Industrial Revolution and the Great War to the Beatles and One Direction: Inside the Museum of Brands

By Ben Miller | 31 March 2016

The Museum of Brands and Packaging is perhaps the most comprehensive collection on Britain's social history. Founder Robert Opie tours the collection's new home

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
Time Tunnel

“The museum starts with the Time Tunnel in Victorian times and goes up to the present day. But we will be going back a lot further to when the origins of consumer society start. The longer-term project is to go beyond the Victorian era back in time.

You start off with the Queen’s accession, marriage and so on. The railway, the Thames tunnel, was one of the big attractions. People would just come and look at it. There was a growing volume of printed material because paper was becoming cheaper to produce.

The birth of colour comes in in songsheets. It was highly expensive, only available to prestigious magazines. Imagine what the arrival of colour was like: people were used to seeing colour as hand-coloured colour, but this was mass-produced colour.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
The railway was one of the absolute cornerstones of the Industrial Revolution. It changed life beyond recognition, a bit like the internet. Suddenly you were communicating quickly. Newspapers could get across the country in a day.

All sorts of things changed with the coming of that. The 1851 Great Exhibition was another mega moment. Factories were churning the stuff out. All kinds of things were changing and it must have been really exciting to live at that time, in a sense, as long as you had the money."

Fashion and play

"Fashion is another important part which we’ll be putting a lot more on display of. Its story is all the way through the museum. The doll’s house will be open. Some of their objects were on The One Show. They wanted to borrow a zoetrope – the wheel of life – and a thaumatrope from about 1900.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
There’s a penny toy made in Germany. It comes up to the top and whirls around. Jason Donovan was playing around with that.

It’s fascinating to see how toys were highly expensive. Very few people could afford anything like a rocking horse. Today anybody can afford anything that’s in a toy shop. But these things were really expensive, comparatively speaking.

Paper toys were relatively cheap, or people could make them themselves. Jigsaws became cheaper when they went from wood to cardboard, around the time of the First World War. And then you get these promotional toys coming in which were given away.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
Even at this time, children were pestering their mothers to get a starch box with a coloured label on the lid which would be different to put in their scrapbook. That comes free with the product. The toy story and commercialism intertwine, to put it in its crudest sense: manufacturers are trying to sell you something, giving the children something for free, making them grow up with the brand name and have that relationship with it. It sounds a little bit insidious but actually it works quite well.

The other great thing about toys is that they reflect society. Excursions on Land and Sea looks like a theatre, and you turn the handles to see different pictures. It sounds incredibly simple today but at the time it must have been a way of broadening children’s minds. These are all places around the world that you could go and see. It was educational but also quite spectacular, like a peep show.

Huge posters were now being printed in colour. The power of meat extract in a bottle is all captured for people. There was technology coming through – the telephone, the camera, early cinema, the typewriter. The Singer sewing machine transformed the ability to make garments.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
Suddenly you had sound at your own command through music. You didn’t have to go to a theatre or a music hall or play the piano. You could actually hear Dame Melba singing whenever you wanted to.

Colour printing on a tin was a huge revolution. Every manufacturer joined in – chocolate, toffee, tea, tobacco, gaining favour through the royal presence and providing wonderful souvenirs. There are ranges of perfumes."

Home comforts

"There’s the early electric heater, which still works, and the first hoovers and vacuum cleaners and the camera for everybody. Electric wiring around the house was something you’d show off as a feature because it was so new.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
The electric fridge would have been going in the 1920s and 1930s but most people didn’t have a fridge until the 1960s. The only thing that was kind of instant was the radio because it had the Cat’s Crystal, which you could build for five shillings, or you could build a valve radio which would be a lot more expensive, £20 or £30 or guineas. But because you could build it yourself, that technology was available to millions rather than just the wealthy.

The suffragettes meant women were wearing slightly more daring clothes than before in the 1910s. Every poster tells its own story, you can see the social side in the butler going around the hotel picking up shoes with the numbers on them to show whose shoes are for which room. It says ‘why, they all wear Wood Milne’, which was one of the biggest rubber heel brands. You’d put them on and twist them occasionally so that the heel was worn on all sides.

