Littlewoods catalogue - The War years
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Littlewoods Catalogue Home Shopping
1940: WORLD WAR II

WOMEN JOIN THE WAR EFFORT

With the abdication of Edward VIII behind them and King George VI on the throne, nine out of ten homes in Britain were able to tune into BBC radio and hear the Savoy Orpheans, Henry Hall's Guest Night, Gracie Fields and the new generation of wireless comedians and, of course, news bulletins.

Two thirds of all adults read a national daily newspaper. Fleet Street's weekday circulation stood at 10.5 million. The borrowing of library books had risen to more than 200 million books a year. People were no longer ignorant or unaware. They had no wish to fight another war but they knew one was inevitable.

littlewoods catalogue cover 1940

One important difference from World War I was to lie in the self perceptions of women, the part they played in the war, and society's appreciation of their role. Ultimately, the contribution made by women to the war effort proved every bit as influential and decisive as that of the fighting men.

Britons approached the war at home with some reserve. The Civil Defence apparatus managed to distribute 38 million gas masks, but the blackout was an unwelcome and hazardous intrusion: 'by the end of 1939, one fiftieth of the population had suffered some form of accident connected directly with the blackout - and not a single bomb had fallen on Britain.

LITTLEWOODS AT WAR

Without hesitation, the Moores brothers resolved that their company would make an exceptional contribution to the war. Years later, John Moores wrote: "The Government had already taken over our Edge Lane building housing over 2,000 staff... I said: 'There's only one thing to do... scrap the lot and offer our huge organisation for war work'. "Thousands of men and women did their war service in the Littlewoods Army. We made Wellington bombers and saw them fly. We made rubber rescue dinghies and tested them ourselves in the cold North Sea waters. And we made barrage balloons at a time when they had priority over every kind of armament".

The company's final score was truly astonishing: 12 million shells, 5 million fuses, 20,000 barrage balloons, 5 million parachutes, 50,000 rubber dinghies, 25,000 vehicle packages for transportation, 750 Wellington bomber bodies and 4,000 pontoons and storm boats.

Moores was proud that his women employees had performed so magnificently. "Lancashire girls could wield engineers' hammers as quickly and deftly as any man", he said. "The quickest mailer in the entire Liverpool division was a girl. Women sat splicing ropes -a job that had never in history been done by any but skilled craftsmen and broke all speed records".

Later in the war, they even took over the job of feeding the troops, switching their Crosby balloon cutting factory over to making 13,000 "Pacific food packs" a day for the men in the fighting zones of Burma and the Pacific.

BUSINESS AS USUAL

Morale was a vital aspect of the Government's propaganda war on the Home Front, and businesses such as Littlewoods, which maintained so close a contact with the people, were encouraged to carry on normal trading if they could. The entertainment business certainly tried to do that: the Windmill Theatre never closed, and David O Selznick's "Gone With The Wind" ran throughout most of the war.

Despite the material shortages, conditions were favourable for the mail order operation: there was hardly any inflation during the 1930s, so consumers were able to buy a wide range of goods at prices which, in 1940, had changed little over the eight preceding years.

In June of that year, Moores wrote to his organisers: "Littlewoods Catalogue... are contending with great difficulties just now... we must issue a new Supplementary Catalogue of Furniture, Household and Hardware goods... And here's a tip: you and your members would be well advised to snap up what you require from this new catalogue now, for under present conditions it is quite impossible to say what the position will be in the near future".

Home shoppers quickly spotted that the new prices were so good that they could hardly last. A fireside chair, for instance, still cost 401- (the same as in 1932); a settee was 5, and a three-piece suite 8. A double bed was offered at 601-, with another 401- for the flock mattress; and a pair of blanket was priced at 131- (against 101- before).

littlewoods catalogue 1940

Electric toasters and hair dryers were now available at 101/- and vacuum cleaners, at 601/-, cost no more than they did in 1932. Gas boilers, like lawn mowers, had gone up by only 51/-. Baby carriages were now 30/-, and deluxe prams sold at 90/-. Box cameras were popular at 10/-, the same price as a toddler's tricycle and a man's wrist watch, and the latest lightweight tent still cost only 30/-. A 34-piece tea set and a 23-piece dinner service were each priced at 20/-. diamond rings were available at 30/-, oil-burning stoves at between 20/- and 40/-, and a huge range of gardening equipment, from rollers to wheelbarrows and lawn mowers, sold over a range of 25/- to 50/-. And the old, reliable gas iron was still only 10/-.

Warily, the clubs got back to work amid the new hazard of the blitz. London, Bristol, Coventry, Plymouth, Southampton and Liverpool were all hit, hard and repeatedly. So, later, were Exeter, Bath, N Norwich, York, Canterbury and other historic towns, large and small. In Liverpool, not one of the Littlewoods buildings escaped the bombs. Britain's South East Asian empire fell but America entered the war and, by 1944, a further 1.5m potential customers had arrived in England -most of them American soldiers.

POST -WAR BLUES

In 1948, when the National Health Service was set up, it was calculated that the standard of living of the average working class family had risen by only 10% over the entire decade, while that of salaried earners had actually fallen in real terms by 20%. With its manufacturing potential drastically weakened by war, the nation imported five times more goods than it had in 1939, and had seen its exports drop by half the prewar volume.

There were, however, compensations: a young couple could rent a luxury flat in Chelsea (three bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bathroom) for 16/6 a week. The birthrate rose by a third -and the shopping revolution took an unexpected new twist, with self-service shopping starting to rival the home shopping facilities of the mail order firms. The strength of the armed forces had dropped from an astonishing 5m to 1m, and still included tens of thousands of women.