117. The Pipes of Christmas Past: Kapp & Peterson and the Sandwichmen of London

For the business world the Christmas season has ended. For the faithful, it begins. But for all and sundry it offers a few hours’ respite and rest, and for us pipe-smokers hopefully time as well for a reflective pipe. So happy holidays to you—and, in whatever fashion you celebrate the day, I wish you a very Merry Christmas!

The cruel paradox of the season has been with us as long as the season itself, poignantly seen in the illustration above from Reynold’s Newspaper, London, dated December 18, 1898. While the Peterson book is out of my hands and at the printer, my interest in Charles Peterson’s life continues, and one of the narrative threads that runs through the fabric of Kapp & Peterson’s history – if you watch for it – is Christmas. And so for Christmas this year, let me relate one of the little stories about the first Peterson Christmas pipes, one that didn’t find its way into the book, “Kapp & Peterson and the Sandwich Men of London.”

Although they’d been around since the 1820s, it was Charles Dickens who first described the human billboard in Sketches by Boz (1836) as “an animated sandwich, composed of a boy between two boards.” In the US these days, most of them seem to be minimum-wage kids working on the curb for fast-food, car wash or insurance chains, usually in costumes rather than clapboards. But in London at the end of the nineteenth century, the sandwichmen had become a distinct class of the working poor, so much so that in 1895 the Reynold’s Newspaper began an annual Christmas dinner for them, where clothing and personal necessities were gifted out afterwards.

Evidence suggests that Charles Peterson read a number of newspapers, some for politics and some for profit. And in this regard, he was probably not unlike many of his contemporaries. One of his regular reads seems to have been the London Sunday paper Reynold’s News, whose subtitle was “Government of the People, by the People, for the People.” It expressed, according to one authority, “a radical working class approach combined with sensationalism.” On the same page as the banner illustration, we read:


  Sir,—Being a reader for many years of the valuable Reynold’s Newspaper and seeing that you take a deep interest in entertaining the poor—especially the deserving cause of entertaining the poor sandwich men—I shall be willing, on behalf of my company, Kapp & Peterson, Limited, to forward three or four gross pipes for distribution on Christmas Day to the sandwich board men.1

  The celebrated Irish match manufacturers, Messrs. Paterson and Co., Limited, of Dublin and Belfast, are also willing to present five gross of their large boxes of matches to be distributed with the pipes. Wishing you and your undertaking every success, with the best wishes for a happy Christmas and prosperous New Year,—I beg to remain, yours truly,

                                                                                                                           Charles Peterson
                                                                                                                           55, Grafton-street, Dublin

Paterson matches are still produced in Ireland to this day by Maguire & Paterson, and why no one has thought to brand some Peterson – Paterson I don’t know.2 Anyway, it would seem that another businessman-philanthropist got wind of the gift of pipes and matches, as immediately after Peterson’s letter the editor printed this one:


  By the courtesy of Mr. Loxton Hunter we are enabled to announce that the great firm of Messrs. W. D. and H. O. Wills, of Bristol, have, through their London agents, Messrs. G. and J. Gayler, of Tudor-street, generously promised a gift of 850 ½ oz., packets of their excellent Red Cross Shag.

W. D. and H. O. Wills are important to us even today insofar as Capstan pipe tobacco was one of their products, although their historical importance was rather as the UK’s first company to mass-produce cigarettes, notably Woodbine. As for “their excellent Red Cross Shag,” while I know shag, or fine ribbon cut as we would call it today, was used for cigarettes as well as pipes, the only Red Cross brand I can find reference to is the one made by P. Lorillard—but perhaps scholars better versed than I in vintage tobaccos can answer this question?

The “another” in the title of Charles Peterson’s letter does not refer to a previous K&P gift of briars, as a glance at the previous year’s December 26, 1897 issue makes clear: “Messrs. Dewars sent whiskey, Lipton sent tea, Cadbury gave cocoa, Messrs. Adkin a plentiful supply of nut-brown tobacco, clay pipes were also sent.” Christmas cheer, indeed! This is further clarified in Alfred Kapp’s own letter, printed the year after Charles Peterson’s, in the December 3, 1899 issue of Reynold’s Newspaper:


  Dear Sir,—We shall forward in a fortnight’s time the same quantity of pipes as last year. We are very pleased to hear that the same gave satisfaction and added to the enjoyment of Christmas for the poor sandwichmen. Wishing your undertaking every success and yourself an enjoyable Christmas,—we remain, yours truly,

                                                                                                                              Kapp & Peterson, Limited,
                                                                                                                              A. H. Kapp, Secretary

  [The men were delighted last year with the most generous gift of briar pipes made by this well-known Irish firm, whose goods have an international reputation. –Ed. R.N.]

