Annie Paul | Diving into the archives
A book project I'm working on had me trawling the Gleaner archives for information last week because I wanted to get a sense of what the war years were like in 1940s Jamaica. There's nothing I enjoy more than diving into periodical archives, and The Gleaner's collection of digitised newspapers dating from the 1800s is a particularly rich trove.
The advertisements of yesteryear are a treat. In 1942, opticians busily flogged their services, with up to three ads on a single page. "The BEST and nothing else is good enough for your only pair of eyes," urged A. Roy Muschette of 40 Church Street, Kingston. "Parents, don't handicap your school children. Let me examine their eyes each year."
"Wear CORRECT glasses!" advised Dr H.U. Robinson, optician. "Wise are the workers who watch their eyes. If you do not see things correctly and distinctly, you need our CORRECT GLASSES."
Issa's - "Kingston's smart shop" - advertised "a sensational group of fine towels", while Mr D.B. Dadlani announced his new store on King Street, the Bombay Bazaar.
"MORE HOUSES ARE DESTROYED BY ANTS THAN NAZI BOMBS," proclaimed a Hardware and Lumber ad for a product named Atlas A beneath a photo of floorboards destroyed by 'wood ants'. "The preservative that preserves - Atlas A wood preservative is death to wood ants."
Meanwhile, there appeared to be folk in Jamaica who actually WANTED curly hair, unlike the black population who, even today, are obsessed with straightening theirs. The makers of a product named Curly Top claimed it was used by two million "delighted mothers", was "absolutely harmless", and made hair grow curly by natural means, "gently feeding it with the natural organism lacking in straight hair".
The virtues of expediency were touted. "Harassed housewives are happier when they have a good store of OXO cubes in the house, for something nourishing, tasty yet economical can be produced, at the shortest notice, for family or for unexpected guests."
I have no idea why there was a market for woollen items in Jamaica, but The London Shop advertised a January clearance of moth-eaten sweaters or "imperfect woolies". "It's always a 'nip and tuck' race between us and the moths," admitted the ad. "Despite our continued vigilance, the moth wins occasionally."
My favourite was the following small ad that popped up disingenuously between columns of newsprint: "CUT ME OUT and send me with your name and address to Kinkead Ltd, King Street, Kingston. It will bring you FREE under plain cover a medical leaflet of Santi Oil, which will tell you how to regain lost vigour and manhood at home by a rational treatment."
DRACONIAN MOTHER COUNTRY
Amid these signs of brisk commerce, an article pointed to a comprehensive review of West Indian trade conditions, with particular reference to wartime regulations and control. It seems Britain was concerned about American incursions into this outpost of its empire. "No article whatever should be allowed to remain not subject to control. "Except in cases where urgency is a vital consideration, licenses for dollar goods should never be granted when sterling goods are available."
The mother country was nothing if not draconian. "It is clear there are a number of articles of a non-essential nature, the import of which in every colonial dependency ought to be prohibited entirely from all sources, whether sterling or non-sterling."
The article noted that there was resistance to these controls. "One of the strongest objections to the recommendations of the Competent Authority here has been that import of dollar goods is not permitted, even when sterling goods of the kind required are not available from any source British or Empire."
There were lots of ads for movies and plays. Wolmer's Girls' School presented tableaux and carols in aid of the War Fund at the Ward Theatre, while Eric Coverley's morning Christmas show 'Yuletide Yodelings' was going to be held at Harold Cockings on Church Street.
The Glass Bucket Club advertised a Hawaiian Night, organised by Brampton Old Girls, where "Picturesque hangings, flowers and multi-colored lights would transform the atmosphere into one reminiscent of Hawaii - land of beauty and flowers." A midweek dance night at the same club advertised the enchanting melodies of The Royal Hawaiians. What was this fascination with Hawaii about? I wondered.
On a more sober note, a letter to the editor from a Mr G.R. Bowen elicited information about "unpleasantness" involving a delegation of journalists from the West Indies visiting England on a British Council-sponsored junket. The "regrettable and unpleasant happening" occurred en route to England in Bermuda (where the party was forced to land due to bad weather) and involved the difficulty of finding hotel accommodation for the "coloured members" of the WI press delegates "due to the attitude of the American tourists and the fact that Bermuda lives almost entirely off the tourist trade".
I scratched my head. In 1942, wouldn't a colour bar have been par for the course in Jamaican hotels as well?
• Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.