The games relate to the Great War. You could move the flag to Berlin, get to Berlin, battle in the skies, Catch the Kaiser. It’s a sense of feeling involved and making it lighthearted. The Zeppelins were bombing London and the German navy attacked Scarborough and places, but you didn’t get the same feeling of being involved as you did in the Second World War, except, of course, for everybody going out to France. This was perhaps a bit of lightheartedness and the sentiment of keeping your spirit up."

Radio revolution

"In the 1920s you had radios coming through. We’ve got one of the most expensive that you could have bought at the time, costing the equivalent of £2,000 today. This was top of the range with lots of valves. I’ve never seen another one, there are very few out there.

I’ve got a lot of radios and they tell the design story. They’re as much architecture as anything else. They have the different types of wood and inlays, extraordinary knobs, all different. In the 1920s they were engineering, but in the 1930s they’re architecture and design to fit your home so you can be proud of it, sort of like a piece of furniture. We’ve got a fabulous top used to sell one radio which is probably the only one of its kind to have survived.

You had the full benefit of reception with a complex aerial. You could listen in to what was happening in other countries and feel that you were suddenly connected with the rest of the world. We didn’t just have an empire, we could receive music in all kinds of different places. It must have been extraordinary. It’s such a difficult sense to convey. It’s that effect of what’s happened in the last ten years that’s been amazing, 100 years ago."

Clever marketing

"The Mirror created this great marketing campaign, a cartoon strip called Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. It was hugely popular with children and there was a lot of different merchandise to sell – soft toys, games, songsheets. Rupert the Bear was coming out at the same time.

There was a whole range of different characters created by newspapers to engage children through pester power. Parents would thing ‘I don’t want to change the newspaper my children enjoy.’

The British Empire Exhibition (poster) was a major exhibition held at Wembley in 1924, postponed because of the First World War and held at the height of the empire.

The outfits tend to be upmarket because they’re the ones that survive but you had these Weldon’s magazines which had things that everybody could actually use and every home had its own sewing machine so you could run these things up. That’s how people often clothed themselves, they had that ability. It was a wonderful period, like Downton Abbey.

Large packets were in the shop windows. The graphics are so strong and exciting. Some brands are still going but many have disappeared. In the 1930s we’ve an early television set. Radios were becoming very deco. Everything kept on changing.

Penguin Books and the Highway Code arrived. There were improvements in the kitchen: an electric fridge, toasters had been around for a while but continued to advance, Twiglets, Weetabix, Jacob’s Chocolate Biscuits. Some of them have very deco containers.

There are lots of objects from the Silver Jubilee, abdication and George VI’s coronation. The trick is making it look interesting and still allowing the observant person to see, for example, how the May 1937 coronation was going to be for Edward, but when he abdicated they used the same date and design and put the new image in. It must have been really frustrating to have to change things at the last minute.

The Radio Times covers reflect that, often done by well-known artists. We had the arrival of Monopoly and Hornby really coming into the market.

The Mickey Mouse stuff just shows you the power of merchandising. It’s not just toys: there are Mickey Mouse toffee, rattles, eggs, teaspoons, brush holders, books, practically everything you can think of. You certainly couldn’t escape Mickey Mouse at that time. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first full-length cartoon.

I often wonder whether people wandering down the streets would have seen these 1930s advertisements and thought they were brilliant. In the early days of theatre posters, in Paris for instance, they had huge problems because people were going after the guy putting them up, taking them down for collection. They really appreciated the art at the time."

The Second World War

"One case is just 1939. In the early part, life is normal. Then the war is announced and everybody starts buying their black curtain material for the windows. It must have been a really scary moment. You didn’t know what was going to happen.

All the warnings were there. You knew you had to tape up your window because of the glass flying around and the gas masks were being doled out and the children were being moved out of London and so on. We’ve got some black curtain material to go in this display. Every home needed their Air Raid Precautions equipment.

Humour was one of the great saviours during the war. A Giles cartoon compilation came out at the end of the war. A bottle which is still half-full contains an orange vitamin drink for children. You’re more likely to find a full one than an empty one – it’s like a detergent packet, almost all of the ones I get are full, because if it’s empty you throw it away.

