2017 conference blogs – Museums and Repositories

Brenda Rewhorn, University of Chester

Museums and Repositories

 Museums, large and small, can hold exhibits of a wide range of items or dedicated to a particular range of objects, nevertheless the curators have a dilemma; do they accept everything donated or should they be selective? If they are selective, and if it is a general museum, are the curators qualified in every subject and able to make a knowledgeable decision for each item?

I am aware that this can apply to curators of textile items; the word ‘textiles’ covers a wide range of subjects from the production of threads, to the manufacturing of a fabric from which household and wearing apparel is constructed and finally, the embellishment of many of these items. The decoration of both household items and fashion opens up other lines of study of all types of embroidery, fabric manipulation and lace. Each of these embellishing subjects can be a separate study, especially when one considers that there are over fifty different types of hand-made bobbin lace; the subtle nuances of each lace are not something to be learnt in a day. Adding to hand embroidery and lace making, there are machine made copies of many of these techniques; it is usually possible to identify the difference between the hand made and machine made, but not always. I have listened to two experienced women debating whether a piece of black Chantilly lace was hand or machine made; they did not come to a decision.

My own particular interest is in tatting, a hand-held, labour intensive knotted lace which may have originated centuries ago but there is no reliable documentation. Aristocratic women had their portraits painted holding a knotting shuttle, with metres of knotting trailing into a bag at their side, to show that they were always occupied and their hands were not tainted with manual work. These knotting shuttles were 15-20cms long and 5cms wide and 3cms deep whereas a tatting shuttle is 6x2x1cms. Most people confuse crochet and tatting; crochet is a looped technique whilst tatting is knotted. In one museum I have seen a cuff labelled as crochet when clearly it is tatting with the date as 1830; there is no other evidence that this type of tatting was known at this time, so one assumes the item was dated by the cuff, not the decoration. This emphasises the problem that no one person can be an expert in all types of lace.


Space in museums is limited; how do the curators decide which donation to keep? This is not only a subjective decision but also an objective one, according to the current popularity of a particular era. Often curators are volunteers especially in small museums and archives such as the Lace Museum, Stourbridge or the National Needlework Archive, Newberry. Many of these voluntary curators are retired with few young people having the time or interest to volunteer, hence much expertise is in the hands of a few mature people. The Lace Guild Museum is very small; when it first opened it accepted all donations now it has to be selective and only accepts items for which it does not already have a good example. This now causes a problem as the removal of any item previously accessed has to be formally approved by the Museum’s committee and officially removed from the accession book.  The Lace Museum has a vast range of all types and techniques of lace from the finest, time consuming Binche lace taking 600 pairs of bobbins and eight hours to work one inch of lace, to the much quicker crochet and knitted laces. It has a collection of old and new lace fans, collars of all sizes shapes and techniques, small mats, machine lace, and of course tatting. The tatting includes parasols, collars, edgings for handkerchiefs and household linens and two sample books, one of which is from China.

Tatting has been worked around the world, probably taken to the Far East by missionaries and each country has its own word for the craft, often adapted from the French ‘frivolité’. This has its own amusing aspects when translations are attempted by someone who is not familiar with the craft; one book from Ios, Greece has tatting translated as ‘tutting’. I once asked an Italian to translate some instructions and she apologised for not being able to translate ‘Chiacchierino’, it was not in her dictionary and the request was made before the world-wide-web, however that was the only Italian word I knew: tatting!

Museums are now listing some of their collections and uploading a limited number of photographs on-line for potential visitors to see what is in the whole collection. To have access to specific items  a request has to be made, often months in advance for serious study  as a textile item  needs to be seen, at close quarters, to appreciate its size, and hopefully handled, to be able to examine the reverse side in detail. Photographing and uploading to the web site is time consuming and costly;  the Royal School of Needlework has just sent out a letter (June 2017) requesting donations towards employing a collections manager to catalogue, illustrate, digitise and up-load these images to the web-site, finally to recruit volunteers to check the pages; volunteers used again! Currently contracts are under review for employees of the V&A many of whom are on zero hour contracts which does not encourage positive commitment. I am sure other museums are in a similar situation.

Municipal museums are usually free to enter, however donations are requested though exactly what these donations are used for is never made clear. Everybody enjoys a visit to a museum especially when visiting new town or city as there is always something of interest, even if is only an excuse to get shelter from inclement weather!

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2017 Conference blogs – ‘Pharmacy atmosphere’: the impact of commercial spaces on patent medicines and their consumers in early twentieth-century Britain

Erin Bramwell, Lancaster University

‘Pharmacy atmosphere’: the impact of commercial spaces on patent medicines and their consumers in early twentieth-century Britain

Architecture and the spaces that it creates are not ‘neutral’, nor are they reducible to their geometric qualities. In a similar vein, the meanings of commodities are not static: meaning can be constructed and shaped by different environments and other forces; indeed, they are not sold in ‘voids’. Because of this, my paper at CHORD’s ‘Retailing, Distribution, and Reputation’ workshop (23 May, 2017) proposed that an analysis of the different retail environments in which products were sold can provide new and interesting perspectives on the meanings of commodities to their consumers.

The commodity that I am particularly interested in is patent medicines. Usually discussed in a seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century context, patent medicines were in fact increasingly popular in twentieth-century Britain, to the extent that the trade was worth between £20 and £28 million in 1937. They were also sold in a wide array of accessible commercial spaces, ranging from rationalized, brightly-lit chain stores such as Woolworth’s, to traditional, independent chemist shops that had been established in the early nineteenth century. Whilst the exact range of brands sold undoubtedly varied from space to space, this assortment of spaces is noteworthy because styles of design have symbolic capacity, and can act as a ‘conscious expression’ of important messages such as ‘safe conduct’ according to Iain Black.[1] Claire Walsh also argues that shop design could have a ‘direct impact’ on a variety of products for sale.[2] As such, shop design could add an additional layer of symbolic meaning to the product itself.

