Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore


Throughout the 19th century, food consumed in Singapore by its different communities was mainly sourced locally and from around the region. It was common to find tips and guides on how to procure local produce from markets and provision shops in cooking books published in Singapore until the first half of the 20th century. In particular, books targeted at European audiences contained guides for those wishing to cook dishes from abroad with local ingredients. For example, dairy cream and milk would be substituted with locally sourced coconut milk, and oranges and lemons (found only in North America or Europe at the time), with locally sourced limes.

However, there was a revolution in food consumption across the world – including Singapore – in the early 20th century, as food technology such as aerated water, preservatives, refrigeration and tinned food, in particular, entered the mainstream. By the turn of the century, residents in Singapore were able to procure meats, fruits, dairy, and vegetables from overseas that were previously unavailable locally. This explosion of new foods in the market meant that new ingredients from overseas could be incorporated into local dishes.

The rise of manufactured local and foreign food products prompted a rise in advertising for them, which could be found in all manner of books, newspapers and magazines. As the ability to purchase and consume imported and manufactured food products was a sign of relative wealth, many products advertised food with images of a modern, affluent lifestyle, framing their consumption as something to be desired.

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Foods from

A lot of food imported to Singapore throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries were considered luxury products, as shipping was a costly and arduous process. Thus, no matter the original branding or cost of any given product, most were advertised as high-end items, either due to their nature as ‘non-essential’ foods, or by virtue of them being unavailable locally.

Advertisers would go out of their way to elevate the value of their goods, with lovely illustrations of food and packaging to entice their audience. Many such ads emphasised the origin of their products, as a large part of the appeal of buying imported food was the exoticism and novelty of having access to foods from around the world.


Household &
Local Brands

At the turn of the century, food processing technology in Singapore was advanced enough for local food manufacturing to flourish. Many of the earliest manufactured local foods were drink and aerated water companies, but soon grew to include canned foods and produce, bread, dairy, and ice cream.

Advertising for local goods was targeted both at local residents, as well as for export. No matter the audience, advertisers invariably emphasised their brands’ Malayan origins, proud to be at the forefront of food manufacturing technology and progress. This resulted in a prevalence of ads sporting copy such as ‘Malaya’s latest contribution to the world!’, or using local vernacular names for their products alongside English names.



I dreamt a dream a few nights back, a lovely dream it was: a vision of earthly paradise to a man who for years has battled with the flesh of Himalayan sheep and loosened his teeth on the fibrous bullocks of Hind…Sirloins of juicy beef were elbowing well-trimmed joints of luscious mutton and quarters of tender lamb.
– A letter in The Straits Times following the arrival of frozen
foods to Singapore on 24 March 1905.

The first supermarkets in Singapore emerged from the demand on the island for fresh and frozen foods from overseas, as many Westerners on the island were unaccustomed to locally sourced foods and were dearly longing for meats such as fresh mutton and beef, which were largely unavailable in Singapore for most of the 19th century. The emergence of food refrigeration, in a similar way to tinned food, completely changed the landscape of food consumption in Singapore and around the world. It allowed for fresh meats, dairy, fruits, and vegetables to be shipped, allowing European residents in pre-war Singapore to maintain their Western diets and lifestyles.

The first retailer that would eventually grow to become a supermarket was Cold Storage, founded in 1903. Fitzpatrick’s and the Fresh Food Refrigerating Company followed shortly after. They catered to the island-wide demand for fresh imported produce. Advertising for supermarkets was prolific and widespread, with ads touting the economy, freshness, quality, and variety local and imported produce all in one convenient location – hallmarks of a modern, affluent, middle-class lifestyle.


Health Foods

Singapore’s public grew more health conscious from the late 19th century to the early 1920s due to a growth in the understanding of the relationship between one’s health and a good diet, as well as the increase in public health measures and education. Advertisers caught on to this growing trend and marketed their goods accordingly. They leveraged the public’s desire for a healthy diet for themselves and their families, framing a good diet as the key to good looks, and ultimately, a good life.

As a result, many foods were advertised with promises to boost one’s health, strength, and energy. Many ads claimed to provide one with the additional nutrients required for higher performance in daily life and sporting activities, with some going so far as to promise to aid in slimming and dieting.


Food for Baby

An increase in health consciousness among readers in Singapore went hand-in-hand with the growing concern for infant care and health.

Throughout the early 20th century, there grew to be a large proportion of ads for canned and powdered milk companies that supplied milk and food for infants, which may indicate that infant nutrition was a major concern. Many such ads leveraged on parents’ love and care, as well as their worries and insecurities over the proper provision of nutrition for their children.


A Little Tipple

The production of alcoholic beverages in Malaya has a long history, and local and regionally brewed spirits were readily available in markets or brewed at home. However, beer and liquor were also imported from overseas, and drinks such as port, gin, and brandy became popular and highly taxed beverages. Brands from overseas would attract the local audience by associating themselves with the local drinking culture.

For example, Carlsberg would refer to itself as ‘Carlsberg hijau’ (green in Malay), referencing the local way of referring its signature green bottles. Some brands also advertised themselves as the go-to brand for local cocktails like the ‘stengah’ a local version of a Whiskey and tonic, and the Singapore Sling, a cocktail invented in the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel. Local beers also came into popularity, particularly in 1932 with the launch of Tiger beer, the first locally brewed beer.



Desker & Co.

The Straits Times, 5 August 1865
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Fresh meats were highly sought after in Singapore in the 1800s, as there was only the occasional shipment of fresh meat from overseas, which had to be sold and consumed quickly to avoid spoiling from the lack of re-frigeration.

Getz Bros & Co.

The Straits Times, 18 January 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Before the advent of the modern supermarket, resident and business owners in Singapore sourced their provi-sions directly from importers such as Getz Bros. & Co.

William J. Bernard

The Straits Times, 20 September 1947
Singapore: Straits Times Press

The Fresh Food Refrigerating Co.

The Straits Times, 16 April 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Cold Storage

The Straits Times Annual, 1970
Singapore: Straits Times Press

While Cold Storage may have had its origins as a busi-ness primarily catered towards Europeans living in Sin-gapore, it soon expanded its clientele to include the local audience. Even in the 1970s, supermarket shop-ping remained largely the province of the middle and upper classes, as illustrated in this ad that promises value for money when one shops at Cold Storage.