Inside the Co-op at Beamish


The Co-op store, Beamish

Beamish, the North of England Open Air Museum, was first opened to the public in 1972. The site is a reconstruction of a typical village in the Northumberland/Durham area. There are other periods represented, but the main street is firmly set in 1913. The former Co-operative Store from Annfield Plain has been careful re-assembled, stocked and even staffed with period re-enactors.

Here we can see a wonderful display of household items, from the period immediately before the First World War, in the hardware section of the store. It is dominated by brands which have long gone, and items for which there is no longer any use whatsoever. Take the huge array of polish for domestic kitchen grates. These grates were made from cast iron, but with the addition of a liquid compound of ‘black lead’ they could be given a deep, lusterous black sheen; look for trade names such as ‘Zebo’, ‘Zebra’, and ‘Jester’. This was a Saturday morning ritual for many people of my great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s generation. I can even think back to my mother showing me how it was done, on an old kitchen grate and boiler in a house at Golden Valley, Derbyshire. You can also see many brands of soap, but notice that neither soap powder nor soap flakes for the washing of clothes have yet made it onto the shelves. In 1913 you had to rely on such products as ‘Hudson’s Soap’ to wash your clothes with. If you look in the centre of the display you will see bundles of white, wooden clothes pegs (usually made from ash), with a simple, turned head. These were sold in bundles of a dozen, and I can remember helping my own mother ‘peg out’  the washing on the clothes line, using pegs such as these. Other survivors to the present day include the many types of wooden-backed bristle brushes, some of which you can see next to the label ‘Fireside Set’, and the containers of ‘Brasso’, a metal polish, with its distinctive black and white design.
The Co-operative Wholesale Society, or C.W.S., was the backbone of the Co-operative movement, a confederation of member-owned stores which gave back profits to the membership as a twice-yearly ‘dividend’ payment. The ‘divi’ as it was called,  and the Co-op itself, were important elements in working class areas at this time. You can see signs all over the store urging customers to buy C.W.S. brand products.
As an aside, many of you will be wondering what on earth ‘Reckitt’s Blue’ is. No, it’s not another soap, it is actually an early, quite successful, optical whitener, used on white items in the wash. It works by adding a tiny amount of blue dyestuff to the cloth during the final rinse, which makes the fabric SEEM whiter to the eye. Oh, and it has one other intriguing side-effect.  The so-called ‘bluebag’ which contained the ‘Reckitt’s Blue’, when dampened and held against a recent bee sting would ease the pain considerably. Oh, and the magic formula which did this? ‘Reckitt’s Blue’ is a mix of synthetic ultramarine (aluminosulphosilicate) and bicarbonate of soda!
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