I’ve mentioned before that Kays liked to promote themselves as an old firm.
Kays was formed by a man called William Kilbourne Kay in the 1880s, under the name ‘Kay’s of Worcester’. In 1896, however, Kays amalgamated a watchmaker’s business, Skarrat’s, which dated from at least 1794. Kays often subsequently used this date to claim that they had a long history going back to Georgian times.
An inside front cover page from 1907 mentions Kays’ connection with the Skarratt firm. Kays and Skarratt’s are enclosed in brackets above the line ‘established over 100 years’. As a result, it’s not clear whether those 100 years are supposed to refer to both firms or one or the other.
The next page takes a similarly ambiguous approach. Kays call themselves ‘an old firm–with associations of over a hundred years’.
At this point, Kays were only 21 years old. Perhaps they were concerned that customers might be aware of this. They seem to have wanted people to think that they were much older than their age, but they also seem to have been concerned not to look dishonest.
As they aged, Kays became less cautious. In their catalogue for Autumn/Winter 1920, they no longer mention Skarrat’s when they claim to be aged over a hundred.
Their catalogue for Spring/Summer 1929 includes a message targeted at potential customers who may be disillusioned with other mail-order firms. Kays suggest, ‘Why not deal with us– who for 125 years have ALWAYS GIVEN CAREFUL ATTENTION TO OUR CUSTOMERS’ REQUIREMENTS’. It’s as if they’ve been operating the same kind of business since Skarrat’s — not a mail-order firm at all — first began.
By Spring/Summer 1942, Kays had become very bold indeed. Their front cover shows ‘a pictorial history of the growth of Kays in Worcester’, with images of Skarrat’s premises from 1794 and 1814, as well as premises used by Kays in 1883, 1894 and 1942, at The Foregate, Shrub Hill Road and The Tything, all in Worcester.
There’s also a picture of Worcester Cathedral on the Spring/Summer 1942 front cover, and another on the inside front page. It’s a beautiful old building — far older than even Kays pretended to be. Its picture in their catalogue suggests ideas of history and tradition, of the very sort Kays wanted to associate with themselves.
The cathedral pops up in a lot of Kays catalogues. Autumn/Winter 1955 puts a large colour picture of it on an inside front page, with the caption, ‘Worcester Cathedral… landmark of the historic city in which Kays was founded more than 160 years ago.’
In catalogues from the following decades, however, Kays show less and less interest in talking about their age. They still mention here and there that they have been trading ‘since 1794′, but they rarely have much to say beyond that. In general, the later the catalogue, the less important history seems to be to Kays’ brand identity.
…With the exception of anniversary years. In Spring/Summer 1994, for example, Kays celebrated their ‘200th’ birthday with a special offer, pictures from old catalogues, and a little letter to customers about how long they’d been around.