Category Archives: Meta

Meta post #3: historical context

When the media reported on the failure of the Thomas Cook travel company in 2019, I saw a spike in page views for my history of the business.

The quality of business news in British broadsheets is generally very good. However what journalists often overlook is the historical context of huge events such as when a business enters into administration.

Just look at when Stead & Simpson, one of the largest shoe retailers in Britain, entered into administration in 2008. Nobody reported that the 174 year old business had once been the largest footwear manufacturer in the world. This was information that a busy journalist, working to a deadline, simply does not have the time to find out. So the story was reported as a high street misfortune, rather than as the culmination of a slow and steady decline for a once huge and influential business.

Stead & Simpson was not just another high street brand; it had historically employed thousands of people, and the Gee family, who controlled the company in the early twentieth century, played an influential role in the establishment of the University of Leicester.

Stead & Simpson represented a rare survivor of the once-vast East Midlands shoe-making industry, and had managed to avoid being swallowed up by the J Sears & Co business that came to control much of British shoe retailing in the mid to late twentieth century.

I would argue that a greater awareness of historical context helps us to better understand the future and the present, as well as the past.

Sauces Reconsidered by Gary Allen

I am absolutely delighted to have received a reference citation from Gary Allen in his new book, Sauces Reconsidered.

Allen cites my history of Crosse & Blackwell. I am glad that he found it helpful.

Sauces Reconsidered is very good, and if you have found my posts on sauces and foods interesting then I can highly recommend his book for further reading.

Allen has previously contributed to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. He is highly knowledgeable about food. You can explore his blog here.

Meta post #2: the most popular pages on this site

Via the magic of Google Analytics, I bring you the top ten pages on letslookagain.com. Obviously bear in mind this ranking will by its very nature favour posts that have been on the site for the longest length of time.

  1. Smith’s crisps, also with reference to Walkers and Golden Wonder.
  2. Callard & Bowser was a victim of the success of its own Altoids mints
  3. Goodall, Backhouse & Co, the Yorkshire Relish producers.
  4. Keiller marmalade. People are often most curious about brands that have disappeared in the recent past.
  5. It’s a question often asked, which came first, Lifesavers or the Polo mint?
  6. Sharp’s toffee, a brand I’d never heard of before I began researching confectionery history
  7. Brand & Co, developers of A1 sauce
  8. The popularity of my post on the¬†Fatty Arbuckle’s restaurant chain really took me by surprise
  9. Cantrell & Cochrane never really disappeared, but it did reinvent itself
  10. The Saxone shoe company rounds off the list

Meta post #1: Why I created letslookagain.com

What led me to create letslookagain.com?

From an early age I had a curiosity about brands and companies. I would pester adults with questions, “why do Shell operate more petrol stations than BP?” and “Why are McDonald’s more successful than Burger King?”

I assumed that because I cared about the answers to these questions that other people did to. I soon realised that mine was a rather minority interest. I tried to find answers to my questions, but largely in vain. Reading newspapers such as The Economist and the Financial Times sated some interest, but still left me unfulfilled.

There was no widespread internet access back then. The books that could help me were only to be found in university libraries, none of which I had access to. The books about business that were available tended to have a left-wing slant, such as No Logo (1999) by Naomi Klein and Fast Food Nation (2001) by Eric Schlosser. Disappointed, I instead turned to regular history, which was much easier to get my hands on. Niall Ferguson highlighted for me the value of approaching history from an economic perspective.

I was later encouraged by journalists such as Adam Curtis and Malcolm Gladwell. They were innately curious about the world, and explored this with a sense of playfulness. Curtis chronicled advertising and brand management in The Century of the Self (2002), and Gladwell’s 2004 essay, ‘The Ketchup Conundrum‘, explored how Heinz developed the leading tomato ketchup in the world. I had found people who were interested in what I was interested in, and furthermore, Curtis and Gladwell demonstrated that business history could be engaging.

With increasing internet access, I was able to delve more deeply into business history. I quickly became jaded by official company websites, where “company histories” were often demonstrably incorrect, or highly biased. Wikipedia and Grace’s Guides were helpful references, but they had glaring gaps in their coverage, and often hosted inaccuracies.

A huge inspiration was the blogs of Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson. Cornell and Pattinson focused on the history of brewing, and by concentrating on primary sources were able to demonstrate that many oft-repeated historical claims were inaccurate.

I became a dedicated Wikipedia editor, but eventually grew frustrated by the lack of control over my contribution. I therefore decided to create a blog of my own. Cornell and Pattinson and others already had beer pretty well covered, so I decided to focus more broadly on food and drink.

So to answer the original remit of this short essay, an innate curiosity about the world of business and brands is why I created and continue to develop this blog. As I have myself been able to learn from others, I am glad to be able to help to educate others in the same way.