Chas. Baker & Co: the men and the map
Posted 15 May, 2009 13:04 by Karla Baker
Many Printing Record items are interesting maps, many items are interesting because they aren’t maps but very few are interesting because they are both. Happily though this apparent dichotomy is resolved in a very small handful of very rare examples.
Chas. Baker & Co. Ltd. may neither trip off the tongue nor stir many memories in the modern mind. However, from about 1864 until at least 1939, they were a large and forceful presence in the world of Gentleman’s Clothing. With a head store spanning four buildings in High Holborn and with at least eight other London premises by 1913, they were a dominant feature on the vast London landscape. They were innovative, hugely successful and for the purposes of this blog, possessed of a very good eye for aesthetic and design.
This is The Pictorial Plan of London printed by Bartholomew on the 6 March 1897. Bartholomew first began printing these maps in 1892 and almost always in vast quantities, on occasion up to around 30,000. Chas. Baker ordered a new batch at least once a year and more typically twice. As far as useful maps go this probably isn’t going to fit the bill but as a piece of design it is stunningly beautiful and exceedingly eye-catching. The colours remain startling and vibrant and I think it lives up to its subtitle by capturing the essence of “London towards the close of the 19th Century”.
As with other companies at the time it seems as though Chas. Baker realised the power of maps. They sold copies of it in their stores for 1p but also incorporated it into the A.B.C. Guide to London, which it seems they also published. Copies of the guide could similarly be bought in their stores but for the appropriately inflated price of 3p. However, this was no simple act of beneficence, there was of course an ulterior motive and that was advertising.
Chas. Baker & Co. Ltd. was a hugely successful company and eager to remain so. Their entry in the 1913 “Whitaker’s Red Book of Commerce or Who’s Who in Business” describes them as specialists in men’s tailoring and school outfits. What Whitaker’s fails to mention though is that they were also genius advertisers. They not only approved for print a very striking map which bears their name and could be bought in their stores, they also tempted the unsuspecting with glimpses of the delights that they literally had in store, on the reverse of the map!
These extraordinary looking ensembles are surely just a small sample but nevertheless reveal that any occasion could be accommodated with just the right outfit. Whether you were a keen cyclist, hiker or lover of Royal Ascot and weddings, Chas. Baker had just the thing. And in truth, there’s surely much more dignity in a nice tweed suit than ever could be had in Lycra.
Of course the sight of a well dressed man in a beautifully tailored suit, rare though it is, remains familiar to us today and so it is the images of the equally suited children which particularly jar. Of course, the modern concept of the ultra-long state of childhood, sometimes lasting a good twenty years, would have been equally odd to the family of 1897, a time when childhood was unsentimental and children nought but miniature adults. So, be it off to Eton or a meeting of the Young Conservatives, why shouldn’t one’s son look as dapper as his dad?
Yet as smart these people look, it is perhaps worth noting that in Whitaker, Chas. Baker describe their business as having been “established with the special purpose of producing cheap clothing of good quality for the people”. In fact they also transpire to have been a pretty decent employer listing staff benefits and perks which included a cricket club, benefit society and even a library. Nevertheless, whatever the intention and ethos of the firm it is doubtful that the majority of the populace needed to worry about clothing their Eton or Rugby bound sons. There is therefore an air of exclusivity to this firm, or at least pretentions towards exclusivity.
Chas. Baker managed to persevere and achieved great success as a firm and whilst they may no longer exist, to me at least, they have also succeeded in leaving behind them one of the true gems in the Bartholomew Archive Printing Record. And the best of all? Well, to my mind it has to be “The Prince”!