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From cream crackers to the 1916 Rising: an exhibition is looking at the history of Jacob’s biscuit factory

A new exhibition is celebrating the impact of the factory on Ireland and on the lives of thousands of workers.

The factory employed thousands in Dublin, with biscuit decoration largely done by hand
The factory employed thousands in Dublin, with biscuit decoration largely done by hand
Image: Dublin City Library

MORE THAN JUST the home of cream crackers, Jacob’s biscuit factory played its own role in Dublin’s history, from its thousands of workers to the impact that the establishment of the Irish Free State had on them and the business.

A new exhibition was opened yesterday that explores the history of the factory and its impact on Ireland throughout the 20th century.

Dublin City Library has 330 boxes of archives from the factory, which include items like the changing faces of biscuit labels, employee welfare booklets and an Irish Free State biscuit tin.

The exhibition displays these items alongside illustrated panels, oral histories and flags to tell the factory’s history, contributing to Dublin City Council’s Ongoing Decade of Commemorations, which is looking back at the events of 1912 to 1922 and their impact of Dublin.

Innovative marketing

In the late 1960s, advertisements appeared in newspapers calling for a Jim Figgerty to return home and that all would be forgiven. The nation believed that a man was genuinely missing, and masses were said in honour of the man, Ellen Murphy, senior archivist at Dublin City Library, told TheJournal.ie.

Eventually it was revealed that Figgerty was a PR stunt: the man who had the answer to the now-famous question of how Jacob’s get figs into Fig Rolls.

The campaign was “viral, something very innovative at the time”, Murphy said, and Figgerty was mobbed by fans when he ‘returned’ to the factory three months later.

Similar business savvy was not seen when Charles Jacob failed to legally protect the company’s ownership of the cream cracker after he invented it, something that delighted imitators.

The exhibition tells these stories, alongside the history of the biscuits themselves. Timelines chart the history of each biscuit, including those that were a one-off, like the Irish Free State assorted biscuits, similar to the USA assorted biscuits still sold today.

The library is calling on the public to share their stories of what they kept in Jacob’s tins, with the most exciting to come back so far revealing that they were used to store the spare parts for Aer Lingus’ first plane.

History

Dublin’s Lord Mayor, Mícheál Mac Donncha, officially launched the exhibition yesterday. Speaking ahead of the launch, he noted the impact of the factory on life in Dublin:

Thousands of Dubliners have a personal connection to Jacob’s, whether through family members working there or simply a life-time of enjoying their wonderful selection of familiar products. This colourful exhibition focuses on the history of the factory, the workers, the biscuits it produced and its impact on Irish life in the twentieth century.

The archives of W & R Jacob and Company were acquired by Dublin City Library and Archive in 2012, representing over 150 years of biscuit making in Dublin. The material not featured in the exhibition can be accessed by the public.

They reveal new information about the lives of the thousands of workers in Dublin, including the 3,000 women who would work at any one time, often decorating cakes and biscuits by hand.

Historical building

An imposing building located between St Patrick’s Cathedral and St Stephen’s Green, the factory was one of the city’s largest employers in 1916 Dublin.

Seized on Easter Monday by members of the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, the British largely bypassed the factory, although it was fired at intermittently throughout the week.

It opened in 1851, and was operational until the 1970s. By 1975 operations had moved to Tallaght, where they made their last biscuits in 2008. Jacobs products are still sold in Ireland through Valeo Foods.

The free exhibition is running at Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street until 28 October.

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