VISITING THE MUSEUM OF BRANDS - 200 YEARS OF CONSUMER HISTORY
The Museum of Brands in London's Notting Hill provides a fascinating insight into British history. A walk through their Time Tunnel shows you the development of how we have become targets of consumer culture from the genteel yet often untruthful advertising of the Victorian age to the far more blatant advertising of today where we are so bombarded with branding that it has become a central part of our society.
Located on Lancaster Road in Notting Hill, the Museum of Brands announces its presence as you would expect - with bold colourful advertising on its walls to draw you inside. The bright red of an Oxo tin, the vivid yellow of Colman's Mustard and intense blue of Walkers crisps leave you in no doubt what the museum is about - even though the names have been changed, the branding is instantly recognisable.
The museum was started by Robert Opie, a consumer historian who collected packaging from an early age when he realised how quickly it was changing. Several incarnations later we now have the Museum of Brands which gives you an understanding not only of the rapid evolution of branding, but its context within wider British society.
The main feature of the museum is the Time Tunnel, a chronological walk through objects, not just brands but some of the main consumer objects which changed society. The arrival of the stamp, the hoover, the radio, TV and fridge all led to consumer revolutions which had a dramatic impact on the brands we needed and the brands we bought - each innovation now so familiar that we don't give a second thought to just how much it changed us and the way we live. The Museum of Brands opens our eyes to what we take for granted, and just how integrated consumerism has become in our society.
The tunnel itself starts in the Victorian era, when goods were first mass produced. Items could be transported across the country thanks to the new railways, and promoted thanks to the new methods of communication - the earliest items on display are from Queen Victoria's Coronation and her wedding, when souvenirs were made in bulk and shipped by train to the masses. There are some early Valentine's cards too; ornate, colourful and intricate, they were the first produced images to be sent across the country after the introduction of the Penny Post.
The Great Exhibition of 1851, with its focus on culture and industry, led to an increased interest in consumer goods.
Visitors learnt about British products and their perceived superiority - consumerism became the fashion and as well as the exhibition selling products, people could buy souvenirs such as ceramics, cards, paints and ornaments.
These include the most wonderful paper telescopic views of the grand opening of the event. Though now flimsy and fragile, you can still look through a hole and see layer upon layer of miniature illustrations making up the whole scene. Over 150 years old, they still hold the power to fascinate and I loved them.
An early form of advertising is a wonderful poster from 1856, detailing a day of celebration for the end of the war in Crimea, with food including a whole roasted sheep and plum pudding, with entertainments such as pony racing, 'grinning through a horse collar' and 'racing on one leg', with the day culminating with a 'general illumination' of the upper windows of the hamlet. To modern sensibilities it seems so very tame yet must have been quite something at the time.
Magazines start to appear; Pen and Pencil, Life in London, The Penny Satirist, all with detailed illustrations and many covered in adverts. The aptly named Modern Society from 1889 has a front page of nothing but adverts - for Cadburys cocoa, tea, and Pears soap complete with a recommendation from Lille Langtry, socialite, actress and the first celebrity to ever endorse a commercial product.
The prevalence of illnesses such as cholera led to an increased awareness of the need for sanitation and hygiene products, and the Victorian obsession with personal hygiene becomes obvious as you move through the displays.
There are delightful pots of black and white toothpaste powder, dainty bottles of perfume, boxes of soap and all manner of adverts for 'cure-alls', as well as treatments for bed bugs and lice.
There is a colourful display of Victorian chocolate boxes, which were introduced in 1868 by manufacturers such as Cadburys and Fry's. Customers could choose a variety of chocolates and then select the lids which were created in Bavaria where the best colour printing was done. On display are albums of the huge choice of decorative lids which shopkeepers could choose from based on what they thought their customers would like. They are beautiful, really elaborate, but as the box size increased over the years, the designs diminished and now we all just buy our chocolates in identical, simplistic and boring packaging.
By 1888 cigarettes could be produced more cheaply than previously and by World War I they replaced the pipe as the most popular method of smoking. On display are packets of early Woodbines, Bryant & May matches as well as early cigarette machines. Although predominantly a male habit, much of the advertising consists of female faces, perhaps one of the earliest times that women were objectified to sell products to men.
Innovations in production and packaging led to an increased range of foodstuffs and some recognisable labels start to emerge - Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, Rose's Lime Cordial and the once famous Peak Frean biscuits. A hugely famous British brand of biscuits founded in 1857 the company was bought out by Americans who dismantled the business and they are now no longer available in the UK - although the name is used in other countries. These decorative biscuit tins were sold in the run up to Christmas yet they are a far cry from the bland tins we get our Christmas biscuits in now.
Throughout the Time Tunnel and alongside the adverts and products are children's toys, more evidence of how consumer society changes through time with a a look at the interests of its youngest members. There are jigsaws, originally known as 'dissected puzzles' until the invention of the mechanical jigsaw, train sets, dolls in prams, optical illusions, building blocks and the most wonderful miniature cooking range, complete with brass saucepans, the whole thing far superior to any of the plastic pink cookers that little girls are fobbed off with these days.
The Coronation of Edward VIII saw the mass production of souvenirs on a far greater scale than any seen before and the transition into the Edwardian era is accompanied by the rise of Art Nouveau as a design aesthetic. The new fascination with aviation, motoring and exploration as popular activities is reflected in the promotional material of the time. The introduction of branded petrol led to the arrival of famous Shell adverts and the new postcards were used for promotional purposes, with several Shell postcards in the display.
