The Jenners Archive: Your Ultimate Guide to Unrationed Chic

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The Second World War was a time of clothes rationing. We hold the Jenners Archive in the museum’s library which documents the clothes that were available. Library Assistant Linden Williamson delves into the archive to guide us through the fashion trends of the day through the eyes of a housewife in 1940’s Edinburgh.

Who does the woman in the picture below look like to you? A glamourous Hollywood icon? Perhaps someone from one of those vintage comedy greetings cards, the kind with funny captions about drinking too much or growing old disgracefully? 

Booklet of pictures of hats from Jenners Limited, c.1939. Jenners Archive (JEN/3/147 pg.5)

Let us play a game. Let’s imagine you’re her for a moment. To help, I’ll paint you a picture. You’re a housewife in Second World War Edinburgh (and luckily for you, a comfortably off one). Let’s call you Muriel.

It’s a Friday morning and you, Muriel, are slumped over the pitiful excuse for a breakfast (due to rationing) you’ve attempted to make (after your servant abandoned you to join the Women’s Land Army). Nibbling a corner of your charred, eggless, butterless toast, you sip your powdered milk tea and pour over a (much reduced due to paper rationing) newspaper. Turning the pages, your eye catches the shocking embarrassment of your work-worn hands. They look as shabby and tired as the rest of you does. 

Extract from a Jenners Limited Christmas advertisement in The Scotsman, 17/12/1941. NMS Library’s. Jenners Archive (‘Newspapers’ scrapbook, pg.159)

You’d love to cheer yourself up with some doeskin gloves, maybe even a dress, but without ration the tokens, that just seems impossible. Why, even your stockings are rationed! 

Jenners Limited notification in The Scotsman, 21/10/1940. Jenners Archive (‘Newspapers’ Scrapbook, pg.99).

And that’s when you see it. Staring straight up from the newsprint is a Jenner’s advertisement. Now, Jenners, doesn’t that bring back memories? ‘The most fashionable department store in Scotland,’ ‘the Harrods of the North’. It’s the place where your father’s sister from Morningside, the aunt your Mother snidely referred to as ‘all fur coat and no knickers,’ actually brought her fur coats. (And was rather pleased with this dyed squirrel number, as you can see!) 

Advertisement from a Jenners Limited Fine Furs catalogue, Autumn 1935. Jenners Archive (JEN/2/29, pg.10)

It’s where your mother used to buy her charming hats (no, that isn’t a mop attached to her head, but a lavish display of ostrich feathers). 

A Jenners Limited fashion plate in The Scots Pictorial, 31/10/1908. Jenners Archive (JEN/3/8 pg.116) 

And it’s where your parents would bring you every Christmas, to be terrified by this early version of Mickey Mouse (sometimes you still have nightmares). 

Black and white photo of a early Mickey Mouse toy and with other soft toys in a Christmas advertisement.
Front cover of a Jenners Limited Christmas Catalogue. Jenners Archive (JEN/2/8).

Getting back to the newspaper advertisement, Jenners spells out in an elegant font:

Her clothes rationed, the smart woman will develop her technique of chic with unrationed accessories. Most important of these is hats.

Jenners Newspaper advertisement.

Photograph taken from ‘Hats flowers handbags,’ a Jenners Limited brochure, 1941. Jenners Archive (JEN/2/30 pg.13)  

Hats! They’re unrationed! 

Now why hadn’t you thought of this before?

‘Handbags too are unrationed, and with few exceptions made to carry a gas mask smartly and without bulk.’

Photograph taken from ‘Hats flowers handbags,’ a Jenners Limited advertisement 1941. Jenners Archive (JEN/2/30 pg.11)

Huh. Now that’s interesting…

A crumb from your parched toast gets caught in your throat in your excitement. After a minor coughing fit, you abandon your miserable breakfast and march off to Jenners, as quick as your scuffed Oxfords will carry you. Not having had the need to visit for some time, you notice that even this beautiful haven of luxury has not remained unmarred by war.  

