Waste Not Want Not at the Museum of Brands and Packaging

By Chris Broughton | 07 April 2009
a poster showing a basket of vegetables

Dig for Victory. Courtesy Museum of Brands and Packaging

Review - Waste Not, Want Not at the Museum of Brands and Packaging until November 29 2009.

Tucked into a sleepy mews in Notting Hill, the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising is a collection of social ephemera tracing the history of retail culture. Its ‘time tunnel’, a winding glass corridor twisting back into the Victorian era, has posters and pamphlets displayed alongside packets, bottles, boxes, tins and toys, separated into decades to illustrate the development of British mass-market design.

On this particular weekday lunchtime, the time tunnel is chiefly populated by older visitors and schoolchildren. “People tend to be drawn to the decades during which they were children,” says Robert Opie, the social historian responsible for amassing over half a million specimens of consumer flotsam, 12000 of which are currently on display at the museum.

Sure enough, a couple of elderly ladies are picking over wartime memorabilia – a copy of the sheet music for Annette Mills’ Fuhrer-bashing protest song ‘Adolf’ and a poster advertising dental cream (“…the home guard swears by Kolynos”) have them hooting with nostalgia.

The 1940s is also the main focus of the museum’s current exhibition, Waste Not, Want Not, which draws parallels between the austerity practiced as a result of wartime shortages and the increasing importance of sustainability today.

a poster showing a baking mixing bowl and several packets of lard

Make the Fat Ration go further. Courtesy Museum of Brands and Packaging

“When you get into the 40s section of the museum, you see lots of exhibits that relate to this subject,” says Opie. “In the exhibition, we focus on the packaging side in particular, but I’d like people to take in all the other elements because it’s only by putting something into a context that you get the bigger picture. That’s always the way I try and look at things.”

The exhibition demonstrates how the industry became increasingly creative in its attempts to make savings on scarce materials, with tins being replaced by boxes, cardboard by paper and bottle tops by corks. The cutbacks even extended to the size and look of the boxes and labels of familiar brands.

“You can see, for example, how this 1930s package becomes a temporary wartime version, using less colours and so less printing ink,” says Opie, indicating a series of tea boxes. “In the temporary package, the cardboard isn’t white because it hasn’t been refined in the same way. The ultimate pack is made of cardboard that’s the lowest grade possible - it’s just cardboard with black printing on it, end of story.”

a poster with the words Save Metal for Salvage

Save metal. Courtesy Museum of Brands and Packaging

According to Opie, these methods have been an inspiration to the packaging industry in recent years.

“Companies have been looking back for quite some time to see how they can save on the materials they use. In a sense, we’ve always been there - no manufacturer wants to use more than they need, because it costs more in the first place. It’s just that there’s a keener eye now on how one can pare things down a bit.”

Opie admits that the reasons are different, now – this time, many of the resources we’ve always taken for granted seem to be running out for good. But the measures, he argues, are much the same.

“The big picture is that we’re trying to save raw materials. It’s not just about returning cardboard and bottles, it’s also about making good use of what you can in the kitchen, the recipes you’re going to use, right through to growing your own food and, of course, recycling your clothes by re-patching or mending. The great Sew and Save era has largely disappeared now because clothes are sufficiently cheap to throw away.”

The term ‘recycling’ wasn’t in common use during the war. Instead, people were encouraged – via government propaganda – to ‘salvage and save’ materials. The exhibition includes numerous examples of the striking graphic design used to boost the war effort, by artists such as John Gilroy and cartoonist Fougasse (perhaps best known for his ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ series).

a poster with a large light switch on it

Switch off that light. Courtesy Museum of Brands and Packaging

“Everybody asked you to collect reusable materials as part of the National Salvage Campaign – return your waste paper to your salvage collector and so on,” says Opie. “Again, those are measures that are starting to appear on some of the packaging today. We’re now in this extraordinary mirror of seeing things that have happened before coming back.”

‘Making do’ is a recurring motif in the exhibition – the Make Do and Mend slogan embraces all manner of hints and tips, from ensuring clothes last longer through careful washing to switching off lights and saving hot water to save on fuel. “Save That Coal for Next Time – Save Fuel for Battle,” barks one poster, while another orders, “Don’t Use Two, Make One Do.” That, in particular, is a concept Opie thinks should have more currency today.

“Saving energy – ‘switch off that light’. That’s the sort of thing everyone should be doing, but people don’t,” he muses. “Can you make do with less? We haven’t taken it to heart yet, because we still have enough disposable income.”

a poster with a cartoon of a man standing disapprovingly next to woman in cahir as she lights a gas fire

Save Fuel to Make Munitions for Battle. Courtesy Museum of Brands and Packaging

Nevertheless, he suggests current circumstances leave us no alternative.

“The exhibition has a focus on a particular moment in history, and it’s clearly very similar to the situation now,” he says. “But along with the environmental concerns we’re faced with, along comes a credit crunch that’s going to force some of these issues even more.”

Of course, some of the less stark measures suggested by wartime posters are already in full swing in the 21st century. The do-it-yourself refills for printer cartridges available in supermarkets seem like direct descendents of Quink concentrate, designed to refill old ink bottles, and Opie highlights the re-emergence of allotment culture.

“People are being encouraged to ‘grow their own’, and there’s a two-year waiting list for allotments,” he says. “That’s another big revival that’s been happening over the last five or six years.”

a poster showing an abundance of vegetables

How to grow your own. Courtesy Museum of Brands and Packaging

This time round, the sea change seems to have occurred without the need for a poster involving an elephant holding a cabbage aloft with a knot in its trunk (“Don’t forget green vegetables keep you fit”) never mind characters such as Clara Carrot (“If you want variety, I’m the star turn”) or Potato Pete and his recipe book.

Nevertheless, some of the statistics quoted in the Grow Your Own section seem humbling by today’s standards – by 1943, 1.5 million allotments were being cultivated in Britain (compared to around 300,000 now) and a year later a quarter of all the eggs laid daily by British chickens were collected from sheds in people’s gardens.

It seems unlikely the popularity of ‘pig clubs’ will take off again any time soon – certainly to the extent that they need to be governed by 7000 separate associations -and there are other examples of wartime austerity which seem decidedly antiquated after decades of consumerist development.

The make-up tips on display, for example, seem to have more in common with a Monty Python sketch than genuine social history – one explains how to paint on ‘stockings’ using gravy browning, another suggests mixing Vaseline and soot to create mascara.

Nevertheless, there’s a sense of public-spirited generosity in evidence that seems sorely lacking in the 21st century.

“Nowadays, you can buy food in economy packaging, but it’s stocked alongside middle-of-the-road and luxury lines,” says Opie. “During the war, people were jolly glad to be able to get hold of food in the first place.

There may not be the same urge to make these sacrifices for a collective ‘greater good’, but I think that’s the attitude we somehow need to instil.”

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