Monday, May 25, 2009

Shopping in the Regency Period

I do wish there was a book about shopping--the retail trade--during the Regency, and in particular, shopping in London in the early 1800s. It would make research so much easier. As far as I can find, there is no definitive work. If you have come across one, please let me know. I'm researching for my 2010 release, The Harmless Deception. The heroine is a lady milliner and I want to have a feel for retailing in the Regency. Some things I have discovered:

'The Picture of London', a guidebook published in 1803, has the following widely cited quote. I think it's worth repeating:
"…two sets of streets running nearly parallel, almost from the Eastern extremity of the town to the Western, forming (with the exception of a very few houses) a line of shops. One. lying to the South, nearer the river, extends from Mile End to Parliament Street, including Whitechapel, Leadenhall Street, Cornhill, Cheapside, St. Paul's Churchyard, Ludgate Street, Fleet Street, the Strand and Charing Cross. The other, to the North, reaches from Shoreditch Church almost to the end of Oxford Street, including Shoreditch, Bishopsgate Street, Threadneedle Street, Cheapside, Newgate Street, Snow-hill, Holborn, Broad Street, St. Giles and Oxford Street. The Southern line, which is the most splendid, is more than three miles in length, and the other about four miles,…"

A great deal of shopping, indeed, and we know so little about it all. The impression I have gained is that the retail trade up until about 1815 was dominated by the independent merchant. They set up shop in the best premises available to their pocketbook and sold their goods. A fascinating exhibit from 2001 at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, still has its catalogue online. This is the 'John Johnson Collection Exhibition 2001 A Nation of Shopkeepers - Trade Ephemera from 1654 to the 1860'. There are literally hundreds of trade cards on-line for viewing. They tell us more about retailing during those 200 years than anything else I have found.

The best author I have found specializing in shopping history is Alison Adburgham. Her book 'Shopping in Style' is very useful, though it emphasizes the more accessible Victorian period. She also has 'Shops and Shopping, 1800-1914', which has a valuable chapter titled 'Shopping During the Napoleonic Wars'.

Regency novels lean heavily on the first department store in London, Harding, Howell & Co, for their characters' shopping needs. I did so myself in The Rake's Reflection, only I called it by the name of its location--Schomberg House in Pall Mall. The bazaars also figure large in Regency fiction--the Western Exchange, Soho Bazaar and the Pantheon Bazaar--but it is difficult to pin down their operating dates, so it can be wiser to create a fictional bazaar rather than risk an error. I have seen the Burlington Arcade has been wrongly used; it was late in opening, 1819. In fact, Adburgham gives the date of the Pantheon's re-creation as a bazaar as 1834. I used a nameless, unfashionable, bazaar for a scene in The Beggarmaid, and enjoyed creating it.

Individual well-known shops are fascinating to research and invaluable settings for writers. I'm thinking of the plumassier Botobol, Ackermann's for art, the perfumery of Floris, Hatchard's for books, and Bedford House and Grafton House which Jane Austen patronized. In fact, Jane's letters are a treasure trove of shopping details.

So the study continues. But as shopping and research are both among my favourite things to do, I don't mind a bit!

Til next time,

Lesley-Anne

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