Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore


Modernising the Malayan Home

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modern utilities and amenities like gas, electricity and piped water revolutionised domestic life across the world. Singapore was no exception. Along with such modern amenities, a vast array of appliances appeared on the market, radically changing the way people cooked, cleaned, and entertained themselves at home.

Singapore housing’s journey to modernity from the 19th century onwards had its complications. This was primarily due to the vastly different living conditions among the population. Wealthy families, both expatriates and locals, largely lived in the town centre and its environs in ‘modern’ homes made of brick. They were generally the first to receive new amenities such as running water, sanitation, piped gas, and electricity. The majority of the local population, on the other hand, either lived in kampongs (villages) on the outskirts of town and beyond, or crammed into partitioned tenement shop houses well into the 1960s. The physical construction of their homes did not allow the use of modern amenities and home appliances.

Nevertheless, in spite of the slow introduction of home amenities to Singapore households, the market for such equipment on the island was large enough for local dealerships to start importing them from overseas, initially limiting the marketing of their products to newspapers and publications likely to read by wealthier locals who would be more likely to afford their products and live in homes that were able to support modern amenities.

Advertising for home appliances diversified greatly after the Second World War, with products featured in newspapers of all languages, including magazines and souvenir publications with large circulations. This was largely due to the increased affluence of the local population after the years of war and economic depression, as well as rise in modern housing.

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the Home

Before the advent of gas and electricity in Singapore, municipal and household power came from the burning of oil, coal and wood. In 1862, the Singapore Gas Company opened Kallang Gasworks, the first plant dedicated to manufacturing gas for street lighting. In 1901, gas production was taken over by the Municipal Commissioners and expanded for home use.

Electricity followed swiftly after: Raffles Place, North Bridge Road and Boat Quay were the first streets to be lit using electrical lighting in 1906. Electrical supply was made available for public use soon after, albeit only to households that could support and afford the installation of wiring systems.

As a result, home gas and electricity were often advertised in newspapers, books, and magazines, with the messaging revolving mainly around their economic benefits, reliability, safety and convenience. Advertisers such as the municipal gas and electricity departments took pains to assure customers that the energy saved in the long run would be worth the relatively large start-up cost of installing gas pipes and electrical wiring in their homes. Many advertisers also portrayed home gas and electricity as staples of a decent home and things to be greatly desired.



The introduction of electricity in the home created a consumer market for household goods and entertainment, resulting in a flood of new inventions from the United States, Europe and later, Japan. These products started to become heavily advertised from the early 20th century on.

In general, advertising for household goods in Malaya was undertaken by the local dealerships and department stores that imported them. The majority of other advertising was undertaken by major brands such as General Electric Company, Morphy-Richards and National – companies that had the capital to run extensive ad campaigns to promote their goods in what had become a fairly competitive market.

Initially, many household appliances were affordable only to more affluent households. For example, an electric iron was advertised in The Straits Times in 1947 at the price of 11.50 Straits dollars, which was equivalent to almost two months’ wages of a factory worker at the time. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, these appliances had become much more accessible to middle-class households, resulting in more extensive advertising.

Home appliances were often marketed as essential to the ‘modern home’. The ‘ideal household’ was an idea that existed long before home gadgets, but in early 20th century advertising, it soon came to mean a home fully equipped with modern conveniences and home entertainment.


Your Cool

Electric fans and air-conditioning were introduced within a few decades of each other in the early 1900s. Most of the companies importing air-conditioning units and offering installation services and other forms of household technology installation were engineering firms such as United Engineers, whose origins in Singapore date back to the mid-19th century. These inventions were particularly useful for the heat of the tropics and were advertised as tools for comfort, and even as ways to metaphorically transport people to cooler climates.


At Home for

One of the most exciting introductions to the early to mid-20th century household was home entertainment in the form of radios, televisions, and record players. These innovations grew to become household staples, and created an entirely new way for families to spend their time. People could enjoy recordings of popular and classical music, radio and television shows and dramas, daily news from around the world, as well as sports and racing commentaries all from the comfort of home. Radio and television would eventually grow to dominate media and communication around the world, with advertisers quickly learning to use such channels to sell goods and services.

Advertisements to encourage home entertainment consumption largely revolved around the newfound ability to be in touch with local and global news and entertainment almost instantaneously. Breaking news reports could now be received via broadcast, rather than relatively delayed newspapers or telegrams. Radios, record players, and televisions were considered fairly pricey luxuries then, and many advertisements encouraged the perception of home entertainment ownership as a privilege and sign of wealth.


Radio & Record Players

There was no shortage of radio and gramophone content in Malaya even before the advent of television. Big name recording companies such as Pathé, HMV, and Columbia distributed records by international and home-grown artists. With daily listings of new records available in newspapers and magazines, most advertising to do with radio content was centred around content providers and companies, with fewer ads focusing on specific artists or musicians compared to today.

The first local radio station was Radio ZHI, started by the Radio Service Company of Malaya in 1933, followed by the British Malayan Broadcasting Corporation, which provided the Empire Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (now the BBC World Service) in 1935. This allowed listeners in Singapore to receive overseas content, which had a hand in increasing interest in radio. But Rediffusion, Singapore’s first and only cable-transmitted radio service, would become arguably the most popular and influential radio service in the country’s history, with almost ten thousand subscriptions on the island within its first few months of broadcasting.


Who Runs
The Household?

Throughout the early 20th century, many advertisers of household and domestic goods considered women as their target audience. An overwhelming number of advertisements featured women as the main consumers and users of home technology, and products targeted at men were extremely rare. The prevalence of such depictions – unprecedented before the advent of pictorial advertising – not only reflected, but also influenced public perceptions of the role of women in society, namely as belonging in the domestic sphere, taking on the role of care-giving and household management.

Women in Singapore had, by the 1950s and 1960s, entered the workforce in fairly large numbers, but they were generally still expected to undertake housekeeping and child-rearing as their primary roles. This doubling of duties, among other factors, relegated many women to shift work and other relatively low-paying jobs such as factory or secretarial work so they could be available to take care of the home. With this in mind, the main bulk of household appliance advertising focused on making women’s lives as domestic labourers easier. Advertisements stressed how the cost of purchasing their products would be more than made up for with the reduction in time and effort spent doing housework, rewarding the busy woman with a more carefree, simpler life.

More fundamentally, advertisers tried to mould attitudes to suit household consumerism, for instance by imbuing housework with a certain idealism and romanticism. Ads sometimes implied that the work performed by a woman around the house was not done out of necessity, but a labour of love; that the care she put into it was an indicator of her love for her husband and children. The purchase of appliances that allowed housework to be done more efficiently was, therefore, an investment into caring for the family and a symbol of a woman’s dedication to her primary role as a wife and mother.

Interestingly, according to studies on advertising and gender since the 1960s, the representation of women in household roles did not decrease. Instead, brands attempted to diversify the images of families using household items, with men sometimes shown participating in the upkeep of the household, at least after the late 1960s.



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.