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A case of wonderful

Shells in the Natural History Museum, Gothenburg


Romping (relatively speaking) around Gothenburg last week, Shelf Appeal had a few hours of magical museological meandering in The Natural History Museum, Gothenburg.

It sits on it’s own cliff-like mound in an area of Gothenburg called Slottsskogen, in a sort of ‘here I am’ position overlooking the city. The park surrounding it was originally for the recreation of the poor and the idea of building a museum there was apparently not to everyone’s taste. But in 1923 they did the dirty philanthropic deed.

It didn’t disappoint, the Goteborg’s naturhistoriska museum. I’d been recommended the museum after inquiring after old-fashioned museums to visit, preferably full of cases of stuff. Well, cases of stuff, beautifully wrought in wood, line this museum. Along with a good few animals let lose to stroke and a room of antique dioramas. The cases and drawers held stuffed animals, insects, reptiles and quite a number of molluscs, too. They also have the world’s only mounted Blue Whale, a grand old thing, with visible rusty screws holding it together.

This beautifully laid out set of shells were in a wonderful wooden cabinet with a mirror set on the other side. No labels, just shells all the way. This should, in theory, have rubbed my hairy old museum interpretation nerves the wrong way. This museum just laid bare its wonders out for visitors to coo over. With only the odd iPad here and there nodding at modern interpretation.

I know museums are always doing themselves up, looking for that elusive next generation of museum goers. But I do like a museum that does what it says on the tin. Or at least what it said on the tin in 1923.

The Mr and Mrs Cook Book

Mr and Mrs Cook Book cover for Bovril

Last year Shelf Appeal was doing some research on interwar cookbooks and leaflets. It’s a bit of a wheeze for someone who doesn’t cook to be so interested in such things. But taking these publications as purely cultural, visual objects reveals all sorts of things about women’s history in particular. The imagery on the covers is fascinating. The Mr and Mrs Cook Book is a little later, just post war I think. But that cover and the illustrations inside meant it had to be bought.

This was printed for Bovril Ltd by S. H. Benson Ltd. Now the interesting story there is that one Samuel Herbert Benson who had managed the Bovril factory, decided to go independent and handle the Bovril advertising account. He founded Benson’s and soon they handled some of the biggest food and drink accounts, including Guinness.  In 1971 the company became the Benson in the big advertising conglom Ogilvy Benson & Mather. And despite this being a Bovril publication there isn’t much product placement going on, just a few recipes that pimp the spread.

The cover is great; a most glamorous couple perched on a table, reading about how to make something of their pork chop and vegetables. ‘Husbands and wives find that cooking together is good fun – and lots of good things to eat are the result. Maybe it was the war that started men, ordinary men, cooking in a big way. Aboard ship, in the desert, or in the jungle, they found, perhaps, that they were born omelette-makers or masters of the stew pan.’

There were a couple of illustrators (among others I can’t name) who were doing drawings like this at the time: Aubrey Rix and Ray Tooby. The Mr and Mrs Cook Book is very much more in the style of Rix, who drew a lot of glamorous women for covers of Woman’s Own magazine in the 1950s and 1960s. Bovril definitely liked a glamorous woman in its advertisements. Usually with rolled and pinned hair and wearing an impeccable white apron and a light flush of accomplishment.

Talking of aprons, on the first page, next to ‘What’s for dinner dear?’ we have our Mrs tying an apron on her Mr. Every page has humorous little illustrations and copy. And to be fair it is an equal split between the Mr and the Mrs pictured cooking different things. Mr does seem to have dropped that impeccable apron as soon as he got past page 2. Pleasingly, though, he does continue to cook in his suit.

Mr and Mrs Cook Book illustration for Bovril

Label it

1920s paper price label for textiles


Is there anything nicer than a paper card price label? Especially one so directly associated with buying textiles. And so nicely decorated. And with its string still attached. And with the word ‘Ells.’ on it.

It may occur to some (many) people to question what there is to be excited about here. For me this rectangle of card is a tangible glimpse into a part of retailing since turned into barcoded stickers. It is an example of retail design straight out of one of those plain trade books on how to design showcards and labels. Books aimed, perhaps, at adult learners training in an evening class in the 1920s. It is the sort of everyday jobbing printing job that must have kept many a press rolling. Its appearance raised above the generic by slicking on gold toned ink.

The word Ell has always had such a nice ring to it. It was generally held to be the measurement of a man’s arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Despite the possible inaccuracies that might result, I would quite like to be served and sold fabric like that. The word Metres is a lot older than I had thought too. Again subject to differing lengths until a metric standard metre was agreed in 1889.

I have often been the recipient of gifts of bits of this kind of nonsense. They make me happy. My brain takes a whimsical hop skip and a jump from this funny little bit of ephemera to shelves with bolts of Manchester cottons on them, behind long mahogany counters for to show off said fabrics. And the shopkeeper labeling up end of roll remnants (another nice word). Then neatly writing out this label and pinning it to a corner, ready for some keen eyed seamstress to bag as a bargain.


Playtime book by Bunty Crosbie


Shelf Appeal tries not to collect children’s books. For where would that end? Buckling shelves and a collecting headache, that’s where. But a few have snuck on to the shelf nevertheless. Books I’ve tripped over in charity shops, usually. As a search for children’s books on eBay just boggles the mind.

Playtime c1943 by Bunty Combie is a very pretty book. Lovely illustrations that accompany (so-so) poems which look to be by Bunty as well. Bunty Crombie is an unusual name. But she is rather elusive, despite that. She illustrated a few books around 1940 including The Strange Tale of Ebb and Flo and Billy Boy Goes Sailing. But digital provenance is missing.

There are quite a few women illustrators who popped up in the 1930s and 1940s for a few books and then disappeared. Bunty’s illustrations are those of a mature artist, someone who probably studied the craft and perhaps did jobbing illustration work somewhere. Maybe in an advertising agency. Often these women were married to other artists and art directors, gaining that difficult ‘in’ to publishing.

Playtime was published by the Sylvan Press. It is a nice big card covered book. The Sylvan Press published some lovely illustrated books, including Lewitt-Him’s The Footballers Revolt, of which Playtime is a very similar production. The press was based in South London at Henderson & Spalding Ltd printers. Their books often had a bit of the Père Castor going on – super nice illustrated French children’s books. I try not to collect those, either.

Scientific and technical

Spon scientific and technical publishers logo


This is just the sort of back book cover Shelf Appeal likes. Because as an amateur part time ephemeral-detail sleuth it sets me off on a hunt. Very often I get nowhere. But I like the hunt and I like the odd bits of things those hunts throw up. It’s not the getting there, it’s the interesting blind alleys.

SPON scientific and technical publishers and their odd but quite super logo seem to be something out of the Ealing classic The Man in the White Suit. A made up name with just enough real to pass muster. But SPON is and was real. I’m not sure if it is the same publisher today as it was in 1946 but maybe, for they still publish technical books. SPON or E. & R N. SPON seem to have had London and New York offices and to have been around as far back as the 1870s. They were swallowed by Routledge and then Francis & Taylor. But the funny name lives on.

This little (King Penguin sized) book has a title long enough to fill its cover: A Pocket Book of Alphabets for Ornamental Penmen, Engravers, Signwriters and Draughtsmen. It is a reprint of a turn of the 20th century book of stock typefaces for your local window dresser and shop label writer to take for inspiration.

I have speculated about that SPON logo. Is it a clown’s hat? Some sort of traffic cone fantasy? Or a very obscure technical instrument? Either way, I like it and the funny type / italic mix up too.

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