On 2 April 1748 the Ipswich Journal reported on ‘the most terrible‘ fire which had broken out at a Mr. Elridge’s, a peruke maker, in Exchange Alley, London. Rumours soon spread that a boy had left a candle near some wig boxes, which had been set on fire, and then:
The Flames [had] extended themselves into Cornhill, and burnt down the Houses of Mr. Walthoe, Mr. Strahan, Mr. Meadows, Mr. Brotherton, and Mr. Astley, Booksellers; Toca’s and the Rainbow Coffee-Houses, the Fleece and Three-Tuns Taverns, a Milliner’s Shop next the Three-Tuns, and a Cabinet-Maker’s the Corner of Birchin-Lane; Mr. Legg’s, a Woollen-Draper, the other Corner, a Shoemaker’s, with another Woollen-Draper’s adjoining; the London Assurance Office, the Widow Harrison’s, Mr. Vaughan’s, a Haberdasher… the House of Mr. Guyther a Peruke Maker, Mr. Oldis a Sadler…
Not only does this report show the devastation that fire could wreak in the eighteenth century, not a hundred years after the Great Fire of London, it illuminates the wide variety of shops that were in existence at the time. From saddlers to haberdashers, from milliners to shoemakers, from booksellers to drapers, there are some shops with which we are familiar today, but others less so.
And so, in this special blog, we will look at what shopping was like in the eighteenth century, using newspapers taken from The Archive. We will peruse through the different kind of shops that would have lined the streets in the 1700s, and understand how we can find out more about shopping habits over 200 years ago, when there were no supermarkets, no superstores, when you had to visit lots of different shops to purchase what you might need. We will also look at the different types of shops that existed in the eighteenth century, taking in those that have fallen out of fashion, as well as those that are familiar to us today.
So, how do we go about finding more about the shops of the eighteenth century? Our newspapers often contain advertisements for different shops, whether they be adverts for the goods that the shops sold, or for the shop premises themselves, like this one which appeared in the Stamford Mercury for a millinery shop in February 1791:
Millinery to be Let, and entered upon immediately, A Milliner’s Shop, a desirable Situation for Trade; with a Fashionable STOCK of GOODS, to be taken at a fair Appraisement. For further Particulars enquire of Miss PARKIN, Boston, Lincolnshire.
Here was the opportunity to rent a milliner’s shop, or a hat shop, complete with a ‘fashionable stock of goods.’ Today, we might find hats as part of a fashion shop, or department store, but in the eighteenth century and beyond, the milliner’s was a stand-alone establishment, where hats were often crafted on the premises.
And what type of person would be working in a milliner’s shop? Well this advert, also from the Stamford Mercury, January 1790, gives us a clue:
WANTED, to assist in a MILLINER’S SHOP, a YOUNG WOMAN, who has had considerable Experience in the MILLINERY BUSINESS, and can occasionally take upon herself the Management of the Shop.
Letters (Post paid) addressed to E. DYSON, Milliner, Boston, will be attended to.
Both youth and experience were the order of the day here, but what sort of people frequented milliners’ shops? Well, one would expect the usual female clientele, more likely to be better off than not, but some customers, however, had nefarious intentions when it came to visiting the shops. Take, for example, this report from the Ipswich Journal, September 1762:
Yesterday Afternoon two young Women, extremely well dressed, were detected in stealing divers Goods from a Milliner’s Shop in Gracechurch street and committed to the Compter, to be examined this Day before the Lord-Mayor.
These ‘well-dressed’ young women were undertaking a capital offence, a huge risk in eighteenth century Britain. But such reports of crime, like the report of the fire in 1748, again provide us with an insight of what shopping was like in the 1700s, the goods that one could expect to find in the shops of the time, and the criminals who might be after them.
We don’t know the fate of the young ladies who stole from the milliner’s in fashionable Gracechurch Street, but we do know what happened to one 22-year-old thief, Samuel Matthews, in December 1765. As reported in the Derby Mercury, Matthews was executed at Penenden Heath, Maidstone, after giving this confession:
In my younger Years I first began to go with Gangs of Street-Robbers, and committed several Robberies in London, &c. And after that I took to breaking into the principal Shops, such as Silversmiths, &c the least in that way was of 60l. In the Borough we robbed a Quaker’s Shop of Goods to the Amount of 350l. In Ratcliff Highway we took two Chests of Tea, and a Silver Pint Pot. In the same Place we robbed a Broker of Gold and Silver, to the Amount of 50l. Then I took from a Linnen-Draper’s House Silk Handkerchiefs to the Amount of 12l. At Wapping I robbed a Draper’s Shop to the Amount of 250l and another in the same Place, of Goods to the Amount of 50l. At Tower-Hill I broke open a Tobacconist’s Shop, and took a Cask of Tobacco, which I sold out in small Quantities at 4d per Pound. I committed on the Highway about five or six Robberies.
