A brief history of M&S

As part of my Master’s degree research, I took a look into the history of an icon of the British high street – Marks & Spencer. This post is an extract from my dissertation and forms part of an occasional ‘brief history of’ series.

Freelance writer and broadcaster Stephen Armstrong perfectly sums up the significance of the chain retailer Marks & Spencer in the opening lines of his essay entitled ‘M&S: Reasonable Prices for a Reasonable Nation’, written as part of a book accompanying the British Council’s international touring exhibition Inside Out: Underwear and Style in the UK (2000).

To Britons, there are certain constants, certain undeniable truths in a changing world. There is tea. There is humour. There is the desire to soak our minds in alcohol to forget who we are. And there is Marks and Spencer. Let’s not mince words here. There can hardly be one living Briton who hasn’t consumed the brand name St Michael.

Exterior of Birmingham Penny Bazaar store in 1904. Image © The M&S Company Archive

Pioneering the ‘factory-to-shop’ system with its own brand name and a close relationship to its suppliers, Marks & Spencer became famous in the twentieth century for quality at reasonable prices (Wilson and Taylor, 1989). Journalist and author Helen Chislett begins her book Marks in Time (2009), written to celebrate the 125th anniversary of M&S, with a detailed history of the early days of the company, which started when Michael Marks opened his first market stall in Leeds in 1884 selling useful items, for the single price of a penny, to working class people on low incomes. By the time he moved to Manchester in 1894, he had a dozen Penny Bazaar market stalls and was looking for a partner in order to expand the business. He was introduced to Tom Spencer and their partnership became a limited company in 1903, expanding to 60 outlets by 1908 (2009: 8-11).

1950s design for ‘The New St Michael Poplin Pyjamas’, now in five sizes from small to large long fitting. Image © The M&S Company Archive

In order to make good quality clothing available to his customers at a cost of under five shillings, Simon Marks and Marks & Spencer’s vice-chairman Israel Sieff persuaded the production manager at Corah & Sons, one of their key suppliers, to defy the Wholesale Textile Association and deal directly with the retailer in around 1926 (Tse, 1985: 23). This allowed Marks & Spencer to become involved in the production process without being responsible for manufacturing. Inspired by Corah’s St Margaret brand, Simon Marks registered the St Michael brand name in 1928 which was used on Marks & Spencer products until the end of the twentieth century (Chislett, 2009). It was the interwar period which shaped the company into a retail revolution and the well-known brand which made an extraordinary impact on both its consumers and competitors. Under the management of Michael Marks’ son Simon, the company headquarters moved to Baker Street in 1931 and, ‘by 1939, Marks & Spencer had 234 stores and 18,500 employees’ (Chislett, 2009: 15).

There were many ways in which Marks & Spencer influenced the retail landscape of the UK, the earliest of which was the concept of self-selection which was introduced in the original Penny Bazaars (Chislett, 2009). However, it was when Marks & Spencer opened their first textile laboratory at the Baker Street headquarters in 1935 that they really started to become known for their dedication to innovation. This lab and its staff ensured that problems associated with poor quality could be eliminated, helping M&S to build better relationships with their suppliers. In the 1950s, Marks & Spencer ‘reached the peak of its innovative powers, bringing the new man-made fibres over from America and hurling them out into the mass market […] at a reasonable price’ (Armstrong: 2000: 21).

Marks & Spencer advert for Crimplene clothing. Image © The M&S Company Archive

In the acknowledgements at the back of Marks In Time, Chislett states that its contents are a result of research conducted at the M&S Company Archive, which relocated to the University of Leeds the same year that the book was published. A history of this archive can be found in an article published in the academic journal Costume four years earlier, written by textiles and fashion researcher Keren Protheroe.

Established in 1984, a hundred years after Michael Marks opened his first Penny Bazaar in Leeds, the M&S Company Archive includes documents, packaging, clothing and in-house publications which provide an overview of the company’s history and influence; especially the 1950s and 1960s which is a period heavily represented in the objects in the collection. Protheroe comments that, ‘trading with own-brand goods for the best part of the twentieth century, Marks & Spencer has played an important role in Britain’s ready-to-wear retail history’ (2005: 100).

Armstrong, S. (2000) ‘M&S: Reasonable Prices for a Reasonable Nation’ in Campbell, E. and Cicolini, A. (eds) Inside Out: Underwear and style in the UK. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Chislett, H. (2009) Marks in Time: 125 Years of Marks & Spencer. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Protheroe, K. (2005) ‘Quality Stitch by Stitch: Clothing and Associated Publications Held in the Marks & Spencer Company Archive’. Costume, Volume 39 Issue 1: 100-112
Tse, K. K. (1985) Marks & Spencer: Anatomy of Britain’s Most Efficiently Managed Company. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Wilson, E. and Taylor, L. (1989) Through the Looking Glass: A History for Dress from 1860 to the Present Day. London: BBC Books.

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