Conference – ‘Retailing and Distribution in the Eighteenth Century’

13 September 2018

University of Wolverhampton

Room MH108/9, Mary Seacole Building

Belly piece shop

Cestina Warehouse or Belly Piece Shop, attrib. Isaac Cruikshank, 1793, Accession no. 59.533.475, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959, Image courtesy of


10.00 – 10.30      Registration, coffee and welcome by Pauline Anderson, Head of School of Social, Historical and Political Studies, University of Wolverhampton

Chair: Laura Ugolini, University of Wolverhampton

10.30 – 11.00    Steven Sanders, Oxford Brookes University

The Upholder in the Age of Thomas Chippendale: Upholders as Appraisers, Brokers, and Auctioneers

11.00 – 11.30   Anna Knutsson, European University Institute

Selling British Contraband in Eighteenth Century Sweden

11.30 – 12.00  Jenni Dixon, BCU

From Cabinets to Toy-Shops: Curious Spaces in the Eighteenth-Century

12.00 – 12.30   Aidan Collins, University of York

Defining ‘Traders’ in Bankruptcy Proceedings, 1700-1750

12.30 – 13.30     Lunch

Chair: Margaret Ponsonby, University of Wolverhampton

13.30 – 14.00    Elisabeth Gernerd, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Fancy Feathers: the Feather Trade in Britain and the Atlantic World

14.00 – 14.30    Jessica Davidson, St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford

‘Here mirth and merchandise are mix’d’: Buying and selling at the English provincial fair reconsidered

14.30 – 15.00    Matthew Mauger, Queen Mary University of London

Grocers’ Trade cards and the Cultural Imaginaries of China

15.00 – 15.30     David Fallon, University of Roehampton

Bookselling, Sociable Retailing and Identity by Distribution: The Case of Thomas Payne

15.30 – 16.00   Coffee

Chair: George Gosling, University of Wolverhampton

16.00 – 16.30    Serena Dyer, University of Warwick

Stitching and Shopping: The Material Literacy of the Consumer

16.30 – 17.00   Clare Rose, The Royal School of Needlework, London

Quilted petticoats in eighteenth century London: genuine and imitation, bought and stolen

17.00 – 17.30   Jon Stobart, Manchester Metropolitan University

Clothing the countryside: textiles and haberdashery in English village shops, c.1660-1720

Belly piece shop


 The conference will be held in Room MH108/9, Mary Seacole Building, located on ‘City Campus Molineux’, Wolverhampton City Campus, 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

For further information, please e-mail Laura Ugolini at:

Belly piece shop


Aidan Collins, University of York

Defining ‘Traders’ in Bankruptcy Proceedings, 1700-1750

During the sixteenth century, bankruptcy legislation was introduced in an attempt to tackle the dishonesty and immorality of failure in the wider economy. In trying to distinguish between the honest and unfortunate insolvent, and the deceitful and fraudulent debtor, certain professions were excluded, as only ‘traders’ who made their living by ‘buying and selling’ were within the scope of the statutes. However, by the eighteenth century the expansion of the market and the widespread use of credit networks meant that the implementation of this stipulation created certain practical difficulties.


By analysing the ways in which this trader distinction was investigated in the court of Chancery, this paper will show how the assumptions surrounding the nature of buying and the purpose of selling adapted and changed throughout the early modern period so not to cripple the system. Such an exploration will illuminate the disparities between legal ideals established in statutes and the practical realities of the marketplace. This will not only clarify the changing nature of a range of professions during this period, but will also enable a fuller understanding of the specificities and actions of traders in their day-to-day activities. Ultimately, Chancery suits provide a glimpse into ongoing negotiations between debtors and creditors, as well as the changing attitudes of both the legislature and the wider trading environment to the regulation of markets within debt recovery.

