Category Archives: Conference blogs

2017 conference blogs – Museums and Repositories

Brenda Rewhorn, University of Chester

Museums and Repositories

 Museums, large and small, can hold exhibits of a wide range of items or dedicated to a particular range of objects, nevertheless the curators have a dilemma; do they accept everything donated or should they be selective? If they are selective, and if it is a general museum, are the curators qualified in every subject and able to make a knowledgeable decision for each item?

I am aware that this can apply to curators of textile items; the word ‘textiles’ covers a wide range of subjects from the production of threads, to the manufacturing of a fabric from which household and wearing apparel is constructed and finally, the embellishment of many of these items. The decoration of both household items and fashion opens up other lines of study of all types of embroidery, fabric manipulation and lace. Each of these embellishing subjects can be a separate study, especially when one considers that there are over fifty different types of hand-made bobbin lace; the subtle nuances of each lace are not something to be learnt in a day. Adding to hand embroidery and lace making, there are machine made copies of many of these techniques; it is usually possible to identify the difference between the hand made and machine made, but not always. I have listened to two experienced women debating whether a piece of black Chantilly lace was hand or machine made; they did not come to a decision.

My own particular interest is in tatting, a hand-held, labour intensive knotted lace which may have originated centuries ago but there is no reliable documentation. Aristocratic women had their portraits painted holding a knotting shuttle, with metres of knotting trailing into a bag at their side, to show that they were always occupied and their hands were not tainted with manual work. These knotting shuttles were 15-20cms long and 5cms wide and 3cms deep whereas a tatting shuttle is 6x2x1cms. Most people confuse crochet and tatting; crochet is a looped technique whilst tatting is knotted. In one museum I have seen a cuff labelled as crochet when clearly it is tatting with the date as 1830; there is no other evidence that this type of tatting was known at this time, so one assumes the item was dated by the cuff, not the decoration. This emphasises the problem that no one person can be an expert in all types of lace.


Space in museums is limited; how do the curators decide which donation to keep? This is not only a subjective decision but also an objective one, according to the current popularity of a particular era. Often curators are volunteers especially in small museums and archives such as the Lace Museum, Stourbridge or the National Needlework Archive, Newberry. Many of these voluntary curators are retired with few young people having the time or interest to volunteer, hence much expertise is in the hands of a few mature people. The Lace Guild Museum is very small; when it first opened it accepted all donations now it has to be selective and only accepts items for which it does not already have a good example. This now causes a problem as the removal of any item previously accessed has to be formally approved by the Museum’s committee and officially removed from the accession book.  The Lace Museum has a vast range of all types and techniques of lace from the finest, time consuming Binche lace taking 600 pairs of bobbins and eight hours to work one inch of lace, to the much quicker crochet and knitted laces. It has a collection of old and new lace fans, collars of all sizes shapes and techniques, small mats, machine lace, and of course tatting. The tatting includes parasols, collars, edgings for handkerchiefs and household linens and two sample books, one of which is from China.

Tatting has been worked around the world, probably taken to the Far East by missionaries and each country has its own word for the craft, often adapted from the French ‘frivolité’. This has its own amusing aspects when translations are attempted by someone who is not familiar with the craft; one book from Ios, Greece has tatting translated as ‘tutting’. I once asked an Italian to translate some instructions and she apologised for not being able to translate ‘Chiacchierino’, it was not in her dictionary and the request was made before the world-wide-web, however that was the only Italian word I knew: tatting!

Museums are now listing some of their collections and uploading a limited number of photographs on-line for potential visitors to see what is in the whole collection. To have access to specific items  a request has to be made, often months in advance for serious study  as a textile item  needs to be seen, at close quarters, to appreciate its size, and hopefully handled, to be able to examine the reverse side in detail. Photographing and uploading to the web site is time consuming and costly;  the Royal School of Needlework has just sent out a letter (June 2017) requesting donations towards employing a collections manager to catalogue, illustrate, digitise and up-load these images to the web-site, finally to recruit volunteers to check the pages; volunteers used again! Currently contracts are under review for employees of the V&A many of whom are on zero hour contracts which does not encourage positive commitment. I am sure other museums are in a similar situation.

Municipal museums are usually free to enter, however donations are requested though exactly what these donations are used for is never made clear. Everybody enjoys a visit to a museum especially when visiting new town or city as there is always something of interest, even if is only an excuse to get shelter from inclement weather!