Matthews’s extensive criminal record provides an intriguing survey of the shops of London at the time, from Wapping to Borough, and the value of the goods that they stocked.
Butchers, Bakers & Fishmongers
Meanwhile, two years before Samuel Matthews was executed for theft and highway robbery, this strange vignette appeared in the Derby Mercury:
Thursday a Woman went into a Baker’s Shop in the City, and bought a Halfpenny Roll, which she staid eating of till all the People were gone, except a young Woman, whom she fixed her Eyes upon with great Attention, and told her, that by the Lines in her Face she could perceive, that she was born to good Fortune…
The older woman managed to entice the younger woman to give her a shilling, and in return, urged her down to the basement, encouraging her to dig for ‘hidden treasure.’ The young woman obliged, found nothing, and upon returning to the shop, the older woman was gone.
This strange little scene, which ended with the arrest of the older woman, who had also taken a watch from the bakery, provides us with a sense of what going to the shops was actually like in the eighteenth century. Not so much in how the older woman behaved, but that little detail of her buying a halfpenny roll from the bakery, and sitting and eating it there, shows how people used the shops of their time.
To be SOLD by PRIVATE CONTRACT – ALL that leasehold Tenement and good-accustomed Butcher’s Shop (very eligibly situated for business with the ground and appurtenances thereto belonging), together with two other Tenements, situate and lying and being in Fisherman’s Row, at the Pier in Dover, and also with the same slaughter-house, stable and chaise-house, at the back part thereof, in Beach Street…
This sounds like a prime spot in Dover, complete with stables and a place to keep your carriage!
Meanwhile, we found this wonderful advert from 1775, relating to a fishmonger’s in Northampton, and a forthcoming shipment of mackerel:
BILLSON, Fishmonger and Poulterer, at the Lower-End of the Drapery, Northampton, begs Leave to inform the Public, that the MACKEREL are now coming in, in the greatest Perfection, by the Night Coaches, which arrive every Morning by Seven O’Clock at Northampton, a Day sooner than they can be had by the Day Stages…
What was also special about this fishmonger, other than the special night deliveries of mackerel, was that it was run by a woman, who assured ‘her Customers (who are numerous) particularly the Nobility, that no Charge shall be spared to furnish them all Kinds of Fish from the best Market.’
This fishmonger also dealt in ‘a Variety of the best Poultry,’ and had a ‘Quantity of Goose Feathers’ to be sold.
Haberdashers, Drapers and Wigmakers
We are of course still familiar with the butchers, the bakers, and the fishmongers, these establishments surviving independently today, or as entities in our supermarkets, but we are perhaps less familiar with the likes of the haberdashers, the drapers, and of course, the wigmakers.
Haberdashers provided all you would need for sewing, as in the eighteenth century garments were made at home, and not purchased straight off the rack. And luckily, we found one advertisement in the Dublin Courier, January 1764, for Thomas Shannon’s new haberdashery shop ‘at the Green Window, and the Sign of the Ship…in Dame Street,’ Dublin, which provides a wonderful inventory of all the things that a haberdasher stocked in the mid-eighteenth century.
Shannon’s new establishment sold ‘the following goods:’
All Sorts of Sewing, Blond, and Spun Silks
Flowered, striped, and plain Ribbands
Cardinal Silks, Persians, and Peelings
Ivory Shuttles and Bodkins
Ivory, and Box Combs
Silk Purse Twist
Steel and Ivory Pins and Needles, for netting Purses
All sorts of Tapes, Threads and Bosses
Silk and Thread Straps for Stays
Ardrass Silk for Knotting
French Beads, of every Size
Shirt and Waistcoat Buttons
Silk and Worsted Pincushions
Watch and Ken Strings
English and Irish Pins and Needles
Black Hair Pins
Union Cord for Stays
All sorts of Perfumes
Superfine Rich Hair Powder
The Court, or, Ladies Black Sticking Plaster
So not only did a haberdasher sell everything you would need for sewing, like needles and bodkins, it sold everything you would need to construct your stays (like a corset), to style your hair, and to wash your clothes.
And then there were the drapers’ shops, which would sell lengths of cloth, in order to construct your clothes. The Bury and Norwich Post, 20 March 1793, contains the following advertisement for a draper’s shop:
To be Let, and Entered upon at Lady-Day next, A Genteel House and Draper’s Shop, excellently situated in one of the best streets near the Cornhill, in Ipswich; the house consists of an exceeding good shop, a parlour, a large dining (or tea) room, 5 good chambers with closets, 2 sleeping garrets, kitchen and back kitchen, 3 good cellars. The above house and shop have lately been new fronted with white bricks and bow sashes. A neat garden.
