“Argos catalogues – a fascinating historical archive”

Rather to my surprise, in the eight or so years this blog has been in existence I seem not to have mentioned my collection of Argos catalogues, except tangentially.  Built up and in-filled after an initial donation some 20 years ago, I believe I have the only complete collection outside the company.

For me they are an invaluable piece of social history and a window on retailing and consumer worlds that we no longer can accurately envisage. Could you accurately recall what, how and at what price a Tesco was selling products in 1973? yet, with the catalogues we can.  The catalogues provide a record of mainstream consumer taste in the UK since 1973, and allow us to consider patterns of change in products, prices and other less obvious retail representations. They are also interesting items in their own right.

Just before Christmas I mentioned the collection to Jane Bradley of the Scotsman and she immediately jumped at doing a piece to run over the Christmas/New Year period.  This in turn led to some radio and other press coverage and an interesting stream of emails, through which I am now working.

Professor Leigh Sparks. Picture: John Devlin

The first Argos catalogue. Photo by John Devlin

The Scotsman piece is available here.  I do have to apologise for the photo, which is not the fault of the photographer, but my rather white and gaunt appearance is due to a week’s fast on my return from India.  Not entirely voluntary but certainly self-inflicted. The Scotsman also commented in its leader column, and noted that the catalogues were a “fascinating historical archive”. It does make one wonder therefore why our National Collections seem so uninterested in what they seem to term “ephemera”,

The University of Stirling also saw the potential in the collection and produced a short video of my discussing the market for the catalogues, what they show and how they could be used in research on a variety of topics.  The video is available here.

This is really a large research project and one that may well take me into retirement.  We did a few years ago begin to play with a few ideas and produced a couple of papers, at conferences and in journals.  For those interested I provide a download of one of them here:

Cataloguing Change: Argos Catalogues in 1973 and 1998 (2001). International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management, 29, 427-441

I also constructed a spatial-structural ‘history’ of Argos, or more accurately a telling of the development of the company and it too is available below:

A catalogue of success? Argos and catalogue showroom retailing (2003), Service Industries Journal, 23, 2, 79-111

Over the intervening period I have continued to build the collection and to develop ideas for what could be done with them in academic terms. We have played with a few things, but will soon begin to get serious about what we can learn. The time for this is right as with the company now ever more on line, the catalogue being withdrawn, the future for maintaining knowledge of what we bought etc. is more precarious and so this historical and social record is, I believe, extremely important and valuable in a number of senses.

Professor Leigh Sparks holding the first Argos catalogue

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Academics, Argos, Brands, Catalogues, Consumer Change, Corporate History, Design, History, Milton Keynes, Pricing, Products, Research, Retail brands, Retail Change, Retail History, Retailers, Social Change and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “Argos catalogues – a fascinating historical archive”

  1. Beguiling niche interest there. Reminded me of a few years back helping an elderly friend ‘tidy up’ his home. I came across several old Littlewoods and Grattan catalogues circa 1980s. Not only the images, but even the copy portrayed an utterly different society and societal values. Checked back with my elderly friend a good while later when it had occurred to me that those catalogues were worthy of safe-keeping. I was quielty dismayed with his response, ‘Auld catalogues,? Och aye ‘been taking your advice on now keeping things tidy – an’ I threw them oot wae the ither rubbish’.

  2. Leigh Sparks says:

    Too many people did the same thing. British Library didn’t even think they were worth keeping in their “ephemera” collection. So many angles of interest to explore.

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