Argos Catalogue Kettle Pages, 1976/1985

Exhibit / August 1, 2017

Object Name: Argos Catalogues
Maker and Year: Argos, 1976 and 1985
Object Type: Catalogue
Image Source: Anthony Voz/Flickr
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, retail catalogues were a familiar sight in savings-conscious lower-middle-class and working-class British homes. While companies like Kays, Littlewoods, and General Mills specialized in clothing and delivered customers’ purchases to their doors, Argos pioneered a new form of catalogue retail where customers made their order in one of the company’s high-street shops before waiting for their items to be brought out from the warehouse at the rear. Specializing in electronics, jewellery, and white goods, and taking its name from the Greek city where company founder Richard Tompkins first conceived of the idea, Argos opened in 1972, and by 1976 had 42 shops around the country, with ten more planned.

In the Britain of 1976, the average weekly salary stood at £72. The country was under a Labour government, supersonic passenger airliner Concorde and the Intercity 125 train were both going into service, and The Damned released “New Rose,” the first single by a British punk band. Despite the financial crisis that would lead to Britain requesting a loan of  $3.9 billion from the International Monetary Fund, the year would subsequently enter legend as the country’s “best ever.”

In August of 1976, the Argos catalogue was mailed to 200,000 customers in what was then the largest ever retail direct mail shot in the UK. Its contents reveal much about the nation’s perceived priorities—tellingly, it devotes the same number of pages to cigarette lighters as it does to baby products. Despite the fact that it was published during a heatwave so severe that a “Minister for Drought” was appointed and vast swarms of ladybirds swept across the country, the catalogue featured five pages of articles devoted to the making of hot beverages.

As those familiar with the British society of the day will know, the centrality of the consumption of hot drinks—principally tea and increasingly coffee—bordered on the pathological. Tea’s popularity with the working classes as an alternative to beer or cider had begun in the late 18th century, and the resultant tax revenue it provided the British government led to the British Empire increasing its dominion over India and provided capital that helped fund the industrial revolution and consolidate the growth of capitalism. By 1976, the average Briton consumed almost 4 and a half cups a day, and the electric kettle had occupied a dominant position in the domestic and social pantheon since 1955, when British manufacturers Russell Hobbs had released the K1, whose bimetallic strip turned the device off automatically once the water had boiled, avoiding the risk of boiling dry. Five years later, the company introduced the K2: its iconic large red operation switch, redolent of the laboratory or nuclear launch facility, provided a gratifying thud upon activation, and it remained a bestseller throughout the following two decades. “Putting the kettle on” for guests was an obligatory social ritual, and much of what was intimate, secret, or important was necessarily discussed over a cup of tea.

As we can see from the catalogue, the stainless steel K2S and the more expensive chrome-coated copper K2R sold respectively for £10.45 and £11.45—even with Argos’s much touted low prices, a sizeable chunk of a weekly income. These were solid-state machines, and, despite their design pretensions, the heritage of the kettle’s lowly origin is still clearly visible in these 1976 models: simply a metal container with electrical equipment attached to it, the joins between the two worlds still plainly visible. The only kettle to speak in the language of unambiguous modernity is the Hoover B6004, though its industrial design heritage is perhaps a little too evident to make the thought of drinking anything boiled inside it reassuring.

Another page shows Teasmades, the timer-activated bedside hot drinks machines that were still considered a prestige item. Offering up to a remarkable two pints of beverage, personal experience was that, for all the allure of a freshly made cup of tea upon awakening, the Teasmade was an oddly depressing experience that tended to confer a metallic flavor to its product. Another oddity of the day is the coffee percolator, also an invention of the Russell Hobbs company, which first marketed them in the 1950s. A prestigious and defiantly hard-to-clean device, the percolator produced a challengingly potent brew and encouraged its owners to consider themselves drinkers of “proper” coffee, unlike the slightly less acrid powdered version, which was the norm. 

The second catalog comes from almost ten years later: in 1985, average incomes had risen to around £170 per week, but in the six years since Margaret Thatcher’s government had been voted to power, Britain’s state-controlled companies were privatized and national utilities firms broken up and sold, reducing national industrial capacity by a quarter. In 1979, 42% of British citizens lived in council housing, but by now the government’s 1980 Housing Act, which allowed the tenants to buy their homes from Britain’s huge stock of “council houses,” was well underway. This purported transfer of wealth from the state to the individual set the stage for the housing shortages, artificially high prices, and rent profiteering that would increasingly dominate the market—by 2013, only 8% of the population would still live in public housing.

The changes underway in British social mores can be seen on practically ever page—in the inclusion of the full page of child’s car seats in place of the single child’s car seat featured in the earlier catalog, for example, or the six-fold increase in pages devoted to exercise machines, underlining how appearance, especially male appearance, was becoming more of an issue. Argos in 1985 offers not one but two home computers—the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64—and after over half of the shares in the previously state-owned British Telecom had been sold off the previous year, effectively denationalizing the company, telephones can now be bought “the same way you choose all your other household items.”

The “tea break” dispute that stalled the filming of Aliens (1986) at the heavily unionized Pinewood studios, however, shows that, in 1985, the national discourse is still dominated by hot drinks—and therefore by kettles. Its red switch now replaced with a more discreet white one, the Russell Hobbs K3P is still on sale in the later catalogue, but it is immediately evident that the new “jug” kettles are beginning to dominate the market. Lightweight, upright, and occupying less space, the plastic jug kettle bespeaks a smooth new modernity. While some of those we see here, like the ones made by British company Swan (the first to develop an electric heating element for kettles), still have a stainless steel body, kettles made of “acetal copolymer Kematal” are beginning to gain the upper hand.

Apart from the single worthy Swan model, rural motifs and trippy patterns are by now consigned to the classic squat-domed kettle, emphasizing its journey to becoming a “vintage” article which harks back to simpler times. The new kettles, instead, take up the design motifs that the Hoover B6004 had anticipated almost a decade before: matte finishes, boxy lines, and undertones of performance and speed. Russell Hobbs’ Highline possesses a microchip and is “slim and elegant“—a world away from the clumsy, homely models of yore.

The percolator has vanished almost completely, replaced by the more cosmopolitan and aspirational “coffee makers” (two pages) and the cappuccino machine. The Teasmade too has clearly lost cachet: now reduced to a half page, the 1986 models incorporate radios in a desperate attempt to retain their failing grip on a dying market. The Pifco in-cup mini boiler is a further nod towards the tawdry and unceremonious pragmatism that would increasingly dominate UK attitudes to eating and drinking over the following decades.

Apart from their obvious appeal to nostalgia, these pages tell us something about the changes taking place in British society during the period: from a country that still considered itself in some way rooted in its agricultural and industrial heritage and whose inhabitants, many of whom lived in social housing, were satisfied with simple “luxuries” like a cup of tea in bed, the Britain of the ‘80s is an altogether more dynamic beast, concerned with performance and speed and with no time for the slow, acrid joys of the coffee percolator. Its luxuries are aspirational and cosmopolitan, meant to be put on display in the kitchen as opposed to enjoyed in the privacy of the bedroom. It was a country where advances in technology and some aspects of quality of life are paralleled by an increasingly fragmented and individualistic society.

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