Notting Hill London W112 AR
Wednesday September 10 2014
I have always been a fan of packaging, indeed you could go as far as saying ‘a sucker for packaging‘ where cosmetics are concerned, so this was not a difficult choice this week. As it happens Jo and I had both been to the original museum back in the 1980s when it was still on the Gloucester dockside and a good place to lose a wet afternoon whilst on holiday in the nearby Forest of Dean. After nearly 20 years in Gloucester the collection transferred to its current site in a quiet mews in north Notting Hill, at one time the less wealthy end though the presence of high end fashion showrooms next door shows this area has seen changes. Totting up all those figures will tell you that Robert Opie, its founder, has been collecting packaging for nearly fifty years. We met at busy Notting Hill Gate having both arrived by underground; the 15+ minute walk takes you along the very attractive Pembridge Road and Crescent; the bus numbers 23 and 31 will take you closer.
As photography is not allowed this account would look rather plain so I made a decision on reaching home to look out some of the brands that were on display from our own store-cupboards and photograph these. This underlines the fact that the Museum only has UK brands (though some are of course now owned by multi-nationals) and unlike last week’s visit would not appeal to many overseas visitors. These are quintessentially the items homesick Brits/ex-pats request when living overseas. I have to confess that my store cupboards had far more overseas items than home grown… and I suspect that it is the case for many of us today. Also the packaging is today’s and not historical, though some of the display’s charm lies in seeing how little things have changed and of course many modern designers do like that retro feel.
Apart from the special, additional World War 1 cabinet at the start, the museum is arranged chronologically. After the Victorian and Edwardian sections there are areas for each decade. The signage summarises the key political and social developments during that 10 year period plus any significant inventions or events to give a context. The cases are then arranged by products – ie biscuits / chocolates / soap / marmalade / Gentlemen’s Relish (‘Patum Peperium’) with separate cases looking at any of the contemporary celebrations starting with the Jubilee of Queen Victoria and following through to the 2012 Jubilee and Olympics. Exhibitions, sporting events, and royal occasions various (but weddings especially) all inspire special editions of well-known brands with their products packaged in celebratory mode. There are also cases for each decade with the most iconic and popular toys and games from that decade. The World War 1 games are both patriotic and competitive, eg. ‘Race to Berlin’ and ‘With the Flag to Berlin’ are board games while ‘Pop into Potsdam’ is one of those hand-held ball-through-the-maze toys. By the Seventies and Eighties we are looking at Barbie Dolls and Star Wars figures, the point at which global marketing became what drove and drives the toy industry. Toys also link in with TV programmes, and increasingly films made for children.
The brands and their packaging are presented but not critically evaluated – what makes a brand a brand: is it the content? – tea-bags / soap powder / soft drinks and above all cigarettes – or is it the ‘image’ it sells also? Brands need to be instantly recognisable for the shopper who just grabs a tin or packet when in a hurry… I know when I enter the cereal aisles that Shreddies are the almost only blue package on view, so I go on buying them. Hence the success of Dorset cereals whose ‘see through‘ window packaging was immensely popular and helped them secure a part of the market.
The Museum of course records those brands that are no longer …. Venus Soap, or Keating's Powder which is perhaps no longer needed as ‘it kills off fleas and lice’, they even had a jingle for this now hopefully redundant product. There areinnumerable kinds of beef extract as given to ailing Victorian heroines. Patriotic adverts for Bovril and Oxo are particularly prevalent Occasionally a ‘celebrity’ is pulled in to help boost a product, for example WG Grace the cricketer – now reduced to a fridge magnet promoting mustard.
New inventions of course generate new brands. I had thought the freeze drying and dehydrating of goods for later rehydration was a fairly new way of presenting food but it seems to have been used since Edwardian days at least. Eating at the front or on manoeuvres have a longer legacy than just feeding the troops – and ‘instant coffee’ really took off after World War II as meat extract drinks faded from the scene.
Sweets and biscuits have strong brand identities even if the number of biscuit firms has declined as companies combine and take each other over.
The Twenties was a decade that saw the introduction of several favourite brands, among them some of our best loved chocolate bars.
Mackintoshes ‘Quality Street’ toffees have virtually the same font and the same tins they have always had – after the series of cases devoted to each decade come shelves of virtually unchanged packaging which include the following products:
Johnson’s Baby items
Imperial Leather Soap
Scholls Foot Products
Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup
HP Sauce (still a mystery as to what the HP stands for ??
Interestingly some packaging has become ‘intellectual property’ so only Cadbury’s can package in purple (while Suchard Milka has mauve) certain jar shapes are limited to Nescafe, and you may remember the JIF lemon squeezer, which some used as a water pistol .....
Of course after tins and paper packaging – the latter so ephemeral the advent of plastic changed packaging radically in the second half of the 20th century. There were other innovations – light crushable aluminium with ring-pulls for cans, wine boxes, and tetra packs for some liquids.
Cellophane makes a brief appearance – there is no acknowledgement that in the quest for hygiene, sell by dates and keeping qualities some products are very difficult to open. One case is devoted to the sustainability of packaging – only certain wood pulps re-cycle and of course packaging forms a large part of our litter problems: you can sometimes gauge the popularity of a brand by the number of wrappers in the gutter… Some packets are hard to retrieve so it is surprising there are any crisp packets on display at all. A great find for the museum was a houseful of goods dating from the late Seventies and early Eighties left untouched for thirty years. Dotted amongst the toys and packets are the odd promotional toy or mug.
Rather under represented – perhaps because most of the key products are French or American – are the cosmetics and beauty products (or maybe because the collector is a man?) where the packaging is almost as important as the product – pretty jars and boxes are needed for your bathroom and certainly influence this consumer.
The entire collection is a very visual experience – advertising takes many forms and the museum focuses on the visible and tangible; there are some old reels of TV adverts and you can hear the odd jingle towards the end of the display cases, or when you stop for a drink in the modest café. It is also a very nostalgic experience – as Time Out put it (quoted on the promotional brochure):
‘to walk through the magnificently cluttered time tunnel of cartons and bottles toys and advertising displays is to locate your own place in history.’
It is no surprise that old adverts etc are such a key element in any reminiscence work with the elderly.
PS In case anyone was wondering they are Mr and Mrs. Ribena Berry (aka a pencil sharpener and pen holder).
PPS TFL have finally come good after a certain amount of agitation and replied to my complaint from June...