How much has Britain transformed during the past couple of centuries? Everyone has heard stories from their grandparents or had conversations that begin “In my day … ” but without living through the changes, it is difficult to appreciate the various progress that has been achieved. History books can provide the (mostly) factual accounts of significant events such as the world wars and political matters, but what about the general lives of the British population? How can day-to-day life be preserved so that it does not get consigned to oblivion? The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising near Notting Hill, London, has the answer.
“They’re all here … the brands and packs, posters and ads, fads and fashions, toys and games. Evocative and inspiring, it’s a kaleidoscope of images and graphic design.”
Located in the old London Lighthouse – a residential establishment for people living with HIV or AIDS – the Museum of Brands has filled the building with over 12,000 original items owned by Britons throughout the past couple of centuries, from the Victorian-era to the present day.
The owner of the collection, Robert Opie, had the vision of unravelling the history of consumer products and preserving the design of packaging from bygone days. Opie states, “I was struck by the idea that I should save the packaging which would otherwise surely disappear forever. The collection offers evidence of a dynamic commercial system that delivers thousands of desirable items from all corners of the world, a feat arguably more complex than sending man to the Moon, but one still taken for granted.” Since 1984, this precious collection has been on display and continues to grow, marking the history and refashioning of consumer culture.
The main attraction of the museum is an extensive Time Tunnel that takes visitors on a long journey from the Victorian-era until the present day, passing through the Edwardian-era; the world wars; art nouveau and art deco movements; the space age; psychedelia; decimalisation; and the development of digital technology. From fashion to food packaging and toys and games, the exhibition includes examples of every commodity available in Britain throughout the time periods, revealing what has changed, what has disappeared and what has remained relatively the same.
One of the first items on show is a jigsaw puzzle dating back to the 1800s. Unlike today where it is possible to get any image desired on carefully cut out tessellating pieces of paperboard, these originals, the first thought to have been produced in the 1760s by John Spilsbury (1739-69), were only maps mounted onto pieces of hardwood. Instead of the oddly shaped segments, the cuttings were made along national boundaries to create a puzzle that served as a visual teaching aid for geography. Since the saws which gave jigsaw puzzles their name had not yet come into use, the puzzles were aptly called “dissected puzzles”.
As the exhibition proves, jigsaws have remained popular since their conception, providing entertainment for families of all classes, particularly during the early 1900s. Although sales fell after the Second World War, jigsaws are an existing product that will continue to connect the present with the past.
Another consumer product that makes a continuous appearance from beginning to end is the magazine. When the British retailer, W. H. Smith, began opening newsstands at railway stations in 1846, the newspaper and magazine became easily obtainable by the majority of the public. Although printing presses had been in use for some time, illustrations were only beginning to make appearances on these popular publications.
The Illustrated London News was the world’s first illustrated weekly magazine and was founded by Herbert Ingram (1811-60) in 1842. Initially, draughtsmen and engravers were commissioned to produce the illustrations for the magazine, eventually assigning other artists to take part as printing methods improved. In due course, photographers were invited to contribute their snapshots for publications.
The public was introduced to writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, J. M. Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through the issues of The Illustrated London News. The latter, famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories, was also affiliated with another British magazine, The Strand (1891-1950). Between its beginning and 1930, The Strand published 121 short stories and 9 novels by the famous author and sold approximately 500,000 copies each month.
As social interests changed, so did magazines. New topics and ideas were introduced and discussed through this public medium, bringing news of the world and gossip about people in the limelight – not much different from magazines today. A monthly periodical was established for middle-class women focusing on themes such as fashion, needlework and craft. The Young Ladies Journal ran from 1864 until the beginning of World War One, which was, incidentally, a time for the reorganisation of social stereotypes as a result of the protests led by the Suffragettes.
Magazine contents and formats were continuously updated as the world adapted to events and developments over the following years. In wartime, the publications focused on relevant articles, helping readers to come to terms with and survive the dreadful years. Soon, digital technology would revolutionise printing methods, allowing for thousands of different genres of magazines to be produced. Topics have been covered from sport to motor cars, from pop music to children’s television, and beauty to celebrity gossip.
As visitors make their way around the museum, the products on show help to illustrate British history. Events, such as the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park brought many new products to Britain with over seventeen thousand exhibitors supplying “art and industry of all nations”. Other public fairs, for instance, the Franco-British Exhibition (1908) near Shepherds Bush and the British Empire Exhibition (1924) in Wembley Park, also helped to strengthen bonds and trading with other countries. As these were significant events on the British calendar, memorabilia were sold to immortalise the experience.
Other occasions whose memories have been saved are the coronation of the kings succeeding Queen Victoria leading up to the present queen. With tea sets, postcards and special coins, the various accessions to the throne are documented – including Edward VIII who abdicated resulting in many inaccurate products – as well as jubilees and numerous royal weddings.