Leave a comment

Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

2017 Conference blogs – ‘Pharmacy atmosphere’: the impact of commercial spaces on patent medicines and their consumers in early twentieth-century Britain

Erin Bramwell, Lancaster University

‘Pharmacy atmosphere’: the impact of commercial spaces on patent medicines and their consumers in early twentieth-century Britain

Architecture and the spaces that it creates are not ‘neutral’, nor are they reducible to their geometric qualities. In a similar vein, the meanings of commodities are not static: meaning can be constructed and shaped by different environments and other forces; indeed, they are not sold in ‘voids’. Because of this, my paper at CHORD’s ‘Retailing, Distribution, and Reputation’ workshop (23 May, 2017) proposed that an analysis of the different retail environments in which products were sold can provide new and interesting perspectives on the meanings of commodities to their consumers.

The commodity that I am particularly interested in is patent medicines. Usually discussed in a seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century context, patent medicines were in fact increasingly popular in twentieth-century Britain, to the extent that the trade was worth between £20 and £28 million in 1937. They were also sold in a wide array of accessible commercial spaces, ranging from rationalized, brightly-lit chain stores such as Woolworth’s, to traditional, independent chemist shops that had been established in the early nineteenth century. Whilst the exact range of brands sold undoubtedly varied from space to space, this assortment of spaces is noteworthy because styles of design have symbolic capacity, and can act as a ‘conscious expression’ of important messages such as ‘safe conduct’ according to Iain Black.[1] Claire Walsh also argues that shop design could have a ‘direct impact’ on a variety of products for sale.[2] As such, shop design could add an additional layer of symbolic meaning to the product itself.

This additional layer of meaning was crucial to a trade that was continually plagued by controversy in the early twentieth century. The trade attracted the attention of the government to the extent that a Select Committee was set up to address the issue in 1912; the Committee’s report was published in 1914 and a growing body of legislation echoed concerns related to, but not limited to, purity, quality, and false claims. Therefore, although patent medicine firms did not directly oversee the retail spaces in which their products were sold, these environments offered an opportunity to reassure consumers, whilst also overpowering the voices of the government and the medical profession via the expression of values such as reputation, efficacy, and purity. This may not have been the direct intention of retailers, who often had their own agendas and own-brand products, however, the expression of values such as these could be mutually beneficial to both the retailer and the patent medicine firm. For example, chemist shops often had their own-brand preparations that were sold alongside manufacturers’ preparations; as competitors, these own-brand medicines were equally susceptible to concerns regarding the reputation of the chemist, and the purity, quality, and safety of the preparation itself. As a result, chemists had much to gain from the material qualities of their shop.

My paper could not possibly discuss all of the different environments in which patent medicines were sold, so I chose to focus on the space of the chemist shop. Chemists are particularly relevant to the study of patent medicines, as commercial pressures meant that the majority could not afford to avoid stocking patent medicines – it was something that consumers had grown to expect.[3] Patent medicines were a dominant commodity in these spaces: heavily advertised, they often featured in display windows, and as a result, confronted consumers before they had even entered the shop. A myriad of other products were also sold alongside patent medicines in chemist shops, such as toiletries, handbags, books, cosmetics, and chemist-made preparations. Despite this level of competition from other products, patent medicines were frequently mentioned by oral history interviewees and Mass Observation participants in relation to chemist shops, demonstrating their strength of presence within this space.

Focusing on material culture, I argued that the fittings and objects used within the space of the early twentieth-century chemist shop possessed connotations of tradition, and that this directly affected the sale of patent medicines. This included the usage of fittings that reminded an oral history interviewee who had been a chemist in interwar Britain of ‘old shops’ that had ‘pharmacy atmosphere’. I also considered the preservation and display of specie jars and carboys within interwar chemists. Dating from around the eighteenth century, they were traditionally used to store liquids, botanical drugs, chemicals, and compound powders. These containers were retained, displayed, and even incorporated into the branding of early twentieth-century chemist shops, despite no longer serving a ‘functional’ purpose. For example, in 1935 the Chemist and Druggist noted how the chemist of Woodhouse & Son in Ludlow ‘still [had] six carboys’ in each window’, just like it did in 1810 when it was originally established. Crucially, these features are explicitly referred to as ‘reminders of the past’, a category which also included ‘half a dozen labelled pharmacy jars’ and ‘a ceiling adorned with a Tudor rose’.[4] Chemist chains such as Taylors also incorporated carboys into their branding and shop design. Carboys featured in shop signs, often serving as a backdrop for the ‘Taylors’ name, highlighting its integral nature to the company (figure 1). Similarly, the shape of a carboy formed a key component in the design of their glass windows on the shop front (figure 2); its presence within the very fabric and structure of the shop indicates the centrality of ‘reminders of the past’ to the physical makeup of certain early twentieth-century chemist shops.


