The shopping culture, practices and systems that we are so familiar with today all had their roots in the eighteenth-century. The Georgian period, which saw the rapid expansion of the economy, improvements to trade, technology and transport, and growing prosperity, gave birth to a burgeoning consumer culture and an inexhaustible demand for luxury. The activities of shopping, browsing, and making purchases became fashionable and pleasurable cultural pursuits in their own right. Shopping offered a new avenue for the expression of refined taste, gentility and politeness. This insatiable thirst to consume was readily answered by shopkeepers, craftsmen and luxury retailers offering unlimited choice and temptation, and a dazzling array of goods on which polite society could spend their disposable income. Mass consumption had arrived.
For residents of eighteenth-century metropolitan or provincial towns, shopping became an enjoyable feature of the day, invariably undertaken in the morning after breakfast. In London some shops had anterooms where polite visitors could be served tea and removed from more ordinary customers. In York it is clear in newspaper advertisements that suppliers were keen to attract a certain standard of customers. It is likely Anne Fairfax would have been offered at least a comfortable seat and may well have expected to take a leisurely cup of tea as she browsed and made her all-important fashion choices.
The popularity of shopping, particularly amongst women, was satirically reported by The Spectator magazine in 1712. It was noted that Hackney-coachmen referred to women ‘who ramble twice or thrice a Week from Shop to Shop, to turn over all the Goods in Town without buying anything’ as ‘Silk-Worms’ because of their preference for haberdasher’s and milliner’s shops (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 454, Monday, August 11, 1712). This type of browsing was essential for retailers, exposing their stock to customers, spreading the word about new products and forging good relationships with clients. However, it was clearly frustrating at times. Writing to the Plain Dealer in 1727 a Mercer bitterly complained about the women who ‘tumble over my goods and deafen me with questions’. He continued that
they swim into my shop by shoals, not with the least intention to buy, but only to hear my silks rustle, and fill up their own leisure time by putting me into full employment.
(Quoted in Daniel Defoe, The Complete English Tradesman, Volumes 1-2)
While browsing was undoubtedly a highly pleasurable experience, if sometimes frustrating for retailers, it was also a crucial factor in the selection of goods. In an era without quality control the opportunity to handle, touch, smell, even taste purchases was essential in gauging first-hand the quality of the products on offer. In searching for a new outfit, a lady would visit as many different mercers in their warehouses as was necessary to find something that was just what she was looking for. Mercers would be required to roll out silk after silk as ladies admired and rejected before they finally found the perfect one. For those that failed to fully assess the quality of the goods they purchased, there was inevitable disappointment. Jane Austen, normally a shrewd shopper, wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1799 to complain that she had spent half a guinea on a muslin veil which turned out, when she got home, to be ‘thick, dirty and ragged’ (The Letters of Jane Austen, Letter written to Cassandra Austen on Tuesday June 11 1799).
Prices were usually not displayed to preserve the pretence of a feminine, social exchange. Instead, bargaining ensued. The higher the status of a customer, the more discount or credit they could expect. It was always a gamble for the ambitious shopkeeper. In London shops began to advertise patronage by customers of the best sort by painting coats of arms on their fronts. Trade cards and hanging signs further advertised quality. A new effort to make shops places of wonderment and spectacle would have drawn in yet more custom from those who wanted to be seen at the same illustrious establishments as the aristocracy.
Serena Dyer, ‘Shopping, spectacle and the senses: fashion retail in Georgian England’, History Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, 2015.
Jon Stobart, Andrew Hann and Victoria Morgan, Spaces of Consumption: Leisure and Shopping in the English Town, c.1680-1830, Routledge, 2007.
Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, Yale University Press, 1997.