10 January 2014

In the archives of London's department stores

Liberty's archive, which stores about 40,000 pattern books for its textiles, dating back to its founding in the 1880s, isn't open to the public. But it isn't the only archive held by a department store. After all, shops are businesses, and it behoves businesses to keep records of their past - I fantasise they are languishing in some dusty vault, or perhaps in the disused salt mines of Cheshire, which have the perfect conditions for storage of documents.

Of all businesses, possibly department store archives are of most widespread interest - we shop there because our parents did so, perhaps, and may have our memories of objects purchased there, or of how the premises have changed over the years. And the documents may contain catalogues or photographs, rather than just corporate minutes or sales records. (With shops, even large ones, going out of business, will those records be lost - and who* cares?) See some of the "lost" department stores here.

For a short history of department stores in London, try here; here is a list of department stores in the UK, extant and defunct.

John Lewis has a special website relating to its history - The Memory Store: it "uses the the Archive of the John Lewis Partnership to bring to life in words and pictures ... the story of how the lives of ordinary people have changed over the past 150 years and the way they have equipped themselves and their homes to meet their changing needs and expectations." The physical archive is located in Cookham and is open to everyone on Saturdays. "The archive contains material dating back to the 18th century. This is a result of the acquisition of a variety of business as diverse as farming and fabric printing. We house material relating to processes which have been overtaken by today's technology and have an extensive image library with pictures ranging from staff outings to historical Partnership buildings."

Another London department stores is Debenhams, now part of House of Fraser, as were the defunct Barkers and Ponting Brothers.  The web page for what started as Army & Navy Co-operatives Stores Ltd has some vintage pictures of the impressive buildings and a selection of goods. The company was bought by House of Fraser in 1981 and liquidated shortly thereafter.
1898 (via)
Then there's Selfridges, which opened in 1909, and Harrods of course (also part of House of Fraser, and dating back to 1889), and Whiteleys - the store is gone but the building is now a shopping centre, and the archives (held by City of Westminster Archives Centre) include "corporate records, accounts, sales records, correspondence, staff records, property records, photographs and miscellaneous material".

DH Evans (1854-1983) has an archive extending to 2.56 metres, held at University of Glasgow, which includes a 1940s album "summer frocks", catalogues 1937-41, newspaper advertisements 1899-1983, photographs 1902-1974.
Another one that's gone (1951 photo via)
There may be others.

*The History of Advertising Trust archive, founded in 1976, contains corporate and specialist archives, and "advertising product", including over 50,000 TV commercials, 1955-2000s on video tape and digital format. It's an independent archive and has rescued marketing communications material otherwise destined for the tip. Advertising agencies had to be convinced of the value of keeping this historical material, rather than concentrating only on today's work and tomorrow's work. The archive  includes the marketing archive of C&A, which covers 75 years, from 1924 to the end of the century.

1 comment:

Pat said...

Thank you for this fascinating post.