A post by Jennifer Sweetapple, Masters student on the University’s Art History: Dress & Textile Histories programme.
The department store as we now know it developed during the Victorian era and quickly became a staple in the modern consumer’s life. These stores carried clothing, groceries, housewares, sporting equipment, and a plethora of other miscellaneous goods. A significant name in the history of department store is the Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd, later known as Army & Navy Stores Ltd. Its first store opened in early 1872 on Victoria Street in Westminster, London, and by the early 20th century the company had stores worldwide in places such as Leipzig, Germany and Bombay, India. However, this is not a post about the timeline of their stores.
The Army and Navy Co-operative Society Ltd was just one of many famous stores in London at this time, Liberty and Harrods being just two of the others. However, Army & Navy did things a little differently. At their outset, their stores were members only: membership being reliant on serving within the British military, or being part of a military family. This impacted not only on the goods that the company supplied, but also how they sold them.
Members could visit the impressive premises on Victoria Street in person to choose from the goods on display, or they could consult the company’s regular circulars (or catalogues), and have the goods delivered to their home, their barracks, or wherever they were on duty. In the late-nineteenth century, the company’s stores and circulars were filled with military uniforms, weaponry and amusements – chess boards and pipes.
As the company grew in the early twentieth century, Army and Navy began to cater for the military family and ex-patriot markets. The British Empire was spreading across the globe, and Army & Navy was present for the families that went with the Empire, through stores in the Far East and through their circulars. Women’s and children’s clothing, toys, household furniture and goods, sports equipment, and general groceries became a feature of their product ranges. Their circulars were filled with all manner of products, Army & Navy branded and recognisable British brands.
While the Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd followed the trend of the department store, they went about it their own way to create a store all in its own. Because of this, their records provide us with a wealth of information that illustrates both national and international consumerism through text and images.
Edwards, Bronwen. “Department Store”, in V. Steele (ed), The Berg Companion to Fashion (Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010).
Further reading on the history of the Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd can be found through the House of Fraser Archive online catalogue , and in Yesterday’s Shopping: Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907, with an introduction by Alison Adburgham.