Lakeside arts are commemorating the 175 year anniversary of Boots (credit: University of Nottingham press release).

Commemorating 175 years since the opening of Boots chemist, in Nottingham, Lakeside Arts are showcasing a new design show, on which Professor Anna Greenwood gives her insights. Caradoc Gayer reports. 

Jesse Boot was a pivotal figure in the history of Nottingham. Founding the first Boots chemist at Goose Gate in 1849, he went on to lead the UK’s most well-known pharmaceutical chain store, becoming an entrepreneur known for his ambition to provide ‘healthcare for all’. He also became well respected for his philanthropy, donating in 1921 the land on which the University of Nottingham still stands today.

Marking 175 years since Boots first opened, the Lakeside Arts centre at University Park Campus is commemorating Jesse Boots’ legacy with a design exhibition called Counter Culture which explores how the retail giant altered the lives of both Nottingham residents and people across the UK, while still influencing the way in which people engage with retail stores today.

The Counter Culture exhibition tracks the history of Boots, from the shop’s founding in 1849 to today (photo courtesy of writer).

“The company has played an important role in shaping Nottingham’s identity, serving the people of Nottingham and providing employment to thousands,” says Tim Rushby, head of audience development and marketing at Lakeside Arts. “The Boots family were also philanthropists – Lakeside Arts is built on land that Jesse Boot donated. But that said, the exhibition isn’t just a chance to learn more about Boots. It also explores how shopping has changed over the last century and how Boots and its products have had to adapt.”

Co-curated by Boots company archivist Sophie Clapp and history staff from the University of Nottingham, Counter Culture covers lots of historical ground, showcasing many artefacts from 19th century medicine cabinets to early self-service checkouts, first introduced to British shops in the mid 1980s.

Anna Greenwood, Professor of Health History at the University of Nottingham, was a researcher for the exhibition and is conducting a research project on British retail, in which attendees of Counter Culture can take part. Greenwood notes that Jesse Boot’s ‘healthcare for everyone’ ambitions were very much a product of their time.

“In the mid 19th century, there were lots ‘philanthropic employers’ who had many facilities for their staff, like model villages,” says Greenwood. “Boots appeared in a context in which that was a good way to do business, as opposed to ‘hard-nosed capitalism’. The Boots family often said that they wanted to serve ‘peer and peasant alike’.”

One striking advert showcased at the exhibition is a mid-20th century poster depicting a Boots chemist serving a young girl, sent by her parents to pick up a particular brand of medicine. The placard explains that this advert emphasised Boots’ trustworthiness: they would never short-change, or mis-sell a product to any customer, even a child.

A variety of artefacts from the Boots archive are on display (photo courtesy of writer).

“In premodern times there was a problem with the adulteration of medicine. Boots however mass produced medicine in factories and said that they assured high standards,” says Greenwood. “The brand affirmed that they had quality control, which is quite a modern idea. It was also part of Boots’ ‘benevolent paternalism’ as a ‘family run business.’ They often marketed themselves a family whom you could trust. Even when they became much larger and were sold to America, John Boot still led the company.”

In modern times, retail, particularly ‘high street’ retail, is a far more unstable area of business than before. The late 2010s saw footfall on British high streets decline by a whole 10% and the COVID pandemic arguably accelerated the decline. In 2021, an average of 50 British chain stores were closing a day.

Things have, overall changed to a huge degree since the mid-20th century, when Boots became more of a department store than a chemist. The shop saw huge footfall, becoming  a site for shoppers to get almost anything that they needed to.

‘Healthcare has a solidity which will see it through these hard times.’

“In the 1920s Boots opened ‘wonder stores’ which had hairdressing salons, libraries, photography departments and coffee shops, ” says Greenwood. “It was very different to the Boots shopping experience today. The company wanted people to enjoy their time in the stores; they wanted the commercial space to be an experience. Nowadays of course, retailers are thinking a lot more about how to do that, due to the decline of the high street.”

Boots today is no longer a ‘wonder store’, rather a brand that sits in the pharmaceutical niche, with other customer needs, like buying books and coffee, being fulfilled by other business sectors. Nonetheless Anna Greenwood thinks that the simplicity of what Boots provides is a good sign for their longevity, and maybe other brands like it. Even in the instability of British retail’s decline today, certain amenity shops will likely keep attracting customers to visit them in-person.

“In January of this year, the government wanted to ease pressures on the NHS so  pharmacists are now allowed to consult and prescribe for more illnesses,” says Greenwood. “GPs are under a lot of pressure, so it’s a big convenience to get simple things sorted by your pharmacist. Other aspects of retail are indeed struggling but I suppose healthcare has a ubiquity and solidity which will see it through these hard times.”

 

Counter Culture: 175 years of shopping at Boots runs until Sunday 21 July at the Djanogly Gallery. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm; Sunday 12 noon to 4pm and closed Mondays. Admission is free.