Category Archives: 2017 Workshops

2017 Conference blogs – Itinerant Trade and Cultural Encounter: What do ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ in Finland and Jewish pedlars in the United States have in common?

 Anna Sundelin & Johanna Wassholm, Åbo Akademi University, Finland

 Itinerant Trade and Cultural Encounter: What do ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ in Finland and Jewish pedlars in the United States have in common?  

What do ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ in Finland and Jewish pedlars in the United States have in common? The question occurred to us when we came across Hasia Diner’s book Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (2015), while working on a manuscript for an article on itinerant trade in 19th century Finland. We noticed that many topics in Diner’s book are strikingly similar to those that we had noted in our sources, primarily consisting of ethnographic material and newspapers.

The ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ (Swe. laukku-ryss, arkangelit; Fin. laukku-ryssä), mostly men from Russian Carelia, engaged widely in itinerant trade in 19th century rural Finland. While Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1809, it was an autonomous Grand Duchy and its inhabitants had a separate citizenship right within the Empire. Thus, traders from Russia were treated as ‘foreigners’ in Finland, and their trade was formally illicit.

Wassholm and Sundelin figure 1

Two Rucks-sack Russians in Vörå (Ostrobothnia) in
1917. Photo courtesy of: Archives of the Swedish Literature Society in Finland, Erik

Our point of departure is that itinerant trade was not merely an economic phenomenon. As ethnologists pointed out in the 1980s, the trade could also be studied from the perspective of cultural encounter. The ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ differed from their local customers in Finland through their Orthodox faith and some cultural attributes, such as language and clothing. At the same time, they played an important role in providing rural Finland with consumer goods. The late 19th century was a period of strong economic growth, which resulted in a constantly growing demand of new goods among the lower strata of society. The itinerant traders were received as regular visitors in many homes, often forming long-lasting relationships with the local communities, and sometimes settling down permanently.

Among the similarities we have found between the ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ and the Jewish pedlars in Diner’s book, we can mention but a few. Firstly, we share Diner’s view that the itinerant traders seem to have filled an obvious niche in the trading landscape. They provided specific groups of consumers with goods in a manner that other trade forms failed to do. We argue that the existence of this demand explains why the local communities, usually even the authorities, were unbothered by the fact that the ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ engaged in an illicit trade. The profession was undoubtedly exhausting and unglamorous, and could even be perilous. Like the Jewish pedlars in the United States, ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ were occasionally robbed and even murdered. On the other hand, peddling was for many a temporary phase on the road to the middle class. Many pedlars did manage to save money and would later become successful shopkeepers.

Secondly, we agree with Diner, as well as with recent historians of consumption, that itinerant trade played an exceptionally important role for the consumption patterns of women. Women were the itinerant traders’ primary customer base, which our material also clearly illustrates. We see the pedlars’ trading practices as a form of ‘spectacle’, which included an entertaining demonstration of the goods and haggling. This spectacle offered women an opportunity to practice trading and negotiating in their own household and in the absence of men. At the same time, the general suspicions directed against the traders often focused on the fear of them ‘seducing’ local women. These kinds of negative emotions were typically evoked when mobile people from the ‘outside’ were described as a threat to the local community. Despite the caution and a certain moral condemnation, romantic relations did form between the traders and local women. We have found numerous examples of relations between pedlars and local women that ended in marriage.

The article on the ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ forms part of the multidisciplinary research project Dealing with Difference; Peddlers, Consumers and Trading Encounters in Finland (Åbo Akademi University, 2017–2020). The project aims to broaden the understanding of the role that petty and itinerant trade played for the growing consumption of the lower strata of society and for cultural encounter in late 19th and early 20th century Finland. As the parallel between the ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ in Finland and the Jewish pedlars in the United States illustrates, itinerant trade seems to have had similar functions and evoked similar emotions in different geopolitical settings. Thus, one major aim of our research project is to contribute to future comparative research on itinerant trade and cultural contact. Such comparative studies would further deepen the theoretical understandings of various aspects of mobile trans-national trade and retailer-consumer relations.

Johanna Wassholm, PhD ( is a researcher in history at ÅAU. In the project, she studies the relationship between ethnicity and trade, with special focus on traders in Finland originating in the multi-ethnic Russian Empire (Russians, Carelians, Jews and Tatars).

Anna Sundelin, MA ( is a doctoral student in history at ÅAU. Within this project, she studies the ‘Ruck-sack Russians’ and their trade, focusing on the traded goods and their use and meaning for the local customers in Finland.


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2017 Conference blogs – Exotic textiles for the Church of Sweden

Helen Persson, Head of Centre for Dress and Fashion, Nordic Museum, Stockholm

Exotic textiles for the Church of Sweden

The Swedish History Museum in Stockholm has a rich collection of historical liturgical textiles. Early medieval written sources describe the Church’s growing possessions of luxurious textiles. Kings, queens, and members of the aristocracy donated and bequeathed large number of expensive textiles and garments, for the Church’s interior adornment and the clergy. The Church itself also amassed wealth and acquired its own luxury textiles. The textiles were generally imported from European countries, such as England, Germany and The Netherlands, but surprisingly many had a much more exotic country of origin with no relation to Christianity. A large number of Middle Eastern and Asian textiles have been used in the service of the Church of Sweden from as early as fourteenth century.

