Fortnum and Mason is almost certainly my favourite department store to visit. Founded in 1707, it’s charming, it’s elegant, and it’s had a plethora of famous clients over the years (my favourite being Frank Sinatra, of course). I’ve wandered around it many times, but it wasn’t until last weekend that I finally made it into the salon for afternoon tea. Soft, scooped seats, the iconic eau de nil and gold bone china, the low tinkling of piano keys: it’s divine. Champagne and scones aside, though, the store is steeped in history.
For years, the store has provided home comforts for those fighting overseas: it sent provisions to soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century; Queen Victoria shipped its beef tea to field hospitals of the Crimean War; during the Great War, a variety of parcels were sent to the front line, aid posts, and prisoners of war. In centennial homage to the Christmas tins sent to France by Princess Mary in 1914, it created Tommy’s Tin. Today, still, it sends biscuits, jams, and tea to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The emporium’s 1914 and 1915 food catalogues, filled with sweets and treats before the rationing of 1918, are still available to view in its archive. The earlier pamphlet is brighter and makes use of colour. It offers tobacco, sugared fruits, plum puddings, and a variety of ‘luxury hampers’ for officers. A year later, the catalogue is much sparser, in plain black and white, and filled with a choice of ‘boxes’ and small cakes, plus an explanation of Mediterranean postal charges—presumably due to Gallipoli. In 1917, the store offered ‘Christmas Cheer’ hampers, delivered to the trenches of Passchendaele, in northern France. Wicker obviously unsuitable, the selected parcels were shipped across the English Channel in thick, wooden chests.
I’ve been lucky enough to live in the very centre of London for almost three years, but there’s an infinite number of things to do and see and explore, half of which I never have, and I’m always adding to my extensive (and rather expensive) list. This post is the first in a planned new series, Then & Now, in which I (hopefully) explore my cultural and historical interests (I’m a total golden-age thinker), and tie them together with the fact that I live somewhere that’s bursting with both. There’s so much of the then to be found in the now and I’ve come to realise that the two can quite happily co-exist. I’m not sure that I could have resisted the thought of a life spent drinking martinis with Fitzgerald and Hemingway in 1920s Paris, though—Gil Pender is a stronger man than me.