by Anna Flood, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)
Some of the most attractive items I have listed in preparation for cataloguing the records in the POST 91: Buildings, Furniture and Fittings series have been the photograph albums of head and branch post office interiors from the 1930s to the 1950s. The quality of the photographs is excellent and they depict the difference in styles ranging from ornate, to minimalist and art deco. They also give an idea of the bustle of public offices during their everyday usage.
Prior to the Second World War little consideration had been given to uniformity in post office interior design. As reflected in the photograph albums new features and layouts were implemented in various offices, but none prevailed. The post office constructed for the Glasgow Exhibition in 1938 was more a showpiece than a model for things to come.
However, a study undertaken by the Post Office Architect’s Branch in 1954, entitled ‘The Public Office: Some Notes on Design and Layout’, indicates a developing concern for the post office interior as a key element of corporate image. Perhaps the “battleship grey” and “chocolate brown” public office colour schemes were too reminiscent of the war. Certainly the muted Ministry of Works 1939 colour schemes for post offices, also in POST 91, have an element of Dad’s Army about them.
It’s hard to tell whether the author of the ‘Notes on Design and Layout’ was entirely serious in his scathing observations on post office interiors; referring to the public office as a “mortician’s parlour” and seemingly haunted by a pair of wall lights, referred to rather ominously in several photographs as “the twins”. The public did not escape criticism either; pondering the height, dimensions and material of counter screens, the author questioned the likelihood of people attempting a smash and grab for the date stamp. He clearly didn’t think much of the habits of the average post office customer, asking whether ash trays were really necessary given the large number of cracks in the floor.
Looking at the photographs of the polished and, in some cases, grand interiors of public offices during this period it seems the criticism they received was unwarranted. The fact that the majority of the photographs appear staged, depicting spotless public offices devoid of their usual activity may actually be advantageous to those interested in the specifics of post office design; the angle from which many of the photographs were taken, providing a broad interior perspective, captures many details of furniture and fittings.
The albums are a valuable illustrative companion to the numerous post office plans and design guidelines currently being catalogued as part of POST 91.
In future blogs I will provide further information on the plans of post office buildings. In particular there are a number of watercolour elevations from the turn of the twentieth century that are most striking in their craftsmanship.