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That novelty Christmas present you don’t need

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By | From the Collections

So, what did you get for Christmas?
It is, of course, the thought that counts: remembering someone, and taking the effort to choose something for them, rather than selecting the precise object that they might have got for themselves. Even so, the process of choosing can be fraught, and the weeks after Christmas traditionally see much quiet swapping or selling of inappropriate presents. In the case of some objects – usually those advertised in pamphlets that fall free out of magazines – it’s hard to believe that they would be right for anyone, and they must surely be swapped on from one person to the next like a gift-wrapped Flying Dutchman, never coming to rest.

Our founder, Henry Wellcome, made the pharmaceutical fortune that started the Wellcome Trust by developing products that met genuine human needs, but he too dipped a toe in the world of useless presents…. Within a collection of patents issued to Henry Wellcome, and now catalogued and made available in the Library is an unexpected invention. The majority are medical, as one would expect: chiefly they are for pharmaceuticals, plus – particularly in the early days – some items of medical hardware. In 1897, for instance, Wellcome patented “Improvements in syringes for use in subcutaneous or other injections”, whilst the following year saw “Improvements in the manufacture of fine chemical products for use in pharmacy and other purposes”. Between them, however, comes Wellcome’s foray into the world of rubbish Christmas gifts: a patent for a “Device to be applied to the inside of head gear for the conveyance of small articles.”

Lying behind those bland words is a weird little device that suggests, sadly, that our founder had no sense of humour whatsoever. A length of lightweight metal is placed in a gentleman’s hat, stretching across it and held in place by pressure at either end. From this, the lucky owner can suspend his keys, fob-watch, wallet or any other item to which he wants ready access without encumbering his hands. In one fell swoop, Wellcome manages to ensure that you can lose all your valuables in a strong wind; that you jingle as you walk; and that your hat bulges out on either side.

Henry Wellcome’s patented device for carrying items in your hat. Wellcome Library reference: MS 9217.

Henry Wellcome’s patented device for carrying items in your hat. Wellcome Library reference: MS 9217.

One can only imagine the howls of derision this product would have met from a fin de siécle dandy; it’s hard to imagine Oscar Wilde, say, strolling airily down Piccadilly with his keys jingling in his topper. There is no indication that this device ever went into production or that Christmas stockings in 1899 bulged with this hat-enhancing device, and this is probably all to the good: success, however slight, might have tempted Wellcome on down this track. As it is, his patents thereafter confined themselves to the medical – building the fortune on which the Wellcome Trust was to be founded – and the small advertisements pages of newspapers and magazines, the turn-of-the-century equivalent of eBay, did not have to cope with throngs of people trying to shift well-meant gifts of “Devices to be applied to the inside of head gear”.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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