Pifco: A Manchester institution that shaped our Electric Generations
By Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire
The Provincial Incandescent Fittings Company — better known as Pifco — was established in Manchester by Joseph Webber (1876-1955) to sell lighting appliances and accessories. He was born in Brzostek, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in Poland, and came to London with his family in the 1880s. He worked as a hawker, and then as sole agent for the American Electric Co., as well as being an importer of gas mantles.
Webber filed for bankruptcy in 1900, and with the sale of his wife’s jewellery for £50 set up Pifco. The company made a profit of £1500 in the first 18 months, and in May 1902 became a public limited liability company, with mining interests in Nigeria as part of its portfolio. One of the company’s early markets was in Ireland, and in 1903 it sued the Ulster Fittings Company for loss of payment on goods supplied.
By the 1930s, Pifco had established a lead in the market for battery-powered bicycle headlamps and safety rear lights, and, in 1934, Webber moved the company from their premises in High Street, Manchester, to a bigger warehouse and showroom in Shudehill, just north of the city centre. In 1939, they advertised that its showroom, now called Pifco House, contained all ‘the latest models in Electric Ironers, Vacuum Cleaners, Modern and Antique Domestic and Commercial Lighting Fixtures, Cookers, Infra-Red Lamps, Vibrators, Fans, Clocks, and Razors’.
During and after the Second World War, the company became known for its range of electric grooming products. At a time when appliances were mostly directed at housewives, Pifco’s male grooming appliances proved popular with military personnel in particular. World War II RAF gunner, W.E. ‘Bill’ Goodman, recalled in his wartime memoire of having “a Pifco electric trouser press device that was spring loaded and clamped onto the crease and ‘ironed’ a nice sharp crease in just a few minutes.” In Peter Broadbent’s biography of his time on HMS Ganges in the early 1960s, he recalled with fondness his Pifco electric razor: “with my electric Pifco, I had learned how to avoid slicing the tops off my acne spots”.
The 1950s and 1960s saw an ever-expanding product range. Its ‘Warm-Glow’ electric blankets were hugely popular. Its Christmas fairy lights and nursery lamps are fondly recalled today. They produced a successful line of hairdryers and curling tongues. For the kitchen, there were toasters and a clock-teasmade that fed the domestic needs and lifestyle of an expanding generation of youthful male and female ‘singletons’. Then there was the enthusiasm for health-giving electrical appliances, such as Pifco’s sun lamps and massagers for men and women. As a 1958 advert in Homes and Gardens explained, “Vibratory massage in your own home. A Pifco Electric Vibratory Massager is a wonderful way of getting the benefits of Massage in the comfort of your home. Regular use of this inexpensive appliance assists Nature’s curative powers.”
Around 1970, the company reinforced its Manchester roots by moving into the impressive Regent cotton mill in Failsworth. The rest of the century saw Pifco, like other well-known domestic electrical appliance manufacturers, having to adapt to corporate takeovers and increasing challenges from cheap electrical appliances produced in the Far East.
Belfast News-Letter, 19 January 1903.
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 13 November 1909.
Dundee Evening Telegraph, 6 September 1934.
Manchester Evening News, 27 June 1939.
Peter Broadbent, HMS Ganges Days: From Nozzer to Dabtoe in 386 days (Gosport, 2012).
W.E. ‘Bill’ Goodman, Of Stirlings and Stalags: an air-gunner’s tale (London, 2013).
Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home is on display at the University of Hertfordshire until the end of April 2018, and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester until June 2018. Learn more about Owen and the Electric Generations team here.