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Teddies, zips & instant potato – our tests fifty years ago

It’s been 55 years since Which? was founded. Over that time consumer trends have changed dramatically. Our tests have changed also – so what were we putting through its paces fifty years ago?

One of the most enjoyable parts of researching this month’s article on consumer trends was going through the archives to see how our product tests have changed over the years.

Not only are we all buying different things today, we also use products in a different way.

The tests we won’t be repeating

There are some tests that I can’t see us repeating. Here’s my top three:

  • We tested zip fasteners in 1960, including putting 15lb weights on the pullers and end stops to see how they fared.
  • In 1970 we turned our attention to instant potato, testing its Vitamin C content and how well the boxes stood up to ‘being bashed’.
  • School geometry sets – as well as the obligatory lab test, we also got 100 14-year-old girls to try them out. Pencils ‘on the whole were not very good’.

There were other surprises in my search through the Which? archives. The teddy bear test in 1967 featured an x-ray scan of the bears’ joints, as well as a flammability test. All of them fared well, apart from a poor little teddy called Rose-bud that burnt quickly. Rose-bud’s manufacturers responded to our test by making the teddy flameproof.

Also in 1967 there was an article about ‘paper dresses’, all costing under £1. This included a section on what happens when these paper dresses get wet, with the question ‘do they trickle away into a pool of unpleasant goo like the witch in the Wizard of Oz?’

If you’re wondering, we concluded that all the paper dresses would survive a shower of rain without ‘acute embarrassment’. Though they didn’t do too well when washed, getting crumpled, going into holes and losing colour.

The evolution of Which? product testing

Here are a couple of products that we still test, but definitely not against the same standards:

  • Computers – in 1987 we were obsessed with seeing how well PCs worked with a cassette player. Back then the maximum memory a PC could muster was 512K of Ram.
  • Cameras – in 1983 we tested 35mm cameras, looking at loading, winding and even rewinding film. We also covered questions such as ‘where’s Aunt Edna’s head’ to help people with photo composition. And we deemed seven seconds too long to wait for the flash to charge up, but four was fine.

It’s questionable whether all the changes products have been through over the past fifty years have been positive. Camera viewfinders have fallen out of fashion for example, something we’ve worked to see return following your comments here on Which? Conversation.

So what products or features of the past would you like to see a resurgence of? Is there anything you’d like us to test in the future? And what do you think Which? will be testing in 55 years time?


I would like Which? to test whether consumers are aware of their rights under the Sale of Goods Act, and to do a survey of how successful they are at making claims against shops and online retailers when they have problems after the guarantee period expires. I predict that this will show that most people just replace faulty goods and that retailers just reject most claims when the consumer does make an effort.

The only simple solution I can envisage is to push for longer warranties provided by the manufacturer and to include length of warranty in the selection of ‘Best Buys’.

Thanks wavechange. We are in the process of gathering intelligence on people’s understanding of their rights – including the sale of goods act. It’s difficult to get at how many people have experienced retailers rejecting their faulty goods claims because there are so many variables to address in a survey. It’s definitely something that’s on our agenda though, and we do regularly carry out investigations exposing retail staff that fail to provide consumers with their basic rights under the sale of goods act. It’s a long struggle, but we’ll keep at it!

That’s good news, Amanda. I can appreciate some of the problems, having been interested in design faults and premature failure of consumer goods for many years.

Please give some thought to promoting products with a manufacturer’s extended warranty. Nothing would do more to improve the reliability of products than the need to provide free repairs.

Personally I would like to see a shift AWAY from mass produced cheap junk – whatever the item. It has started to impinge on culture and art. An artist of quality like Adele or Led Zeppelin or James Brown or Public Enemy is a rarity nowadays. Most music is as throwaway as the download it’s usually linked to. We have no fashion other than to regurgitate yesteryears so that’s another thing I would like to see returned.: proper youth fashion along with distinctive youth ‘groups’. I can not understand how the 80’s fashion nowadays has lasted about twice as long as it originally did!

I remember when dishwasher tests were more thorough – especially testing the cleaning of the “eco” programme, but now Which? no longer tests the cleaning performance of the “eco” programmes. Past tests proved that the eco cleaning performance was sometimes worse than that of the “normal” programme. Why don’t Which? test the eco cleaning performance on dishwashers, even if that means slightly fewer dishwashers can be tested in the lab?

In the magazines, I remember seeing the comparisons in addition to the actual product testing, which would show: “has this feature” or “has this drawback” to show readers if certain products had annoyances, such as weighing scales needing to be constantly reset to zero.

Thanks very much for your comments about dishwashers.

I look after the work we do with dishwashers and I’d love to test all of the programs they come with these days. But the reality we’re faced with is that testing dishwashers takes a long time. For us to be able to test dishwashers and be able to publish our results on the Which? site quickly, we need to test the most regularly used program. In this case that means the main or auto program.

This is a robust way of measuring performance and comparing this across dozens of machines. And by doing this, we’re testing the program most commonly used by consumers.

When we last published information about the performance of the eco program, in comparison to that of the main program, we found that there was little difference between the two, other than eco program taking much longer but using less energy and water.

