1918 Your leading man has just come back from Mons and wants to buy his nephew a clockwork train set. How much would it cost? 22/6, from Gamages.
1944 before embarking for Normandy, your hero is arranging for his mother to move. Who should he contact? Why not Pitt & Scott Ltd, ‘phone City 6474.
It’s Victorian times, and your poor, impoverished poet is starving in a garret and desperate to get the roof asphalted. He’ll have to stump up a penny per square foot.
How do I know all these things? Because the adverts tell me so. I’m a great believer in getting the feel for and flavour of a time and so I collect old original and reproduction newspapers and, rather than looking at the headlines, I scour the adverts and personal columns, the radio or theatre listings – anything which gives me a clue to what ordinary life was like. Often this is the hardest thing for the historical novelist to research. We don’t necessarily want dates of battles, we want to know what the grocer’s boy brought in his basket!
In the pages of the papers I find the comfortably familiar, like Boots the Chemist, Cherry Blossom boot polish, as much a part of my life now as they were to the people of 1918. I also find the novel and the downright odd (I wonder what Doans backache kidney pills really contained or why Britannia in her chariot appears to be at Verdun handing out Cameron Safety self filler pens to the troops).
I love old adverts everywhere I find them. One of my prize possessions is a first edition Novel Notes by Jerome K Jerome and the endpapers are full of the things, not all of which are advertising books. Fancy a Hairless Author’s Paper-pad (not sure if the pad is hairless or the author)? Or some Stickphast paste? (Which, according to the blurb is the only thing which Ellen Terry would use for sticking paper, so there.)
I have to thank Erastes for pointing out this resource and pandering to my secret vice. Ah, the hours spent looking up old jelly babies adverts and the like.