Jessica Davidson, St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford

‘Here mirth and merchandise are mix’d’: Buying and selling at the English provincial fair reconsidered

The provincial fair has been consigned to an almost perpetual decline in much existing historiography, made commercially unnecessary on the one hand by innovations in distribution networks and the fashionable space of shops, and on the other hand overtaken by socially stratified, commercialised leisure activities which replaced the ‘traditional’ festive role of the fair in the patterns of work and rest of the pre-industrial economy. This paper will draw on my doctoral research, now nearing completion in its fourth year, which has sought to re-evaluate the place of these events in the century between 1750 and 1850. It demonstrates that both the number of towns holding fairs as well as the number of individual events grew until the mid-nineteenth century, and seeks to explain the apparent disparity between these numbers and other markers of vitality, and the obsolescence we might expect to find in the age of industrialisation, urbanisation and commercialisation. Like so many social histories, the story of the fair is one of continuity and adaptation, rather than abrupt change. From a commercial point of view, many fairs remained a desirable place to do business because they were an established part of the provision of provincial financial services, acted as a nodal point where business relationships could be maintained face-to-face, and provided a lower risk environment to build new enterprises. Thus, fairs continued to play a role in the circulation of currency, communication and connections that enhanced the conduct of commerce even if instances of buying and selling were increasingly happening elsewhere. A study of the fair draws attention to areas of the economic landscape that have been pushed to the periphery by the prominence of the retail purchase in much recent scholarship on buying and selling. The fair is only one piece of the puzzle, but by reincorporating it into the commercial history of the eighteenth century, I hope to open up avenues of renewed enquiry into the patterns and practices of distribution, the way in which the market for goods was linked to the market for services, entertainment, or agricultural products, and an opportunity to reevaluate the spaces and strategies governing all of these transactions.

Jenni Dixon, BCU

From Cabinets to Toy-Shops: Curious Spaces in the Eighteenth-Century

(NB: In the eighteenth-century toys were generally not for children but were trinkets and small articles of adornment.)

Cabinets of curiosity displayed items of, what we would now call, natural history, anthropology, as well as historic artefacts, and had gained popularity from the 1500s. They were spaces filled with objects for expanding knowledge and for seeing the wider world in one view.

When toy-shops opened from the early 1700s they bore several similarities to traditional cabinets. George Wildey’s London premises, for example, sold and displayed both ‘Natural and Artificial Rarities’ in the 1720s, and even in the 1800s James Bisset, a Birmingham toymaker, merged his toy-shop with a cabinet of curiosities. Toys themselves were frequently termed curiosities, and a French toy-shop was a magasin de curiosités.

This paper will consider the consumer appeal of toys as curiosities, before examining how a culture of curiosity was utilised for their retail in toy-shops. It will explore three aspects: firstly, how curiousness was promoted in the street and shopfront; then, how modes of display were utilised in toy-shop interiors, such as the theatrical technique of the ‘slow-reveal’; and lastly, how print culture promoted toy-shops and the articles they sold, including using the newest printing methods to promote ingenuity. The paper will juxtapose London and Birmingham toy-shops, which both sold similar goods, but the former emphasised elite consumer experience, whilst the latter often framed toys in context of curious methods of manufacture. Both appealed to consumers in different ways.

In the eighteenth-century, curiousness was an important aspect of consumer appeal; it was interconnected with novelty, but also, as the paper will show, ideas of quality and skilled making. The toys themselves were already curious articles, but this was enhanced through the way that they were presented and represented in the physical spaces of toy-shops and printed promotion.

Serena Dyer, University of Warwick

Stitching and Shopping: The Material Literacy of the Consumer


In 1790s York, soon-to-be clergyman’s wife Elizabeth Woodhouse paid a local milliner, Miss Volans, to train her in her art. Woodhouse’s acquisition of practical making skills was part of a lifelong practice of gaining and maintaining material knowledge of fashionable dress construction. The housekeeping and œconomy skills, and craft and handiwork ability, of genteel and aristocratic women has been a focus of attention in scholarship. However, non-professional women’s material knowledge of garment construction has often been overlooked. In the eighteenth century, consumers of dress engaged in a dynamic process of personal and practical interaction with the goods they consumed, which transformed the material characteristics of the object from fabric to garment. Most garments acquired by genteel and aristocratic women continued to be made bespoke, utilising the services of a mantua maker or dressmaker. These relationships have traditionally been characterised as a producer/consumer binary. However, this paper contests that such interactions should instead be read as production partnerships, and that garment manufacture was a fluid collaboration between professional makers and skilled consumers. This paper examines the transformative process of turning textiles into garments, and the complex array of skills and making knowledge possessed by genteel consumers in the eighteenth century.

