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Unfolding a new era

You never know what may lie inside an advertisement.

This Gem is a trade card for Washburn Crosby Company Flour Mills, produced in around 1890 to advertise their Gold Standard Flour. What makes this trade card a Gem is the fascinating folding design: the picture of a traditional windmill on the front of the card folds out like a folding children’s book to show a modern roller milling complex inside. This shows the progression from traditional flour milling to modern, industrialised flour milling. However, conversely to the wistful, sentimental portrayal of traditional windmills and their contrast to a more negative view of the industrialisation of milling that we often see, this trade card views modern milling in a very positive light, stating that

“There’s as much difference in the Flour of some mills, as there is between an old wind-mill and the most modern milling plant in the world.”

Washburn Crosby Company Flour Mills was an American company based in Minneapolis, set up by Cadwaller C. Washburn in 1856. The original mill was called Washburn’s Folly as it was criticised for being far too large for the demand of flour. Nonetheless the company was successful, leading to the building of a larger mill called ‘A’ Mill in 1874. In 1874, soon after the expansion, an explosion destroyed ‘A’ Mill, killing eighteen people. In response, the company invested in more modern and safe technology, making it the first mill to use automated roller technology, increasing their capacity to 5,500 barrels a day.

In 1928 the company merged with twenty-six others to create General Mills, a global food company which continues to operate today and produces well-known products including Cheerio’s and Nature Valley. They have expanded from just milling and food production, and were responsible for the invention of Black Boxes for planes and the submarine that explored the wreck of the Titanic when it was first found. 

Interestingly, the reverse of the card describes the flour in a way that may not be quite so popular today:

‘This flour contains a large percentage of the gluten of wheat, and a very small proportion of starch, and for this reason bread made from it, does not become dry and tasteless, but retains the sweet flavour of the flour, and will keep moist for several days.’

Practical as this sounds, modern tastes have changed. In 2015, over 850 products sold by General Mills were gluten-free, whilst in 2005 it was the first major food company to make all of its cereals with whole grain. Indeed, modern advertisements make much of this for the health-conscious consumer – bringing it all back to the beginning, but with a contemporary twist.

Companies have constantly sought new and novel ways to appeal to consumers through advertising. This trade card does just that, whilst also demonstrating the development of milling technology.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Learn more about the technique that brought art to the masses and made making this trade card possible here. 
  • Further Reading: Click here to find our how Trade Cards developed into a popular method of advertisement. 
  • Calendar Trade Card: This isn’t the only way companies tried to set their cards apart. This one, for William Perrin, a corn, flour and seed merchant, is a calendar.
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Your fate is like that of man

“You worked blindly and towards an unknown end; but your end was certain.”

This beautiful watercolour is from a collection by Frank Brangwyn and Hayter Preston. The collection consists of a number of watercolours of different windmills, each with poetic anecdotes, which make up a beautiful and moving series exploring the state of milling and the decline of windmills. This watercolour is of St Leonard’s post mill in Winchelsea, East Sussex. Brangwyn describes it as:

‘built on frail, feminine lines. It reminded me of a respectable old woman whose dress has been patched and mended until very little of the original material is left.’

The poetic way in which Brangwyn talks about this derelict mill is an excellent example of the sense of attachment found across the collection:

‘O Mill, I thought, your fate is very like that of man. You worked blindly and towards an unknown end; but your end was certain. We also work on blindly, knowing next to nothing, guessing much, hoping that we may be respited even as the darkness closes round us…’

St Leonard’s Mill was a wind-powered corn mill built around 1760, and was in operation until the late 19th Century. It fell into disrepair and despite a number of restoration attempts, it ultimately collapsed during the storm of 1987 – leaving behind only a millstone, which was salvaged and used in the restoration of Lowfield Heath Windmill. According to Brangwyn, the mill has a somewhat macabre past:

‘As we walked over to the Mill, he told me an interminable story of a dead body being found near the place, and how a furious dispute between the coroners of Winchelsea and St. Leonards as to which of them should conduct the inquest, for half of the Mill is in one parish and half in the other’.

Whilst there is no other evidence of this specific story, it could well relate to an account given in the Sussex Agricultural Express on the 24th August 1861. According to this account the mill was undergoing repairs when, whilst hauling a new midding, the rope snapped – falling and killing the millwright. As there were no available witnesses from Winchelsea, jurors had to be summoned from Hastings and the inquest was held in the open air next to the mill.

Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) was an internationally renowned artist, the first to have a retrospective exhibition in the Royal Academy during his lifetime. Whilst he had no formal schooling in art, he did work for a short period of time under the famous textile designer, poet and social activist William Morris, which perhaps influenced both his passion for painting rural scenes. He is wonderfully poetic in the explanation of his love for windmills:

‘a spirit of something about Windmills, wholly indefinable. A sailing ship crossing the ocean is to some people as wonderful as a meteor crossing the heavens… and the majesty of Windmill sails revolving against the blue and green of quiet lands arouse in one sentiments as deep and mystical as one feels when gazing at the remote and whirling stars.’

As his wartime art would demonstrate, Brangwyn also had a passion for depicting simple labourers going about their work in his rural scenes. Whilst not an official war artist, he became heavily associated with war art as he completed many relevant commissions. Not all of them were appreciated, however – one particularly graphic painting depicting a British Tommy bayoneting a German soldier caused so much offence that it supposedly prompted the German Kaiser to put a price on his head!

