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The story of Marks and Spencer

BY Emma Chesworth

3rd Oct 2023 Inspire

4 min read

The story of Marks and Spencer
From avocados to bras and curtains to crockery, the story behind one of the UK’s most iconic retailers, Marks and Spencer, is celebrated in the city where it all began 
The Marks in Time exhibition in Leeds is a treasure trove of Marks and Spencer merchandise from throughout the decades just waiting to be explored and enjoyed.  
Vintage dresses, ready meals, handbags and childrenswear tell stories of their era, evoking memories of a time gone by. A display of soft furnishings really does capture the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the colours and patterns that adorned so many houses at that time. 

The origins of Marks and Spencer 

What is now one of the country’s most well-known brands and a fixture on high streets up and down the land actually started out as a penny bazaar in Leeds. Back in 1884, Michael Marks arrived in Britain from Belarus and soon set up his street stall at Kirkgate Market. His strapline was “Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny.”
"Marks and Spencer actually started out as a penny bazaar in Leeds"
A decade later he decided to look for a partner to help with his growing business and he approached a senior cashier named Tom Spencer who agreed to get on board. Marks and Spencer was born. 

Marks in Time exhibition 

As time marches on, M&S has responded to changing trends and attitudes and the exhibition reflects those ever-evolving tastes.
Vintage staff uniform.
Tucked away on the University of Leeds’ Western Campus, the M&S Archive and permanent exhibition is a treat for all the senses. As well as viewing the many garments and objects on display, visitors can also take a seat in the mini cinema and choose from four films including “Stores in the 1960s” and “M&S—The International Story”. Fun fact: their first international store opened in Malta in 1962.

Major redesign 

The archive opened back in March, 2012, and has recently undergone a major redesign making it more hands-on for visitors. Prior to 2012 the archive collection was stored above one of the smaller London stores with no public access.
Katharine Carter, company archivist at the Archive in Leeds, explains more. She says: “In 2009 there had been an exhibition for about 18 months featuring some of the archive items in the Parkinson Building at the University of Leeds. That was to celebrate the 125th anniversary of M&S, and it was the archive’s first presence in Leeds. The decision was then made to have the building here and have the whole collection located here alongside a permanent exhibition.” 
Sheet music was a big seller in Marks and Spencer's early days
Now you can dress up in replica vintage clothes, try your hand at designing an outfit or don an apron and ring items that were sold in the penny bazaar days through the till. Buttons were a big seller in the early days of the market stall as well as candles and sheet music!  

Visitors and items in the Marks and Spencer archive 

Each year, the Archive sees around 17,000 visitors pass through the doors and they regularly welcome groups of schoolchildren for workshops using archive items linking to different parts of the curriculum, whether it be technology and design, food science or business management. The fact that the Archive also sees visits from the Women’s Institute and U3A local history groups shows there really is something for all ages.
"Each year, the Archive sees around 17,000 visitors pass through the doors"
Approximately 72,000 items are in the Archive, all stored in a secure strongroom with controlled temperature and humidity to keep everything in perfect order. 
“A lot of the objects are documents,” explains Katharine. “They relate to the running of the business and we have examples of current merchandise and packaging that comes direct for the teams at M&S. For example, the lingerie team sends through the best examples of what is new in lingerie each year. A lot of the items are donated to us by members of the public—they may be items that they have owned for a long time or that they have discovered as part of a clear-out.” 

The special appeal of Marks and Spencer 

It is not just what M&S sell that matters—it is also about how they sell and appeal to potential customers. Window displays have evolved throughout its history as a way of attracting people into stores. In the 1950s they began to standardise their facades, becoming easily recognisable to the passer-by and in-store mannequins were introduced in the early 1980s to display outfits. 
"A wander around the eclectic exhibition is a chance to learn the extraordinary tale of one man’s retail vision"
M&S is also synonymous with food. Back in 1979 they launched their classic chicken Kyiv dish, which became a bestseller and a year later they relaunched their sandwich collection. Prawn and mayonnaise sandwiches were introduced in 1981 and that remains the most popular filling to this day! 
A wander around the eclectic exhibition is a chance to learn the extraordinary tale of one man’s retail vision. Michael Marks created what is now a household name, recognised across the globe. 
Oh, and there’s a good chance that any woman reading this may just be wearing an M&S bra—one in three British women do!  
The Marks in Time exhibition is located in the Michael Marks Building at the University of Leeds. Admission is free and it is open Monday to Friday from 10am - 4pm and second Saturday of each month. It is closed on Bank Holidays. For more information go to https://archive.marksandspencer.com/ 
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