Godrej Storwel: A Product of Circumstance
The fact that Storwel has thrived for decades is a proof of its inherent strength in meeting the needs of India's burgeoning middle class.
by Harini Alladi
Formerly With Godrej Archives
The Storwel embodied the values of Indian developmentalism and symbolised the aspirations of a new India. The streamlined appearance of the Storwel aligned with the sleek straight lines of modernist architecture, which was in vogue in the postcolonial years.

oday, the Godrej Storwel triggers much nostalgia. For 70 years now, the linear exterior of the Storwel, and the characteristic clang of its handle turning has been a part of the rhythm of our homes and offices. With appearances in Bollywood movies to Satyajit Ray novels, the Storwel has a strong presence in our collective memories. It was also listed among the hundred iconic Indian objects in Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan’s book Pukka Indian: 100 Objects that define India (2017).

How did the Godrej Storwel become iconic? The answer lies in the first three decades of its existence.

Between 1944 and 1970, even before the catchy Storwel TV ads of the 1980s like “Sajan ke aangan mein pehla kadam”, the Storwel made its presence in the Indian market by resonating with both the aspirations and the anxieties of a newly independent India. When the Storwel was introduced a year or two before 1944, Godrej had already had two lines of steel cupboards, the Almirah and the Safe-Cabinet, and the Storwel was not meant to outshine them. The Storwel was distinctly less ornate than either the Safe-Cabinet or the Almirah, with no provisions for a cornice (a decorative crest that could be placed on top of the cupboard, in the style of old wooden cupboards), or brass hanging rods, and was made of thinner, 18-gauge steel. None of the early Storwel models had lockers, which had been the highlight of the safe-cabinet and the Almirah. It was also priced much lower, with the Storwel “U” costing Rs.195 in 1944, when the Almirah model C cost Rs. 270, the safe-cabinet model 3 cost Rs. 360 and the fire-resisting safe-cabinet cost Rs. 830. “For systematic and secure storage of books and papers, linen and tools and various stores”, claimed very the first newspaper advertisement for the Godrej Storwel in The Times of India (TOI) in 1949, marking a departure from the ads for Almirahs or Safe-Cabinets, which stressed their suitability for storing valuables (The Times of India 1949). Just a couple of years after the Storwel was launched, India was faced with steel shortages that lasted well into the 1980s. Steel shortages began in 1945, after India’s steel plants were overworked during World War II. At the time of Independence, the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) was the chief source of steel for steel-based manufacturing companies like Godrej. After independence, the government laid down protectionist policies to nurture nascent Indian industries. Given Jawaharlal Nehru's admiration of the Soviet model of state-controlled industrialisation, steel production and supply were prioritised – most of the steel produced was reserved for government projects, and private companies were only allotted a certain quota of steel. This limited supply, coupled with a restriction on imports left Godrej in the lurch. Godrej had only recently, in 1948, moved to the newly acquired location in Vikhroli, only to experience severe shortage of steel for manufacture. In an interview conducted by Godrej Archives in 2007, V Ramanathan, formerly of the erstwhile publicity department, remembered that steel was supplied sporadically until the 1980s, and even then, the quality of steel remained a problem. With the prospect of laying off hundreds of workers looming constantly, N D Sahukar (Manager, Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd.) frequently had to personally request the government for an additional supply of steel, “He would write to them and say we have to give our employees livelihood... and some steel would come," recalled Ramanathan (Ramanathan 2007) If concern was caused by the government policy, as far as the sale of Storwel was concerned, respite too, came from the government.

Bulk orders coming from newly set up government offices for tables, chairs, and cupboards were a significant source of sale, and the most popular Godrej cupboard among them for office purposes was the Storwel. By 1951, Storwels had become Godrej’s fastest selling product!

By 1952, in view of the unrelenting steel shortage, the less steel-intensive Storwel range was the more feasible product to manufacture. And so, the range was modified and diversified - Storwel “U” remained from the old set, and had the option of steel or glass doors, lockers or pigeonholes. Four new models - Models 1, 2, 3 and 4 were introduced to include some of the key features of the Almirah and the Safe-Cabinet, like lockers, mirrors and hanging rods. This new range had one standard size, and had the same exterior, making them much more conducive to mass manufacture. A series of advertisements titled “Godrej Storwel baffles burglars” now exerted themselves to assure the readers that the Storwel was just as secure as the older, sturdier models. These testimonial ads contained a series of accounts of the Storwel resisting burglary attempts (The Times of India 1952). The advertising of the Storwel in this period was also crucial, lending the Storwel cultural significance.

After Independence and the subsequent economic clampdown, Godrej was one of the strong pan-Indian manufacturing companies that remained.

Already established as Swadeshi since the 1920s, the company now resumed the narrative with renewed vigour. The Publicity Department at Godrej was not only expected to sell existing stock of products, but also boost the company's image. Not to be outdone by competition, Godrej advertised widely. With advertisements for the company titled “Guardian of the nation’s wealth” and “Half a century in the service of the nation”, there was a strong move to appeal to the nationalistic sentiments prevalent at the time (The Bombay Chronicles 1955). In a TOI ad from 1950, Godrej claimed that it was saving the nation crores of rupees on imports by manufacturing good quality steel equipment at home (The Times of India 1950). A profile of the company from the same year portrayed Godrej as standing proud after facing many adversities, mostly in the shape of foreign companies selling steel equipment in the Indian market. The reality of Independence, however, had been bittersweet; the horrors of Partition had shaken a large part of a country, already facing the persistent problems of poverty and hunger. In a true instance of the faith in scientific advancement that characterised the ‘Nehruvian Era’, the government quickly set up river valley development projects (Hasan 2007) and poured funds into institutes for scientific research like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and five Indian Institutes of Technology, hoping to eliminate India’s dependence on other countries (Guha 2007). The aim was industrialisation and self-sufficiency, and at the heart of all the schemes was steel; one of the government’s projects was to increase the production of steel from 1 million tonnes to 6 million tonnes per year (Tomlinson 1996). In the post-Independence era, steel stood for Modern India. And Storwel was the affordable, homegrown product, made of steel.

In the years following the Partition, which saw the movement of millions with only vestiges of their lives, such a product that assured the safety of valuables and memories, was particularly reassuring.

The streamlined appearance of the Storwel also aligned with the sleek straight lines of modernist architecture, which was in vogue in the postcolonial years. The Storwel embodied the values of Indian developmentalism and symbolised the aspirations of a new India. Advertisements of the time did much to reinforce this image surrounding the Storwel. While the Storwel may have come to the forefront of Godrej's range of cupboards by chance, its popularity ensured it stayed prominent.

For Godrej, the Storwel brought visual cohesion, as its signature appearance became well-recognised.

For buyers, it meant greater affordability and choice, as well as a modern product that was distinctly Indian in make.

About the Author

Harini is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of History at University of California Santa Barbara, and works on gender, material consumption and state formation in postcolonial India. Harini has worked for Godrej Archives for 2 years prior to enrolling for her PhD.