This was not the only example of Brangwyn’s paintings causing controversy. In 1926, Brangwyn was commissioned to paint a pair of large murals as a war memorial to hang in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords, commemorating the peers who were killed in the war. Upon completion the paintings were rejected, due to their overly grim, bloody and somewhat disturbing nature, and Brangwyn was instead commissioned to paint a further series of more lighthearted work. These 16 huge panels took five years for Brangwyn to paint, but when finished, the Lords decided that they did not ‘harmonise’ with the Royal Gallery as they were “too colourful and lively” – and they were also rejected.

These rejections hit Brangwyn hard and sent him into a deep depression from which he never truly recovered. However, despite this rejection that he so strongly felt, Brangwyn’s artworks continue to be celebrated to this day, particularly amongst mill enthusiasts. His beautiful and touching collection of windmill watercolours expresses a passion for the mills and the generations of millers that worked them and conveys a haunting sense of longing for a bygone way of life that many can associate with.

Gem from Brangwyn, F. and Preston, H. Windmills, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London (1923)

Related links

  • Further Reading: Mills have inspired artists for hundreds of years. Whether in sketches, prints or watercolours you can learn all about the artistic soul of milling here.
  • Water and Wind: You can read about another of these beautiful watercolours on our blog here.
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A direct hit

‘By a piece of singular good fortune, no one was killed.’

This book called A Train Errant shines a light on a little-known aspect of the First World War. The book contains a bound collection of newsletters called The Orderly Review, which were published on board Great War Ambulance Train No.16, which was donated to the war effort by the UK Flour MillersThe Orderly Review was quite a varied publication, describing itself as ‘Illustrative, critical and literary’, with handwritten contributions ranging from essays on Gothic architecture, adverts mocking pastries and reports of the nature that could be seen from the train windows.

The Gem itself is a sketch from one of the newsletters of an incident that occurred on the 21st March 1918, when two bombs landed squarely on the ambulance train whilst it was boarding wounded soldiers at Agnez. The trains were painted with red crosses on the outside to show that they were carrying the injured and should be exempt from shelling, but the enemy were not always merciful, and there were reports of trains having to hide in tunnels to escape the bombs. This train didn’t make it to shelter in time, but the article describes how although the whole side of the coach was wrecked, miraculously nobody was killed and only two people sustained very slight injuries. The incident must have been quite a shock to those on board, but luckily they lived to write about it in the paper! The report states:

‘A couple of terrific explosions, followed by the crash of falling glass announced the arrival of two bombs opposite “H” kitchen. They fell in a shed, which took off some of their force, but the whole side of the coach was wrecked. By a piece of singular good fortune no one was killed. The mess-room was crammed with patients and every part of the train filled up, yet the only casualties were Gibson, who was cut about the head, and Stanley, who was hit in the back by a piece of wreckage.’

Those on the train were not from the British Army, but from the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), a Quaker organisation for those who wanted to serve but due to their pacifist beliefs were not able to undertake armed combat. Despite their pacifist nature, the members of the FAU witnessed all the horrors and risks of war and saved many thousands of lives. One such FAU member was an individual called J.W. Major, who is shown in the adjacent picture stnading second on the left in the back row. This gentleman was the father of Ken Major, one of the founding members of the Mills Archive who was also heavily involved in the SPAB. His extensive collection is one of our founding collections and can be viewed on our catalogue here.

Gem from the J. Kenneth Major Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: These trains and those who worked on them save many thousands of lives during one of the most destructive wars in history. You can discover more about the courage and bravery shown on these trains here.
  • From Flour to France and Back Again: These trains wouldn’t even have existed without the remarkable generosity of millers across the United Kingdom. Learn more about the story of how these trains came to exist and view another one of our Gems here.
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A brush with death

“It was then that she heard the bloodcurdling screams of her stricken husband.”

This contemporary sketch was sold following a miller’s brush with death. The caption describes what is happening in the picture, as well as the reason for the sketch:

Toot Hill Windmill
In the Parish of Stanford Rivers, Essex,
Shattered by Lightning, June 18 1829,
This sketch sold for the benefit of the sufferer Joseph Knight and his family consisting of a Wife and seven children one of whom is deaf and dumb

On Thursday 18th June 1829, a vicious thunderstorm spread its way across the East of England. With rain lashing down, wind whipping across the landscape and the sky filled with the bellow of thunder, all it took was one bolt of pure electricity to cause immense damage. Joseph Knight, the miller of Toot Hill Windmill in Essex, was unfortunate enough to be in his mill at the time of the storm, when a lightening bolt caused a catastrophic accident. The miller’s wife recalled hearing a ‘hissing noise and a sound like artillery as the lightning struck the mill, and then an overwhelming smell of sulphur. Suddenly she heard the bloodcurdling screams of her stricken husband, and running out to the mill, she found him in a horrific state.

The poor miller had been caught in the destruction, and his wife found him with his right leg almost completely detached from his body.

His family immediately called for Mr Potter, the local surgeon, and his leg was amputated straight away. The surgery must have been performed on the floor of the mill!  His hair had also been badly singed and he had multiple injuries to his face, though luckily he survived. The second victim of the strike, the mill itself, was not so lucky. The lightning hit the mills sails, cutting two of them off in the process. It then travelled down into the interior of the mill, completely demolishing it from the inside. Its roof and weatherboarding were blown clean off.

The Toothill engraving above contains a lot more detail of the explosion and injuries. Windmills in exposed places were often the victim of lightning strikes, many of which resulted in a fire consuming the mill.

Related links

  • Further Reading: Over the years mills have suffered many catastrophic and lethal disasters. From lightning strikes to fires and explosions, you can find out more about the risks of milling here.