Where do you import products from, if you have little or no native design industry or manufacturing? How do they differ from the products designed for the home market, and how are they advertised and promoted? These are questions that I have been considering in relation to domestic electric products sold in Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s, where the tiny native product manufacturing sector was dwarfed by the range and breadth of products imported from outside the State. My initial research in Irish archives had discovered a range of European and American domestic product brands sold in Ireland – from Morphy Richards and Goblin, to Hoover, Frigidaire and General Electric, and Philips, Bosch and Electrolux.
The importation, advertising and sale of Siemens products is particularly central, because of the role that the Siemens group of engineering companies played in the original electrification of the Irish Free State in the 1920s. For this reason, I particularly wanted to investigate further the relationship between Siemens and the Irish market, focussing on the elements of their product range imported into the country during the 1950s and 1960s. Siemens archival material has been held within the parent company archive in Munich, but this archive is currently in the process of being transferred to the main Siemens campus in Berlin, re-opening in January 2017. The DHS Travel Grant allowed me to visit the Siemens Archive in Munich before its closure, in order to investigate its holdings on exports to Ireland, and to compare them with the full range of Siemens domestic electrical products available in Germany in the same time period.
This visit allowed me to look for several things in the Siemens Archive, not least understanding the corporate structure and focus of Siemens Ireland. The Archive holds both general export statistics of Siemens business to a wide range of countries, and detailed material based on exports to specific markets. This detailed material included a very useful breakdown of exports to Ireland in 1960, broken down into a detailed list of more than 150 different types of electrical machinery, medical products, audio products, and a detailed list of domestic electrical products. This gives a very useful snapshot of the range of products sold by Siemens at that time, particularly when compared to Irish advertisements and import statistics from the same year.
In terms of the wider Siemens product range, the archive has extensive holdings, including discussions of market positioning, press photographs, internal reports and material on factories, product manufacturing, cooking demonstrations and advertising strategies. Of particular interest were a large number of promotional brochures, including 1960s issues of Der Neue Haushalt (The New Household) and the staff catalogue of discounted products Fuer Uns (For Us). I was also able to view a wide range of individual product manuals, ranging from ovens, toasters and vacuum cleaners sold in Ireland, to unknown ‘luxury’ products such as tumble driers and dishwashers that I have not seen advertised in Irish newspapers and magazines.
This combination of economic and visual source material will allow me to develop a more nuanced picture not just of what products were imported into Ireland during this time period, but what economic or market conditions influenced the decision to import a particularly subset of their broader range. It will also allow me to carry out a visual analysis of the Siemens vision of the modern German housewife, to compare with the Irish situation.
I would like to thank the Design History Society for the award of this travel grant, as well as the staff of the Siemens Archive, and hope that the move to the new premises goes well. Since my visit to Munich, I have been awarded an AHRC Leadership Fellow for the larger research project into women, domesticity and electrical products in the rural Irish home in the 1950s and 1960s. This research project will include archival research, object analysis and oral history, focusing on the effects of the Electricity Supply Board's rural electrification project, and the project partner is National Museum of Ireland Country Life in Castlebar, county Mayo.