All these exotic textiles were reverently valued and used for Christian rituals, such as wrapping relics, vestments and furnishings. They were also in high demand from European rulers. The silks in particular represented a recognisable display of status.

Judging from the large number in museum collections, the Swedish Church went mad for textiles from the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century. Some of the Turkish textiles came to Sweden as war loot from the many wars in Poland, but many were simply purchased abroad during travels while many others were diplomatic gifts; the Sultan had a habit of donating silk caftans to foreign ambassadors. At least two chasubles in the Swedish History Museum collection were once caftans from the Ottoman Empire. One of these caftans (museum number SHM 32412), dating to the second half of the 16th century, somehow came into the possession of the Stockholm based embroiderer Paul Crell. The textile of the caftan was re-used for the chasuble and the embroidered decoration was executed between 1668 and 1674. Crell and his workshop seem to have produced ready-made ecclesiastical garments and furnishings, not to the highest quality, peddling them to churches in the north of Sweden. (Figs 1-3)


Figure 1

Fig. 1. Alfta
Photo: The Swedish History Museum. CC BY

Figure 2

Fig. 2. Alfta
Photo: The Swedish History Museum, CC BY

Figure 3

Fig. 3. Alfta
Photo: The Swedish History Museum, CC BY


The other chasuble was made out of fabric lengths brought back directly from Turkey by Baron Claes Rålamb. He was the Swedish ambassador in Constantinople during 1657-58 and perhaps the fabric was a gift from the Ottoman court, if not the Sultan himself. The chasuble appears to have been used for services in the chapel at the Baron’s country house, Högsjö Gård, (museum number SHM 33767:1). (Figs 4-6)


Figure 4

Fig. 4. Högsjö
Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand, The Swedish History Museum, CC BY

Figure 5

Fig. 5. Högsjö
Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand, The Swedish History Museum, CC BY

Figure 6

Fig. 6. Högsjö
Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand, The Swedish History Museum, CC BY


A large beautifully embroidered silk square was used as a baptismal font cover in the Riddarholmen Church in Stockholm, for royal and aristocratic christenings (museum number SHM 5049:d). It was donated to the Church in 1728 by one of the ladies-in-waiting to Queen Ulrika Eleonora. Originally the silk was meant to cover a turban, recognised by the circle of flowers in the centre of the textile. The turban was worn in the Ottoman Empire as a sign of status, and the more formal turban was fixed and therefore needed some kind of cover when not in use so not to gather dust. The large silk square went from covering one object to another. (Figs 7-10)


Figure 10

Fig. 7. Riddarholmen
Photo: Ola Myrin, The Swedish History Museum, CC BY

Figure 9

Fig. 8. Riddarholmen
Photo: Ola Myrin, The Swedish History Museum, CC BY

Figure 8

Fig. 9. Riddarholmen
Photo: Ola Myrin, The Swedish History Museum, CC BY

Figure 7

Fig. 10. Riddarholmen
Photo: Ola Myrin, The Swedish History Museum, CC BY


Despite these textiles being produced in a completely different culture, even completely different religion and in many cases for a completely different usage, they were happily used without hesitation in a Swedish Christian Church. Potential culture clashes or conflicting faiths had no significance whatsoever. There were no concerns of cultural upset. It is unlikely that we so easily today would utilise an apparent Islamic-produced textile in a Christian Church setting, worrying about offending both religions. The textiles used for the Church of Sweden reveal the complexity of how textiles have historically been translated across cultural boundaries and how highly valued they were, from wherever they originated.

Helen Persson is the Head of Centre for Dress and Fashion at the Nordic Museum, Stockholm. She was previously at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, for over 14 year, as curator, Chinese textiles and dress, and exhibition curator of Shoes: Pleasure Pain (2015). She gained her MA in History of Art from the Courtauld of Institute, London. Helen’s special interests include Chinese export textiles and the archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein (1863-1943). She has lectured and published extensively on the subject, among others Textiles from Dunhuang in UK Collections (ed. Zhao Feng, 2007) and on Chinese silks for the Mamluk market in Global Textile Encounters (ed. M L Nosch, 2015). Helen’s next research project will be on ‘Orientalism’ in Swedish fashion and furnishings.

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2017 Conference blogs – Acting China: twentieth-century costumes for an eighteenth-century Neapolitan play

Gaia Bruno, University of Naples ‘Federico II’

Acting China: twentieth-century costumes for an eighteenth-century Neapolitan play

The connection between luxury and exoticism is a well-known topic among historians. Exotic goods, imported to Europe from distant countries, had long been luxury items. However, some historians have highlighted a change in consumption during the eighteenth century: the middle classes started to express a new desire for imported objects, stimulating the birth of an imitation industry in Europe, which produced goods with an exotic style and cheaper raw materials.

