Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[43] Cigarettes, Tea, Minstrels – and Marmalade


In due course, I will come to our central topic today – Marmalade – but we need a long and fairly convoluted introduction, starting with a look at the way we used to look at people of other races.

Now we call them ‘black,’ but fashions change. In those days it was considered more polite to use the term ‘coloured’ rather than ‘black’ for people of dark-skinned races, not that we saw much of them in Ilford. Immigrants have always tended to live together in particular areas and we had little information from television then – and we travelled less.

To me then, ‘coloured’ meant black, African races. Those of Indian and Asian origins used to be even rarer – until 1972, when Idi Amin expelled thousands of them from Uganda. I don’t know what we would have called them.

In the areas where people of other races did live, it was common for landlords advertising rooms to put up signs, ‘No blacks.’ Or perhaps, ‘No blacks or Irish.’ While not everyone agreed with this, the right to do it was not questioned. It was clearly a permissible and accepted option. We had no legislation about racial discrimination.

Al Jolson

  Jolson_black My_Mammy

OK, now back a few years now and across the Atlantic.

Al Jolson appeared in The Jazz Singer, an American musical film from 1927 – the first full length film with sequences of synchronized dialogue. The film included the very famous song My Mammy (known more often as Mammy!)

In the film, and for this song, he performed in blackface makeup, very dark make-up with exaggerated, light coloured lips – a theatrical convention of many entertainers from the beginning of the Twentieth Century, with origins in minstrel shows. Minstrel Shows, an American form of entertainment, developed in the Nineteenth Century. It consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface.



The Black and White Minstrel Show

Something of our attitudes in the UK can be seen from a very popular weekly light entertainment that ran on BBC television from 1958 to 1978 – the Black and White Minstrel Show, produced by George Mitchell. Audience figures exceeded 20 million. It was mostly music – traditional American minstrel and country songs, with some Music Hall songs – but also had some comedy. (My grandmother loved it, probably because of the Music Hall songs.) The George Mitchell Minstrels – who also had a very successful theatrical show and produced popular records – performed in the television shows in blackface makeup. In 1961, the show won the Eurovision Golden Rose award at Montreux for the best light entertainment programme of the year.

(The programme suited black and white transmission but was one of the first to be shown in colour on BBC2 in 1967.)

It began to be seen as a questionable form of entertainment in the mid-sixties. There was a less popular spin-off show without blacking up, but soon Black and White Minstrels returned. The blackface singing was reduced before the show ended in 1978. Now, by modern standards, it is regarded with embarrassment, but we have to realise that it was hugely popular at the time.

I think viewers saw it as entertainment and generally ignored the racial overtones. We saw it as similar to the whiteface makeup often worn by circus clowns.


As I have pointed out in other contexts, it is difficult to understand and judge attitudes in the past by the way we judge now. If we go back to the film where Clarence gets his wings, we see a black character in a very stereotypical position as a cook/ maid.


Lillian Randolph, shown above, appears in just three scenes as a typical black servant (reminiscent of black slaves in earlier days) She was criticized for taking such a stereo typical role but is now seen as a pioneering black actress. (I refuse to call her an actor.) [Yes, you do know the film. I told you all about in [10] “Bring out the Yerbas!”]

Back in the fifties, the southern states of the USA had a culture which was not very different to the ‘Apartheid’ in South Africa. Perhaps in England some of our images came from minstrel singing, from music such as Al Jolson, and from films. Our attitudes were very different to today.



I need now to talk about cigarettes and tea.

From the late Nineteenth Century, both in the USA and in Britain, packets of cigarettes sometimes came with Cigarette Cards, pieces of card with different pictures, one card per packet forming a set. Wikipedia says that part of the original idea was to stiffen the packaging, but they were also used for advertising and to increase sales.

They had stopped appearing with cigarettes in the 1940s. I remember them as collections that people kept. They are still collectible and rare ones may be sold for great amounts of money.