To own this ‘genteel’ draper’s shop in Ipswich, one would have to be of a certain class. The accompanying house is large, and you would expect the owner to be the employer of several members of staff.
And now to the wigmaker – or indeed, peruke maker. It was at a peruke maker’s establishment where the unfortunate fire started back in 1748. And a peruke was a man’s wig of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and as the wearing of wigs was so fashionable at this point in history, of course there were the shops to furnish this demand.
One of the earliest mentions we found of a shop in The Archive does actually concern a peruke maker’s shop in Dublin, and a theft that was committed there. This is from the Dublin Intelligence, January 1709:
Stolen from the Peruke-Maker’s shop, under the Union Coffee-House upon Cork-Hill on Saturday the 13th November, 1708. Eleven degrees of black Hair, mixt with Horse Hair of the same Colour, ready paper’d for Weaving, who-ever secures the said Hair and Thief, giving Notice at the place aforesaid shall have a Crown Reward, or if the Thief returns the said Hair he shall be forgiven. Any Gentleman that buys a Wigg of the Collour, is desired to give Notice as aforesaid, that the Thief may be detected…
We can’t help but wonder if the wig was returned, with the shop owner’s promise of forgiveness.
Booksellers and Stationers
And now back to the realm of the familiar, with the booksellers and stationers of the era, shops that we would recognise on the high street today.
However, the items stocked at this stationer’s might strike you as a little unusual, with this shop, as relates the Northampton Mercury, April 1776, stocking ‘paper-hangings, flower-pots, and fire screens.’ Indeed, the proprietor, T. Burnham, whose shop lay at the upper end of Gold Street, Northampton, had for sale:
…a large and very neat Collection of new and fashionable Spring Patterns for paper, for Rooms, Halls, Staircases, &c which may be had in any Quantity…
This stationer was selling wallpaper, and with a lack of DIY shops at the period, this seems like the best place for such an item to be sold.
Meanwhile, booksellers would also have made up an important part in the landscape of an eighteenth century high street. Take, for example, Henry Payne’s bookselling venture, which he launched in January 1779, and advertised in the Derby Mercury:
Henry Payne, Bookseller, Begs Leave to inform his Friends and the Public, that he has this Day opened his SHOP, No. 67, in PALL-MALL; and that he has furnished it with the best Authors, ancient and modern, in every Branch of Literature and Science, a Catalogue of which will be soon ready for Publication.
The Court of Judiciary met this day for the trial of Alexander Leslie, bookseller, accused of circulating and distributing a number of copies of certain blasphemous and seditious publications entitled the ‘Rights of Man,’ and the ‘Age of Reason,’ by Thomas Paine.
Leslie did not show up to court, and was declared an outlaw.
We could list more shops, the tobacconists, the saddlers, the shoemakers, but we will stop here to consider the nature of shopping by the end of the century. A search for the word ‘shopping’ in The Archive’s pages from the 1700s will return relatively few results, but by the turn of the century that had begun to change, with a visit to the shops now not merely being a matter of business, of necessity, but a pastime, and something to enjoy.
Mrs. THOMAS, ever ready to gratify, begs leave to recommend to the Nobility and female Amateurs of Dress what will fully meet sanguine expectation in the Scotch Bonnet, Rural Hat, Parisian and Spanish Mantles, and Indian Dresses: also a very extensive and fashionable shew of Chip, Straw, Leghorn, and Imperial Chip Hats and Bonnets. Entrance to the Shew-Rooms the first door on the left, up Chancery-lane, from Fleet-Street.
What is apparent is the act of coming to look at the wares that Mrs Thomas had for sale, the bonnets, the hats and the mantles. She owns a show room, signalling how shopping has evolved from something transactional to something more pleasurable, that time could be taken to browse and to look and to enjoy.
To look at the shops is one of the necessities of female life. They make up parties to go out and see ‘what is being worn.’ Girls in the country write to friends in town and beg for descriptions of the mercers’ windows.
It recounts the story of a woman living the countryside, who was taken ill with ‘melancholia.’ The doctors were clueless, none of their prescribed cures could help her, until one day she declared how ‘a good look at the shops might do her good.’
The article goes on to recommend Oxford Street as a ‘good street for watching the women out shopping,’ as ‘the shops are close together and the display in the windows is so enormous that the emotions peculiar to the amiable sex are quickly aroused.’
Shopping as we know it had come into its own, and it was surely enjoyed by both men and women, whatever the Penny Illustrated Paper had to say on the matter.
Find out more about shopping in the eighteenth century, and all the different shops that populated Britain’s towns, cities and villages, by searching the pages of The Archive here. And don’t forget to share your discoveries with us!