What Is The Origin Of (279)?…

Given away with a pound of tea

We all like a bit of a bargain, something given away for nothing. The plight of the British High streets is such that prices seem perpetually at bargain basement level, interspersed with the almost irresistible BOGOF (buy one, get one free) offer. Fortunately, my heart is made of sterner stuff and I can usually resist the temptation. Our phrase, dating back to the late 19th century, is used to denote something considered to be tawdry or worthless.

What I do remember being given away with a packet of tea, when I was a child, Brooke Bond and PG Tips, I seem to recall, were coloured cards. Rather like cigarette cards, there was a set around a common theme and the idea was to hook the purchaser, or, more likely their offspring, into trying to complete the set and, therefore, buy more product. There were even albums available in which you could stick the cards, making it even more apparent that there were more to get.

The first set of PG Tips cards, a series of 20 entitled British Birds, were issued in 1954. I can distinctly remember collecting a couple of series entitled British Butterflies and then Wild Birds in Britain, both sets of 50, issued in 1963 and 1965 respectively. By the time the fad for tea cards had run out of stem, in 1999, International Soccer Stars and Oracle cards, the series were down to 20 and 19 cards respectively, and the latter came without an album. I enjoyed collecting them, providing some diversion and the opportunity, had I chosen to, to learn a bit about the fauna of these sceptr’d isles.

Back in the 1880s, though, grocers, anxious to shift their stock, would offer some cheap or gaudy gift with a pound of tea. The Globe and Traveller in its edition of September 11, 1885 rather sniffily reported on the north south divide. Retailers in Yorkshire and Lancashire, it advised, organise excursions as a means of advertising their wares, “the chance of a cheap ticket is given away with a pound of tea just as glasses, and jugs, and monstrosities in ornament are in more southern latitudes”.  It returned to the subject on January 22, 1886 noting that the more recent fashion adopted “by pushing grocers of announcing that certain gaudy but not particularly useful articles are Given away with a pound of tea has not struck deep root”. You can’t win them all, it would seem.

However, one of the earliest examples to appear in print is to be found in a review of a pantomime, Aladdin, in the Glaswegian newspaper, The Evening News and Star, of December 12, 1881. The widow, probably Widow Twankey, is described as bearing a sign on her back “announcing that she is to be given away with a pound of tea”. It clearly took the South a few years to catch up with northern trends and vernacular.    

By the early 20th century, the amount of tea had dropped down to half a pound. A music hall song did the rounds, gaining some popularity in the 1920s, part of whose lyrics went, “This is the day we give babies away/ with half a pound of tea/ You just open the lid, and out pops the kid/ with a twelve month guarantee”.By the time it had got into the hands of soldiers in the Second World War, it had a slightly bawdier feel to it; “Today is the day they give babies away/ with a half a pound of tea./ If you know any ladies who want any babies/ just send them round to me”.

Nowadays the cost of tea is so cheap that it is unlikely that this phrase will see a resurgence in popularity, but you never know.

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