I do remember similar cards with tea. In those days, tea was sold loose in packets of a quarter of a pound (about 100 grammes.) Both Typhoo and Brooke Bond sold tea with tea cards. (We always had Typhoo.) Each packet had a different picture and albums were provided to collect the full set. These are now also collectors’ items.

(I have fond memories of a particular set based on British birds. I think we swapped cards at school. I grew up knowing little about birds but I kept the memories of what a Linnet and Dartford Warbler looked like – these were my two favourite picture cards from the set.)

It was not just cigarettes and tea. Other things had ways of increasing sales by giving away things. Often cereal packets would include little plastic collectible toys.

I will come to marmalade in a minute but we need another diversion.


There were many dolls, most of which looked like little Caucasian babies. We had dolls in our house. [If you have been following carefully, you will understand that this was because I had two sisters. Toys were very sexually stereotyped – what we would now call gender specific. My sisters had dolls. The boys had toys appropriate to boys.] There was one standard type, seen everywhere – flat, stuffed black dolls with bright trousers and bow ties and wild black hair, somewhat reminiscent of the blackface minstrels. We called them ‘golliwogs.’ (The original spelling was Golliwogg.)There was no perceived racial inference. Enid Blyton, the very famous writer of children’s stories, wrote about golliwogs.

(In 1908, Claude Debussy published a suite of six piano pieces for piano, entitled Children’s Corner. The last movement is called Golliwogg’s Cakewalk. You can hear it on YouTube, played by the composer.)


They were also called Gollies and I will stick to that designation from here onwards.


Sadly, most people outside Britain will not appreciate what marmalade is. It’s a national institution! – a form of preserved oranges. We have it on toast with breakfast. My mother used to make marmalade once a year and put it into jars. Basically, oranges and sugar are boiled at high temperature with a setting agent. But this not about home-made marmalade.

Robertson’s is a brand of marmalade widely available in Britain – a brand which has been around and popular for a very long time. Their products, especially Golden Shred and Silver Shred remain today as they were in the fifties. (It used to be in jars of a pound weight. That’s 1lb, or 16oz. Now we only use metric units so it is packed as … 454 grammes. Almost exactly the same!)

Marmalade and Gollies

Since 1910, the emblem signifying the Robertson’s brand has been the Golly.


As part of their advertising and promotion, from the 1920s, the company produced many brooches and badges, featuring Golly, often in sporting designs. This was discontinued over the War, but restarted in 1946. You could collect the badges with tokens from purchasing marmalade. I collected some of them.

  Marmalade2Golly Marmalade1Golly l_50s_bagpiper

There were many different designs and other Golly products were made.

Marmalade3Golly MarmaladexxxGolly

They outlasted political correctness and continued beyond the demise of the Black and White Minstrels. When production stopped in 2001, over 20 million Gollies had been sent out. Robertson’s officially ‘retired’ Golly in 2002. They said this was for economic reasons, not for political correctness.

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

5 thoughts on “[43] Cigarettes, Tea, Minstrels – and Marmalade

  1. I still have quite a few of the bird cards


  2. Pingback: [47] ‘The Past is a Foreign Country: They do Things Differently There’ | Remembrance of Things Past

  3. Pingback: [50] Half a Century | Remembrance of Things Past

  4. Pingback: [109] Growing Up | Remembrance of Things Past

  5. I truly love your writing style and your ability to guide your reader through your narrative. It’s the middle of the night here in the States and I’m about to go back to bed and see if I can grab a couple more hours of sleep. I do look forward to returning and reading more.

    By the way, we do have marmalade here in the States. It probably isn’t as good as yours as we have the tendency to “Americalize” (a.k.a. “cheapen”) most things, but we do have it and although it’s not a favorite for most people, it can be found. Personally, I’ve grown to prefer marmalade on my breakfast toast.

    Again, I love your blog and look forward to reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

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