Figure 1: Taylors Chemist, Darley Street, Bradford, 1934-5, Boots Archive, Nottingham.

Bramwell 2

Figure 2: Taylors Chemist, Stratford Road, Birmingham, 1934-5, Boots Archive, Nottingham.

At a time when the pharmaceutical industry was expanding and popularising ‘modern’ products such as Aspirin,[5] the presence of these traditional symbols is somewhat surprising. However, it connected with Britain’s distinctive style of modernity at this time: rather than making a distinct break with the past, British contemporaries created continuities between the past and the present, something that Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger call ‘traditions of modernity’.[6] This particular style of modernity chimed with the selling messages of certain companies, for instance, Daunton and Rieger’s ‘traditions of modernity’ concept is also applicable to the brand Beecham’s Pills. Their packaging in c.1945 displayed the same pattern as it had in c.1885, a decision that prioritised their long-established presence in Britain over newer, more fashionable designs. This is particularly interesting when it is considered in relation to reputation – something that was especially important for a trade that was plagued by controversy; indeed, their long-standing presence was deemed to be significant. This was mirrored in their advertising, in which their enduring presence in Britain was continuously highlighted with messages such as ‘Old friends are best’ and ‘Confidence is not won in a day’. Indeed, confidence was not won in a day – highlighting the importance of tradition, familiarity, and consistency within early twentieth-century healthcare. This was echoed by numerous other patent medicine companies such as Zam-Buk who toyed with the dynamics of tradition and modernity in their marketing messages. Their advertisements frequently stressed that the trademarked ointment had connections to ‘rare and potent balms that were so well known to the Romans’, whilst also underlining its modern and ‘scientific’ nature, demonstrating the extent to which tradition could exist alongside modernity within healthcare and medicine at this time – it could offer reassurance at a time when the market was increasingly ‘pumped’ with new products.[7]

An exploration such as this allows a more nuanced, multi-layered understanding of popular commodities such as patent medicines. It recognises that shops were a ‘material space’ that could affect the objects sold. Because of this, I put forward the idea of a ‘triangular relationship’ between commercial environments, commodities, and their consumers. Whilst it may not have been the direct intention of chemists, the advertising messages put forward by companies such as Beecham could be reinforced and emphasised by the environments in which their products were sold.


[1] Iain Black, ‘Spaces of Capital: Bank Office Building in the City of London, 1830-1870’, Journal of Historical Geography, 26:3 (2000), p. 362.

[2] Claire Walsh, ‘Shop Design and the Display of Goods in Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of Design History, 8:3 (1995), p. 167.

[3] Roy Church, ‘The British Market for Medicine in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Innovative Impact of SM Burroughs & Co.’, Medical History, 49:3 (2005), p. 283.

[4] The Chemist and Druggist, March 30, 1935, p. 387.

[5] For further discussion, see: Steven M. Rooney and J. N. Campbell, How Aspirin Entered Our Medicine Cabinet (Cham, 2017), p. 20; Joseph M. Gabriel, Medical Monopoly: Intellectual Property Rights and the Origins of the Modern Pharmaceutical Industry (Chicago, 2014), pp. 196-98.

[6] Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger (eds), Meanings of Modernity: Britain from the Late-Victorian Era to World War II (Oxford, 2001), p. 5.

[7] Rooney and Campbell, Our Medicine Cabinet, p. 16.

Erin Bramwell is a 1+3 ESRC PhD candidate at Lancaster University


Leave a comment

Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

2017 Conference blogs – ‘Brands and the role of reputation in the nineteenth-century British wine trade’

Graham Harding, University of Oxford

Brands and the role of reputation in the nineteenth-century British wine trade

From the mid nineteenth century on, the wine and spirits trade was recognised as both innovative and brand conscious. The trade magazine, Ridley’s Wine and Spirit Trade Circular wrote in 1868 that ‘in no branch of commerce are brands so firmly established as in the Wine and Spirit trade’.[1]  Much of this marketing and branding impulse came from the dramatic rise in the sale of wine in the 1860s after a series of Gladstone budgets reduced the tariffs on what contemporaries called light wine. This essentially meant natural French wines that were not fortified with added alcohol as port and sherry were. So many new retailers flooded into the market that Ridley’s compared it to the Californian gold rush. Sales of French champagne and French claret to newly prosperous middle-class households quintupled in less than a decade, driven up by a stream of wine books and a flood of advertisements.

In the first half of the century most wine was sold under the names of British merchants. In the second half of the century brands became more important. From the 1860s onwards, merchants’ advertisements were significantly more likely to refer to the brands they stocked rather than to appeal to their own reputation or that of their wines.