It’s interesting how and why some things survive. These toys were being made by families out of whatever material was available, so they look a little different from normal production. Here was the first moment when people were saying ‘we mustn’t use paper so much’, so the size of the labels is reducing.

They were putting tins into cardboard and using fewer and less colours in the printing ink, so they became paler. Tin tops are replaced by corks. All kinds of economies are being used, so it looks much duller, the visual effect is changed.

There are messages like ‘use matches sparingly’. A lot of the boxes have got little messages inside the lid saying ‘bring back this cardboard’ or ‘please bring back your empty cod liver oil and orange juice bottles.’

People really like the newspapers, I find, because that gives them a sense of the newspaper they would have bought and the headline they would have seen at that time. There is one saying the war is over after six years. Wow – thank God. You can read the actual words that were written.

Our Victory mugs may be the biggest collection you’ll ever see in one place. They’re all made just on a local basis. Most of these are handmade. They would have just got a plain mug and made one for the street to celebrate. Each one is different, I don’t think I’ve seen two the same.

Everything had gone into the war effort, so by the end there was nothing left of anything you could think of – certainly not the immediate equipment to produce anything like that. They’re almost all hand-painted. People wouldn’t have known when the war was going to be over."

Post-war recovery

"After the war you get the Queen’s marriage and the Olympic Games and lots of other things. We’ve got the first TV after the war in 1946. It’s got a tiny screen. It is quite extraordinary how, from hell being battered out of us, we got our act together – it’s human resilience.

The 1951 Great Exhibition [poster] was one of those things that encouraged Britain to get back on its feet again. Eric Fraser’s artwork is so vibrant, typical of that period.

There are products that would have been in the fridge in the 1950s – again, a revolution in eating habits. You would have gone down a high street and your electrical shop would have had a couple of fridges open in the window, showing what a refrigerator can do for your life."

Food, mags and television

"The food mixer is now the holy grail of what every housewife wanted. We’ve got the one that really made its mark, the Kenwood Chef. Frosted Flakes were a new innovation of the 1950s. Sugar Puffs were a whole new concept for children – sugar-coated breakfast cereals. Some of the adverts suggest their laxative effects.

A 1950s tourist poster by Tom Eckersley has no atmosphere in comparison to the family poster, but it is very in-your-face. Eckersley was very much into that kind of design – you know where it is but you’ve lost some of the joy because you can’t see the family situation.

Illustrated magazine covers are a wonderful snapshot into people’s lives. You need a lot of them to give you that feeling – the arrival of the TV set, the moving of the furniture, watching the weather on the TV set before a holiday, dads being wiped out (tired) but children enjoying the TV set.

TV was the word – TV biscuits, TV quizzes. They had nothing to do with televisions, but the word made them relevant. It’s a form of marketing and connecting because TV was the buzz.

I was saving cigarette packets at the time. If you save it at the time it’s easier to find. I was going around the shops asking for their display material. All these things came from shop window displays."

Pop culture

"I’ve got two strips of Beatles wallpaper I’m going to put in. I bumped into Paul McCartney once in Notting Hill. What do you say to him? He was with his new wife and daughter. Nobody knew who he was. I had three seconds. I put a couple of things down and said to his wife ‘you must come to this museum.’ He’s never turned up but Stella McCartney has.

Pop seems to capture the essence and fashion of the 70s. Jubilee was a buzzword – there’s an advert for someone who just decided to call his business Jubilee Plumbing.

You’ve got Connect Four which is well-known, AirFix doing the wall game which is the same, and then Morecambe and Wise doing something not dissimilar, all with the same principles. With Four-in-One they’ve electrified it as much as they can graphically.

I’ve been hitting the Minions, Frozen, One Direction markets pretty hard because they’ve been phenomena in their own right. I like to make comparisons between that and the Mickey Mouse stuff.

The Minions are rather like living through the Mickey Mouse world. I was in Sainsbury’s the other day and saw there are Tic Tacs with Minions on.

I have a huge display of Union Jack stuff from the 2012 Olympics, when things looked absolutely amazing. It’s unlikely to ever happen again. It was the summer of the Union Jack, a phenomenon which was just so unusual. In 20 years’ time people will be talking about it.”

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