Genteel consumers played the role of judge, facilitator, collaborator, or indeed maker during the process of garment construction. Women were trained from girlhood to be practical participants in the making process, and pedagogical materials and practice emphasised material knowledge. This chapter traces how genteel women acquired and deployed making skills throughout the life-cycle, from girlhood to adulthood, and attests that material literacy was framed as a key skill for consumers. Knowledge of production enabled the consumer to effectively collaborate with and judge the craftsmanship of the producer, and engage with the broader discourses on taste, judgement, and fashion. Drawing on the diaries and accounts of genteel and aristocratic women, correspondence between mantua makers, milliners, and their clients, as well as material evidence of consumer knowledge and collaboration, this chapter will bring making into the marketplace, and reveal consumers of dress as skilled, active, and knowledgeable makers.

David Fallon, University of Roehampton

Bookselling, Sociable Retailing and Identity by Distribution: The Case of Thomas Payne

This paper will examine the retail space of the bookshop in eighteenth-century London, focusing on the emergence of the bookshop as a social space comparable with the coffee house. Thomas Payne’s shop, at the gate of the King’s Mews close to Charing Cross, became renowned not just as a publishing imprint and retail bookseller but also as an environment in which literary and antiquarian writers and thinkers met, discussed, and debated, with these activities blending into the business activities of the shop.

This paper will seek to recover the social life of the bookshop, examining its connection to Payne’s retail and publishing activities as well as to the retail and social life of the immediate environment. They shop’s retail profile among fellow London bookshops will be recovered with reference to contemporary ledgers and its adaptation to market trends in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries will also be considered.

Elisabeth Gernerd

Fancy Feathers: the Feather Trade in Britain and the Atlantic World

While feathered plumage saturates the visual landscape of eighteenth-century portraiture, appearing on hats, in hair, in hands and on the dress of Britain’s elite, the means by which those feathers came to inhabit such pronounced places of ornamentation has yet to be fully explored. Over the second half of the eighteenth century, the British, and subsequently Atlantic, feather industry evolved from one seemingly incorporated into the general sartorial trades to one with its own specific branch.  Known by various names, including plumassier (after the French), feather-man, feather merchant, feather dealer, and feather manufacturer, this profession fashioned a distinct place, separate from the haberdasher’s and milliner’s domain.

This paper delves into the lifecycle of the feather and, in particular, in whose hands it was traded, dyed, worked and sewn before appearing in its now immortal position on the painted canvas or printed page.  Tracing its importation, manufacture, sale and ownership, this chapter examines how the industry developed and was shaped by the rising fashionability of the feather over the latter half of the long eighteenth century.  Though a natural material, sourced from around the globe, feathers underwent a skilled transformation from bird to ‘plume a la mode’.[1]  Like many sartorial trends, the material knowledge of these makers and manufacturers were not limited to the professional, but extended also to the amateur hand at home.  Featherwork was a popular craft in an eighteenth-century household, one that highlights a further dimension of this feather-focused material literacy. A staple of fashion and craft, the feather, and its ecological to fashionable evolution, has long been overlooked in eighteenth-century historiography, despite its ubiquity and often flagrant prominence on the British silhouette.  This paper seeks to distinguish the makers of feathers, shedding a greater a light onto the process and material knowledge of their construction in order to better understand their pervasive plumed presence in dress and representation.

[1] London Chronicle, or Universal Evening Post, April 15, 1775- April 18, 1775; 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Anna Knutsson, European University Institute

Selling British Contraband in Eighteenth Century Sweden

This 20 minute paper explores the circulation of global goods in a protectionist market. The 1770s saw a peak in Swedish mercantile control with 871 types of wares being prohibited for import. A large part of these prohibitions stretched back to the 1730s and were meant to support the infant industry developing in Sweden at the time. Meanwhile Sweden’s largest trading partner, Great Britain, consumed the main part of the Swedish iron production without being able to balance it out through (legal) export. However, a study of the Customs archives and other sources on consumption reveals that British goods were far from absent from the Swedish market. This paper will thus consider the role of British goods in the Swedish market place, how they could be circulated and sold despite the prohibition against most British manufactures which spanned the whole century. This paper strives to nuance our ideas about how selling contraband actually worked, and also who consumed contraband and what role British manufactures in particular came to have in the development of the Swedish consumer society.