Harding figure 1

‘Reputation’ v ‘brand’ in 19th century press advertising for wine. Source: British Newspaper Archive analysis conducted 2 May 2017.


When we look at specific wines we can see how powerful the brand effect was. As sales of claret and champagne rose so the brands of the French producers and shippers became steadily more important.

Harding figure 2

Incidence of branded wines in press advertising. Source: Analysis of advertising in British provincial press, 1850-1905. British Newspaper Archive analysis conducted 20 November 2016.


In the fifteen years from 1850 to 1865 most advertising for sparkling wine from the Champagne region still featured names such as ‘Sillery Mousseux’. Sillery was the best known ‘commune’, whilst Mousseux simply indicated it was strongly carbonated with lots of ‘mousse’ or foam. Wines with less sparkle were called ‘Crémant’ or ‘creaming’. Then, from the late 1860s onwards such terms fell out of use and were replaced by shipper names – names such as Moët and Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Pommery. In the following forty years, advertisements which did not refer to a named shipper brand became increasingly rare.

These shipper brands used advertising extensively. The wine writer and wine merchant Charles Tovey vividly described the all-pervasive nature of champagne advertising:

Advertisements cunningly worded […] bribes to hotel-keepers and proprietors of steam-boats, the same to the managers of public establishments, paragraphs in newspapers […] fees to waiters at hotel, and gratuities to stewards and butlers in the service of the nobility. Neither Norwich nor Bridgewater can surpass in bribery and corruption the attempts to give currency to a brand of Champagne.[2]

This was an expensive process. In 1892, a Ridley’s editorial claimed that ‘it is beyond doubt that hundreds of pounds are paid by certain shippers of Champagne for the sole privilege of hanging up show cards in public places, to get the public accustomed to the mere sound of a name’.

Harding figure 3

Tablets in public places


Such tablets were hung in the offices of merchants, in hotels and in what an 1891 article called ‘certain small apartments’. As a later prospectus clarified they meant lavatories and they claimed for their system that it meant that the brand name would be ‘directly in front of the client’ at a time when he or she had nothing else to read.[3] The names of the champagne houses consequently became ‘as familiar in the mouths of their customers as household words’.

What the champagne shippers were doing was building what the contemporary press called reputation. We would now call it brand awareness. They rarely advertised specific products from their range. Nor did they try to communicate the attributes of their champagne. The name of the house was positioned as the guarantee of quality. As a merchant in the port trade commented in an exchange of letters to the Morning Post in 1883 on the subject of ‘What Is There in a Brand?’, ‘the principal Oporto shippers are gentlemen who would not trifle with their good name, and their brand is their name’.

Wine merchants attempted to create their own brands to counter the competition from the shipper brands. In this, they were following the advice of the wine trade press. In 1870, Charles Tovey counselled ‘have nothing to do with the brand of the foreigner. Get the best possible wine you can but insist upon your own brand on the cork, and your own name on the label.’ His argument to fellow merchants was:

you are responsible for the quality to your customer the consumer; it is to you that the reputation and credit of the selection belongs. Why should you pay a premium to others for advertising their names and thus encourage a monopoly prejudicial to your own interests.’[4]

But reputation was not enough to succeed. None of the attempts by the independent wine merchants to create their own brands worked – either under their own name or a fake French name. Merchants became worried that the growth of proprietary brands would reduce them to the level of what one noted firm – Corney & Barrow – called ‘penny-in-the-slot machines’. They feared that consumers would increasingly opt for the reassurance and quality guarantee of a known brand – even if it cost them more money – rather than trust the merchant’s claim to provide a wine of equivalent quality at a lower price. The merchants simply could not afford match the spending of the major brands. All they could do was to communicate by letter or printed circular or price list to their own private ‘connection’. They had no hope of achieving the national name recognition of distributors such as Gilbey’s with stores on every High Street and ubiquitous advertising in newspapers and station walls.

And the merchants were right to fear. Even Gilbey’s had to change their own brand strategy in the 1880s. Though they never abandoned their own very successful Castle brand they increasingly downplayed it in favour of product brands such as Martell’s Cognac, Perrier Jouët champagne and their own brand of ‘Invalid Port’. In particular they switched from the Castle brand of champagne to what Gilbey’s called the ‘Celebrated Brands’ of champagne.

Harding figure 4

Gilbey’s ‘Celebrated Brands’


Yet, the Castle brand had precisely the attributes that retailers claimed when they spoke of reputation: low price, extensive stock and good quality – backed up by smart buying, massive sales and overwhelming physical presence in thousands of British High Streets.