This additional layer of meaning was crucial to a trade that was continually plagued by controversy in the early twentieth century. The trade attracted the attention of the government to the extent that a Select Committee was set up to address the issue in 1912; the Committee’s report was published in 1914 and a growing body of legislation echoed concerns related to, but not limited to, purity, quality, and false claims. Therefore, although patent medicine firms did not directly oversee the retail spaces in which their products were sold, these environments offered an opportunity to reassure consumers, whilst also overpowering the voices of the government and the medical profession via the expression of values such as reputation, efficacy, and purity. This may not have been the direct intention of retailers, who often had their own agendas and own-brand products, however, the expression of values such as these could be mutually beneficial to both the retailer and the patent medicine firm. For example, chemist shops often had their own-brand preparations that were sold alongside manufacturers’ preparations; as competitors, these own-brand medicines were equally susceptible to concerns regarding the reputation of the chemist, and the purity, quality, and safety of the preparation itself. As a result, chemists had much to gain from the material qualities of their shop.

My paper could not possibly discuss all of the different environments in which patent medicines were sold, so I chose to focus on the space of the chemist shop. Chemists are particularly relevant to the study of patent medicines, as commercial pressures meant that the majority could not afford to avoid stocking patent medicines – it was something that consumers had grown to expect.[3] Patent medicines were a dominant commodity in these spaces: heavily advertised, they often featured in display windows, and as a result, confronted consumers before they had even entered the shop. A myriad of other products were also sold alongside patent medicines in chemist shops, such as toiletries, handbags, books, cosmetics, and chemist-made preparations. Despite this level of competition from other products, patent medicines were frequently mentioned by oral history interviewees and Mass Observation participants in relation to chemist shops, demonstrating their strength of presence within this space.

Focusing on material culture, I argued that the fittings and objects used within the space of the early twentieth-century chemist shop possessed connotations of tradition, and that this directly affected the sale of patent medicines. This included the usage of fittings that reminded an oral history interviewee who had been a chemist in interwar Britain of ‘old shops’ that had ‘pharmacy atmosphere’. I also considered the preservation and display of specie jars and carboys within interwar chemists. Dating from around the eighteenth century, they were traditionally used to store liquids, botanical drugs, chemicals, and compound powders. These containers were retained, displayed, and even incorporated into the branding of early twentieth-century chemist shops, despite no longer serving a ‘functional’ purpose. For example, in 1935 the Chemist and Druggist noted how the chemist of Woodhouse & Son in Ludlow ‘still [had] six carboys’ in each window’, just like it did in 1810 when it was originally established. Crucially, these features are explicitly referred to as ‘reminders of the past’, a category which also included ‘half a dozen labelled pharmacy jars’ and ‘a ceiling adorned with a Tudor rose’.[4] Chemist chains such as Taylors also incorporated carboys into their branding and shop design. Carboys featured in shop signs, often serving as a backdrop for the ‘Taylors’ name, highlighting its integral nature to the company (figure 1). Similarly, the shape of a carboy formed a key component in the design of their glass windows on the shop front (figure 2); its presence within the very fabric and structure of the shop indicates the centrality of ‘reminders of the past’ to the physical makeup of certain early twentieth-century chemist shops.


Figure 1: Taylors Chemist, Darley Street, Bradford, 1934-5, Boots Archive, Nottingham.

Bramwell 2

Figure 2: Taylors Chemist, Stratford Road, Birmingham, 1934-5, Boots Archive, Nottingham.

At a time when the pharmaceutical industry was expanding and popularising ‘modern’ products such as Aspirin,[5] the presence of these traditional symbols is somewhat surprising. However, it connected with Britain’s distinctive style of modernity at this time: rather than making a distinct break with the past, British contemporaries created continuities between the past and the present, something that Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger call ‘traditions of modernity’.[6] This particular style of modernity chimed with the selling messages of certain companies, for instance, Daunton and Rieger’s ‘traditions of modernity’ concept is also applicable to the brand Beecham’s Pills. Their packaging in c.1945 displayed the same pattern as it had in c.1885, a decision that prioritised their long-established presence in Britain over newer, more fashionable designs. This is particularly interesting when it is considered in relation to reputation – something that was especially important for a trade that was plagued by controversy; indeed, their long-standing presence was deemed to be significant. This was mirrored in their advertising, in which their enduring presence in Britain was continuously highlighted with messages such as ‘Old friends are best’ and ‘Confidence is not won in a day’. Indeed, confidence was not won in a day – highlighting the importance of tradition, familiarity, and consistency within early twentieth-century healthcare. This was echoed by numerous other patent medicine companies such as Zam-Buk who toyed with the dynamics of tradition and modernity in their marketing messages. Their advertisements frequently stressed that the trademarked ointment had connections to ‘rare and potent balms that were so well known to the Romans’, whilst also underlining its modern and ‘scientific’ nature, demonstrating the extent to which tradition could exist alongside modernity within healthcare and medicine at this time – it could offer reassurance at a time when the market was increasingly ‘pumped’ with new products.[7]

An exploration such as this allows a more nuanced, multi-layered understanding of popular commodities such as patent medicines. It recognises that shops were a ‘material space’ that could affect the objects sold. Because of this, I put forward the idea of a ‘triangular relationship’ between commercial environments, commodities, and their consumers. Whilst it may not have been the direct intention of chemists, the advertising messages put forward by companies such as Beecham could be reinforced and emphasised by the environments in which their products were sold.


[1] Iain Black, ‘Spaces of Capital: Bank Office Building in the City of London, 1830-1870’, Journal of Historical Geography, 26:3 (2000), p. 362.

[2] Claire Walsh, ‘Shop Design and the Display of Goods in Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of Design History, 8:3 (1995), p. 167.

[3] Roy Church, ‘The British Market for Medicine in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Innovative Impact of SM Burroughs & Co.’, Medical History, 49:3 (2005), p. 283.

