I and many of my readers like a good enamel advertising sign, and I’ve not yet tired of seeing old favourites such as signs advertising Palethorpe’s Sausages or Lyons’ Tea. But here’s one I’d not seen before: a cheerful red sign for the Ronoleke hot-water bottle. It takes us back in so many ways. First of all it recalls the times before central heating when British people slept in unheated bedrooms, a heap of blankets and a trusty hot-water bottle being the first lines of defence against the cold. Was that frost on the inside of the bedroom window? Yes, it was.
The sign also takes us back to a forgotten brand – forgotten by me at any rate. The unique selling point, apparently, memorialized in the name, was the leak-proof top. The Chemist and Druggist explained, in an issue dating back to October 1922:
The patent neck is a great improvement and will give satisfaction to your customers. Instead of wiring, you get a solid rubber neck built in the bottle itself. There is no washer to perish. The flange of the screw top engages with a solid rubber platform shaped in the neck. The Ronoleke is the only perfectly water tight rubber bottle and, of course, it is infinitely stronger and will outlast any ordinary make. In every way, it is a high quality production.
The Ronoleke, says The Chemist and Druggist, was backed up with a national press advertising campaign. They don’t mention enamel signs, but this survivor gives us an idea of the approach: bright colour, bold lettering, and an appeal both to those suffering from a multitude of cold-related ailments and to people who want a bottle that lasts for years and doesn’t leak. It’s a busy sign, full of words, but the red background, striped edge, and clear lettering are effective and the brand name stands out loud and clear in its outlined script.
Hats off, then, to the Severn Valley Railway, for finding this sign and putting it up at their Kidderminster station. The heritage railways do so much good work, in so many ways. As well as restoring track, rolling stock, and railway buildings, their efforts to show their stations in period style result in the preservation and display of countless bits of incidental equipment and visual detail, including many of the old signs that were once all over railway stations. Pacing the platform at Kidderminster or Bridgnorth is a real pleasure for anyone interested in the history of design and graphics, or anyone whose imagination is gripped by the social history of bed-warming or smoking or food and drink. It’s all well worth missing a train for.
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Afterword Where are the hot-water bottles now? They are gone mostly, gone like counterpanes, nylon sheets, Goblin Teasmades, and other bedtime impedimenta, although teasmades, apparently are enjoying something of a revival. Anyone who fancies reading an elegy for such vanished things (digs, Ronco, Meccano, proper banks, proper doctors, Kunzle cakes, the Idea of the University), a taxonomy of loss, no less, should buy a copy of Michael Bywater's Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost, & Where Did It Go? (Granta Books, 2004). The entry on Bottles, Water, Hot is, in my opinion, worth the price of admission alone.