This is the first of a number of posts I’ve got planned about what we’ve got in the Research Collections. At first, the posts will be mostly about the Kays collection. Once I’ve caught your attention with retro catalogue goods, I’ll diversify.
A Power for Good in the Home
The Spring/Summer 1955 Kays catalogue sells electric power tools, heaters, kettles, toasters, hairdryers, irons, razors, a tea maker, an electric paint scraper, and even a rather worrying-sounding ‘Radiant Heat’ device, which promises ‘health-giving invisible rays’.
The toaster — given the full-colour treatment, although parts of the catalogue are still in black and white — looks particularly shiny and exciting. It’s on a page headed ‘A power for good in the home. Household electrical appliances by Morphy Richards.’ The message is clear: electricity could make your life better.
Electric toasters had been in existence for several decades at this point, but would still have been a relative novelty for the average Kays customer, judging by the catalogue. The product information begins by reassuring us that the toaster is ‘safe’ as well as ‘silent, reliable and externally cool’. It also explains that ‘toast pops up when done’.
The toaster cost £5.5.0 — five pounds and five shillings, or between about £100 and £400 today, depending on the method you use to calculate how money has changed value. So it would have been a bit of a luxury, but presumably not so much of one that Kays didn’t think they could sell it to their (mainly working class) customers. And of course, they let you pay in instalments.
The hairdryer was cheaper, at £3.18.6 — between about £80 and £300 to us.
On a page of the same catalogue which promises to ‘end your washday worries’, you might expect similar expensive yet exciting electrical goods. In fact, along with various clothes racks (‘priced for the thrifty!’), this page is selling a copper posser.
A posser was a dome-shaped metal implement which would be fixed to the end of a long wooden handle and used to beat your washing to cleanliness. You would fill a dolly tub (a big, barrel-shaped metal basin) with boiling water, quite possibly boiled over a fire stove. Then you would add soap flakes or some other cleaning agent, and your dirty clothes. Then you would pound your clothes with the posser, to achieve the same effect as getting a washing machine to whirl them about and do whatever else a washing machine does today.
The catalogue claims that Kays’ posser would leave your clothes ‘sparkling and fresh’. It also provides a handy little cartoon showing a posser in use.
Their dolly tub was ‘corrugated for extra strength’ and had a reinforced bottom. Together, the dolly tub and posser would set you back £2.3.0 (between about £45 and £165), which compares favourably with the price of a modern washing machine, even if the work involved in using them doesn’t.
For the Kays customer at least, it seems as though electricity’s ‘power for good in the home’ caught on in some areas faster than others.
-Alison Winston, Skills for the Future Trainee
(Modern money values calculated using Measuring Worth.)