The power of reputation is usually defined by modern marketeers as the sum of the experience of the brand or company. It takes in advertising, product quality, service experience as well as what other people say about the company of brand. Lipton’s, one of the few nineteenth-century service organisations with a national presence and national advertising, failed in the last decades of the nineteenth century to translate their famous own brands and their reputation for value in cheese, ham and tea into a viable wine business, despite significant investment. By the 1880s and 1890s the power of brands in the wine and spirit market was simply too great. Reputation had met its limit.

Harding figure 5

Late 19th century Lipton’s Tea advertisement



[1] Ridley’s Wine and Spirit Trade Circular, 10 March 1868, p. 8.

[2] Ibid., pp. 101-2.

[3] Ibid., 12 June 1882, p. 194; 12 December 1891, p. xx.

[4] Charles Tovey, Champagne: Its History, Properties, and Manufacture (London: J. C. Hotten, 1870), pp. 102-3.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

2017 Conference blogs – ‘Retail as Fundraising: Some Questions from NHS History’

George Campbell Gosling, University of Wolverhampton

Retail as Fundraising: Some Questions from NHS History

I didn’t set out to research the history of retail. I was intending to work on the history of the NHS.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of Britain’s National Health Service in 2018, I was hired to work on one of several major research projects looking at its history from new perspectives. One aspect I’ve been looking into is the role of hospital charity, investigating the different meanings of donating money to a tax-funded, universal and comprehensive service providing medical care free at the point of delivery.

There’s a slightly odd idea that the arrival of the NHS ended hospital charity. Certainly, critique and cynicism of the social act of handing over money was a defining feature of the politics that founded the British health service in 1948. Health Minister Aneurin Bevan was adamant that patients should not at any point be asked for money, which amounted to a ban on hospital fundraising – hitherto a vibrant field of community activity – to ensure medical care was understood to be a universal right of citizenship. This meant no more promoting pseudo-insurance hospital contributory schemes, no more calls for donations in the local newspaper, no more flag days, fetes or bazaars, and collecting boxes brought in from waiting rooms, railway stations and public houses up and down the country. Yet at the same time, he wanted to see the voluntarist tradition maintained in the form of linen guilds, libraries and canteens. Once the dust had settled on the new service, however, leagues of hospital friends sprung up to restore much of the earlier volunteering and fundraising activity, even if without the same sense of urgency.

George 1

Pre-NHS hospital flag pins as sold by fundraisers

Although the Leagues of Friends were new, they were engaged in many of the same fundraising activities as had been seen before the NHS. Historians Barry Doyle and Nick Hayes have drawn our attention to the emergence of a new type of community fundraising that came to the fore in the hospital charity of the 1930s.[1]

We see this echoed in the sewing parties and local flag days that carried on, with the Nottingham hospital flag day continuing until 1988. Though we also see an evolution, as some forms of fundraising activity gave way to others – for example, with fetes and whist drives giving way to bring-and-buy sales and the League of Friends’ hospital shop.

Under the NHS, therefore, there was a place for retail within these changing practices of hospital charity. Gambling and the sale of tokens associated with the hospital had been common before the NHS and they did not entirely disappear, but they were now accompanied with more recognisable consumer models of retail operating on a not-for-profit fundraising basis.

One model was the sale of goods produced by volunteers. This was not new, but took on a greater retail focus after the introduction of central ordering in the 1970s. Before this the Nottingham General Hospital, for example, had large quantities of bed linen, surgeon’s gowns and gloves, surgical stockings and other items made to order by their Linen Guild. After this, their focus turned instead to sewing and knitting items for sale to raise funds.

After the first few decades of the NHS, the League of Friends canteen and tea trolley gradually took on a more retail focus. The tea and cigarette trolley became a ward trolley, selling a miniature range of the items on sale in the hospital shop. Discounts might be secured from commercial providers, but these were the neither specifically hospital-related or volunteer-made products. One function here was to bring retail into the hospital, and with it the opportunity for patients and visitors to easily purchase everyday goods or entertainments.   The other was, of course, fundraising. And in this the two types of retail, with differences in the type and production of items on sale, were the same. They were both retail for a social purpose. Fundraising-oriented retail therefore deserves a place within the long but often-overlooked history of social business.

Another distinction concerns the sites of fundraising retail. The oldest, as seen in the pre-NHS hospital fetes and flag days, was retail taking place within the community. And they continued with bring-and-buy sales taking their place, even if the hospitals were no longer dependent upon this source of income. Doyle and Hayes have identified such activities as important for forging a sense of community ownership over local hospitals in the 1930s. We should therefore ask whether such local fundraising retail activities in the postwar years played any part in bringing together communities and the welfare state at a local level.

