Credit, next to real stock, is the foundation, the life and soul, of business in a private tradesman; it is his prosperity; it is his support in the substance of his whole trade; even in public matters, it is the strength and fund of a nation.
The Complete English Tradesman, Daniel Defoe, London 1726
What was the price of success in the capricious luxury market for the enterprising shopkeeper and hard-working craftsman of the eighteenth century? For such people, entirely reliant on the patronage and repeat custom of wealthy and hopefully loyal clients, business life was often a perilous balance between solvency and bankruptcy. While some shops had terms of ‘ready-money only’, at the upper-end of the scale extending credit and long periods of grace to substantial clients of high social standing was the normal practice, and indeed was expected if a shopkeeper were to maintain their valuable patronage.
Many members of the nobility and upper-classes were notorious for their tardiness in settling their bills. In such cases raising the difficult subject of debt and outstanding accounts required delicate, tactful and ‘polite’ handling: pressing too forcefully for payment could result in the swift withdrawal of favour and leave a tradesman’s reputation tarnished. It is thus unsurprising to find Defoe recommending a cautious approach, trying ‘all the Methods of Gentleness and Patience…before you proceed to Rigour and Prosecution.’ A request rather than demand for money might be elicited via carefully worded invoices penned onto the retailer’s elegantly engraved trade card. This might even be followed by a personal call upon a client’s home – all methods within the polite bounds of the client-retailer relationship.
Nevertheless, resolving issues of non-payment could be a protracted business; accounts could take years to be settled, and all the while a business’s credit was expected to hold good. Relying too much on polite reserve at the expense of business acumen could, and often did, drive a retailer into insolvency. Arguably the most eminent craftsman and cabinet-maker in Georgian England, Thomas Chippendale, was plagued by unpaid client accounts. In spite of lucrative commissions, valuable connections, a large workshop and workforce, and the incomparable success of his Gentleman & Cabinetmaker’s Director, Chippendale was unable to convert his remarkable ability and entrepreneurial flair into financial security. After his death his eldest son, Thomas Chippendale the Younger, struggled with similar difficulties and was declared bankrupt and evicted from the firm’s workshop in 1804.
In her book The Beau Monde, historian Hannah Greig recounts the famous case of Alexander Day who wildly abused this system of credit in the 1720s by pretending to be a man of fashion. Calling himself Marmaduke Davenport, he persuaded a London stable-keeper to hire him an extravagant carriage, horses and coachman to drive him from shop to shop in style. Convinced by his appearance as a man of rank and fortune, London shopkeepers allowed ‘Davenport’ to take luxury goods on credit. Drapers visited his lodgings in Queen’s Square with samples, hopeful to receive lucrative commissions to furnish his new London residence. When they returned to collect payment, ‘Davenport’ had absconded with the goods. Alexander Day was eventually caught and tried for theft and fraud at the Old Bailey in April 1723. He died in Newgate prison in 1729. Credit, whether dealing with ‘real’ clients or imposters, was clearly a risky scheme for retailers to allow.
Hannah Greig, The Beau Monde, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery, Consumption and the Country House, Oxford University Press, 2016.