Because of their attractive appearance, biscuit tins have often been used by charities and by some visitor attractions as fundraising devices since the value of the biscuits in a biscuit tin is substantially less than the price that many customers will happily pay for a tin of biscuits.
Biscuit tins are steel cans made of tin plate. This consists of steel sheets thinly coated with tin. The sheets are then bent to shape. By about 1850, Great Britain had become the dominant world supplier of tin plate, through a combination of technical innovation and political control over most of the suppliers of tin ore. Biscuit tin manufacture was a small but prestigious part of the vast industry of tin plate production, which saw a huge increase in demand in the 19th century was directly related to the growing industrialisation of food production, by increasingly sophisticated methods of preservation and the requirements made by changing methods of distribution.
The British biscuit tin came about when the Licensed Grocer's Act of 1861 allowed groceries to be individually packaged and sold. Coinciding with the removal of the duty on paper for printed labels, printing directly on to tinplate became common. The new process of offset lithography, patented in 1877, allowed multicoloured designs to be printed on to exotically shaped tins.
The earliest decorated biscuit tin was commissioned in 1868 by Huntley & Palmers from the London firm of De La Rue to a design by Owen Jones. Early methods of printing included the transfer process (essentially the method used to decorate porcelain and pottery since about 1750) and the direct lithographic process, which involved laying an inked stone directly on to a sheet of tin. Its disadvantage was that correct colour registration was difficult. The breakthrough in decorative tin plate production was the invention of the offset lithographic process. It consists of bringing a sheet of rubber into contact with the decorated stone, and then setting-off the impression so obtained upon the metal surface. The advantages over previous methods of printing were that any number of colours could be used, correctly positioned, and applied to an uneven surface if necessary. Thus the elaborately embossed, colourful designs that were such a feature of the late Victorian biscuit tin industry became technically possible.
The most exotic designs were produced in the early years of the 20th century, just prior to the First World War. In the 1920s and 1930s, costs had risen substantially and the design of biscuit tins tended to be more conservative, with the exception of the tins targeted at the Christmas market and intended to appeal primarily to children. The designs generally reflected popular interests and tastes.
The advent of the Second World War stopped all production of decorative tin ware and after it ended in 1945, the custom did not enjoy the same popularity as before.
Vintage biscuit tins can be found in various museums and on the market have become collector items.