In other cases, as with the ward trolley and the hospital shop, retail was brought into what were otherwise medical and welfare arenas. These designated retail spaces were not commercial bubbles within the hospital, as could be seen when the shop served as a space for the social welfare activities that accompanied the core medical work of the hospital. They were simply different spaces within hospital life continued.

All of which raises some questions. If our focus is on fundraising, we might ask: does it make a difference when fundraising takes the form of retail? Alternatively, if our focus is on retail, we might ask: does it make a difference when the purpose of retail is fundraising? There is great variety of method in the history of fundraising, the same can be said of models of retail. But as we see commercial retailers becoming more and more common within NHS hospitals – as the League of Friends’ canteen and shop makes way for Costa and McDonald’s – we are inevitably left wondering whether we might lose something if we no longer see this marriage of retail and charity in our health service. If there is something distinct that we might decide is worth holding onto, what exactly is it?

[1] Nick Hayes and Barry Doyle, ‘Eggs, rags and whist drives: popular munificence and the development of provincial medical voluntarism between the wars’, Historical Research, vol. 86, no. 234 (2013), pp. 712-740.


Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

2017 Conference blogs – British and Guaranteed

Nicholas Oddy, Glasgow School of Art

British and Guaranteed

Oddy 1

For about a year I have been working on an extensive survey and history of the Service Department at the Liverpool based toy manufacturer Meccano Ltd. This was intended only for collectors of the products themselves, mainly from the Hornby Trains range, which are fairly commonly found. The ‘article’ has grown into book proportions and has thrown up a number of questions that take the content beyond the realm of collecting. The CHORD workshop on 23 May 2017, specifically on the topic of distribution and reputation, seemed to be a good place to air some of them in an academic context. From this, I hope to develop a more substantial journal article.

The Service Department was the result of under-design in a single product, the Hornby Clockwork Train, introduced in 1920. For a toy train of its size it was relatively expensive and very well finished. The fact that its mechanism was prone to fail was to result in a flood of returns. Meccano, which had already developed an American style advertising department with advanced marketing techniques and a clear brand identity, asked for this by suggesting that their trademark was ‘a guarantee of quality and workmanship’. Many other makers, particularly those in Germany, tended to operate quite anonymously through wholesale agents. Product failure was something new to Meccano Ltd, whose reputation had been built on a single product, the construction outfit of the same name, the components of which were so basic and robust that they rarely ‘went wrong’.

The ‘Repairs Department’ was established in 1921, and the product was hastily redesigned to address its most obvious failings. However, such had been the sales of the original product that they continued to be returned. The company looked to some way of mitigating the expense of repairing or replacing them. The introduction of a formal guarantee followed. What this did was time-limit free repairs to sixty days. A formal guarantee for a toy in Europe was unheard of at this time, and the company trumpeted it as a sure sign of its product quality. In fact, what it did was to allow the company to legitimately charge for repairs for products returned more than two months after purchase without reputational loss. Moreover, it is quite likely that the loss making, but reputation saving ‘Repairs Department’ became at least a break-even and quite probably profitable ‘Service Department’.

It is the duality of this that interests me. It seems that reputational enhancement of the company was achieved through the failings, rather than the qualities of its own products. What we see in Meccano is a ‘product minded’ approach to R&D that was countered by a seemingly independent and much more ‘market minded’ approach to advertising and brand management. With the Service Department another significant element was added to this mix that soon operated largely independently of both.

Nicholas Oddy, Glasgow School of Art


Leave a comment

Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

2017 Conference blogs – A world of goods?

Jon Stobart, Manchester Metropolitan University

A world of goods?

In the context of Brexit, the question of Britain’s trading relations and its place in the world are being thrown into sharp relief. Arguments for looking beyond Europe and repositioning Britain in a global economy link back to earlier attempts to promote a global economy shaped by Empire. This was especially strong in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but its roots run deep. Historians of eighteenth-century consumption, for instance, place much emphasis on the transformative impact of a whole range of colonial goods, from tea and sugar to calicoes and indigo. Some, like Troy Bickham and Jonathan Eacott go further and argue for Empire as a kind of ‘super-brand’ that shaped the worldview of ordinary people. Whilst persuasive in many respects, these arguments need to be challenged and tested against the continued importance of Europe in cultures of consumption during the long eighteenth century.