It would be fascinating to look into the packing boxes and see what pipes Peterson sent the sandwichmen. I’d like to think the pipes were rugged, serviceable knockabouts, easily carried but with full-size bowls.  As we don’t have any catalogs issued between 1896 and 1906, it’s hard to know what shapes were in production. I think I’d choose the following from the 1906 catalog, if it were me—a billiard, a dublin and a fantastic bulldog, the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else:

The following year, Kapp & Peterson for a third time sent “the usual consignment of briar pipes, for our entertainment, to which they wish every possible success” (December 16, 1900, Reynold’s Newspaper). They were joined in their endeavor by Messrs. Charles Crop and Sons, Brooksby Works, near Homerton Church, who sent “their annual gift of their charming colouring clays.”

(The British Trade Journal and Export World, Vol 23, June 1st, 1885, p. 26)

Here are some excerpts describing the annual Sandwichmen’s dinner, abridged from the account published in the December 30, 1900 issue of Reynold’s Newspaper:

“A thousand – nay to be correct, eleven hundred – of the flotsam and jetsam of human Society congregated in a huge well-lit, comfortably-appointed, hospitably-appearanced hall. Eleven hundred souls, happy with that happiness which the sailor might feel when he had reached the haven after a year’s buffeting.

It was the Christmas entertainment which Reynold’s Newspaper had the great honour to again initiate; and which the staff of Reynold’s can now congratulate themselves was carried to manly success.

They came poverty-laden and o’er-laden. Poverty is not the first and best incentive to manhood. The sandwichman is sometimes a dramatic figure when illumined by the painter’s brush or the poet’s pen. But we know all too well what his poverty means.

Prince’s Hall, New Lambeth Baths, was the rendezvous, and no eleven hundred guests could ever have behaved with better decorum. The Prince of Wales was one of the most munificent contributors to the fund. In the course of the evening, Mr. W. M. Thompson, our chief, sent him a congratulatory greeting—“A thousand sandwichmen send you and yours a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.” The reply came back, full, prompt, and reciprocated. And had the Prince heard the cheer which welled up from the heart of these eleven hundred grateful souls—a cheer which had no winter in’t—his Christmas would have been rendered even happier and more grateful.

I suppose there are those who would cavil at this banquet. It didn’t have a hymn as a prologue or a denunciation of all the miserable verities of this wicked world, and particularly of the sandwichmen in it, as an epilogue.  They were simply treated like members of a great human family, a little below the angels, as we ourselves are, but men who breathe, eat, and feel as we do, and can enjoy their Christmas fare as merrily as we do. 

Think of the fare provided for these Society-afflicted fellows: Good roast beef, good mutton, steaming vegetables (and plenty of all), and a pint of beer, or, if they chose, a bottle of lemonade, to wash it down. We hadn’t arranged hors d’oeuvres, but our sweets were a mince pie and plum pudding. We hadn’t provided a savoury, but we had pipes and tobacco. We hadn’t any vanilla ice, but we had something warm in good, well-made clothing. And every man had a parcel [as he left]—a packet of tea, two shillings, and another pipe, this time of briar.”


A calm sea and prosperous voyage
with happy, blessed smokes to all,
both in this Christmas season and the coming New Year!


(London Times, December 15, 1921)



Stocking Stuffer

Charles Mundungus has given me permission to pass along the slightly-revised Pipeman’s Handbook of Really Useful Information he put together ten years ago. Looking at it now, I am amazed at how quickly some things change in the hobby and how others remain the same. For those of you who have never seen it, it was a bit of a “toss-off” on his part after I’d asked him about compiling a handbook for pipe-smokers. He spent an hour or two in front of my computer monitor, then said, “This is a sketch of what it should look like.” I had hoped he might actually write the thing, but his life took him back to Lake Lucerne and I turned my attention to Peterson. If you have seen the 2008 version, I direct your attention to the final entry, which Mundungus appended in 2013, for a real treat.





1 A “gross” or 12 dozen, was how Peterson factory workers through the 1970s gauged their individual production. So Peterson was sending between 432 and 576 pipes.

2 Don’t miss the Irish public TV short film, Maguire and Paterson 100 Years [1983] at https://www.rte.ie/archives/2018/0320/948772-history-of-matchboxes/ . I thought it was thoughtful of the interestingly coiffeured interviewer to color-coordinate his wardrobe with the match boxes. And if you enjoyed that, check out the Friendly Matches cartoons at https://ifiplayer.ie/maguire-and-paterson-matches-dancing/, https://ifiplayer.ie/maguire-and-paterson-matches-la-caramatcha/, https://ifiplayer.ie/maguire-and-paterson-matches-mexican-dance/, and https://ifiplayer.ie/maguire-and-paterson-matches-egypt/.


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