Some people like collecting things, other people discard anything that has no practical usefulness. For some collecting is a bug and whether it is stickers containing the likenesses of premiership footballers or paintings by Picasso costing millions of pounds or anything in between there is no shortage of those who, in the search for completeness or because of a desire to own something rare or unique, will buy things, sometimes at any price. While the artistic merit of a Picasso may (or may not) be appreciated by all and sundry the wonders of a sticker book containing all the footballers of the 1970 World Cup, for instance, will appeal only to the cognoscenti. But little things, small objects, printed ephemera and all the material that so many people would condemn as junk do tell a story, they can be interesting and open up another view of the world and who we are.
The picture above is a cigarette card. Starting before the end of the nineteenth century these became keenly collected, often by children and no doubt they helped to introduce new generations to smoking. They faded away in the 1950s and wouldn’t be allowed now, but old sets are still collected, early and rare examples attracting high prices of over £1,000 per card. Some of the early series are very informative, and others are very attractive in their design. But this card, once given away free and now worth a couple of pounds, is both a symbol of the early development of the modern cult of celebrity and an illustration of how important non-conformist churches were 100 years ago.
The card depicts Ian MacLaren an incredibly popular writer in about 1905 when the card was printed. He was one of the members of the kailyard school, writers of sentimental stories of Scottish rural life which enjoyed great popularity at the time. Their title came from a line of Burns quoted in MacLaren’s most popular book Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush:
There grows a bonnie brier bush in our kail-yard
And white are the blossoms on’t in our kail-yard.
J.M Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) was the most notable of this group but MacLaren’s books sold in Britain and America in their tens of thousands, indeed some are still in print today although read by a fairly specialised audience. But MacLaren’s fame as an author was closely bound up with his career as a Presbyterian minister. Ian MacLaren was a pseudonym and as John Watson he ministered to the Presbyterian Church in Sefton Park, Liverpool for 25 years with great success, from 1880 to 1905. He assembled an enormous congregation, those who held seats in his church had to be in place half an hour before the service began or else their seats would be given to visitors who queued up outside. Developing out of his ministry he became the most popular writer on theological topics of his day, certainly from within the non-conformist churches. His theology was quite liberal and at one point he was threatened with a charge of heresy from within his denomination (the Presbyterian Church of England). He was certainly liberal enough for the Rev John Hamilton Thom to complain about the removal of the Renshaw Street Unitarian congregation to Ullet Road – a location very close to Ian MacLaren’s church. He claimed that a number of Unitarians had already joined his church without changing their theology and that a move to the suburbs might result in further drift away to hear such a successful preacher.
But above everything else John Watson was the most prominent of all the Presbyterian Church of England ministers of his day. He assisted in the establishment of the University of Liverpool (which brought him into the orbit of many Unitarians) and his leadership and fundraising exertions resulted in the establishment of Westminster College, Cambridge in 1899, which became the main Presbyterian theological college. The following year he was moderator of his church. Invited to tour the United States and lecture in Yale University and other places his theological publications also became best sellers and his influence spread far and wide within the churches. And so famous was he that when Ogden’s produced a new series of ‘Famous People’ Cigarette Cards in about 1905, a set that possibly included actors, actresses, generals, politicians, sportsmen and writers they couldn’t leave out John Watson/Ian MacLaren. It was all part of the level of fame he had achieved in his day and age and so his portrait, in his clerical collar, was printed to go inside packs of Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarettes and no doubt eagerly sought by those anxious for the full set. It is hard to imagine what the exact equivalent would be in today’s celebrity terms but we can be pretty certain that no member of the clergy, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, could expect to reach such a dizzy height.