The gentlemen’s area, helpfully labelled The MAN’S SHOP (dare any woman to consider entering it), has now been largely turned over to selling officers uniforms. 

Jenners Limited advertisement for The Man’s Shop from the British Legion Yearbook, 1945.  Jenners Archive (‘Miscellaneous Advertising’ scrapbook, pg.82) 

And craning up from the central atrium, you see that part of the second floor where furniture used to be displayed has been turned over to an enemy aircraft identification exhibition.

Jenners Limited Aircraft Identification Exhibition advertisement from the Scotsman, 23/11/1940.  Jenners Archive (‘Directors Book’ scrapbook 1940, pg.124) 

Nonetheless, you skip down the stairs two at a time and upon reaching the basement’s leather department, are relieved to find it all looking gloriously familiar.

An unidentifiable amount of time later, you leave the store, ready to take on the world. 

Jenners Limited Mode Spring 1940 booklet. NMS Library’s Jenners Archive (JEN/2/20 pg.8) 

You notice the clouds have parted and a ray of sun shines through, right down onto you and the darling new handbag you’re clutching (a delightful beaver-brown number with a pocket for a mirror and lipstick, oh yes and room for that gas mask of course). You feel an exhilarating rush you haven’t felt in such a long time, that sugar buzz; the intoxication of a new purchase.   

Photograph taken from ‘Hats flowers handbags,’ a Jenners Limited advertisement brochure, 1941.  Jenners Archive (JEN/2/30 pg.9). 

Your smile is so wide, your jaw is starting to ache. People are staring at you, but why should you care? You wonder how long this feeling will last, before deciding it doesn’t matter. In this moment, the sky looks less grey than it did this morning, the buildings seem less dilapidated, your clothes less tired and the shadows of war seem ever so slightly, just that little bit, less dark.  


OK, so why have you been told some story about a Second World War housewife? You thought this was a blog about what staff get up to at the museum. No, Muriel doesn’t really exist. She’s made up. However, the scene setting is not. Some details, such as paper being rationed during World War II, I didn’t know until I discovered our Museum Library’s Jenners Archive. So, what is the Jenners Archive?  

If you’ve ever looked up at Edinburgh’s Scott Monument from Princes Street Gardens, you would have seen the grand Jenners building behind it. Jenners, the oldest independent department store in Scotland, is currently closed for refurbishment. Our Museum Library cares for an archive containing Jenners related material, mainly advertisements, from the late 19th century onwards. 

It’s packed full of truly magnificent fashion inspiration… 

Jenners Limited fashion plate from The Scots Pictorial, 1908. Jenners Archive (JEN/3/19). 

I also find that when browsing the yellowed advertisements, I glean snippets of information on the goings on, both within the department store and wider world outside. These details build up, like layers of paint on a canvas, until I’m transported back to the many Jenners that have existed before this one. To when the rustle of petticoats frequented the corridors or when Apple Blossom Fragrance wafted over perfumery counters and beauty treatments came packaged in bakelite boxes. The advertisements speak of the hopes and fears of the largely female customers, which like today advertisers knew full well how to manipulate.

The archive demonstrates how seismic shifts in the fabric of history, such as the Second World War, filtered down to impact the everyday lives of citizens. It gives us the opportunity to step into the shoes of a Edinburgh housewife of the time.

If you’d like another shopping trip back in time, you can explore our Jenners Archive here and/or email us at You can also learn more about our Library Collection here. Our Research Library, on Level 3 of the National Museum of Scotland, happily receives visitors Tuesday to Friday between 10:30 to 12:30 and 13:30 to 15:30.

Photograph of some of NMS Library’s Jenners Scrapbooks

Much material is stored elsewhere, so please give us a working days’ notice to fetch items you’d like to see. (Each of our Jenners Scrapbooks, for example, must weigh the size of a small child!)