One way of exploring these relationships in a way that links us to the everyday lives of shopkeepers and consumers is to examine the names given to products, especially where those names include geographical locations: things like Jamaica pepper and Indian cottons, but also West Country woollens and Italian vermicelli. If we analyse these place-name associations as they appear in lists of shop goods, newspaper advertisements and the accounts of individual consumers, then it quickly becomes apparent that colonial place-names were increasingly deployed, especially with reference to groceries. Looking west, we see, amongst others: Jamaica pepper, coffee, sugar and ginger; Barbados sugar, tar and alloes, Martinique coffee, and Havana snuff, plus Virginia tobacco and pepper, American powder (i.e. snuff), and Carolina indigo and rice. Turning to the east, there was Sumatra pepper and bark, Indian soy, arrowroot, cottons and muslins, Bengals and Jaconets, East Indian ginger, rhubarb and rice, and Japan soy. This formed an impressive array of places that mapped both the expanding geography of empire and the influence of the East India Company as a monopolistic trader in many of the goods imported from the east. However, this list is easily out-numbered by references to a greater variety of places in Britain and Europe. The list is too long to reproduce in full, but included: Cheshire cheese, Norwich crapes, Coventry stuffs, Manchester tapes and cottons, London treacle, Kentish hops, Irish linen, Dutch serge and thread, French gauze, olives and salt, Savoy biscuits, Saxon cloth, Malaga grapes and Valencia shawls, Zante currants (from Greece), Genoan velvet, Florentine oil and silk, Roman capers and Parmesan cheese.

Stobart figure 1

Figure 1. Liverpool Mercury, 11 February 1820

From this, it is clear that shopkeepers and their customers were European as much as imperial in their mindset, the two sometimes appearing alongside each other on a single advertisement (Figure 1). This is underlined by the way that some colonial products which were processed in Europe gathered geographical associations along the way: Scotch snuff, for example, or Lisbon sugar. The association of snuff with Scotland became very strong, despite the ultimate source of the tobacco. In a remarkable trade card issued by the Robert Kitten, we see tea embodied by a Chinese man – a common trope by the late eighteenth century – and tobacco by a kilted Scotsman smoking a fashionable cigar (Figure 2). It seems doubtful that the customer was meant to see smoking as something Scottish, but the link between product and place was clear and carried meaning, not least in terms of the qualities of the product being sold. Lisbon sugar was a distinct type with particular material qualities. In contemporary recipes, it is often specified by name, the author assuming that the reader will understand exactly what the label signifies and that the reader will have a store of this particular commodity.

Stobart figure 2

Figure 2. Trade card of Robert Kitton of Norwich, early 19th century

Other colonial goods were usurped by British imitations, most famously the range of printed cottons produced in ever greater quantities in and around Manchester. These didn’t just replicate the products, they sometimes took on the same name, so we see advertisements like that places in the Bristol Mercury in 1822 announcing: ‘From the Manchester and Yorkshire Markets. Several Bales of Cambric, Jacconet, Nainsook, Corded, Checked and every other description of Muslins’.

Cook books show that consumers were interested in experimenting with new and exotic dishes such as curries and piccalilli, and confections linked to colonial places, including Carolina snow balls (rice and apple shaped into balls and boiled, and served with sweet sauce made with butter and white wine, flavoured with nutmeg and cinnamon). Whilst these are eye catching, far more recipes were linked to European places, with dishes in the Dutch, German, Spanish and French manner all featuring in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery as it ran through successive editions. Indeed, she included more recipes ‘in the Jew’s way’ than those associated with India. Together with the growing taste for Italian food – seen in the burgeoning number of Italian warehouses and the quantities of Italian groceries purchased by consumers such as the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire – this suggests a consumer culture that remained European in its focus.

This is not to deny the importance of colonial goods – they undoubtedly had a big impact on consumer culture in Britain and across Europe. However, we should be careful about assuming that, in buying colonial goods, people bought into the imperial project or even gave it much thought. From the evidence of the places explicitly linked to the things that they bought, they had Cheshire, Manchester and Italy on their mind just as much as Carolina, Jamaica or India.

