Linen drapers, such as Harding and Howell in Pall Mall, were extremely important in an era when clothes were sewn by hand. In 1811, Jane Austen described a shopping expedition she made to a London establishment that sold handkerchiefs, gauzes, nets, veils, trims, and cloth:
We set off immediately after breakfast and must have reached Grafton House by 1/2 past 11 -, but when we entered the Shop, the whole counter was thronged & we waited a full half an hour before we c’d be attended to. When we were served however, I was very well satisfied with my purchases.
A century before Jane’s shopping expedition, London shopkeepers began to spruce up their shop fronts and displays to attract customers. Large bow-windows, such as the silk merchant’s in the image above from Spitalfield, allowed for the entry of light as well as an attractive space for the display of goods. By the end of the 18th century, it was estimated that around 200 different types of shops could be found in London. Shops tended to be open for long hours, from around seven AM until seven or eight PM. These hours were perhaps one of the reasons why shopkeepers and their assistants tended to live on the premises, with a shop area in front and a parlor behind.
Shops also tended to be grouped. For instance, the ladies of the Ton frequented fashionable shops Oxford Street or Bond Street located in Mayfair, whereas the shops and clubs for gentlemen were clustered in St. James’s. The discerning shopper could also purchased goods at warehouses in Covent Garden, mercers and linen drapers in Cheapside, and new shops in the Strand. A number of shops from that era still thrive today. Berry Brothers Wine Shop in St. James’s was founded in 1698 and remains essentially unchanged since its founding, as the interior above attests. Locks, the hatters in St James’s, also founded in the seventeenth century, still makes hats and bowlers for the fashionable set. And Floris , a fragrance shop Beau Brummel frequented, can still be found on Jermyn Street.Shop keepers advertised through circulars, trade cards, newspaper notices, or board-men, who were employed to roam the streets. In the 1760’s, the large shop signs that had once hung over shops and identified the shop’s merchandise to a populace that largely could not read were deemed hazardous. They were removed by law, but a few managed to survive, as this account in the Book of Days describes:
In Holywell-street, Strand, is the last remaining shop sign in situ, being a boldly-sculptured half-moon, gilt, and exhibiting the old conventional face in the centre. Some twenty years ago it was a mercer’s shop, and the bills made out for customers were ‘adorned with a picture’ of this sign. It is now a bookseller’s, and the lower part of the windows have been altered into the older form of open shop. A court beside it leads into the great thoroughfare; and the corner-post is decorated with a boldly-carved lion’s head and paws, acting as a corbel to support a still older house beside it. This street altogether is a good, and now an almost unique specimen of those which once were the usual style of London business localities, crowded, tortuous, and ill-ventilated, having shops closely and inconveniently packed, but which custom had made familiar and inoffensive to all; while the old traders, who delighted in ‘old styles,’ looked on improvements with absolute horror, as ‘a new-fashioned way’ to bankruptcy.
Learn more about shopping during the Regency Era in the following links:
Eighteenth Century London, Nichola Johnson, ISBN 0-11-290448-3
A Frivolous Distinction: Fashion and Needlework in the Works of Jane Austen, Penelope Byrde, Bath City Council, ISBN 0-901303-09-7
High Society, Venetia Murray, ISBN 0-670-85758-0