Since writing a blog post here about newsagents, I have started to research their history more seriously and was recently asked to contribute to a wonderful exhibition of drawings and watercolours of Glasgow newsagents by the artist Will Knight, taking place at the New Glasgow Society from 11-22 August (10am-6pm). You can find out more about the exhibition here. Below is the introduction I have written for the ‘newspaper’ being printed to accompany the exhibition.
Independent Newsagents: A History and Celebration
The photograph lying before me shows Mr W.B. Milne outside his shop in Springburn Road in June 1900. This scene can be dated by the newspaper billboards framing the doorway shouting out headlines about the Boer War in South Africa. He is flanked on either side by family and/or employees (are they delivery boys sitting cheekily on the pavement?), though the distinction between the two is blurred. The sign above the door states that Milne is a ‘stationer and news-agent’, a reminder that, in 1900, being a newsagent was still very novel. As working-class readers began to see a daily paper as a must in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men and women like Milne were pioneers and opened up shops across the city to cater for their needs. Although agents for the products of others, photographs like these in local image collections across the country are testament to the individuality and independence of newsagents and the pride that they took, and still take, in the appearance of their shops.
In 1940, George Orwell described the ‘small newsagent’s shop’ to be found in ‘any poor quarter in any big town’. ‘The general appearance of these shops is always very much the same’, he claimed: ‘a few posters for the Daily Mail and the News of the World outside, a poky little window with sweet-bottles and packets of Players, and a dark interior smelling of liquorice allsorts and festooned from floor to ceiling with vilely printed twopenny papers, most of them with lurid cover-illustrations in three colours …’ But Orwell was not quite right: though we may all be able to conjure a typical newsagent in our mind’s eye, what we are actually imagining is often a very particular place, probably the newsagent of our youth. While much of the contents and ‘general appearance’ of these shops might be shared, as the drawings in this exhibition show, the devil is in the detail. For, strangely, covered though their walls are with generic branding, newsagents have their own unique ways of arranging and labelling stock: their own signs, their own personalities.
Orwell was right about one thing, though. He suggested that the interiors of newsagents needed to be recorded, as an indicator of what the ‘mass’ of people ‘really thinks and feels’: ‘Certainly nothing half so revealing exists in documentary form’. As everyday spaces that have traditionally sold ephemeral products – newspapers, cigarettes, sweets, and now phone minutes – newsagents seem so familiar and unchanging to us that we forget to really look at them. When we record them over time, we realise that newsagents are different from one another and that they change and adapt: that they have a past and, therefore, a present and future. These drawings are not the product of nostalgia but of now. In the process, they tell us not only about newsagents but about ourselves.