[4] The Chemist and Druggist, March 30, 1935, p. 387.

[5] For further discussion, see: Steven M. Rooney and J. N. Campbell, How Aspirin Entered Our Medicine Cabinet (Cham, 2017), p. 20; Joseph M. Gabriel, Medical Monopoly: Intellectual Property Rights and the Origins of the Modern Pharmaceutical Industry (Chicago, 2014), pp. 196-98.

[6] Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger (eds), Meanings of Modernity: Britain from the Late-Victorian Era to World War II (Oxford, 2001), p. 5.

[7] Rooney and Campbell, Our Medicine Cabinet, p. 16.

Erin Bramwell is a 1+3 ESRC PhD candidate at Lancaster University



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2017 Conference blogs – ‘Brands and the role of reputation in the nineteenth-century British wine trade’

Graham Harding, University of Oxford

Brands and the role of reputation in the nineteenth-century British wine trade

From the mid nineteenth century on, the wine and spirits trade was recognised as both innovative and brand conscious. The trade magazine, Ridley’s Wine and Spirit Trade Circular wrote in 1868 that ‘in no branch of commerce are brands so firmly established as in the Wine and Spirit trade’.[1]  Much of this marketing and branding impulse came from the dramatic rise in the sale of wine in the 1860s after a series of Gladstone budgets reduced the tariffs on what contemporaries called light wine. This essentially meant natural French wines that were not fortified with added alcohol as port and sherry were. So many new retailers flooded into the market that Ridley’s compared it to the Californian gold rush. Sales of French champagne and French claret to newly prosperous middle-class households quintupled in less than a decade, driven up by a stream of wine books and a flood of advertisements.

In the first half of the century most wine was sold under the names of British merchants. In the second half of the century brands became more important. From the 1860s onwards, merchants’ advertisements were significantly more likely to refer to the brands they stocked rather than to appeal to their own reputation or that of their wines.

Harding figure 1

‘Reputation’ v ‘brand’ in 19th century press advertising for wine. Source: British Newspaper Archive analysis conducted 2 May 2017.


When we look at specific wines we can see how powerful the brand effect was. As sales of claret and champagne rose so the brands of the French producers and shippers became steadily more important.

Harding figure 2

Incidence of branded wines in press advertising. Source: Analysis of advertising in British provincial press, 1850-1905. British Newspaper Archive analysis conducted 20 November 2016.


In the fifteen years from 1850 to 1865 most advertising for sparkling wine from the Champagne region still featured names such as ‘Sillery Mousseux’. Sillery was the best known ‘commune’, whilst Mousseux simply indicated it was strongly carbonated with lots of ‘mousse’ or foam. Wines with less sparkle were called ‘Crémant’ or ‘creaming’. Then, from the late 1860s onwards such terms fell out of use and were replaced by shipper names – names such as Moët and Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Pommery. In the following forty years, advertisements which did not refer to a named shipper brand became increasingly rare.

These shipper brands used advertising extensively. The wine writer and wine merchant Charles Tovey vividly described the all-pervasive nature of champagne advertising:

Advertisements cunningly worded […] bribes to hotel-keepers and proprietors of steam-boats, the same to the managers of public establishments, paragraphs in newspapers […] fees to waiters at hotel, and gratuities to stewards and butlers in the service of the nobility. Neither Norwich nor Bridgewater can surpass in bribery and corruption the attempts to give currency to a brand of Champagne.[2]

This was an expensive process. In 1892, a Ridley’s editorial claimed that ‘it is beyond doubt that hundreds of pounds are paid by certain shippers of Champagne for the sole privilege of hanging up show cards in public places, to get the public accustomed to the mere sound of a name’.

Harding figure 3

Tablets in public places


Such tablets were hung in the offices of merchants, in hotels and in what an 1891 article called ‘certain small apartments’. As a later prospectus clarified they meant lavatories and they claimed for their system that it meant that the brand name would be ‘directly in front of the client’ at a time when he or she had nothing else to read.[3] The names of the champagne houses consequently became ‘as familiar in the mouths of their customers as household words’.

What the champagne shippers were doing was building what the contemporary press called reputation. We would now call it brand awareness. They rarely advertised specific products from their range. Nor did they try to communicate the attributes of their champagne. The name of the house was positioned as the guarantee of quality. As a merchant in the port trade commented in an exchange of letters to the Morning Post in 1883 on the subject of ‘What Is There in a Brand?’, ‘the principal Oporto shippers are gentlemen who would not trifle with their good name, and their brand is their name’.

Wine merchants attempted to create their own brands to counter the competition from the shipper brands. In this, they were following the advice of the wine trade press. In 1870, Charles Tovey counselled ‘have nothing to do with the brand of the foreigner. Get the best possible wine you can but insist upon your own brand on the cork, and your own name on the label.’ His argument to fellow merchants was:

you are responsible for the quality to your customer the consumer; it is to you that the reputation and credit of the selection belongs. Why should you pay a premium to others for advertising their names and thus encourage a monopoly prejudicial to your own interests.’[4]

But reputation was not enough to succeed. None of the attempts by the independent wine merchants to create their own brands worked – either under their own name or a fake French name. Merchants became worried that the growth of proprietary brands would reduce them to the level of what one noted firm – Corney & Barrow – called ‘penny-in-the-slot machines’. They feared that consumers would increasingly opt for the reassurance and quality guarantee of a known brand – even if it cost them more money – rather than trust the merchant’s claim to provide a wine of equivalent quality at a lower price. The merchants simply could not afford match the spending of the major brands. All they could do was to communicate by letter or printed circular or price list to their own private ‘connection’. They had no hope of achieving the national name recognition of distributors such as Gilbey’s with stores on every High Street and ubiquitous advertising in newspapers and station walls.

