'Chemists to the Nation, Pharmacy to the World': Exploring the Global Dimensions of British Healthcare and Beauty with Boots the Chemists, 1919-1980

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: History

Abstract

This project will explore the largely unknown international history of British healthcare and beauty, using Boots the Chemists, Britain's most recognised chain pharmacist, as the central case study. The project spans the period from 1919, when the company posted its first sales agent overseas, to the streamlining of its divisions in 1980. It examines how Boots established itself as a prospector, retailer and manufacturer overseas, but also how it continually absorbed international influences as part of its home marketing strategies. Drawing on Boots' vast, underexplored archive (c.5,000 boxes of approximately 500,000 items), this project bridges medical, social, cultural, business, colonial and transnational history. The project team are not interested in writing a classic business biography of Boots' success and growth, rather they are interested in exploring what the Boots story reveals about the international dynamics of the British health and beauty industries. The central research question asks: How does Boots' international archive allow us to map the global networks that moulded and sustained British experiences of healthcare and beauty both at home and abroad? To answer this, thematically focused work packages will recreate the life-cycles of key products within six product domains (pain management, personal hygiene, surgical supplies, vitamins, perfumes, and skincare) across local, national and international spaces. These six focal areas have been selected because of their ample archival resources and their potential to illustrate how complex imperial and other global networks of materials, knowledge and people underpinned the development of British healthcare and beauty, both at home and overseas.

This pioneering research will appear in leading academic journals across the historical humanities and in a co-authored book. It will advance early career capacity by employing a full-time postdoctoral researcher, and provide additional opportunities for an already funded M4C doctoral student. Three interdisciplinary academic workshops will explore new perspectives on the internationalisation of the UK beauty and healthcare industries and will open the project to colleagues in geography, pharmacy, medicine, literature and linguistics.

The project team will showcase findings via an easily navigable website featuring information about the project, links to relevant resources and quarterly updated project stories, attractively illustrated with archival images. Some of these stories will be authored by the project team and some by 'citizen researchers'. These contributors will be identified through call outs via social media, Boots newsletters, and the local press, and might be local history enthusiasts, former Boots employees or business people reflecting on historical context. Additional outreach will include two pieces of popular history, a high-profile public exhibition, with a touring component and accompanying public talks, timed to coincide with Boots' 175th anniversary in 2024. A further outreach strategy targets professional archivists via three initiatives i) working with Boots Archive staff to help inform their cataloguing and digitisation strategies; ii) holding three innovative 'Archive Roadshows' where team members visit other significant business archives (Unilever, Marks and Spencer, John Lewis) to reflect on the usefulness and accessibility of their resources; iii) hosting an Archive Study Day to bring together company archivists throughout the UK. Finally, team members will work with Nottinghamshire County Council to run two 'Knowledge Labs' to consider how this research might stimulate creative thinking about current issues facing the UK high street. Sessions will discuss not only how local growth is internationally informed, but also how international markets are heavily influenced by smaller local developments.

Planned Impact

The research identifies three beneficiary groups in its impact strategy:

1) the general public (reached via a website, a public exhibition with touring component, two popular history pieces):
During year one University of Nottingham Information Services, in collaboration with the project team, will build and launch an attractive project website. Simplicity will guide design, with archive-sourced visuals acting as portals to project information, a newsfeed of planned activities, and research stories. News stories will be regularly updated and announced via a linked Twitter account. To integrate the community into its local heritage, some stories will be authored, with project team support, by 'citizen researchers' (such as local history enthusiasts or former Boots employees or customers) recruited via callouts in social media, Boots newsletters, and the local press.

A public exhibition, prominently showcased at the new Nottingham Central Library, and estimated to attract c.250,000 visitors during its four-month opening, will be rolled out to coincide with Boots' 175th anniversary. The exhibition, which has funding promised from Boots, will examine the international reach of, and international influences upon, this company in the development and reception of its beauty and healthcare provision. Three accompanying talks, pitched to non-specialists, will raise civic awareness about the international dimensions of this heritage story. A launch event for local dignitaries and media representatives, will be arranged to generate the widest possible publicity. After the exhibition, exhibition boards will tour three Nottinghamshire County Council libraries (Beeston, Arnold and Worksop) plus Nottingham Archives, with the team providing three more community focused educational talks for the council's library regeneration project.

Finally, two popular articles (The Conversation, History Today) will disseminate project findings to a wider public audience.

2) regional business leaders and economic development strategists (reached via two 'Knowledge Labs'):
In collaboration with Nottinghamshire County Council, two 'Knowledge Labs' in years two and three (on 'manufacture' and 'retail', respectively), will bring the project team together with councillors and local industry leaders to feed into discussions concerning economic development and urban regeneration. Each event will address a practical question of contemporary relevance and will begin with a presentation by the project team of their research before progressing to open discussion and workshop activities. The goal is two-fold: to create a novel networking opportunity between councillors, academics and business representatives; and to encourage creative discussions over the use of companies' local and global histories in tackling challenges facing UK manufacturing and high-street retail.

3) professional archival staff (reached via four Boots Archive Strategy Meetings, three Business Archive Roadshows and one Business Archive Study Day):
Annual meetings with Boots Archive staff will allow staff to dialogue with the project team. These meetings will help the team better understand the challenges and priorities that archivists face, as well as issues unique to corporate archives. This model will be extended to other major business archives via three innovative 'Archive Roadshows' at Unilever (Port Sunlight), Marks and Spencer (Leeds) and John Lewis (Cookham). In each case, the aim is to exchange experiences and to discuss the tensions around academic collaborations and public engagement within a corporate archival environment. The project will culminate in a Business Archive Study Day at Lakeside Arts, Nottingham, 2024. This event will bring together UK company archivists, librarians and conservators to share experiences of reaching, retaining and collaborating with academic researchers. Findings will be published in ARC, the archivists' professional trade magazine.

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