Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore


Retail advertising in Singapore from the late 19th century to the early 20th century was dominated by a few department stores such as John Little, Robinsons and Whiteaway Laidlaw. While some of them went on to become household names that people took for granted, their early advertisements actually signalled the dawn of a new era of retail and shopping.

The department store was a mid-19th century innovation that came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Urbanisation, mass production and rise of the middle class were factors that led to its establishment and ensured its survival. It created a new retail culture in which shopping, once a mundane task, was elevated to a social and leisure activity. Consumers, especially women, could now have access to and pursue the latest fashions. At the turn of the 20th century, department stores in Europe became monumental in scale and grandeur. The London department store Whiteleys proclaimed itself a ‘universal provider’ selling ‘everything from a pin to an elephant’. Department stores in Singapore and Malaya emerged around the same time, modelling themselves after their British counterparts.

The ads of these stores often boasted of their endless array of merchandise – usually imported from Europe, as well as their luxury and modern amenities. They enticed consumers with material richness and a pleasurable retail experience, which, however, was the preserve of Europeans and local elites in pre-Second World War era. While colonial Singapore already had the reputation of a shopping haven, as the Federated Malay States developed, similar department stores, such as Pritchard and Chow Kit, opened in upcountry Malaya.

Shopping in Singapore was not limited to large department stores. Before Orchard Road emerged as a retail hub, High Street and Raffles Place were upmarket shopping belts where the latest fashion and lifestyle merchandise could be had.

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Malaya’s Sale of the Year:
Robinson & Co

Robinsons, established in 1858 as Spicer & Robinson, had a humble beginning as a family warehouse at Commercial Square (now Raffles Place) selling European groceries. It soon extended its business to millinery and dressmaking, and within a few decades, was a popular store among European expatriates. By the 1900s, Robinsons had become one of the leading department stores in Singapore, comprising over 20 departments for drapery, hosiery, haberdashery, home furnishing, motors and cycles, photographic and sports equipment and more. Catering to the colonial pastime of game hunting, it even had a department for arms and ammunition.

In the post-war period, Robinsons continued to grow by leaps and bounds with its takeover of fellow retail giant John Little in 1955. With nearly 40 departments and being the first air-conditioned department store in Malaya, it was touted as the ‘handsomest shop in the Far East’. During this time, it already had the equivalent of the Robinsons Sale – a regular newsletter published by Robinsons announced the ‘Big Sale’ with the slogan ‘Malaya’s Sale of the Year’.


The Finest Store East of Suez:
John Little & Co

John Little, Singapore’s oldest department store was founded in 1845 as a retailer and auctioneer. Its business grew extensively in the following decades. By the 1900s, the store had become one of the foremost retail establishments in Asia – in addition to retail, John Little also operated a car business, a motor garage, a furniture factory, a café and a beauty salon.

In 1910, John Little’s new three-storey building in Raffles Place was completed. The magnificent Renaissance-style building was built by leading architects Swan & Maclaren. Shopping must have been an experience in the new store – it offered 3.5 acres of shopping space filled with goods from the ‘best markets of the world’ (presumably Europe); luxurious tiffin rooms and modern amenities such as electric lifts and fans. The store had departments for wines and spirits, provisions, home furnishing, watches and clocks, books and stationery, arms and ammunition, ladies and gentlemen’s outfitting, etc. – all under European supervision. Its ad proudly declared itself ‘the Finest Store East of Suez’ and an attraction for both well-heeled residents as well as tourists.


Whiteleys of The East:
Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. and
Other Malayan Stores

Whiteaway Laidlaw was another prominent department store in colonial Singapore, known for its range of apparel and home furnishings of every description. Founded in Calcutta, India in 1882, the British-owned retailer had a business empire spanning across Asia with branches in some 20 cities in India, Southeast Asia and China, primarily serving the needs of the growing number of Westerners there at the turn of the 20th century. Whiteaway’s Singapore branch opened in 1900. Described as ‘Whiteleys of the East’ – referring to the famed London department store of the era – its other Malayan branches included Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh and Taiping, among others.

The emergence of department stores in British Malaya was closely tied to developments in trade and commerce. Singapore, being a major commercial hub and port of call, had the highest concentration of retail establishments. Penang, another Straits Settlements port, had its own ‘universal provider’ in Pritchard & Co. The booming tin mining industry and formation of the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1895 brought commerce upcountry. FMS capital Kuala Lumpur had its first department store, Chow Kit & Co., in 1905 – it was also the first non-European-owned department store in Malaya.


Fashion Shopping

Singapore’s retail landscape has changed drastically since the early 19th century. Orchard Road’s rise as the city’s premier shopping destination was a relatively recent development. Before the 1970s, Raffles Place and the High Street-North Bridge Road area reigned supreme when it came to shopping for fashion merchandise.

Constructed in 1821, High Street was the oldest thoroughfare in Singapore. It was well-known for shops set up by Sindhi traders selling imported fine textiles and Chinese tailors offering their services to the elite. Another shopping area, Raffles Place (originally known as Commercial Square), was designated as a European and mercantile quarter and home to the earliest banks, trading houses and shops, which later evolved into magnificent department stores – John Little and Robinsons.

As seen in the ads from the 1900s to the 1940s, the two areas were home to high-end men’s tailors, boutiques selling European fashions, hairdressing and beauty salons, jewellers and other shops selling luxury goods from all over the world. These shops catered mainly to resident or touring Europeans and well-heeled locals.

Before the Second World War, Singapore had a small but enterprising Japanese community, with Middle Road as its enclave. The shops here offered an alternative to Western products and were popular for their fashion imports from Japan.



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.