31 Jul 2017

Reading Museum’s Huntley & Palmers Collections contains two very unusual musical instruments made from the humble biscuit tin. The two traditional African thumb pianos or sanzas can be seen in the Museum’s Huntley & Palmers Gallery. This type of instrument is known by different names in various parts of Africa: mbira, kalimba, and sansi. Europeans call them thumb pianos or lamellaphones.

Huntley & Palmers started life in 1822 as a small bakery founded by Thomas Huntley in London Street. George Palmer, who was a distant Quaker cousin, entered into partnership with Thomas Huntley in 1841. George was ambitious and in 1846 he opened a large factory on Kings Road. By 1900 it had become the world's largest biscuit manufacturer employing over 5,000 people, and was increasingly famous for its innovative and decorative biscuit tins, made by its sister company Huntley, Boorne & Stevens.

As Huntley & Palmers biscuits became more varied, many of the ingredients were also imported from overseas. The process of importing raw materials from the British Empire was crucial to the financial success of the business. Coconuts were purchased from Barbados and the West Indies, cocoa from West Africa and eggs from Ireland. Once the products had been manufactured, many finished goods were then exported back out across the Empire.

By 1898 Huntley & Palmers' overseas sales accounted for 75% of the total export of biscuits and cakes from the UK, and it was exporting to Africa, the Americas and the Far East. Their biscuits were purchased by royalty across the globe from Britain to Siam and they were an essential food item for explorers, including Scott of the Antarctic. The firm's name even travelled along trade routes ahead of western expeditions. In 1904 the first Europeans to visit the holy city of Lhasa in Tibet were welcomed with Huntley & Palmers biscuits.

The thumb piano pictured below re-uses a Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin as its sound box. The tin is a standard export tin with a paper label for ‘Superior Reading Biscuits’ and features an image of the vast Reading factory. It was one of hundreds of thousands of tins that were exported to British colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries as a taste of home for British expats. This example of a thumb piano was made in the early twentieth century in Africa.

You can explore more objects from Huntley & Palmers and from around the world on our online collection website

T. A. B. Corley, Huntley & Palmers of Reading 1822-1972: Quaker Enterprise in Biscuits (London: Hutchinson, 1972)

Huntley and Palmers biscuit tin re-used as a thumb piano
A close-up of the biscuit tin used as a sounding box

Listen to our recording of the thumb piano