And the merchants were right to fear. Even Gilbey’s had to change their own brand strategy in the 1880s. Though they never abandoned their own very successful Castle brand they increasingly downplayed it in favour of product brands such as Martell’s Cognac, Perrier Jouët champagne and their own brand of ‘Invalid Port’. In particular they switched from the Castle brand of champagne to what Gilbey’s called the ‘Celebrated Brands’ of champagne.

Harding figure 4

Gilbey’s ‘Celebrated Brands’


Yet, the Castle brand had precisely the attributes that retailers claimed when they spoke of reputation: low price, extensive stock and good quality – backed up by smart buying, massive sales and overwhelming physical presence in thousands of British High Streets.

The power of reputation is usually defined by modern marketeers as the sum of the experience of the brand or company. It takes in advertising, product quality, service experience as well as what other people say about the company of brand. Lipton’s, one of the few nineteenth-century service organisations with a national presence and national advertising, failed in the last decades of the nineteenth century to translate their famous own brands and their reputation for value in cheese, ham and tea into a viable wine business, despite significant investment. By the 1880s and 1890s the power of brands in the wine and spirit market was simply too great. Reputation had met its limit.

Harding figure 5

Late 19th century Lipton’s Tea advertisement



[1] Ridley’s Wine and Spirit Trade Circular, 10 March 1868, p. 8.

[2] Ibid., pp. 101-2.

[3] Ibid., 12 June 1882, p. 194; 12 December 1891, p. xx.

[4] Charles Tovey, Champagne: Its History, Properties, and Manufacture (London: J. C. Hotten, 1870), pp. 102-3.

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2017 Conference blogs – ‘Retail as Fundraising: Some Questions from NHS History’

George Campbell Gosling, University of Wolverhampton

Retail as Fundraising: Some Questions from NHS History

I didn’t set out to research the history of retail. I was intending to work on the history of the NHS.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of Britain’s National Health Service in 2018, I was hired to work on one of several major research projects looking at its history from new perspectives. One aspect I’ve been looking into is the role of hospital charity, investigating the different meanings of donating money to a tax-funded, universal and comprehensive service providing medical care free at the point of delivery.

There’s a slightly odd idea that the arrival of the NHS ended hospital charity. Certainly, critique and cynicism of the social act of handing over money was a defining feature of the politics that founded the British health service in 1948. Health Minister Aneurin Bevan was adamant that patients should not at any point be asked for money, which amounted to a ban on hospital fundraising – hitherto a vibrant field of community activity – to ensure medical care was understood to be a universal right of citizenship. This meant no more promoting pseudo-insurance hospital contributory schemes, no more calls for donations in the local newspaper, no more flag days, fetes or bazaars, and collecting boxes brought in from waiting rooms, railway stations and public houses up and down the country. Yet at the same time, he wanted to see the voluntarist tradition maintained in the form of linen guilds, libraries and canteens. Once the dust had settled on the new service, however, leagues of hospital friends sprung up to restore much of the earlier volunteering and fundraising activity, even if without the same sense of urgency.

George 1

Pre-NHS hospital flag pins as sold by fundraisers

Although the Leagues of Friends were new, they were engaged in many of the same fundraising activities as had been seen before the NHS. Historians Barry Doyle and Nick Hayes have drawn our attention to the emergence of a new type of community fundraising that came to the fore in the hospital charity of the 1930s.[1]

We see this echoed in the sewing parties and local flag days that carried on, with the Nottingham hospital flag day continuing until 1988. Though we also see an evolution, as some forms of fundraising activity gave way to others – for example, with fetes and whist drives giving way to bring-and-buy sales and the League of Friends’ hospital shop.

Under the NHS, therefore, there was a place for retail within these changing practices of hospital charity. Gambling and the sale of tokens associated with the hospital had been common before the NHS and they did not entirely disappear, but they were now accompanied with more recognisable consumer models of retail operating on a not-for-profit fundraising basis.

One model was the sale of goods produced by volunteers. This was not new, but took on a greater retail focus after the introduction of central ordering in the 1970s. Before this the Nottingham General Hospital, for example, had large quantities of bed linen, surgeon’s gowns and gloves, surgical stockings and other items made to order by their Linen Guild. After this, their focus turned instead to sewing and knitting items for sale to raise funds.

After the first few decades of the NHS, the League of Friends canteen and tea trolley gradually took on a more retail focus. The tea and cigarette trolley became a ward trolley, selling a miniature range of the items on sale in the hospital shop. Discounts might be secured from commercial providers, but these were the neither specifically hospital-related or volunteer-made products. One function here was to bring retail into the hospital, and with it the opportunity for patients and visitors to easily purchase everyday goods or entertainments.   The other was, of course, fundraising. And in this the two types of retail, with differences in the type and production of items on sale, were the same. They were both retail for a social purpose. Fundraising-oriented retail therefore deserves a place within the long but often-overlooked history of social business.

Another distinction concerns the sites of fundraising retail. The oldest, as seen in the pre-NHS hospital fetes and flag days, was retail taking place within the community. And they continued with bring-and-buy sales taking their place, even if the hospitals were no longer dependent upon this source of income. Doyle and Hayes have identified such activities as important for forging a sense of community ownership over local hospitals in the 1930s. We should therefore ask whether such local fundraising retail activities in the postwar years played any part in bringing together communities and the welfare state at a local level.

In other cases, as with the ward trolley and the hospital shop, retail was brought into what were otherwise medical and welfare arenas. These designated retail spaces were not commercial bubbles within the hospital, as could be seen when the shop served as a space for the social welfare activities that accompanied the core medical work of the hospital. They were simply different spaces within hospital life continued.

All of which raises some questions. If our focus is on fundraising, we might ask: does it make a difference when fundraising takes the form of retail? Alternatively, if our focus is on retail, we might ask: does it make a difference when the purpose of retail is fundraising? There is great variety of method in the history of fundraising, the same can be said of models of retail. But as we see commercial retailers becoming more and more common within NHS hospitals – as the League of Friends’ canteen and shop makes way for Costa and McDonald’s – we are inevitably left wondering whether we might lose something if we no longer see this marriage of retail and charity in our health service. If there is something distinct that we might decide is worth holding onto, what exactly is it?

