Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore
Retail advertising in Singapore from the late 19th century to the early 20th century was dominated by a few department stores such as John Little, Robinsons and Whiteaway Laidlaw. While some of them went on to become household names that people took for granted, their early advertisements actually signalled the dawn of a new era of retail and shopping.
The department store was a mid-19th century innovation that came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Urbanisation, mass production and rise of the middle class were factors that led to its establishment and ensured its survival. It created a new retail culture in which shopping, once a mundane task, was elevated to a social and leisure activity. Consumers, especially women, could now have access to and pursue the latest fashions. At the turn of the 20th century, department stores in Europe became monumental in scale and grandeur. The London department store Whiteleys proclaimed itself a ‘universal provider’ selling ‘everything from a pin to an elephant’. Department stores in Singapore and Malaya emerged around the same time, modelling themselves after their British counterparts.
The ads of these stores often boasted of their endless array of merchandise – usually imported from Europe, as well as their luxury and modern amenities. They enticed consumers with material richness and a pleasurable retail experience, which, however, was the preserve of Europeans and local elites in pre-Second World War era. While colonial Singapore already had the reputation of a shopping haven, as the Federated Malay States developed, similar department stores, such as Pritchard and Chow Kit, opened in upcountry Malaya.
Shopping in Singapore was not limited to large department stores. Before Orchard Road emerged as a retail hub, High Street and Raffles Place were upmarket shopping belts where the latest fashion and lifestyle merchandise could be had.