December 15, 1914: In 2014 we have Black Friday and Cyber Monday; online retailing is breaking records every day; the media is full to bursting with advertising to get consumers out of their houses and onto the bustling high streets and out-of-town shopping outlets.
And, of course, this is not a new phenomenon; we didn’t invent consumerism. I’m no expert on when advertising became the driving force behind retail spending but studying and analysing newspapers published a century ago proves that very little has changed.
Put the technology to one side and the big difference between 1914 and 2014 advertising is the unashamed decision to use the conflict in France and Belgium to help sell, sell, sell.
The Market Harborough Advertiser of December 15, 1914, is another eight-page belter and the war is everywhere – but not just in the editorial columns but in the adverts themselves.
On the front page, Symington & Thwaites is using the ‘earpiece’ single column ad to the side of the Advertiser masthead to exhort shoppers to buy ‘Christmas plum puddings for soldiers at the front’.
That is a costly spot for S&T even though it takes up only a small space, however, that is bolstered by another advert that takes up half the entire back page.
Elliott & Son, the clothiers and outfitters, at 2 Church Street, uses military terminology to get the message across: “War Sales News – The enemy in retreat. As a result of the terrible onslaught of our customers, in every part of our stock, we can see how the goods have retreated.”
The advert continues: “Reinforcements of bargains are still being brought in, and so the struggle continues. Their low prices, however, make them easy captures.”
Webb Bros is not quite so crass merely providing “A few valuable hints including comforts for our brave defenders” as the thrust of its advert promoting khaki shirts, woollen socks and under-vests.
F S McLachlan, at 9 The Square, is even more understated. “During the present crisis it has been generally recognised that the motto for us all should be business as usual.
“Christmastime this year will not be, of course, quite the same as usual with so many brave men and lads away from Home fighting for our liberty and the honour of their country.
“It cannot be allowed to pass, however, without our recognising in some form the old custom of sending a gift to our friends and relatives.”
There is very little editorial news in this edition of the Advertiser, particularly about the war. There is, however, one report – probably from one of the press agencies used by local papers a century ago – which tells of the Attorney-General Sir John Simon defending the Government’s Press Bureau and the draconian censorship of national newspaper reports.
Local papers slip under the radar with reports of local lads retelling their own harrowing tales in the trenches and on the fighting front but national newspapers, which have their own correspondents in France, are reduced to writing about ‘big picture’ issues and miss the pulsing heartbeat of what is happening to the common soldier.
The reports states: “There were two mistakes constantly made in criticising the work of the Press Censorship.
“In the first place it was apparently supposed in some quarters that then, as sometimes happened, the publication of a piece of news was delayed or denied, the reason was to be found in fear of the effect on the British Public. According to that theory, the British people, would be unduly elated by news of success and dangerously depressed by news of a misfortune.
“That,” the Attorney-General declared, “is ridiculous a misunderstanding.
“Our people will receive news whether it is good or bad, with composure and moderation.”
That was obvious to all and was perfectly understood by those who gave orders to the press censor.
The report continues: “The one and only reason why any news is ever withheld from circulation,” Sir John Simon continued, “is because its publication would injure us or help the enemy.”
He gave the example of the secrecy surrounding the initial British Expeditionary Force crossing the Channel at the beginning of the war. The report says: “It was the bold use of the censorship that at a later stage the British Army in France was moved from the centre of the Allies’ line to the extreme left in order to resist the German advance upon Calais.”
The report says the second mistake of critics is even ‘further removed from the facts’. The report says: It seemed to be imagined that when the order went forth that, for reasons of national policy and military strategy, certain information had to be withheld.
“It was the Press Censor who decided the matter in his own discretion and at his own whim and pleasure.
“Surely those who criticised ought to remember that in times of war these difficult questions must be decided by those who had best means of forming a judgment.”
“In conclusion he asked ‘if they really thought it likely that Lord Kitchener would allow a single fact to be withdrawn from the public’ if it was not that great reasons of strategy made it absolutely necessary.”
Former Harborough Mail editor (1992-1996) John Dilley is compiling a real-time blog looking at the Mail’s forerunner, The Market Harborough Advertiser, during the 1914 war years while also looking at national newspaper coverage from The Daily Telegraph during the same week 100 years ago.
Follow the blog every Monday by visiting http://newspapersandthegreatwar.wordpress.com.