[1] Nick Hayes and Barry Doyle, ‘Eggs, rags and whist drives: popular munificence and the development of provincial medical voluntarism between the wars’, Historical Research, vol. 86, no. 234 (2013), pp. 712-740.


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2017 Conference blogs – British and Guaranteed

Nicholas Oddy, Glasgow School of Art

British and Guaranteed

Oddy 1

For about a year I have been working on an extensive survey and history of the Service Department at the Liverpool based toy manufacturer Meccano Ltd. This was intended only for collectors of the products themselves, mainly from the Hornby Trains range, which are fairly commonly found. The ‘article’ has grown into book proportions and has thrown up a number of questions that take the content beyond the realm of collecting. The CHORD workshop on 23 May 2017, specifically on the topic of distribution and reputation, seemed to be a good place to air some of them in an academic context. From this, I hope to develop a more substantial journal article.

The Service Department was the result of under-design in a single product, the Hornby Clockwork Train, introduced in 1920. For a toy train of its size it was relatively expensive and very well finished. The fact that its mechanism was prone to fail was to result in a flood of returns. Meccano, which had already developed an American style advertising department with advanced marketing techniques and a clear brand identity, asked for this by suggesting that their trademark was ‘a guarantee of quality and workmanship’. Many other makers, particularly those in Germany, tended to operate quite anonymously through wholesale agents. Product failure was something new to Meccano Ltd, whose reputation had been built on a single product, the construction outfit of the same name, the components of which were so basic and robust that they rarely ‘went wrong’.

The ‘Repairs Department’ was established in 1921, and the product was hastily redesigned to address its most obvious failings. However, such had been the sales of the original product that they continued to be returned. The company looked to some way of mitigating the expense of repairing or replacing them. The introduction of a formal guarantee followed. What this did was time-limit free repairs to sixty days. A formal guarantee for a toy in Europe was unheard of at this time, and the company trumpeted it as a sure sign of its product quality. In fact, what it did was to allow the company to legitimately charge for repairs for products returned more than two months after purchase without reputational loss. Moreover, it is quite likely that the loss making, but reputation saving ‘Repairs Department’ became at least a break-even and quite probably profitable ‘Service Department’.

It is the duality of this that interests me. It seems that reputational enhancement of the company was achieved through the failings, rather than the qualities of its own products. What we see in Meccano is a ‘product minded’ approach to R&D that was countered by a seemingly independent and much more ‘market minded’ approach to advertising and brand management. With the Service Department another significant element was added to this mix that soon operated largely independently of both.

Nicholas Oddy, Glasgow School of Art

E-mail: n.oddy@gsa.ac.uk

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2017 Conference blogs – A world of goods?

Jon Stobart, Manchester Metropolitan University

A world of goods?

In the context of Brexit, the question of Britain’s trading relations and its place in the world are being thrown into sharp relief. Arguments for looking beyond Europe and repositioning Britain in a global economy link back to earlier attempts to promote a global economy shaped by Empire. This was especially strong in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but its roots run deep. Historians of eighteenth-century consumption, for instance, place much emphasis on the transformative impact of a whole range of colonial goods, from tea and sugar to calicoes and indigo. Some, like Troy Bickham and Jonathan Eacott go further and argue for Empire as a kind of ‘super-brand’ that shaped the worldview of ordinary people. Whilst persuasive in many respects, these arguments need to be challenged and tested against the continued importance of Europe in cultures of consumption during the long eighteenth century.

One way of exploring these relationships in a way that links us to the everyday lives of shopkeepers and consumers is to examine the names given to products, especially where those names include geographical locations: things like Jamaica pepper and Indian cottons, but also West Country woollens and Italian vermicelli. If we analyse these place-name associations as they appear in lists of shop goods, newspaper advertisements and the accounts of individual consumers, then it quickly becomes apparent that colonial place-names were increasingly deployed, especially with reference to groceries. Looking west, we see, amongst others: Jamaica pepper, coffee, sugar and ginger; Barbados sugar, tar and alloes, Martinique coffee, and Havana snuff, plus Virginia tobacco and pepper, American powder (i.e. snuff), and Carolina indigo and rice. Turning to the east, there was Sumatra pepper and bark, Indian soy, arrowroot, cottons and muslins, Bengals and Jaconets, East Indian ginger, rhubarb and rice, and Japan soy. This formed an impressive array of places that mapped both the expanding geography of empire and the influence of the East India Company as a monopolistic trader in many of the goods imported from the east. However, this list is easily out-numbered by references to a greater variety of places in Britain and Europe. The list is too long to reproduce in full, but included: Cheshire cheese, Norwich crapes, Coventry stuffs, Manchester tapes and cottons, London treacle, Kentish hops, Irish linen, Dutch serge and thread, French gauze, olives and salt, Savoy biscuits, Saxon cloth, Malaga grapes and Valencia shawls, Zante currants (from Greece), Genoan velvet, Florentine oil and silk, Roman capers and Parmesan cheese.

Stobart figure 1

Figure 1. Liverpool Mercury, 11 February 1820

From this, it is clear that shopkeepers and their customers were European as much as imperial in their mindset, the two sometimes appearing alongside each other on a single advertisement (Figure 1). This is underlined by the way that some colonial products which were processed in Europe gathered geographical associations along the way: Scotch snuff, for example, or Lisbon sugar. The association of snuff with Scotland became very strong, despite the ultimate source of the tobacco. In a remarkable trade card issued by the Robert Kitten, we see tea embodied by a Chinese man – a common trope by the late eighteenth century – and tobacco by a kilted Scotsman smoking a fashionable cigar (Figure 2). It seems doubtful that the customer was meant to see smoking as something Scottish, but the link between product and place was clear and carried meaning, not least in terms of the qualities of the product being sold. Lisbon sugar was a distinct type with particular material qualities. In contemporary recipes, it is often specified by name, the author assuming that the reader will understand exactly what the label signifies and that the reader will have a store of this particular commodity.

