The V&A Refreshment Rooms

If you read our article about the origin of commercially made greeting cards, you would have read about Henry Cole. Every description of him says he was a busy man involved in all kinds of public projects. And being in the public eye he sent Christmas cards to a lot of people. I don’t know how many cards he would send in a typical year, but whatever number it was, he decided it would be a good idea to have them printed. And those were the first commercially printed greeting cards.

Just look at the projects he was involved in. He helped found the Public Records Office and the new pre-paid postal system. He managed the Great Exhibition of 1851. And he helped set up what became the Royal College of Art. In between all that he was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. And that is what I am looking at today.

As a serial entrepreneur, he knew the value of advertising. And what better way to get visitors to spread the word, than to feed them. Nowadays, every museum has a cafe, but back then the Victoria and Albert Museums the first museum anywhere in the world to feed its visitors. When Cole started the refreshment rooms, as they were called, the museum was not yet the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was known then as the South Kensington Museum, and Cole opened three refreshment rooms in the museum in 1868.

V&A Refreshment Rooms Today

The same V&A refreshment rooms are open today. They are three connected dining rooms with decorations from the leading designers of the day, including William Morris. The refreshment rooms today serve hot prepared food as well as delicatessen food and cakes and sweets. The rooms have spilled out, as it were, with more tables in the adjoining walkthrough. The new part is all minimalist white, in contrast to the original rooms with decorated tiled walls and ceilings, and stained glass.

When we are in the museum we have the association with Henry Cole in the back of our minds, the man who commissioned the first commercially printed cards.

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