A nippy (plural nippies) was a specific type of waitress associated with the J. Lyons & Co brand of tea, and its tea shops and cafes in the UK. Beginning in the late 19th century, a J. Lyons waitress was called a "Gladys". As of 1926, however, the term "Nippy" came into use, inspired by the quick, niplike motions involved with making and serving tea in a crowded restaurant setting. Thus, the etymology of the word is similar to the more general term "soda jerk". Nippies wore a distinctive maidlike uniform with a matching hat.

Advertising Icon

By the 1920s it was already long established in the advertising world that an attractive female could sell products, and the tea business was no exception. Nippies appeared in all manner of advertising, on product packages, and on promotional items. The nippy soon became a national icon. Unlike other endorsements of the day, which often took the form of popular celebrities or cartoon characters, a nippy was contrastingly accessible and close to home. A nippy was someone who could be seen and interacted with every day, and perhaps this was part of the appeal of the concept. J. Lyons was very careful to maintain the nippy image as wholesome and proper--strict cleanliness standards for nippy uniforms were maintained, and prior to World War II J. Lyons would not hire married women as nippies. So popular was the image that miniature nippy outfits were popular for children dressing up for special events such as fetes.

Nippy, the musical

In 1930, the nippy concept was adapted into a hit musical comedy for the stage called Nippy. Popular actress Binnie Hale played the nippy in question. The show was written by Arthur Wimperis and Austin Melford, Billy Mayerl wrote the music and Arthur Wimperis and Frank Eyton the lyrics. Several records were released with songs from the musical, such as the title song and the lively "The Toy Town Party" sung in the show by Binnie Hale. Another of Mayerl's lesser known but attractive melodies from the show was "It must be you".

Margaret Thatcher

Future British prime minister Margaret Thatcher did indeed work at J. Lyons & Co for a relatively brief period in the late 1940s. However, her capacity at J. Lyons was to work as a research chemist at their laboratories. So, while Thatcher could truthfully be said to have been a female employee of J. Lyons & Co. during the time when nippies existed, contrary to myth Thatcher was not a nippy herself.


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