Stobart figure 2

Figure 2. Trade card of Robert Kitton of Norwich, early 19th century

Other colonial goods were usurped by British imitations, most famously the range of printed cottons produced in ever greater quantities in and around Manchester. These didn’t just replicate the products, they sometimes took on the same name, so we see advertisements like that places in the Bristol Mercury in 1822 announcing: ‘From the Manchester and Yorkshire Markets. Several Bales of Cambric, Jacconet, Nainsook, Corded, Checked and every other description of Muslins’.

Cook books show that consumers were interested in experimenting with new and exotic dishes such as curries and piccalilli, and confections linked to colonial places, including Carolina snow balls (rice and apple shaped into balls and boiled, and served with sweet sauce made with butter and white wine, flavoured with nutmeg and cinnamon). Whilst these are eye catching, far more recipes were linked to European places, with dishes in the Dutch, German, Spanish and French manner all featuring in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery as it ran through successive editions. Indeed, she included more recipes ‘in the Jew’s way’ than those associated with India. Together with the growing taste for Italian food – seen in the burgeoning number of Italian warehouses and the quantities of Italian groceries purchased by consumers such as the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire – this suggests a consumer culture that remained European in its focus.

This is not to deny the importance of colonial goods – they undoubtedly had a big impact on consumer culture in Britain and across Europe. However, we should be careful about assuming that, in buying colonial goods, people bought into the imperial project or even gave it much thought. From the evidence of the places explicitly linked to the things that they bought, they had Cheshire, Manchester and Italy on their mind just as much as Carolina, Jamaica or India.

Jon Stobart’s article on ‘Making the global local? Overseas goods in English rural shops, c.1600-1760’, published by Business History, is available here:




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7 September 2017 – CHORD Conference – Retailing and Distribution in the Seventeenth Century

7 September 2017

University of Wolverhampton


Trade Card of Samuel Spencer, Furniture Maker, late 17th/early 18th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 47.71.3, Gift of Bella C. Landauer, 1925. Image courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org/


10.00 – 10.30     Coffee and welcome

10.30 – 11.00     Alex Taylor, University of Sheffield, UK

The dissemination of tobacco in seventeenth-century England, 1625-1685

11.00 – 11.30     Tom Rusbridge, University of Birmingham, UK

Innovations in Tanning in Early Modern Britain and Europe

11.30 – 12.00   Glynis Hughs, independent researcher, UK

‘What Do You Lack?’ The Role of the Itinerant Trader in Seventeenth Century England

12.00 – 12.30   Jessica Cunningham, Maynooth University, Co Kildare, Ireland

‘Establishing excellence and consumer confidence: Dublin’s goldsmiths’ guild in the seventeenth century’

12.30 – 13.30     Lunch

13.30 – 14.00     Laurie Lindey, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, UK

The London furniture trade, 1640-1720

14.00 – 14.30     Evana Downes, University of Kent, UK

Balancing the urban ‘stomach’: the impact of regulation on London’s food vendors

14.30 – 14.50     Mabel Winter, University of Sheffield, UK

The Case of Thompson & Company: commerce, banking, and politics in the late seventeenth century

14.50 – 15.30   Coffee

15.30 – 16.00 Sébastien Pautet, University Paris Diderot (Paris VII), France

Make It Come True. Far East Product Imitations in Parisian Shops at the End of the Seventeenth Century

16.00 – 16.30     Charlie Taverner, Birkbeck, University of London, UK

Marginal no more: selling food on the street in seventeenth-century London



 The conference will be held on Wolverhampton City Campus, University of Wolverhampton, a short walk from Wolverhampton’s bus and train stations.

For maps and directions, please see:


The fee is £ 22

To register, please complete the registration form available here (The link will take you to the University of Wolverhampton’s E-store, at http://www.estore.wlv.ac.uk/)

For further information, please e-mail Laura Ugolini at: l.ugolini@wlv.ac.uk



Jessica Cunningham, Maynooth University, Co Kildare, Ireland

‘Establishing excellence and consumer confidence: Dublin’s goldsmiths’ guild in the seventeenth century’

This twenty-minute paper will explore the development of Dublin’s goldsmiths’ guild over the course of the seventeenth century as it transformed itself from a small, unregulated organisation into a large incorporated company sanctioned with the authority to regulate the production and retail of silver, gold and jewellery throughout Ireland.

The paper will examine the motivations of the early-seventeenth century goldsmiths in Dublin who consciously strove to establish excellence and autonomy in the manufacture of Irish silver. It will analyse the demographic diversity of the guild and how this impacted on the transformation of Dublin’s goldsmiths in this period. Furthermore, it will demonstrate how these goldsmiths – Irish, English, Dutch, French, German – drew on contemporary European guild practices in their vision for Dublin’s guild and the craft in Ireland. Ultimately, as it will be shown, the desire by Irish consumers for material authentication generated this decisive shift in seventeenth-century Dublin.

In addition, this paper will identify from the documentary and object evidence the methods employed by the organisation throughout the century in regulating the metalworking craft in Ireland and will evaluate whether its aims were realised or merely aspirational.

This paper’s findings, drawn on recent doctoral research, will illuminate new avenues of primary investigation and analysis into a luxury craft in seventeenth-century Ireland.

Evana Downes, University of Kent, UK

Balancing the urban ‘stomach’: the impact of regulation on London’s food vendors

Early modern vending and market regulations indicate that food vendors occupied a central role in urban hierarchies. Their practices and wares contributed not only to the continued health and stability of the individual body, but the urban body as a whole. By influencing urban diets, victuallers could help reinforce social status, positive social behaviour, and general health. By maintaining a steady supply of food (particularly during periods of dearth), and distributing it honestly, they could contribute to social stability. The activities and movements of some food vendors could also shape the urban landscape, contributing to the prosperity of some spaces, while potentially polluting others.

