Blog by Steve Laug
This past weekend my wife and I took some much needed R&R and checked into a nice hotel about an hour and a half from home. We needed a break, as both of our work schedules have been heavy and my travel schedule has been quite demanding. It was great to be together and spend the weekend without a ringing phone and the ever-present work demands. We had plans for Saturday morning until about noon. However, we were absolutely free on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. We used the afternoon to visit one of our favourite spots. It has great restaurants, brewpubs and many different kinds of shops. One shop that we always check out is an antique mall. Irene always seems to find something there and so do I. She was happy to have found an older hard cover cookbook to replace one she had given away. I could not believe what I found. It was in the last row of the stalls in the mall, in almost the last booth. I looked in a cupboard thinking I might find something. There in the middle of the cupboard there was an old style tin of Capstan Medium Strength Navy Cut tobacco.
The label covered the lower part of the tin and goes about half way up the tin. The tin itself was oxidized and discoloured but did not appear to be punctured or compromised. The label on the front side of the tin reads; Medium Strength “Capstan” Navy Cut over W.D. & H.O. Wills, Bristol & London. You can see the layout of the label in the photo to the left. I could not believe what I was seeing. This looked like an old timer. I have handle a lot of old empty tobacco tins in my hunt for that full tin hidden among the tobacciana memorabilia. Many have looked like they had something in them. Some were empty or at best half full of old dried and rattling tobacco that was beyond its life. The difference was that this tin had a hand written tag from the seller that said that it was unopened. It was hard to tell through the glass of the cupboard what the seller meant by unopened. I purchased a “sealed” tin of older Balkan Sobranie that was open under the metal top cap once I opened it at home. The tobacco had dried out. Even rehydrating it did not bring the true depth of flavour of the tobaccos. So I was dubious about this “unopened tin”. I was hopeful that it was; and if so then the price of $25 was not a lot to pay for aged Virginia tobacco.
With a bit of “optimistic pessimism” I went to find the clerk to open the cupboard for me so I could check out the tin. I am one of those “got to have it in hand and check it out” kind of guys. I wanted to give it a light shake to see if it rattles. When the clerk opened the cupboard and handed me the tin I lightly shook it. Instead of a rattle, there was a thud as the contents moved from top to bottom. I looked at the sides and bottom of the tin and it appeared undamaged. I pried of the top and underneath the top of the tin was intact! I did not let the clerk see my enthusiasm at this point I just wanted to pay for the tin and take it to the car to check it out more thoroughly. I paid the $25 plus the extraneous taxes here in British Columbia and she wrapped the tin in newspaper and handed me the bag.
When I got to the car, I took it out of the wrapping and checked it out more carefully. The tin had a slight bulge on both the top and the bottom. It was sealed tight and there appeared to be no rusted areas or punctures in the tin surface. I was excited. I took photos of the top and the bottom of the tin. The photo to the left shows the top of the cap. The second photo shows the cap removed and the sealed tin. The third photo shows the bottom of the tin.
The embossed lettering on the top of the can reads, “To open the tin remove lid and press “V-Cut” until the point is directly downwards. Replace lid, press slightly and turn.” This gives simple and clear instructions on how to open the can. In essence the can has its own built-in can opener on the cap. The lettering on the underside of the can reads, “NAAFI Stores for HM Forces” in a circle around the outside with a CM in the centre.
The last tin photo below shows the back of the tin and label. The label on the back of the tin had same light and dark blue colour scheme as on the front of the tin. It reads Grand Diploma of Honour over a series of coins/medallions that span the top of the label. In a small banner centered under the medallions, it read Antwerp 1885. Under the top banner, there was a rectangular box with a star and the word Trade Mark in a square on either side of the rest of the label. In the remainder of the rectangle, it read Cut Cake Tobacco manufactured from specially selected Leaf. Being perfectly air tight and easily opened, this tin is the best package for preserving Tobacco in fine condition in all climates. At the bottom of the label it read, Capstan (Navy Cut) is supplied in the following grades and strengths: Mild – Yellow Label, Medium Strength – Blue Label, Full Strength – Chocolate Label.
I had no idea what NAAFI Stores was when I read the bottom of the tin. I understood the CM probably stood for Capstan Medium.
I also understood the HM Forces to mean Her Majesty’s Forces. This gave me a starting point to try to date the tin. I looked first on Wikipedia to learn about the NAAFI stamp. Here it the link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navy,_Army_and_Air_Force_Institutes#NAAFI_is_Born In reading that I learned quite a bit. I quote that in part below.
After the First World War the Expeditionary Force Canteens (EFC) and the Navy and Army Canteen Board (NACB) did not return to the gratitude of the Nation. This was because EFC had made a large amount of profit from the sales of goods to the troops and opinion was divided as to what should be done with the money.
In March 1920 Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, set up a committee to advise on the kind of organisation which would be needed for the Armed Forces in the future. The findings were unanimous; there should be one organisation to serve all three Services, it should be permanent and it should be able to rapidly expand or contract at times of war or peace. The Navy, Army, Air Force Institutes was therefore established on 6 December 1920 and started trading as NAAFI in 1921
As a not for profit organisation, with no shareholders to reward, NAAFI was asked to run the catering and recreational establishments needed by the armed forces. It had to make a profit for the good of the NAAFI customers – the men and women of the British Armed Forces- and so in addition it undertook to sell goods to servicemen and their families over and above those that were initially provided by the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). The servicemen would benefit directly by getting cash rebates and discounts on purchases and indirectly through surpluses given back as a whole from each year’s trading.
For the first time the troops overseas were able to buy the same things in the canteen abroad as they could at home. NAAFI first saw overseas service in Ireland in 1922. Six years later NAAFI would have a presence in Bermuda, Ceylon, Germany, Gibraltar, Iraq, China, Jamaica, Malta, and the Middle East.
The NAAFI’s greatest contribution was during the Second World War. The Chairman & CEO during the war years was Sir Lancelot Royle and by April 1944 the NAAFI ran 7,000 canteens and had 96,000 personnel (expanded from fewer than 600 canteens and 4,000 personnel in 1939). It also controlled ENSA, the forces entertainment organisation. In the 1940 Battle of France alone, the EFI had nearly 3,000 personnel and 230 canteens.
From this I learned that NAAFI was formed by a committee set up by Churchill post WWI. The acronym NAAFI meant Navy, Army, Air Force Institutes and was formed in December of 1920 and began trading in 1921. It operated as a catering and recreation non-profit to sell goods to servicemen and their families. It was a discount store for servicemen. Its greatest contribution was during WWII growing from a small organization to a large one by 1944. This gave me a bit of a clue regarding the age of this can. Is it possible that this tin of tobacco remained unopened that long? Could it truly be from the time period of 1921-1945 with the close of WWII? I am not sure but that would date tin to the 1940’s. Is that true? Is that the correct period for this type of tin? I don’t really know. Perhaps some of you may be able to pin down the dates on this tin.
I close with an advertisement from the time period that I found while researching dates for this tin of tobacco. I love the language and the promises that are given in advertising from this time period. Things just seemed so much simpler in many ways – notice I said simpler, not better. Thanks for reading this blog.