Regarding features and drawbacks being highlighted in Which? – we try to make this kind of thing clear in the pros and cons summaries published in product reports. And online we have more space to discuss features and performance, so I’d hope we mention all of the things that matter on which.co.uk/dishwashers.

Thank you again for your comments – it looks like they come from years of Which? membership, so thank you for your support over the years.

Thank you for replying Matt.

I can see it’s possible to publish much more on the Which? website compared to the magazine. I think it would be good to tell us more about how products are tested. I was fascinated to watch the video from your link and to see that dishwasher cleaning tests involve baking on the food stains. Finding out what goes on behind the scenes would show us why it takes so long to test dishwashers. Reading the monthly magazine or browsing this website makes it easy to take for granted the hard work that goes into testing products.

Why do eco programmes on dishwashers take much longer?

Comparing today’s products with older ones would interesting. Do older appliances work better? Some people are convinced their older appliances did a better job compared to the newer ones. Examples include older washing machines rinsing better and older dishwashers drying better. When testing new appliances, comparing them to older appliances could reveal a few surprises! If Which? can do these comparisons, I know Which? would be honest and tell consumers if newer appliances are performing worse.

Get irritated when perishables are offered at
at two for four pounds otherwise five, to expedite
sale, at 225 p each… and as if consumers cannot

Like many of those who contribute to Which? Conversation, I am keen to have more detail about testing of certain products. This would not be appropriate to include in the magazine. It is evident that this information exists because of helpful comments from Which? staff. Perhaps this could be made available online to Which? subscribers and included for the normal charge to non-subscribers.

I would also like to see more use of QR codes in the magazine, to provide easy access to more detailed information. You have made a good start with QR codes in earlier issues, but the only one in the October issue links to Twitter messages. Twitter can provide links to Web pages but is not an obvious route to in-depth information.

Hi Wavechange, this may not be what you’re after, but in many of our reviews we have a section called ‘How we test’ which gives more details, and a video of how we test these products eg. http://www.which.co.uk/baby-and-child/baby-transport/guides/how-we-test-child-car-seats/

Also, we’re glad you like seeing QR codes in the magazine. We are currently working on a project to make sure our websites are optimised for mobiles, to make sure the user journey for QR codes is as good as it should be. Until that happens, the number of QR codes in the mag might be a little lower than you’d like. Thanks.

Thanks Patrick. I am impressed by the videos I have seen. The one on children’s car seats very clearly illustrates some of the issues addressed in testing. I suggest that anyone who would like speed limits raised should look at this.

In some cases, information about testing is easily communicated easily. In the case of testing of CFLs I would like to know very basic information such as whether the lamps have been tested in poorly ventilated situations (enclosed fixtures or unventilated lampshades). For washing machine tests I would like to know more about how rinsing is tested and how well machines do compared with those sold in the past. Different people will be interested in other products and having more detailed information available on demand could provide reassurance that adequate care is taken to test products and services.

I have some thoughts on QR codes but I will go back to the relevant Conversation rather than take this one further off-topic. 🙂

I’d like to see Which? publishing tests of modern items, especially white goods but all items other than perishables where practical, against the items counterpart from historical Which? tests as far back as counterpart items existed.

I’m thinking especially of items which are promoted as “using less energy” or bing “more efficient” or “lasting longer” because extensive research, thousands of Which? convo comments and grudgingly obtained written admissions form a few Government departments and other bodies have revealed that in a significant number of cases a modern item in fact uses more energy than and / or is actually less efficient than and / or doesn’t have as long a life as the counterpart from anything between 5 and 30 years ago.

I’d like to see Which? exposing the truth of these, at best misleading, claims on a regular basis, in much the same way as they did withe the “greenwash” article on the ten most useless Green items about a year ago.

Related to this I’d also like to see Which? NOT changing their test methods as often, because that makes it much harder for either the consumer, or Which? themselves, should they take up my suggestion above, to make these comparisons.

Forgot to mention, I’d also like to see Which? reports and tests for all WEEE items including a mention of how easy it is to dispose of redundant items correctly, covering the WHOLE country, not just the London and Home Counties area (I’m thinking here especially of CFL lamps and the claims made by Richard Dilks about 18 months ago, which exposed a vast disparity between “the south” and everywhere else in the UK, but the issue of recycling should properly be considered for all WEEE items, not just CFL lamps.)

I am approaching fifty years of subscribing to Which? and I can remember some of the tests mentioned in Alice’s introduction. I think the reports in the magazines had to be rather more informative in the Sixties than nowadays because of the lack of other media or information sources. In a way I preferred to get my information from Which? as it was disinterested and reliable; the same is true today although now it seems less likely to explain in detail how everything works and what it does. It is assumed that we all know.

I seem to remember quite a lot of DIY tools and materials being tested in the early days [the golden age of home improvement . . . disasters!]. Now there is an even greater choice of brands, functions, and grades of performance among the power tools but little comparative information available. Same can be said for hand-tools and decorating materials which vary greatly in performance but not necessarily in relation to price.

Mike says:
7 December 2021

Is there an online archive of “Which?”?

If there isn’t, there really should be. The old magazines are valuable on all sorts of levels.

There is an archive that goes back to 2013, Mike.

Log into your account, choose View Account and then Which? magazine archive.