From the 1500s, the English Crown and Corporation of London began to emphasise the need to maintain and protect urban public health. This concern grew as the sixteenth century progressed, advancing into the seventeenth. Though ostensibly formulated to curb the spread of disease, legislation concerned with public health increasingly equated the wellbeing of the individual body to that of the body politic. As a result, early public health laws in England were tinged with a moral aspect, pitting the danger of biological contagion alongside that of social pollution.

While the effect of public health regulation on physicians and other health-workers has been well-researched, less has been written about how shifting concepts of medicine and public health impacted upon the working lives of other occupational groups. Less still has been written about the lot of London’s food vendors, whose production and distribution of nourishment to civic populations had been monitored by local authorities since the Middle Ages. This paper will discuss aspects of a new project that aims to address this gap in research. Using sources such as The Lawes of the Markette (updated throughout the seventeenth century) and sessions books and papers, it will investigate ways in which new and adapted market and vending regulations reflected and affected the experiences of victuallers in seventeenth century London. It will focus particularly on how diverse groups of victuallers – through their physical presence, occupational practices, and wares – were thought capable of negatively affecting the health of other civic members. Finally, it will consider the implications of these associations, with reference to how victualling groups were integrated into – or kept to the margins of – London’s urban hierarchy.

Glynis Hughs, independent researcher, UK

‘What Do You Lack?’ The Role of the Itinerant Trader in Seventeenth Century England

The seventeenth century itinerant trader was an elusive character, in spite of the attempts by state, local authorities or even literature to make them to conform to a narrative, they refused to comply.

Often depicted in picaresque literature and cheap print as a source for spreading immorality and criminality, they were accused of destroying the financial stability of the towns and cities and acting as a threat to local trades and companies. State legislation and civic records paint the itinerant trader as a social pariah, detrimental to all society and liable to punishment and repatriation, and frequently, such as in John Ivie’s account of the administration of Poor Relief in Salisbury, seen as a danger to the wellbeing of the settled poor. However, examination of local records such as the Salisbury Constable’s Book and the Manchester Constable’s Accounts show a different image, and in many cases the itinerant trader was not only tolerated but also provided a necessary service to the poorest in the community.

Historians have most often placed the itinerant trader within a history of Vagrancy, using such terms as “unsettled, “outcast” or even “masterless”.   However, work by Margaret Spufford has called this view into question, demonstrating through the use of wills and inventories that the role of the pedlar or petty chapman often provided a necessary service to rural communities and also acted as a bridge between the local population and the gentry. Those who left wills and inventories were likely to be licenced peddlers rather than itinerants.

In examining the entries in Hall Books, Constable Books and Quarter Sessions records, I intend to demonstrate that many itinerant traders also exhibited a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial skills. Far from being “victims of circumstance” or simply adding to the “economy of makeshifts” I consider that they added a vital component to the nascent consumer society and their presence allowed all levels of society access to the pleasures of consumption.

Laurie Lindey, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, UK

The London furniture trade, 1640-1720

This paper examines the London furniture trade in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a period which witnessed dramatic transformations in the designs, styles and construction of English furniture. While this topic has been addressed in detail in terms of object-based analyses, it has never been examined from a social, economic and cultural perspective.

Given that this presentation is limited to twenty minutes, the following topics will be briefly discussed. The paper begins with the evolution of decorative design in England in the early modern period and the effects of burgeoning consumerism. It then defines the various types of specialised artisans and craftsmen who produced new forms and styles of furniture, and the ways in which the chain of production was structured. Thereafter we identify where London furniture makers were situated. Where was furniture manufactured and where was it sold? Were particular types of furniture sold in specific areas of the metropolis? This paper identifies the geographical location of the trade in the City of London and its spread into the fashionable West End. Finally we are introduced to two London furniture makers: we discover what a Covent Garden cabinetmaker in the post Restoration period manufactured and retailed, and who his clients were, and then we explore the workshop and manufacturing network of a caned chair maker in St. Paul’s Churchyard at the close of the seventeenth century.

Sébastien Pautet, University Paris Diderot (Paris VII), France

Make It Come True. Far East Product Imitations in Parisian Shops at the End of the Seventeenth Century

The ‘Taste for China’ is probably one the most surprising and durable fashion phenomenon of the Ancien Régime. The installation of European Jesuits and merchants in China during the 17th century, the stabilization of commercial connexions between Europe and the Far-East and the great embassies between Asian and European monarchies stimulated a great consumption of Asian luxuries.

Nevertheless, the Taste for China was not only based on Asian products. Craftsmen and manufacturers have tried to produce locally some global luxuries imported from the other side of the world. Imitations and hybrids from China or Japan were encouraged by the authorities and by commercial networks (Berg, 2015). While many historians of consumption and economics have raised the interest for Asian trades and its impacts on European consumption (Berg, 2005, 2015; Coquery, 2008, 2009), the question of Asian products is now central to scholarly investigations on technology as well (Riello, Parthasarathi, 2009), and historians have emphasized the question of ‘imitation’ in the process of product innovation (Berg, 2002).

This talk aims to understand the question of imitation and invention in a global context from a technical point of view. I will focus on products sold in Parisian shops and on imitations of Chinese and Japanese products in order to understand the construction of a market for fake Asian products at the end of the seventeenth century, and its impacts on both technical and commercial cultures.

