Army & Navy – one store, different customers

A post by Jennifer Sweetapple, Masters student on the University’s Art History: Dress & Textile Histories programme. 

As I began to go through catalogues and circulars produced by the Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd, I found that they not only had stores in the United Kingdom, but also in areas occupied by the British military, such as Bombay (known today as Mumbai).  To shop at one of their department stores, you had to verify that you or a family member was part of the military, allowing registration as a fee-paying member of the store.  However, the department stores are not located on or near military bases, but rather in shopping districts of cities, like other department stores.

Initially, the overseas circulars by the Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd were meant for military men only and contained lists of items- no pictures- such as uniforms and pipes, and various swords and guns. At they evolved into department stores for military families, these items were not dropped, but were no longer the sole focus. Objects sold became for families and aimed at women—the ones likely in charge of the household shopping—and their children. The circulars for the London store are much the same as the overseas ones, with groceries, clothing, houseware, and seasonal items. However, some particular items sold between the two vary.

When looking at select London Circulars versus the Bombay circular, one can see the change between the two.  While time creates a difference as well, the circulars between 1898 and 1933 do not carry such different goods, which nullifies that variable to an extent, and allows for a focus instead on the difference in what was sold internationally versus nationally.  For the branch in Bombay, there is a focus on British-made goods (for homesick shoppers) but also on items that are more accessible to the region, such as cheese from New Zealand and henna shampoo.

While henna is a local product, the Bombay Circular features an ad for Evan Williams Henna Shampoo, a British brand. Items available for sale such as this combine the idea of a local product but sold as a good from a reliable British brand. Other objects sold include topee hats (known better as pith helmets) and flying helmets for the gentleman adventurer, indicating the likelihood for continuing travels or world expeditions.


Army & Navy, 1913 Circular

The circulars from London treat Asia—known then as simply the Orient—as the home of specialty goods, and put imported items in their own section, making them stand out as luxury goods.  Jewellery from Damascus, home goods from Japan and unlisted regions, and accessories such as umbrella handles from India are all placed together under the moniker “Oriental Goods”.

These circulars let us look at the past by looking at what were considered consumer goods sold by a single company across the world. The products give a glance into what these people wore and where they wore them.  We can see what appealed to those living away from home, and what were considered exotic imports of the day by looking at sources outside of photographs and personal diaries that allow for an expanded picture of the consumer world.

See the Army & Navy Flickr sets: 1898 Spring & Summer Fashions; 1913 Fall Fashions; 1933 Textile Samples; Cosmetics.

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.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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