Despite there being so many in the collection, magazines, jigsaws and royal memorabilia only amount to a small portion of the exhibition. The majority is in the form of old packaging from food, sweets, toiletries, cigarettes and other expendable items. On the other hand, there are larger, more permanent objects such as radios and televisions.
The influences on leisure and entertainment are interesting to perceive, particularly the effects of war and technical modernisation. Pre-digital lifestyles involved different forms of amusement including innovative toys for children, family board games and other activities, some which may question today’s moral standards and health and safety guidelines.
Producers of boardgames took advantage of the World Wars to create unique games to keep children entertained. As young boys dreamed of being soldiers, boardgame publishers such as Lowe and Carr invented controversial games such as War Tactics or Can Great Britain be Invaded? in which players were intent on capturing the enemy. The war-themed recreational fun continued during WW2 with more boardgames including Chad Valley’s All Clear Shooting Game.
It is highly likely parents today would protest if such games were to be brought back onto the market, preferring their children to play with mindboggling, unrealistic toys based on the latest television craze. From the 1950s onwards, space and aliens have been predominant in children’s merchandise particularly due to television shows and films such as Doctor Who and Star Wars.
Amongst these forms of entertainment and mementoes are the typical products and packages that would be found in general homes throughout Britain. The Time Tunnel shows the gradual changes in size, design and type of comestibles that made up the contents of kitchen cupboards. However, the museum has further exhibitions – some temporary – that take a closer look at individual brand histories, marketing methods and advertising, including television as well as print.
In glass cases, examples of packaging produced by particular brands, placed in chronological order, show the changes in design, material, size and so forth. Unlike the Time Tunnel, which displays products in relation to time period, these brand-focused exhibitions concentrate on one company or product at a time, thus providing a fascinating insight into the evolution of consumer brands.
One memorable brand on display is the famous PG Tips, a brand of tea produced in the UK since 1930. It first appeared on the market under the name Pre-Gest-Tee, implying it was suitable for drinking before meals as a digestion aid. By 1950, the brand name was officially shortened to PG Tips, although grocers and salesmen had been referring to the tea as PG for a good number of years before then.
The packaging of the first batches of tea sold under the name of PG Tips was different to current designs for obvious reasons. The tea bag was not introduced until the 1960s, therefore all tea prior to that decade was loose and needed to be boxed up differently.
Oxo and Heinz are another two famous names to join the other brands in the collection. Not only has the design of their boxes and tins changed, the types of product have as well. Oxo is known particularly for its original beef stock cube, however, it now produces other flavours, including chicken, Chinese, Indian and ham. As a result, the packaging design needed to be altered accordingly. Similarly, Heinz has been adding products to its range since it started up in 1896. Heinz Tomato Ketchup remains the most sold product, but Heinz also manufactures soup, baked beans, sauces, condiments, and syrups. These all need their unique packaging and branding to fit their range of shapes and sizes.
The branding aspect of the museum will greatly appeal to graphic designers and those involved in the marketing sector. It provides a visual timeline of graphic style, consumer preference and evolution of material. As new ways of storing food became available, i.e. refrigerators, packaging adjusted in order to remain as practical as possible. In more recent years, companies have researched ways to limit waste and be as environmentally friendly as possible. Throwaway items of the past are gradually disappearing in favour of the more easily recyclable.
Towards the final section of the museum is the opportunity to watch early television adverts that many may remember seeing on their screens in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It is a great insight into the promotion techniques of advertisers of the past as well as a historical documentation of society and consumerism. Putting lack of colour and access to digital technology to one side, these advertisements would not work in the twenty-first century. Fashion, fads, ideas and culture have altered almost beyond recognition, leaving these broadcasts seeming remarkably ancient, despite only being a few decades old.
The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising helpfully provides brief explanations about the different British time periods and certain items in the collection. However, the contents mostly speak for themselves. From Queen Victoria’s reign until Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the evolution of British commodities is evident through the enormous hoard of packaging, toys, newspapers and household items. Not only is it a treasure trove for designers to explore, it is a trip down memory lane for the majority of visitors.
For £9, visitors have access to the entire exhibition and can spend as long as they wish to study the objects of their personal history. The museum provides a selection of drinks and light refreshments in their café and encourages their guests to investigate their herbaceous perennials and sub-tropical plants in their courtyard garden. To finish off, their gift shop contains something for every generation, including books, toys, jigsaws, posters, postcards and a number of other fun souvenirs.
The Museum is just a two-minute walk from the world famous Portobello Road and is located in Ladbroke Grove, not far from Notting Hill. Opened Tues-Sat 10am-6pm, and Sundays 11am-5pm.