Tom Rusbridge, University of Birmingham, UK

Innovations in Tanning in Early Modern Britain and Europe

The seventeenth century in Britain marked an important crucible in which the fundamentally medieval industry of tanning – taking raw animal hides and using a series of processes and botanical materials to create leather – underwent highly significant change. On the one hand, such innovations were driven by the invention of local tanners who responded to environmental changes to generate new methods of manufacturing leather, and on the other by the outward investigation and reporting of those who travelled to Europe to observe the practices of tanners in France, Germany and Denmark, among other countries. Both ‘home-grown’ innovations and those based on foreign observation were underpinned by quotidian and domestic responses to change materials, craft and manufacture, especially as an increasing range of types of leather were released into the consumer space.

This paper will examine documentary evidence of changing tanning practices through tanning manuals and reports and assess how they represented multiple types of innovation within a single framework of understanding, as early as 1583. It responds to the conference themes by analysing new and unique methods of craft and manufacture with the context Britain’s seventeenth century and its relationship with Europe, and contextualises these developments within the print culture, trades, industry and intellectual interest which were at once both motivations for their development and vehicles through which these changes were communicated to a public audience. Ultimately, it shall argue that seventeenth century innovations in tanning had long-standing impacts for British manufactures and crafts, and seeks to undermine the notion that such innovation was confined to the eighteenth century and rise of mechanized production.

Charlie Taverner, Birkbeck, University of London, UK

Marginal no more: selling food on the street in seventeenth-century London

Lower and middling Londoners relied on informal retail for their food, but the practicalities and personalities of small-scale selling in the early modern city have been hard to recover. Most histories have marginalised urban hawkers, who traded on the move, beyond fixed sites like markets and shops. Work on women’s labour, poverty, and the growing metropolis has also sketched these figures as poor nuisances, selling awful food and switching between several badly paid jobs. Recently historians have begun to suggest hawkers, across Europe, could be substantial retailers and a force in a city’s society and economy, in which the informal sector, for food especially, was substantial. This paper proposes a methodology and theoretical approach for writing focused accounts of selling food on the street in early modern London. It shows how historians can use a broader set of sources, which break away from the reliance on judicial material – which typically shows hawkers in trouble – and representations – in which they are idealised as picturesque or comical. Using sources ranging from samples of ward records to incidental mentions in depositions, it is possible to show a fuller picture of the hawking experience. The paper also shows how considering space, as an approach, can open up our understanding of these hard-to-get-to retailers. Rather than focus on preconceived themes, a historical narrative can follow street sellers through the spaces of their day, starting with their home and closing with when they were lifted from life into art. Also, their place of work, the street, set them apart from other traders. Hawkers both contributed to and were impacted by the space’s materiality, with its traffic, noise and smell, and its conception, in the minds of Londoners. I argue that, by examining hawkers in the spaces in which they worked, we can see more clearly how they were central to the city’s food supply and retail landscape. More than that, they were central to changing ideas of metropolitan life.

 Alex Taylor, University of Sheffield, UK

The dissemination of tobacco in seventeenth-century England, 1625-1685

This paper examines the growth of the tobacco trade in the seventeenth century and how consumers accessed the commodity through importers, distributors and retailers. Focusing largely on the southwest of England, my research uses depositions, trade books and inventories to assess the extent to which tobacco ‘took off’ during the sixty-year period between the dissolution of the Virginia Company and the introduction of the ‘new impost’. Although other reasons complement these about to be given (colonial crop, falling prices, addictive), I suggest three main points in this paper that enabled the widespread distribution, retail and ultimately consumption of tobacco.

First, mariners were important figures, both in constituting a large proportion of importers as well as ‘teaching’ consumers how to smoke. Whilst seafarers’ contribution to distribution networks was not unique to tobacco, the plant’s early arrival into England compared to other new groceries extends the chronology backwards given by Beverly Lemire in her work on sailors after 1660. Second, it was not overly difficult to process tobacco after its arrival. Tools for such work could be relatively rudimental, ultimately resulting in lower production costs and wider participation. Again, ‘cheap’ production methods were not peculiar to tobacco but my analysis of how tobacco was transformed from leaf into a vendible commodity suggests how it was subsequently distributed. Third, tobacco had a low weight:cost ratio. Inventories and depositions show that tobacco was often transported in relatively small, easy-to-handle quantities that furnished multiple consumers. Suppliers were also able to cater for customers’ needs by providing a range of different tobacco varieties, prices and formats.

Ultimately, the combination of these three factors, in conjunction with colonial expansion and falling tobacco prices, facilitated tobacco’s widespread distribution by the middle of the seventeenth century, if not earlier.

Mabel Winter, University of Sheffield, UK

The Case of Thompson & Company: commerce, banking, and politics in the late seventeenth century

This paper intends to outline and discuss the social network of a seventeenth century merchant-bankers joint-stock company. The company was formed of four merchants, who had previously conducted trade in pairs but in 1670 decided to pool their resources and form a joint-stock bank, designed to loan out money at interest. The profits from which would be put into a general bank upon which the merchants could each draw on for their own individual trading ventures, provided they repaid the loaned money with interest. This venture relied on a variety of interpersonal relationships, as well as relationships forged through intermediaries and those forged purely on reputation. However, these relationships were not only commercial in nature, but political, familial, friendly, and conflicting, demonstrating the wide-ranging exploits of the four protagonists. Their wide web of credit, which spread across political, religious, geographical, familial and mercantile boundaries, created a complex and tumultuous situation once the partners went bankrupt in 1677.

The collapse of the bank in 1677 will receive particular attention due to the political manoeuvrings that aided its downfall, including interference from London city government, the East India Company, and even direct relations with the King; with the identification of at least two out of four of the main protagonists as early Whigs adding yet more intrigue to the plot. Set against the backdrop of the financial revolution, the stop on the exchequer, the early formation of party politics and the beginnings of the popish plot, this paper aims to highlight the difficulties and risks involved in early modern commerce, as well as demonstrating the depth and breadth of the relationships required to initiate such a venture. More than any other early banking venture, the bank of Woolchurch Market illuminates the complex intertwining of commercial and political identities in a society experiencing religious and political turmoil, as well as implicating an earlier start date for the English Financial Revolution.


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