Book – Marks in Time, 125 years of Marks and Spencer

Unlike most people’s M&S childhood memories, mine don’t consist of my Mum dragging me there for my first bra. I think we went to the newly opened Littlewoods next to my Mum’s favourite, the big Co-Op department store.

My M&S memories start from when I was 18 and just started working with my first newspaper in Bedford, my dream job at the time even though my school careers advisor told me to give up any hope and perhaps try my hand at ‘working in a shop’.

As the junior sales receptionist of the still brilliant Bedfordshire on Sunday, I was just happy to be in the presence of great journalists and writers who’d won national awards for their work. When they asked me to run an errand, inevitably it was to M&S and inevitably I will pick up some cheese sandwich crackers for myself. In turn this lead to a packet of the savoury biscuits and a packet of sweet ones permanently being at arms-length, in my top desk drawer. And so it began, with food rather than lingerie. That was to come shortly afterwards.

I started buying my own food for home as after all I was working now and earning (what seemed like) a fortune so why shouldn’t I contribute. When I left home in 1985 one could not buy the whole weekly food shop in M&S. There were items such as pizza bases and fresh vegetables that I had to go to other shops for. Also when husbands (who cooked so we had to buy raw ingredients from other stores) and boyfriends (who ate lots of expensive meaty things) came along, I combined the shopping with Safeways and Waitrose.

Certainly since M&S has become a fully fledged supermarket with everything from fresh produce to laundry products, there has been no need for me to go elsewhere. Apart from the always excellent and cheery service, quite simply, I don’t trust other stores in putting good quality food inside me as M&S does, just as my mum put her trust in the Co-op all those years ago. Going to M&S is like going to a cherished Auntie’s house who saves all the best things for me.

A few years ago I managed to acquire some tweed trousers from a stylist looking to off-load and make some space. (She worked with All Saints since you ask). They are wide flares, I mean just huge, and are flat fronted that do up with buttons on either side, coming high up on my waist. Best of all, inside they have the original 1970’s label ‘Miss St Michael’ making them one of my most loved pieces.
St Michael is my unofficial patron saint of food but since my late 20s, and as M&S have expanded with larger stores, I have also been buying everything else. From clothes and lingerie to kitchen goods and furniture.

When asked by people during my 6 months in New York recently if I missed ‘home’ I said no. Only Marks and Spencer food. (They deliver almost everything else to the USA).

To this day, M&S, or Sparkies as I affectionately refer to them, is my first point of call whether I want to send flowers, cater for a party, buy some new shoes or treat myself to toiletries. They’ve even started supplying me with my favourite dessert and/or thing in recent years, the all important New York cheesecake. And at a bargain £2.99.

So it came as no surprise when I put this book on my present wish list and was thrilled when it revealed itself from the packaging. At the same time, I had bought 125 year anniversary special edition china mugs and tea towels (you can never have too many mugs or tea towels I reasoned) all as yet unused and saved for a ‘special occasion’.

As it’s a history book, the best way for me to review is by quoting facts and figures, as I have become an even bigger M&S geek by tweeting/spouting to my friends ever since reading this lovely nostalgic look back:
• Michael Mark came over penniless from Russia in c1884 and landed in Leeds with little or no knowledge of the English language
• He started in business with a £5 loan from Issac Dewhurst. Dewhursts are a supplier to this day.
• The first target customer was the working class on a low income hence everything was sold for a penny at the Penny Bazarre. Or was that because it was just easier because of the language barrier?
• Tom Spencer, a Dewhirst employee only served 11 years as Michael Marks business partner with an investment of his £300 life savings and yet his name endures to this day. Mr Spencer died due to an alcohol related illness.
• In 1931, M&S transferred it’s head office from it’s Manchester roots to Baker Street in London. (Oh, maybe that’s why that’s my favourite part of London, it never twigged before)
• After his father’s death, Simon Marks travelled to America in 1924 on a fact finding mission. He couldn’t believe how open businessmen there were in talking about their business practice compared to the secretive British.
• Marks and Spencer were the pioneers in dealing direct with the manufacturer, cutting out the middleman to achieve both better quality and lower prices
• The St Michael brand was dropped in 2000. (A shame but I imagine it will come back one day).
• Food was launched in 1931. In 1948, M&S launched self-service on their food counters before anyone else thought about it. Shoppers couldn’t believe they were allowed to handle food before deciding to purchase.
• Smoking was banned in 1959
• In 1970, M&S launched sell-by dates, sometime before the government legislation.
• Women were quickly promoted to temporary store managers during the war but demoted afterwards. Store managers earned 6 times more than assistants. (I didn’t say they were perfect).
• The welfare scheme was launched way back in 1933 and included subsidised dental service, health service, chiropody, hairdressing and canteens as well as paid holidays. Various hospital schemes were established by 1939, 9 years before the launch of the NHS.
This book has only made me love M&S more but what happened to the cheese sandwich crackers c1985?
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One thought on “Book – Marks in Time, 125 years of Marks and Spencer

  1. M+S were the first store to sel packaged sandwiches. I think I learnt that from QI or some other strange show lol.

    I used to avoid M+S like the plague lol. To my 16yo self it was the most uncoolest shop in the whole of town. I only went in there when my Mum needed a second opinion for a birthday present or something like that. My Mum calls M+S “Marks”

    Then I realised that it wasn’t that bad and Per Una had some nice clothes and nice handbags lol. My favourite handbag is an M+S one. I also like M+S because they are more ethically sound than other companies – the fact that I can buy fair trade T-shirts at the same time as lunch when I’m in town and things like that makes it awesome. I love the Plan A stuff that they are doing (“because there is no Plan B”)

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