royal-warrant-queen royal-warrant-prince-of-wale

A Festive Stroll Through the Fortnum & Mason Christmas Archives 

“Fortnum and Mason, in Piccadilly, is always a beautiful and astonishing shop, filled with the gourmandizing pleasures of the whole world. Yesterday it was a perfect fairy palace, and Prince Prettyman Paradise of bonbons, and French plums, and barley sugar. Many, many young persons will be ill tomorrow morning if half of those sweetmeats sold yesterday are devoured today.”


Charles Dickens, published on Christmas Day in The Morning Chronicle, 1845.

For many, when they think of Fortnum’s, they think of Christmas. Well, we are the home of Christmas after all, and have been for a long time – as the warm words from our old friend Mr Dickens attests.


While we didn't start taking out ads in the press until the 1860s, Fortnum’s was still THE place to come in the early Victorian era at Christmastime. As proof that we have always been purveyors and pioneers of wonderful things to enjoy during the festive season, just take a look at this exotic feature from 1814:

“NEW FOREIGN FRUITS, just landed. A great variety of foreign fruits of superior quality. Imperial Plums, Muscatel Raisins bunchy for table, Portugal Grapes, Pomegranates, Jordan Almonds, Comarda Figs, Prunes, French Plums, book boxes, French preserves, small pots, French Fruits in Jelly, green Madeira Citron, preserved West India ginger and green sweetmeats, tamarinds for table, preserved limes, guava jelly, large Spanish chesnuts, pistachio nuts, cashew nuts, pindar nuts, hickory nuts, almonds in shell, French and Spanish olives, French dried pears. The whole of the above are in the highest perfection and in small packages for family use or for sending in the country at Fortnum & Co’s, Piccadilly.”


By 1910, Fortnum’s Christmas crackers department had become the stuff of legend, with one monster cracker over six foot high, which contained 144 mini crackers, toys, balloons, hats, and musical instruments. In the 1920s and 1930s, crackers came in all shapes and sizes – including an exploding Christmas pudding and a giant crocodile, straight out of Peter Pan. We also sold musical chairs in the cracker department – not the game, but gilt chairs that played a tune when you sat on them.


fortnum's christmas archive graphic fortnum's christmas archive graphic
ladies shopping at christmas archive ladies shopping at christmas archive
father christmas father christmas


It was after the Great War that Christmas gifting, especially our hampers, really started to take flight, as fewer people were inclined to make their own Christmas cakes and puddings.


During the Great War, Fortnum’s sent a taste of home to thousands of men and women serving in France and beyond – including their favourite things, such as boiled sweets, tinned fruit cake and chocolates. We even sent out 500 plum puddings to one regiment for their Christmas dinner in 1915.


Earl Haig requested bespoke hampers, designed like panniers, to straddle a camel and, of course, we obliged. In 1914, we set up a dedicated ‘Officers’ Supply Department’ to provide food parcels for the Western Front, Gallipoli, Russia and North Africa. Winston Churchill complained bitterly by letter when his wife Clemmie sent him upmarket provisions because what he really desperately wanted was a hot-water bottle.


It was after the Great War that Christmas gifting, especially our hampers, really started to take flight, as fewer people were inclined to make their own Christmas cakes and puddings. There was a demand for gourmet foods in pretty jars and canisters, and Fortnum’s started using wicker baskets made by Lord Roberts’ workshops, which were set up to give employment to war-wounded soldiers. Although the Christmas hamper is quite a recent invention, our hampers began in the 1730s as travellers’ baskets, for people making journeys by public coach.


Our iconic store was on the alert for the royal family to come and do their Christmas shopping – we supplied woodcock pies to Edward VII and George V for many Christmases, and the Queen Mother used to insist on wrapping up her own presents in the store, oblivious to the crowds of amazed shoppers around her. In November 1929, the Prince of Wales caused a stir by visiting the Gift Department during ordinary opening hours to do his Christmas shopping.


Some of Fortnum’s Christmas customers have included luminaries such as Oscar Wilde and Emperor Haile Selassie, whose hamper was festooned with the red, green and gold Rastafari colours. Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich were also fans, and a weekly order (quite probably crammed with aphrodisiacs) was sent to Rome while Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were filming Cleopatra in 1961.


In November 1984 Fortnum's made national news when staff requested we sell the “Do They Know It's Christmas?” single in Piccadilly. We naturally took up the idea with gusto - helping spread the charitable message far beyond its traditional audience.


In the 1960s, it wasn’t unusual for shop floor staff to hang up their red coats at six o’clock in the evening, spend all night making up orders, have a shower and a cup of coffee in the morning, and start all over again. We don’t do that today – although sometimes it can feel like it.


For many of our customers, over the centuries and across the generations and the miles, from the wonderful windows to the best mince pies in the world - Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Fortnum & Mason. It is a huge privilege, and quite a responsibility, to be such a historically important part of Christmas for people all over the world.


Related Reads