Nfld. & Labrador·Nostalgia

Sweet childhood memories that came packed in a box of Red Rose tea

They're cute, they're tiny and they lined many a windowsill.
How many of these little figurines do you recognize? They were among ceramics produced for boxes of Red Rose tea sold in Canada. (Deb Coombs)
On a blustery December day last year, a friend I was with pulled me in to an antique shop. Scanning the bits of history surrounding me, I suddenly spied something familiar.

A few tiny figurines sat on a shelf near the door. 

I was instantly transported back to childhood and the hours I spent at my nanny's home, playing with her collection of little porcelain animals and nursery rhyme characters. 

You might know them. They were included in boxes of Red Rose tea during the late Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties. 

A nostalgia for simpler times rose up in me. I felt wistful for an era when a bit of pottery, enclosed in a box of tea bags, created excitement and joy for young and old alike.

Wade Whimsies were a distinctive addition to boxes of Red Rose tea for years. (Deb Coombs)

Curious about curios

Impulsively, I snapped a photo of the tiny treasures and posted my sentiments on social media. Friends and family soon began sharing their own similar memories of the little statues.

A curiosity about the collectibles began to grow. I wanted to know more about them and their history. 

I found myself talking to folks like St. John's resident Deborah Coombs, has been adding to her childhood collection for years. She currently has around 56 and keeps them displayed in a curio cabinet on the wall of her home.

"It was really neat to get a surprise toy in a box of tea," said Coombs, who recalls playing with the figurines with her brother when they were children. 

"My grandmother kept them safe until I came across them again in a box 20 years later. Now they are full of memories of my childhood and drinking milky tea with my Nan."

That's likely a popular memory, considering how much tea is consumed in Canada, and Newfoundland and Labrador in particular.

Spread across the country 

Canada's beloved tea brand giveaways were at first distributed only in Quebec, starting in 1967. 

However, they were became so popular that the figurines soon began appearing in Red Rose tea boxes across Canada.

The miniatures have an actual name, too: they're called Wade Whimsies, and are named after Wade Ceramics, formerly Wade Potteries Ltd., which released the various series.  

Collector Deb Coombs stores some of her Wade Whimsies in a curio cabinet. (Deb Coombs)

The first series was comprised of 32 animals and ran from 1967 to 1973.

The second, from 1971 to 1979, was a collection of 24 nursery rhyme characters. (I often pranced Little Miss Muffet and Little Boy Blue to a party with the Gingerbread Man and Humpty Dumpty!) 

Despite these vivid memories, I had no idea a mail-order-only series was available in 1981, which consisted of 15 animals. They were called "Whoppas," and were slightly larger than the other Whimsies, but still had the trademark Wade England marking on their base underside.

The fourth and final Canadian series, released between 1982 and 1984, again involved animals. I orchestrated some fierce battles between groups of domestic pets, woodland creatures and more exotic animals from my grandmother's collection!

Handled with care, and affection

I was always mindful, though, never to bang them together or drop them. Even at a young age, I never wanted to chip the porcelain and leave them looking damaged. My cousins still have some of those Whimsies safely tucked away.

Gary Murrin, who works at the downtown St. John's antique shop Livyers, said the collectibles come and go from the store.

When asked if Newfoundlanders with sets of Whimsies stashed away at home might be sitting on an antique gold mine, Murrin chuckled. 

"Most of them average around $5 apiece, depending on their condition and rarity," Murrin said.

He said the rarest figurine he is familiar with is the cream-coloured gingerbread man, which can run in price from approximately $20 up to $100, for one in mint condition.

Sadly, the era of Wade Whimsies in Canadian Red Rose tea boxes drew to a close in 1984. Unilever acquired the Canadian rights to the tea brand that same year but couldn't confirm why the figurine premium stopped, and nor could Wade Ceramics.

Interestingly, the figurines only became available in America's Red Rose tea boxes in 1983. The brand is owned by Redco Foods there (a separate company than Unilever) and continued to distribute Whimsies in U.S. retail packages of the tea until 2018.

Economic salvation in a tiny format 

The history of the Wade company — which created and made Whimsies originally — goes back as far as 1810. Various Wade family members owned pottery factories in the Stoke-on-Trent area of England and made things like porcelain insulator parts, tiles, beer bottles, vases and industrial parts used in textiles and wool-spinning.

Eventually, Sir George Wade became the head of the company after numerous mergers, buy-outs and inheritances.

In 1953, the British government had cancelled their porcelain insulator parts contract with Wade Potteries. Sir George, as he was commonly known, gathered his son Tony, his daughter Iris and her husband along with other company executives to brainstorm ways to keep the company profitable.

According to past interviews that Iris Wade Carryer gave, the small machine parts made of pottery laying on the table at the meeting reminded her of a Noah's Ark set that she had enjoyed as a child.

She realized the company's existing factories could make similar figurines. While most at the meeting laughed at her suggestion, her brother and husband supported it.

Wade Whimsies were born.

The miniatures gained popularity in England after they were included in Christmas crackers and other premiums (giveaways in products, for instance, to promote sales) and Wade began to partner with companies outside the UK. 

Over the years, the company has changed locations, names, management and focus a few times since its origin. Its current iteration — Wade Ceramics — is owned by Wade Allied Holdings Ltd. and headed by Managing Director Paul Farmer.

He said Whimsies are now a creative collaboration between Red Rose tea USA and Wade, but are mostly manufactured in Vietnam.

Wade Ceramics currently does the bulk of its business in whisky flagons, homeware and kitchenware.

Meeting the collectors

After the enthusiastic response to my photo of the Wade Whimsies, it was no surprise to discover a Wade Collectors Club exists. The company established the club in 1994 with  Jenny Wright at the helm, and she is still running it today.

The club and its Facebook group offer a colourful cornucopia of all Wade collectibles, including limited-edition Whimsies still produced in Stoke-on-Trent.

Other lines include licensed characters like Betty Boop, Disney characters, Pokémon or the Peanuts gang, along with original Canadian and American Red Rose tea Whimsies and a special 65th anniversary rainbow set of Whimsie dodo birds.

Wright says the club currently has thousands of members worldwide, including Canadians.

(Submitted by Jackie Gillard)

"About 400 attendees from the US, England and Canada participate in the two-day Wade Fest event in Pennsylvania each July," Wright told me.

"Collectors can display or swap from their collections, connect socially in person and shop from Wade dealers."

There have also been numerous books written about Wade, its extensive history and cataloguing all of their various collectibles.

As for the whimsical name, there are at least two versions of how the miniatures came to be so aptly-named.

Iris Wade Carryer said when she made the suggestion for her father's company to produce tiny figurines, her brother exclaimed, "It's a marvelous bit of whimsy!" [However, there's also an unverified tale of Sir George Wade presenting a prototype of the Whimsies to his receptionist, who responded, "They're very whimsical!"]

While both stories may be correct and simply add to the charm and intrigue of the Wade legend, the origin of the name seems less important than how Wade Whimsies captured the hearts of so many over the years, and are still held dear today.

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