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Papers from the Mass-Observation Archive  at the University of Sussex

Part 9: Shopping and Self-Image, 1938-1965

Publisher's Note

There are over 80 Topic Collections in the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex covering issues ranging from Anti-Semitism and Commodities to Leisure and Work. These represent surveys and investigations carried out by Mass-Observation mainly between 1937 and 1949, with some later files for the 1960s and 1970s.

Together with the Worktown Collection these represent the raw material of the Mass-Observation Archive.  Some of this was worked up into a polished form in the Publications which appear in Part 1 of this project.  Brief details also appeared in the File Reports, some of which have been published in microfiche.  But this is the first time that Topic Collections have been published in their entirety, giving scholars an opportunity to re-examine and re-interpret the extensive evidence that was gathered in the form of transcribed conversations, questionnaires, ‘overheards’ (literally overheard remarks), and reports.  The files are also an important source of ephemeral evidence as observers gathered many pertinent pamphlets, leaflets, news cuttings and other evidence (including transcribed graffiti).

Coverage of the Topic Collections commenced with Part 4 and 5 of this project, which focussed on social welfare and living conditions, covering: Reconstruction, Family  Planning, Health, Day Nurseries, Adult & Higher  Education, Post-War Hopes, Public Administration & Social Services in Wartime, Beveridge Report Surveys, Housing, Work, Fuel and Food.

Parts 6-8 offered material on the Home Front During World War II, and topics such as: Evacuation, Youth, Children & Education, Women in Wartime, Anti-Semitism, Air-Raids, Propaganda & Morale, the 1940 London Survey, Conscientious Objection & Pacifism, Forces, Gas Masks & Dogs in Wartime.

This ninth part looks at life in Britain from 1938 to 1965, with much on material culture, shopping and self-image.  It covers:

  • Shopping, 1937-1965  (TC 4, 7 boxes);
  • Personal Appearance and Clothes, 1938-1954 (TC 18, 5 boxes);
  • Co-operative stores survey, 1939-47 (TC 21, 1 box).
  • Commercial Advertising, 1938-47 (TC 22, 1 box);
  • Commodities, 1941-1964 (TC 78, 6 boxes);

This part explores the emergence of Britain from the Depression and war-time austerity, through to the Macmillan years when it was proclaimed that ‘you’ve never had it so good.’  Surveys and interviews look at changing trends in consumption and increasing concern for personal appearance and possessions and their relationship to advertising.

There are 7 boxes of material looking at shopping, describing the whole process from viewing items in magazines, adverts and shop windows, to chatting about the items with friends and family, to visiting the shop and making the purchase.  There is material on the retail trade in war-time and those who suffered most.  How did cafés survive the black-out?  The impact of rationing is obvious in accounts such as the following:

“It was both ‘points’ and ‘jam’ day and I like to be early and choose.  I got ‘Spam’ – a small tin of chopped ham – something – and a tin of steak and veg.  I was very lucky about jam for I wanted marmalade and got two Robertson Grapefruit marmalade.  There were long shivering queues outside the fish shops, but nowhere else.”

There is also an interesting psychological assessment of housework: 

“How is it that the age-old job of housekeeping began suddenly in this period to be described as ‘drudgery’; and why was there a sudden frantic demand for labour-saving devices in homes….”

Finally, there is much on the impact of supermarkets in the post-war period and the threat that these would close down small family businesses.

From teenagers to women in dance halls, and from working men to fashion designers, the material on Personal Appearance and Clothes looks at all aspects of fashion and self-image.  At the beginning of the war there is a careful examination of the preparations made for visits to the dance halls.  This turns into a full blown investigation of dance hall culture, with detailed interviews with professional dancers, many of whom were gigolos or escorts.  There are also files concerning make-up, handbags, the appearance of Jewish and Cockney women in the street, hair-styles, and jewellery.   The impact of clothes rationing is assessed and post-war changes in fashions.

The Co-op survey provides a fascinating insight into war-time and post-war shopping habits.  Prospective shoppers were asked if they shopped at the Co-op and if not, why not?  They were also asked about the other stores that they used and their patterns of shopping.  In particular, the investigators asked people about the social dimensions of the co-op:  Did they enjoy the dividend?  Did they make use of the clubs, education and political lectures provided?  There are also fascinating (and slightly disconcerting in an Orwellian sense) accounts of shoppers who are followed through the stores and closely observed to see where they stop, what they buy and what they look at.

The section on Commercial Advertising has a fascinating section on ‘war and sexism’, which looks at the creation of gender stereotypes in advertising from pipe-smoking men, to women who are told that “on or off parade, your skin must be faultless.”  These themes are continued in an advertising booklet (Parkinson’s Scholars’ Guide), which has a page each for boys and girls.  Boys are told that “it is the work that counts, not the applause that follows.”    The section on Commodities features various product surveys from baked beans, razor blades and electrical appliances to tea and toothpaste; How were these different products tailored to suit a specific audience?



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