cards were usually in sets of 50 and my recollection is that in every set there were a couple of rare ones which never turned up. Fifty quarters of tea was a very large amount to get through, even for us, and I never completed a single album, and I don’t remember any of my friends doing so either. I don’t think I got even half way through before the next set was issued.

This is odd because you can now get full sets and full albums for next to nothing on eBay – see here for examples. I bought a few to photograph for this article. I think the most I paid was £1.50 plus postage. Where have they come from?

The thing about the cards and the albums was that they were top-class productions, using artists such as Charles Tunnicliffe RA, and they made no concession to the fact that most of the readers were children. Here is a spread from British Butterflies (1963) which is probably about degree level now.

This is the cover.

The only drawback is that the type on the cards is tiny. I need a magnifying glass to read them with ease.

This is the front of the album for Wild Flowers, series 2, issued in 1959.

This is the back:

This is the inside back cover advertising whole sets with an album for 2/6 (12.5p). I never knew anyone who splashed out.

And here is a blank spread waiting for its cards.

Here is a completed album of Trees in Britain (1966), with the cards carefully stuck in with stamp hinges.

Finally, a card from the Wild Flowers album, front and back. I saw a few celandines the other day.

PS: Although I grew up in a tea-drinking family I am known as the world’s worst tea maker. I learned to do it the right way – warm the teapot, put in a teaspoon of tea for each person plus one for the pot, add boiling water, let it stand, use a tea cosy – but I have still seen tradesmen surreptitiously pouring my brews into potted plants or guests ‘forgetting’ to drink it.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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