World War I saw the rise of patriotism, tins being decorated with army generals and flags. Some goods changed their packaging to save on the raw materials and children's toys also reflect the changes with the appearance of military board games and books, toy tanks and soldiers. After the war the designs never really returned to their glory days, they became simpler; more minimalistic with blocks of colour, fewer intricate details and a less embellished font. There is a tin of sweets called Jazztime Toffees, decorated in the new style; blocky and with an illustration of an open motor car. They are called 'week-end sweets', the new phrase which had just been introduced for Friday - Sundays.
The radio arrived and in the museum they have a magnificent set on display, complete with a huge receiver and metres of cabling.
The popularity of the wireless led to the arrival of the Radio Times, a publication which is still in print today Another vast exhibition, this time the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, led to manufacturers bombarding the visiting public with their goods, along with the now expected plethora of souvenirs, which included a lot of branded products.
In the 1930s, Art Deco spread across the country and we see the arrival of some familiar favourites - Quality Street, Chocolate Orange, Mars Bars, Smarties and more appear in the displays. There is a replica 1930s chemist shop which has a mix of the old fashioned drawers for holding herbs as well as shelves filled with brands. By the 1930s, branded products were overtaking those made in house by pharmacists, and their way of business changed forever. We also get a glimpse inside a drinks cabinet, filled with tins of Cheeselets and cocktail canapes as well as bottles of whisky and liqueurs. A young Princess Elizabeth appears on the scene, her face on the latest batch of magazines.
As we move into World War II, the focus returns to all things military, with planes, bomb shelters, and uniforms. Adverts became public announcements, exhorting people to join the Land Army or telling them that 'Careless talk costs Lives'. Women's magazines show them in dungarees or uniform and at work, rather than lounging around elegantly enjoying a life of leisure. Packaging became increasingly simplified and basic, often with just text and little colour, if any, a sign of the austerity and priorities of the time.
Souvenirs were produced in abundance for VE Day, another Royal wedding, the Olympics held in London in 1948, Festival of Britain 1951 and the Queen's coronation. There is a recreation of a
1950s grocer's shop filled with tins, the shop's last hurrah before the arrival of the supermarkets which soon saw the traditional grocers eradicated. With the first TVs came the first TV commercial in 1955, and the shopper knew what she wanted before stepping foot in the shop, no longer needing a grocer to make suggestions or decisions. Brand names became larger so they could be easily found amongst their competitors by shoppers who were unfamiliar with finding what they needed.
As the tunnel moves into the 1960s, we see the arrival of not just brands but also slogans and images we recognise - 'Have a break, have a Kit Kat', or the 'cup and a half of milk' being poured into Cadburys Dairy Milk. After Eights appear on the scene, which used to have red boxes for assortments as well as the green ones we are still so familiar with. New products include ready meals, slimming food and children's food with TV characters on the packaging. Pop culture begins with a vengeance and the faces of familiar celebrities look out at you from album covers as well as the products they were paid to promote.
By the 1980s it all starts to become horribly familiar. There are board games on display which I still have in my cupboard, there are magazines such as Smash Hits which I remember the covers of, and plenty of Charles & Di souvenirs. Many of the brands wouldn't look out of place on shelves today. I walked quickly through the 90s and early 21st century, it all far too close to home for me to think of it being in a museum, although I did enjoy seeing the leaflets for the 'amazing' new Millennium Dome.
It was a fascinating glimpse into consumer culture and I spent about 90 minutes in there as there was just so much to look at. Its not just the products; they mix it well with information about the main events of each era, fashion, household goods, royal events, publications and more. There are other developments which stand out, an obvious one being what is considered beauty in women. In older advertising they are fresh faced, rosy cheeked rather plain women in bonnets, by the 1960s they are wearing revealing outfits with bunny ears and plastered in make up.
The objects are laid out really photogenically, and I wasn't the only one taking endless photos of absolutely everything. There are also aural accompaniments to the displays, moving from the clopping of horse and carriage to the sounds of old radio shows, 60s pop and more. At various points on the display cases were QR codes to take you to the sound tracks of the era on your phone, some of which I have listened to since leaving and which give you a real sense of the atmosphere of the time.
After the Time Tunnel is a large exhibition room which takes a different approach to brands, focusing on just a few of them and showing their evolution over time. Products include those such as Dettol and Imperial Leather which have barely changed, to Windowlene which has had a dramatic change to enable it to stand out on the shelf. It was fascinating to see the evolution not just in design but in packaging, with manufacturers always looking to reduce costs as well as make opening and storing things much easier for the consumer.
There is a also a display of 150 years of decorative biscuit tins sold in the run up to Christmas, which just left me feeling cheated by modern manufacturers who won't make an effort for us, and an exhibition of the top brands. The Grocer magazine always publishes the top brands for the year based on sales and for the year 2022 they show the changes as we recover from the pandemic, with sales of loo roll going down but on-the-go food increasing. There are further displays on brands who attach themselves to a 'woke' issue and the successes and failures thereof. A further room has an exhibition on shopping lists as well as the evolution of Johnnie Walker as a product.
A visit to the museum ends in the café which has a large garden. The garden is a lovely space, filled with well established trees, plants and a few tables and chairs amongst the foliage. There is even a swinging bench and a pond. The building was once a hospice used by the Terence Higgins Trust and in the garden you can still see dedications and memorials to the people who spent their final days there. Even on a chilly November day, it was a verdant, quiet spot to enjoy.
The Museum of Brands is the perfect place for those like me who are interested in social history and it is certainly the ideal place for anyone studying marketing and consumer habits. I would also anticipate that kids would enjoy it as there are so many toys from across the ages. It is definitely worth a visit and is a museum I would highly recommend.
Visiting the Museum of Brands
Nearest tube station: Ladbroke Grove
Opening hours: Monday - Saturday 10am - 6pm, Sunday 11am - 5pm
Ticket Prices: Adult £9
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