This blog is lockdown inspired for all those using the time to create something, learn a new skill or perhaps trying to up-cycle something in the lead up to the Christmas period.

As our staff are unable to attend buildings and access our collections; our blogs are mostly based on the documents from our archive which we have digital access to. Many of these documents relate to the business decisions of independent co-ops all over the country, as well as the federated society - the CWS (The modern Co-op Group).

Alongside standard business records, there are other items produced either for members or customers as points of sale, publicity and brochures advertising goods. Today’s blog is based on one of these sales brochures, chosen at random.

The title of the brochure is ‘Craft in Wood’ and it was produced in the early 1950’s to showcase furniture made by CWS; to be ordered through local co-op stores. In those days shopping for furniture and household items by catalogue was the norm, with the goods delivered by train to the local area and by lorry to the buyer’s home. This was before the report published by the British Railways Board written by the famous Dr Richard Beeching which would see 50% of British stations taken out of commission and over 30% of operational routes removed (5000 miles of track) in order to modernise and improve efficiency on the rail network – particularly for freight.

It seems hard to imagine now, but without car ownership and motorways a buyer could make a purchase without seeing it in person and expect to be told not only where it was coming from, but which train would deliver it to a local branch station. Buying furniture in a ‘suite’ was an expensive purchase and could reasonably be expected to last a lifetime as although the fabric might be recovered if necessary, the suite would not be replaced by a whole new set. The permanent nature of a purchase like this led some manufacturers to produce a 'life-story' for the goods they sold and CWS in particular went out of their way to ensure that those who purchased their furniture knew exactly how their items were made and what the impact of their purchase would be. The brochure tells the story of growing wood for industry, the places where woods are sourced, how it is worked to avoid waste and takes care to show the purchaser who is employed to design, and make their pieces. The buyer of the now perhaps awkwardly named ‘Falkland’ living room suite will know where the wood has been sourced from, where it is being worked (at the Cabinet Works in Radcliffe, North Manchester) and how their money is being spent.

The factory was situated at a bend on the river Irwell which links to Bury and Manchester, and today it is a housing estate and a business park housing a tools supplier and an IT hardware company. People are still making things on the same site, but if making a visit in the early 20th Century customers would have been shown the working conditions, the shorter factory hours and the facilities for the workers which included a subsidised canteen and outdoor recreation space.

During the Second World War the skills of the workers were put to use to make the wooden wings for Horsa gliders and fuselage for the Mosquito aircraft. In addition to ‘war work’, the factory also made utility furniture, known for its use of cheaper woods and veneers to conserve the dwindling supply of wood due to the difficulty of shipping it in order to prioritise it for military use.

Although the improvement in trade after the war led many people to relegate their utility furniture to spare bedrooms and hand me down sets for newly married couples; this type of furniture is now popular as ‘flipped’ or restored pieces with younger consumers and is one way to give once unpopular styles of furniture a make over to avoid adding to landfill.

The modern version of this brochure would probably be called a case for sustainability  - In 2020 it would include information on ethical production as well as quality of the goods. It would be most likely to be graphically designed as a downloaded resource with information about environmental policies in harvesting timber, ethical recycling and the working conditions at source as well as those involved in the UK supply chain (such as how the Modern Slavery Act  of 2015 applies).

It makes us think about the need to keep modern publicity items which reflect the way we purchase goods today as a way to understand what is important to modern consumers in how they make decisions. This evidence, or the historic collections of the future will be largely digital and many commercial organisations do not always consider how important the resources they make now will be for those looking back at a pivotal time of change in trade and consumerism.

For advice on the preservation and archiving of modern and digital materials please email us:[email protected]