Jon Stobart’s article on ‘Making the global local? Overseas goods in English rural shops, c.1600-1760’, published by Business History, is available here:



Leave a comment

Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

2016 Conference blogs – Provisioning the marketplace: Shopkeepers, hucksters, and direct sellers in early modern Italy (Vicenza, sixteenth century)

Luca Clerici, University of Padua, Italy, and École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France – UMR 8546 AOROC

Provisioning the marketplace: Shopkeepers, hucksters, and direct sellers in early modern Italy (Vicenza, sixteenth century)

The case of Vicenza’s food market during the sixteenth century is very interesting, both because of the wealth of this Venetian mainland town (thanks to the wool and the silk industry), and because of the rapid growth of its population (from 21,268 inhabitants in 1548 to 36,547 in 1617). It is known that in medieval and early modern towns, when foodstuffs and other basic goods were concerned, a particular attention was devoted to selling and especially reselling activities, in order to protect consumers from regrating and from what were considered unnecessary rises in prices. Nonetheless, acting mainly in urban and socially differentiated contexts, public authorities had to take into account not only consumers’ demands, not least to preserve social peace, but also those of sellers. Foodstuffs were often sold not only by the members of craft guilds, but also by many other categories of resellers or direct sellers, and, in this case, the variety of supply channels was carefully preserved by public authorities, in order to foster an abundant and cheap supply. Nevertheless, it produced a very complex discipline, chiefly because of the attempt to identify and separate the different groups involved in the same trade, which led to frequent conflicts between these groups. However, these very conflicts constitute an interesting vantage point to better understand the strategies and practices of the many actors who had a part in foodstuff retailing.

The trade of cheese and butter – sold by the members of two craft guilds, that of cheesemongers (who were shopkeepers) and that of the so-called ‘resellers’ (hucksters selling a wide range of foodstuffs), and by other sellers who were not enrolled in any guild – is an example of this plurality of actors. The principle of reconciling the different needs and interests of the town’s people, sellers, and municipality was operating, for example, in the letting of public shops in the areas of central market squares. Cheesemongers’ shops were situated under the town hall, and in a proclamation published in 1550, the town’s rectors and deputies prescribed to observe guilds’ statutes (also containing rules which were effective for anyone and not only for members) and, in particular, those of cheesemongers, ‘since it is suitable, to the general benefit and convenience, that the guilds’ statutes are observed, so that the guilds’ members are able to pay, by their work, the rents of their shops and other burdens’. Thus, protecting guilds from other sellers (in this case, hucksters selling butter and cheese in forbidden places, times, and ways) meant also protecting communal income. Shops were very lucrative, and the municipality progressively enlarged their number, both by buying the existing private ones, and by constructing new ones. But hucksters and direct sellers increased the number of sellers, thus increasing competition, to the buyers’ benefit. The municipality took into account these two facts. In 1534, for instance, the town’s council used the same term, utility, to refer both to the ‘municipality’s utility’ (civitatis utilitas), that is the income deriving from shop rentals, and the ‘public utility’ (publica utilitas), that is the supply deriving from the presence of hucksters and direct sellers in the market area.

Moreover, direct sellers, most of whom came from the countryside and were qualified as ‘poor’, sold their goods at lower prices than cheesemongers, and probably also than hucksters. Of course, cheesemongers complained about price competition, but it was not easy to solve the problem, because on the one hand lower prices benefited costumers, and in particular poor consumers, but on the other hand it was also in the costumers’ interest to rely on a regular supply, as that guaranteed by shopkeepers. Nonetheless, lower prices attracted hucksters in the market square assigned to direct sellers, wishing both to compete with shopkeepers by charging lower prices, and to buy up the goods sold by direct sellers and resell them at higher prices elsewhere. The situation was further complicated by the fact that hucksters not residing in the town were sometimes assimilated to direct sellers, since they both came from outside Vicenza, and sometimes to urban hucksters, since they both were resellers. We may thus observe a very complex situation, where all solutions to old problems entailed new problems and conflicts. This may however prove helpful in better understanding the articulation of urban provisioning systems, and the role played not only by public authorities, but also by intermediate bodies, such as craft guilds, or by informal groups of sellers.


Clerici, ‘Le prix du bien commun. Taxation des prix et approvisionnement urbain (Vicence, XVIe–XVIIe siècle)’, in I prezzi delle cose nell’età preindustriale / The prices of things in pre-industrial times, ed. by the Datini International Economic History Institute of Prato, Firenze, Firenze University Press, forthcoming.

Clerici, ‘L’approvisionnement du marché urbain: conflits et négociations (Vicence, XVIe siècle)’, in Il commercio al minuto. Domanda e offerta tra economia formale e informale. Secc. XIII–XVIII / Retail trade. Supply and demand in the formal and informal economy from the 13th to the 18th century, ed. by the Datini International Economic History Institute of Prato, Firenze, Firenze University Press, 2015, pp. 39–68.

Clerici, ‘Market, civic virtues, and civic bargaining in the medieval and early modern age: some evidence from sixteenth century Italy’, International Review of Economics, 59(4), 2012, pp. 459–475.

See also:

Leave a comment

Filed under Conference blogs