Victorian change packets: little envelopes for your small change

Julie L. Mellby posts on Princeton University Library's Graphic Arts Collection blog about the Victorian "Change Packet," a little paper envelope that Victorian shopkeepers used to present customers' change (as Abi points out on Making Light, this embodies some odd assumptions, like shopkeepers never shortchanging their customers, and customers not wanting to spend their change at the next shop). These are beautiful items, and have a fascinating history. From The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: a Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian (Michael Twyman, Maurice Rickards):

“Among the refinements of middle-class Victorian shopping was the giving of change not directly from hand to hand but in paper packets. Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal in a review of London shops and shopping (15 October 1853), makes passing note of the custom. A customer seeking to buy a pair of kid gloves ‘is met at the door by a master of the ceremonies, who escorts him to the precise spot where what he seeks awaits him … He walks over rich carpets, in which his feet sink as though upon a meadow-sward; and he may contemplate his portrait at full length in half-a-dozen mirrors, while that pair of gentlemen’s kids at 2s 10 ½ d is being swaddled in tissue-paper, and that remnant of change in the vulgar metal of which coal-scuttles are made … is being decently interred in a sort of vellum sarcophagus ere it is presented to his acceptance’.”

“The envelope, known as a ‘change packet,’ measured some 60 mm (2 ½ in) square and was printed with the legend ‘The change, with thanks’, often in a decorative roundel or other device. Printing was generally in a single colour; sometimes the design appeared as a white, embossed image on a coloured background.”

“The packets were supplied to the shopkeeper either as a stock design in which there was no trade message, or printed specially to order with name, address, and designation presented as a form of miniature trade card. Additionally, the shopkeeper might be supplied with the packets at much reduced rates, if not free of charge, by the new breed of national advertisers who used the printing space on the packet for their own message. Typical of these were Huntley & Palmers, biscuit manufacturers, whose change packets were widely used. Their Royal Appointment design appears in two packet sizes and a variety of colours.”

Your change, with thanks (via Making Light)


  1. Crowell’s in Sydney, Cape Breton, was (I think) the last department store in Canada that used pneumatic tubes to ferry the customers’ payments and change back and forth from the sales floor to the cashiers.  This system was used in a lot of department store in days long gone.

    It would make sense that these ‘change packets’ were used by the tubes’ cashiers for returning the change to the customer.

    1. You’re onto something.
      Remember drive up windows at banks with tubes?
      I seem to remember that cash, coins, and receipts were dispensed in little cut-away envelopes, not just in the tube by themselves.
      Yes, I am officially old.

    2. Pneumatic tubes was my first thought as well. I remember going to some department store in the Kingston, NY area several years ago, where the clerk sent a customer’s payment off to some central cashier via pneumatic tube and a short while later received the change and receipt for the purchase.

    3.  I remember the tubes still being used when I was a kid in Sydney. I’m glad you reminded me of that.

      I seem to recall the change being in the carriers that zoomed through the tubes directly and not in packets, but it was my mother doing the purchasing and not myself so I could be wrong.

    4. And pre-pneumatic tubes, the change was passed back to the sales clerk along a system that operated a lot like a clothesline. The common thread of all this is that at department stores it was common, even as late as the 1950s, for cash to be handled at a single location (presumably for security), so some means of returning the change to the buyer had to be used. Hence the envelope.

      Remember too that more currency was coin back then; a penny was worth about a dollar at the turn of the last century, so most transactions would involve exchanges of coin.

      1.  When I was in Scotland, some 35 years ago, you could still get a glass of whisky and pay with a 50p piece.

  2. OK Boingers, what the flip is “Ivory Jelly” and “Reading Biscuit”? I tried a search and all I got for the former was buttplugs, as for the latter I got biscuits from Reading (a locale, not the product of literacy).

    I’ll accept the locale-story for the cookies, but seriously WTF is ivory jelly? I’m curious because I own both an Xbox-360 and a PS3 and therefore qualify as some sort of invalid.

    1. what the flip is “Ivory Jelly”

      Sounds like a Victorian euphemism for pearl jam to me.

    2. You need to qualify the search with more information. For example, instead of “Reading Biscuit”, try “Huntley and Palmers Reading Biscuit” and you would have gotten Huntley Palmers. Biscuit Makers from Reading.

      As for Ivory Jelly. Qualify that with “callards ivory jelly” and you’ll get this article. Which says Callards Ivory Jelly is “CALLARD’S IVORY JELLY for INVALIDS. This jelly is made from pulverized ivory; is rich in phosphates and bonesalts. Very delicate in flavour, cooling, refreshing, strengthening. No sick room should be without it. In half-pint jars, IS. 6d. each ; post free, IS. lobd.”>

      1.  But what about “Paris Glove” — if you know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!

  3. The dainty little change baggies made it easier for the fops to hand over their money when a scary plebian passed too closely on the sidewalk.

    Juvenile rats would steal the little baggies, too, into which they’d poo, set aflame and leave on neighboring rats’ doorsteps. That’s actually how the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was started. The whole cow story was a cover-up because of how embarrassed Mrs. O’Leary was to have those fruity little change sacks on the property. That’s why we never heard much about it from Mr. O’Leary.

  4. I can’t help wondering if it might have developed because one did not go in person but was more likely to send one of the household staff to the grocer’s and the envelope would prevent them from getting any ideas on the way home … or, maybe I’ve just watched too much Downton Abbey.

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