Best of London Part III – Fortnum & Mason
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Tags: Fortnum & Mason London Luxury Department store
Imagine my surprise to discover I wanted to write a glowing article for my newest Travel Series “Best of London” about a Department store! (Just when did I fall and hit my head, anyways)? But no, there were no mishaps involved. If anything, our discovery was what I would term a “happy accident” as we wandered down Piccadilly Street, the atmosphere vibrant on this uncommonly sunny London day. We paused to focus on the historic grandness all around us – and what should our eyes alight upon but this gorgeously decorated building. Take a peek at our slideshow below to see some of the delights inside this incredible store, and read on below to discover a bit about the history of this prestigious landmark.
Fortnum & Mason, a venerated and historic London landmark, was proclaiming it’s affection for the upcoming Royal Jubilee with a tribute focusing on a grand theme called “The Queen’s Beasts”. Talk about wow-factor! Not only were these colourful creatures perching precariously along the front of the four story building; Fortnum’s window display designer, Paul Symes, chose to highlight the wildly beautiful and historic collection of animals in the large shop windows along Piccadilly Street. As we stepped inside, we could see the theme continued, from ornate cookie tins and jars of marmalade, to bottles of Champagne, bone china teapots, aprons and tea towels. Their fantastical and colorful designs were instantly appealing & delightful.
A brief history helps to understand the British fascination for this iconic department store. The Great Fire of London had swept through London in 1666, and many families had come from Oxford as “high class builders” to help rebuild the St. James and Mayfair Districts as an elite district. Enter William Fortnum, whose family had made the journey to rebuild. William was fortunate to not only land a position as a footman in Queen Anne’s household , but to chance upon a Mr. Hugh Mason who just happened to be looking for a tenant to rent the spare room of his small home and neighbourhood store in St. Jame’s Market. It turned out that the Royal Family had a rather wasteful insistence on having new candles every night. We must give William credit as being one of the very first recyclers! Access to an unlimited supply of wax at no cost meant quite a profit for this enterprising young man. Combine this with Mr. Mason’s shop business, and one could say the spark of possibilities was lit for the two young businessmen.
As the 1700′s brought about a plethora of new trading routes, international trading exploded with Fortnum & Mason front and centre, sourcing & selling unique & delicious goods that could be bought nowhere else in the world. Indian spices, honey, fresh & dried fruits, exotic nuts, olives, preserves, coffee’s and tea, and innovative tools such as nutcrackers and jar openers all made an appearance at Fortnum & Mason. A historic encounter was had with one “Mr. Heinz” who travelled to London to introduce his invention, “tinned baked beans” having heard about Fortnum and Mason’s special “knives for opening tins”. Fortnum & Mason bought all five cases, recognizing the potential of marketing this nutritious staple to the masses of the UK, and England has never been without tinned beans since.
Throughout the 1800’s, Fortnum & Mason continued to show their commitment to innovative marketing by leading the way with “ready to eat luxury foods” popular with the affluent citizens who flocked to London to sample Scottish Eggs, truffles, lobster salad, mangoes, boar’s head, presented beautifully and with “no preparing required”. Suddenly Fortnum & Mason hampers were seen decorating the grassy banks of every Boat Race, on the sidelines at Wimbledon, in the stands at Polo matches and making appearance at Royal Ascot races with the very best finger foods & fine spirits available for the delectable enjoyment of the upper crust.
Fortnum & Mason went to work with the troops and the civilians when WWI and WWII swept through Europe, keeping food supplies safe & preserved in tins (the only packaging proven to be rat-proof) and keeping the women working while the men were on the front lines. Always reliable for providing a touch of luxury when it seemed the most impossible, Fortnum’s opened a special Officers’ Department during WWII, dedicated to providing senior Officers a break from “bully beef”, also offering “insect powder”, exotic cigarettes and “an EPNS tip for a bayonet (so much more elegant for spreading Gentlemen’s Relish”. The “Spork”, a combination knife-and fork also made it’s appearance (naturally it was silver-plated) and the company also patented the ”Fortknee’, a short stocking to cover the knees and lower thighs of lady drivers in the services.
The relative peace and prosperity of the 21st Century has enabled Fortnum & Mason to focus on somewhat more frivolous delights. They have taken part in “Expeditions” to Africa and the Himalayas, and provided champagne and foie gras to those battling to climb Mt Everest. In warmer climes Howard Carter’s Tutankhamun expedition used Fortnum’s wine boxes to help catalogue the rare antiquities, including a statue of the boy-king as Aten, the Sun. It seems that no corner of the earth has escaped an encounter with Fortnum & Mason.
One last strange but noteworthy fact remains. On the rooftop of their exclusive London location, a colony of bees decided to make their home. They are now rather famously known as “Fortnum’s Bees”. Rather than call in Pest Control, Fortnum & Mason’s “Sweet Grocery” Buyer, Jonathan Miller, recognized an opportunity. Mr. Miller decided to design distinctive Beehives – actually more like Bee Palaces – to attract and keep honey bees very happy. So happy, in fact, that they would produce a distinctive style of honey that would be a Fortnum and Mason feature. The bees produced their first crop of honey in 2008, and since then there has been a waiting list to purchase the honey which tastes different from year to year, but is always delicious. These bees graze from London’s parks and gardens, and dabble in and around the thousands of exotic flowers from all the private London gardens available to them. “Fortnum’s Bees” has been a decided success, and a “Bee Cam” has been installed so that aficionados can watch their favourite honey-makers at work.
If London is on your travel agenda, don’t miss a eye-popping visit to this very unique, historic and luxurious “department store”.