Friday, 26 June 2020

Bicycles, Watches & Books

As long ago as 1897 the British consumer was subject to all manner of ingenious inducements to favour one branded product over another. Nobody took the philosophy of competition more seriously than the hyperactive Lord Leverhulme in his mission to cleanse the Victorian working class exclusively with bars of Sunlight and Lifebuoy soap. Sunlight was a laundry soap, launched in 1884 while Lifebuoy was for personal use and had only been on the market for 2 years. Lux soap was still 2 years in the future. Plenty of long-standing competitors (Pears’, Wright’s Coal Tar, Hudson’s, Vinolia*) were prolific advertisers and Leverhulme’s response was to extend the reach of his advertising from general to specialist periodicals and launch lavishly funded promotional rewards designed to tie customers to his brands. To claim a prize a customer had to submit a minimum of 50 Sunlight or Lifebuoy wrappers. Combinations of the two weren’t acceptable. This was a major challenge for the average user and almost insurmountable for those who aspired to win a bicycle since the value of the prize was proportionate to the number of wrappers sent in. It’s safe to say that the additional sales revenue must have comfortably exceeded the value of prizes won by the fortunate few. History doesn’t record whether interested parties formed themselves into syndicates to pool their resources - even if successful they would have faced the problem of how to divide the ownership of a bicycle or a pocket watch. Advertisers are never less than one step ahead of consumer resistance and one failsafe technique is to present the manufacturer as a paragon of disinterested generosity, showering its loyal customers with munificence. In the last decade of the Victorian era, consumer business expanded at speed and famous brands intensified the battle for supremacy. A very different story from the languid Fin de Siècle decadence that prevailed in the expressive arts.

*Hudson’s Soap was acquired by Leverhulme in 1908, Vinolia in 1906 and Pears’ in 1920. When Simple Skincare was bought by Unilever in 2010, it became the owner of Wright’s Traditional Soap, as it is now known.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Great Railway Stations No. 16: Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

There are many cities larger than Leipzig that have to be content with train stations no more than half the size of the one that serves Leipzig. This can be explained by what happened in 1898 when the city fathers began to devise a plan to combine all the city’s stations into a single building. Inflated with civic pride they commissioned a train station on a gargantuan scale commensurate with their estimation of the city’s importance. Since the Middle Ages, Leipzig had been a major centre for trade fairs and with its university, concert halls and classical music academies, associations with J S Bach and Mendelssohn it could also claim to be a centre of high culture. So there was some basis for their self esteem. Planning for the station began in 1898, construction started in 1909 and by the time it was completed in 1915 it was Europe’s largest station by surface area with 26 platforms to admire, sheltered by an enormous six bay train shed. Two massive entrances, each with a domed entrance hall, projected forward from a 5-storey elongated terminal building which gave on to a cavernous concourse of intimidating proportions.

After the war Leipzig became part of the DDR and the extensively bomb-damaged station was renovated at a stately pace - only fully restored in 1965, more than 20 years after it was attacked. After reunification commercial priorities dictated the scooping out of the concourse floor with a modern subterranean shopping centre slotted into the newly vacant space. The retail intrusion opened in 1997 and subtly changed the character of the space from a place alive with the excitement of arrival and departure into a shopping experience with ancillary rail travel as an optional extra. These three postcards celebrate the new station in all its magnificence. They appear to be based on artists’ impressions and may well predate the completion of the buildings. One is postmarked in 1914, a year before the new station was fully operational. The photographs are from January 2019 when I changed trains there.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Postcard of the Day No. 100 - Orange Street, Kingston, Jamaica

British rule in Jamaica had more than half a century to go when in 1905, man of few words, Herbert, scrawled his brief message on the front of the card and posted it to J O’Shea at the Great Eastern Omnibus Company in Leyton, Essex. The electric tram service we see here between King Street and Orange Street had been running since 1899 and was praised by visitors for its efficiency. A Canadian controlled company (West India Electric Co.) operated the service using tramcars similar to those used in Montreal. 1905 was also the year that Marcus Garvey arrived in Kingston and found employment as a printer. Less than two years later, in January 1907 the city would be largely destroyed in an enormous earthquake in which over a thousand people died. Sound system pioneer, Prince Buster (1938-2016) was born in Orange Street and recorded his own instrumental tribute, Freezing Up Orange Street and a vocal version, Shaking Up Orange Street. In the 1960s Orange Street was the centre for Ska and Rocksteady recording where rival producers and studios battled for supremacy.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Off the Shelf - The Animals’ Trip to Sea

This generously illustrated, large format picture book for children dates from 1900. Text is by Clifton Bingham with illustrations, many in chromolithographed plates by G H Thompson (1861-?). Bingham (1859-1913) was a regular writer of children’s books for publishers Ernest Nister and collaborated with Thompson on many occasions as well as working with Louis Wain, Edith Cubitt and Harry B Neilson. Late Victorian book buyers were greatly attracted to books for children in which the characters were entirely drawn from the Victorian menagerie of exotic creatures endowed with human characteristics and costumed in the fashions of the day. On the title page, Bingham subtitled the book thus, Being a True and Veracious History of the Eventful Voyage of the SS “Crocodile” from Nowhere in particular to Anywhere in general. Thompson’s great skill was to draw animals that were instantly recognisable human types. Nothing went smoothly for these hapless characters - Bingham subjected them to endless humiliations in the service of his plots which mostly turned upon the utter stupidity of the animal kingdom. Each plate is packed with interest as a good children’s book should be, with an accumulation of detailed observation, a visual parody of human behavioural foibles. And somehow through all misadventures - driving rain, missed connections, collapsing gangways, and a ship that runs aground - an air of good humour prevails. Nister books were produced for the better-off households, many of which employed private tutors to develop the potential of their offspring. They were well served by Thompson’s richly coloured anthropomorphist fantasies which gently introduced the privileged young reader to the great unwashed with their rough and ready ways, in the eternal hope that their paths would rarely, if ever, cross.