The contraband goods appear advertised in newspapers, sold from under the counter in established shops in the big cities and in the pouches of itinerant traders knocking on the doors of far removed peasant dwellings. Looking at the distribution networks contributes to an understanding of the widespread interconnectivity of the material world despite the reigning regulation.  A few types of goods will be discussed in depth such as worsteds, porter and pocket watches. Each type of good had an individual trajectory dependent on various factors such as the current state of Swedish industry, which import substitutions existed and the current economic climate. However, it is important to note that the contraband trade was extensively formed by various state needs and for this reason the British-Swedish contraband relationship was different from the French-Swedish. This paper thus strives to offer a preliminary outline of one type of contraband relationship and what role it played in Swedish economic life.

Matthew Mauger, Queen Mary University of London

Grocers’ Trade cards and the Cultural Imaginaries of China

The exquisite detailed designs of eighteenth-century trade cards harnessed the precision and artistry of copperplate engraving to the cause of metropolitan retail advertisement. Shopkeepers passed these elaborate printed handbills to consumers both on the retail premises and when sending orders for delivery: as beautiful and aspirational objects associated with the visit to a shop; as stationery on which a retailer might make out receipts or invoices; even as wrappers in which loose goods might be contained. Long dismissed as the artefacts of a niche economy serving a fashionable London clientele, there is a growing academic interest in these intricate, artistically-complex survivals of eighteenth-century retail.

This paper focuses on the trade cards associated with eighteenth-century grocery, with a specific interest in their near-ubiquitous trade in Chinese tea. The techniques adopted in the attempt to drive customers to particular establishments to purchase dried tea leaves is revealing both of the techniques used to create a demand for new and unfamiliar products, and also of the prevailing cultural attitudes that they assume. By focusing on the advertisements associated with tea consumption, we can discern the development of practices concerning trade card design, and the evolution of retail attitudes towards a fashionable exotic commodity. The designs popular in the earlier decades typically employ a symbolic focus on the appearance and use of tea as a commodity, a series of stock representations woven into the artistic flourishes of a card’s border along with other items of the grocer’s stock-in-trade. Increasingly, however, these coded references to tea consumption become instrumented as a part of a deliberate engagement with popular imaginaries of China, ranging from the supposed ‘Chinese’ lettering adorning tea chests, to exquisitely constructed Chinese gardens echoing the designs found on porcelain tea sets.

Stepping into a grocer’s shop in the eighteenth century was to enter, however vicariously, the most significant eighteenth-century British site for transcultural exchange between east and west. To what extent do the grocers trade cards facilitate that encounter? How do they stage the terms of that exchange? Do they naturalise the products of the east, or exoticise them? By reading some of the cards in detail, this paper asks how the assumptions about consumer experience that we see at work in these advertisements can shed light on the meanings of tea retail as a cultural phenomenon in the eighteenth century.

Clare Rose, The Royal School of Needlework, London

Quilted petticoats in eighteenth century London: genuine and imitation, bought and stolen

Quilted petticoats played an important role in the development of the ready-to-wear clothing industry in Britain, as Beverly Lemire has shown. They had a tie-on construction that made them easy to manufacture, and easy to fit on most customers. They could be made in a range of fabrics, from heavy wool serge to delicate silk satin or crisp linen, to provide warmth and fullness under a gown. Quilted petticoats worn with open-fronted gowns or short jackets could add to the ensemble through colour contrasts or decorative stitching.  Petticoats made from corded quilting from Marseilles or yellow silk embroidery from Bengal could add an exotic touch to the wardrobe. Trade cards from London and provincial shopkeepers in the British Museum and London Guildhall Collections confirm the importance of quilted petticoats in retail practice, sold by traders describing themselves as mercers, linen-drapers, haberdashers, or milliners. The consumption of quilted petticoats by women at all social levels can be seen in the trial records of the Old Bailey, which note over 230 thefts of these garments between 1688 and 1805.

A closer analysis of these sets of documents reveals the subterfuges and double dealing used to increase sales of these standardised garments. Retailers promoted their petticoats as ‘finest’ or ‘most neatly worked’; they offered them in a wide range of fabrics at a wide range of prices. Imported quilting from Marseilles and Bengal was imitated in British workshops, and sold as the real thing. By the 1760s, loom quilted petticoats (double cloth with a padding weft) were on sale as ‘marcella’, confusing them with French imports. Hand-quilted petticoats were often made by outworkers, who were vulnerable to exploitation both by their employers and by their peers. As standardised garments, petticoats were both desirable to thieves, and hard to prove ownership of in a court of law. Quilted petticoats with pocket slits at the sides might even be used as an accessory to theft, with their bulk concealing high-value items lifted from shop counters.

