Shopping and advertising in Georgian Britain

Oh Noooooooooo!

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, it’s the festive season. There are clearly two meanings of Christmas; the religious one…and the retailers’ one. This is the season when we are expected to spend, whether we are jolly, wish peace and goodwill to all mankind, or indeed whether we’ve been naughty or nice. Shops and businesses want our money and will go to almost any lengths to get it. Pity the poor guys currently standing on roundabouts near where I live, dressed as ‘comedy’ reindeer and clutching advertisements for mobile phone deals in their freezing paws. The Christmas TV advertisements start in early October, the lights are all on in the high street and it seems, as many people remark, that Christmas is getting earlier each year.

The concept of high street shopping seems like a modern invention, but it in fact has a long history. Whilst descending en masse to the Christmas sales is certainly more recent, the high streets were very much open for business in Georgian Britain. In fact, in many ways, this was a golden age of shopping, where visiting the right shops, buying the right thing and even behaving in the right way inside shops were all important matters.

In many ways, the Georgians invented shopping. This was an era where towns were expanding and also becoming more self-consciously genteel. Old tumbledown buildings were being removed and replaced with elegant neo-classic facades   – all pillars and pediments. The high street, in its modern incarnation of rows of shops began to appear in the eighteenth century. Pavements were widened to allow the well-to-do to promenade in comfort, and especially to allow them to browse far enough away from passing coaches and carts so as not to get their elegant costumes muddy. By the late eighteenth century, shoes and boots with extra thick soles were becoming available which allowed people to walk through puddles without their clothes dragging in the dirt. Browsing was a serious business.

Shop windows and interior displays certainly became more elaborate. Businesses began to use their shop fronts, and especially their window displays, as advertising spaces. Funeral directors, for example, might well display a fully decorated coffin with all its accoutrements, to show off the finery of their craftsmanship. Makers of scientific instruments might put special pieces in the window to attract attention, from telescopes to orreries or microscopes. The idea was to make the shop enticing and draw people inside to browse.

The process of ‘polite’ buying was markedly different to today, not least in the role of the shop assistant and the matter of money. The place of a shop assistant in a Georgian retailer was to serve the customer, but through a very well defined set of rules. Browsing, for example, was common and involved the seller providing a range of goods for the customer to pore over. A ‘polite’ customer was well versed in quality and fashion; their own taste and sagacity should draw them to the quality of the goods on sale. The shop assistant was full of flattery and would gently coerce to secure a sale. But, the question of money was considered too base , so it would be rare in polite premises to find an Enlightened equivalent of the ‘Apprentice’-style sales technique. Instead, any goods chosen would be sent on the customer’s house by courier, and paid for later on account, since cash transactions were not usual. The browsing session would often finish with tea being served to the customer, adding a further formal ritual to the proceedings. In some ways this has echoes in the coffee shops found in department stores today.

Another apparently modern concept is that of advertising but, again, eighteenth-century retailers were well versed in the art of distance selling. Just as today, retailers took advantage of cheap print to fill newspaper columns with row after row of goods and services. It is worth taking a look inside a single page from a typical (and familiar-sounding) publication, The Sun, from March 7th 1793.

There are, for example, a number of advertisements for products, and medicines were amongst the most common. From Mr Moulter of 96 the Strand in London, a perfumer, could be purchased “The Devonshire Tooth Tincture and Powder”.  From Thomas Taylor in Blackfriars could be bought “Leake’s Patent Pills” for “venereal and scorbutic complaints” which, attested a certain Mr Thomas Lloyd “The taking of one box only, gave me considerable relief”.

James Rymer, a surgeon of Soho, boasted of the royal patent he had been granted  for his “Cardiac and Nervous Tincture” which allegedly cured “Disorders of the head, stomach and bowels, viz: Headach, confusion and giddiness; Indigestion and Loss of Appetite with bilious crudities and retchings; Yellowness of the eyes and skin; gripings, heartburn, colic and costiveness”. The list of potential conditions continues for another four paragraphs! Rymer included a long list of agents from whom the product could be bought and also found space to peddle his latest book A Treatise upon Indigestion and the Hypocondriack Disease.

But on the same page could be found other interesting advertisements and snippets of news. “Mr Charles, artist to his royal highness the prince of Wales” would take “A most perfect resemblance of the Face in Fifteen minutes in Miniature for Lockets, rings etc in a masterly manner”. What better present to give a loved one that a locket with a painted portrait set within it…guaranteed to set your beloved lady in a swoon! For those suffering from the discomfort of ruptures (hernias), “Dowling’s Improved Elastic Breeches” were warranted to bring relief and “fitted in the neatest manner and in the best workmanship”.

Coincidentally, if you had visited Baker’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley in London in March 1793, you could also have encountered  one Robert Withy, perhaps a forebear of mine, who offered “Opinion and Advice on Money Business” and sought to rescue the unenlightened from “The many frauds daily committed by advertising money lenders”. It appears that the problems of unscrupulous money lenders and ‘payday loans’ are equally nothing new. Amongst the other notes were a programme for ‘Longman and Brodrips Comic Opera” called “Hartford Bridge or the Skirts of the Camp”, then playing at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

It is surprising how modern much of this indeed sounds. Georgian shoppers, just like us, could head out for the high street, dressed up to the nines, to browse, to see and be seen, and to buy. Although the mechanics of shopping and buying have changed, the basic structures of shop display, the use of shop space to encourage browsing, and the role of the assistant in guiding purchase were all present. Advertising was very much in vogue and eighteenth-century consumers were bombarded with advertising and puffery, all desperate to entice them to part with their money.

As we dodge the charity muggers, the ‘comedy’ reindeer, the dreadful music, the bands, the ‘Gluhwein’ stalls, the “quality wrap, fifteen sheets for a pound” and the constant dialogue of advertisers, it’s worth remembering that much of this is not a modern plague…we can blame our eighteenth-century advertisers.

And Christmas IS getting earlier every year!