Steven Sanders, Oxford Brookes University

The Upholder in the Age of Thomas Chippendale: Upholders as Appraisers, Brokers, and Auctioneers

My proposed paper focuses on upholders’ involvement in appraising, brokering, and auctioneering. Upholders were responsible for the ‘fitting out’ of residential interiors. Along with upholstery, they were involved in cabinet-making, brokering used goods, auctioneering, and undertaking. Originally associated with upholstery, upholders had their own livery company and, during the age of Chippendale, c. 1750 to 1790, participated in England’s expanding commercial business activity. R. Campbell recognized upholding as an important trade in his 1747 apprenticeship guide, The London Tradesman, where he wrote that the upholder was his “chief agent in furnishing his house with fashionable furniture” and “the man upon whose judgment he relied in the choice of goods”.[1]

Upholders were a part of increased consumerism during the last half of the eighteenth century, when the middling class had more choices in spending their disposable income.  What E. P. Thompson called the ‘moral economy’ lessened in importance, and a ‘political economy’ emerged, where the marketplace set prices based on supply and demand.[2] Upholders expanded their business lines after 1760 through using private credit, which was financially dangerous if economic confidence fell.[3] This expansion created competition and gave consumers more choices in spending.

Using City of London broker records, my research found that upholders increasingly became licensed brokers and appraisers after 1760.[4] Analysing newspaper advertising by decade found that upholders also became increasingly involved in the unregulated auction business after 1760. The correlation between upholders becoming brokers and upholders advertising auctioneering is a nearly perfect .97. Upholder bankruptcies also increased after 1760, indicating that upholders adding business lines and increasing inventory were taking on additional financial risk. These indicators were also present in my research of upholders expanding into the undertaking business after 1760.

[1] R. Campbell. The London Tradesman (London: T. Gardner, 1747) 169–72.

[2] E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present No. 50 (Feb. 1971), 78-79, 129–31.

[3] Julian Hoppit, ‘Financial Crises in Eighteenth–Century England’, The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Feb. 1986), 52-54.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives, City of London. Reference Code: COL/BR/02/074-075. Index to Brokers’ Bonds A-H and I-Z and COL/BR05. Broker Sureties 1752-1813.

Jon Stobart, Manchester Metropolitan University

Clothing the countryside: textiles and haberdashery in English village shops, c.1660-1720

Village shops remain the poor relation in studies of the history retailing, largely overlooked in favour of their better documented and apparently more enterprising urban counterparts. Retail change was rapid in post-Restoration towns – part of a wider urban renaissance and fuelled by an influx of new colonial goods and innovative selling practices. In contrast, when village shops are considered at all, it is often assumed that they were the archetype of the ‘pre-modern’ shop: generalist, un-enterprising and filled with a few essentials or the detritus of slow-moving stock. This stereotype reflects contemporary perceptions, although these were often based on a particularly urban-centric and metropolitan view of retailing that saw village shops as unregulated competitors or signs of rural backwardness.

My paper offers a different view of English village shops, one that highlights the rich and varied nature of the goods stocked. Rather than focus the colonial goods highlighted by Shammas, I concentrate instead on their stocks of textiles and haberdashery to examine the extent to which they offered their customers the kinds of things necessary for the production of clothing. Analysing a small number of inventories in detail reveals the remarkable range of such items offered by some rural shopkeepers and the extent to which they were able to provide their customers with choice and with desirable clothing materials. Comparisons are drawn with urban shops to assess the extent to which there were quantitative or qualitative differences: could village shops in this sense compete with their counterparts in town? I argue that the range and quality of stock in village shops challenges the assumed self-sufficiency of rural households and suggests that village shopkeepers were able to respond to and perhaps shape growing demand for clothing and other consumer goods.

The fan shop

The Mieidō Fan Shop, Utagawa Toyokuni I, c. 1785–93, Accession Number: JP2725, The Howard Mansfield Collection, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1936, Image courtesy of


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