If we enlarge our chronological perspective, other shifts of meaning are likely to be found in the two concepts of luxury and exoticism and in their relationship, something that is clearly visible through an analysis of textiles.

The case study I have chosen in order to demonstrate this claim relates to the Kingdom of Naples. In the anniversary (2016) of the death of the famous musician Giovanni Paisiello (1816), the San Carlo theatre set up a temporary exhibition in its museum, the Memus, on the artist, displaying his works, his private life and the stages of his international career, through objects stored in the San Carlo archive, including drawings, manuscripts, pictures and costumes. Among these were also artefacts from performances of L’Idolo Cinese. Thanks to the San Carlo exhibition it is possible to compare the first appearance of the play in 1767 with the other twentieth-century performances in 1955 and in 1991-1992.

Written in 1767 by the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Lorenzi, L’Idolo Cinese is an opera buffa (a musical comedy) with an exotic set, depicted  thus at the outset:

Tuberone, lord of an imaginary kingdom in China, has a son, Liconatte, who is in love with the Tartarian princess Ergilla. A misunderstanding leads the two lovers to break  up, while Tuberone arranges a marriage between his son and another Chinese princess, Kemetri. In the meantime, Adolfo, a French knight, secretly lover of Kemetri, arrives on Chinese shores with his loyal servant, Pilottola. Fate causes the meeting of all these characters in Tuberone’s palace, while the court is ready to celebrate the day of the god Kam. The servant Pilottola finds himself alone in the ceremony room with a table lavishly laid for the god: he cannot resist. When Tuberone arrives and finds Pilottola eating from the table, he is sure he recognises the god Kam, descended from the skies: l’idolo cinese.

Such an exotic set was designed following a taste for China, spread in the Kingdom of Naples in the first half of eighteenth century by the sovereigns Carlo di Borbone and his wife Maria Amalia di Sassonia. Although this trend did not remain popular for long, overshadowed by the Neoclassical style after the discovery of Pompei and Ercolano, nevertheless it was strong enough to leave many traces. The most important of these is a room made of porcelain panels, entirely decorated with Chinese motifs, to be set up in the queen’s ‘salottino’ in the Portici Royal Palace (today stored in the National Museum of Capodimonte).

The Chinese style was also used in ceramics, wallpapers and personal objects, like snuffboxes and fans, still found in Neapolitan museums (see for example the Duca di Martina museum). In this way, it became familiar not only to the aristocracy, but also to a larger section of Neapolitan society, who wanted to possess the same exotic things. Those objects, of course, were no longer truly imported goods; they were another thing, made following Western ideas of the East.

This is particularly clear in the case of L’Idolo Cinese. Unfortunately,  the eighteenth-century costumes have not survived the passing of time, but this does not mean that it is impossible to know anything about them. Firstly, there are theatrical manuals to learn from. According to them, costumes were made following the current fashion with the addition of small details to make people understand which was the country represented. This is confirmed also by the script of the play, in which we find references to specific details: some parts of the play are set in a Chinese room (possibly imagined with the queen’s one in mind); Chinese hats and fans, rather than particular costumes, defined the characters; the idol is placed on a Chinese ceremonial chair. Furthermore, there are other clues in an extraordinary manuscript document (1775), stored in the Archivio di Stato di Napoli. It is the record of a civil trial between the official costume tailor of the San Carlo, Antonia Buonocore, and a man who failed to pay the rental for some costumes. This document gives us much food for thought about the life of an eighteenth-century tailoring workshop, but what is more relevant for our discussion is the detailed description of costumes it contains. It confirms that designs followed current taste and in addition, we learn something more about the use of non-elite fabrics (a kind of velvet, for example, called ‘sciniglia’) and ornaments in fake gold or silver (‘galloni falzi’).

Thus elements from the play, in conjunction with the historical context in which it was written, show the complexity of the concept of exoticism, which was not necessarily associated with luxury.

After Paisiello’s death, during the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the musician’s plays seem  to have been forgotten, possibly because of a need for novelty, after the enormous success they had during the artist’s life. We must wait until 1955 to find L’Idolo Cinese again on the stage. The costumes stored in the Memus 2016 exhibition come from this performance. In this second case, we can find a stronger connection between luxury and exoticism represented in the play.

The exotic element is certainly present in the costumes and scenery, even if it has not much in common with reality. The China that we can see here is a fantasy world created by the artist Luca Crippa. This is particularly evident in the costumes, whose shapes cannot be seen as truly Chinese. On the other hand, we can find the luxury element outside the play itself. The stage where it was performed was the court theatre in the Royal Palace in Naples, just restored (1954) after being bombed during the Second World War. The audience who went to see the play in 1955 belonged to the upper strata of Neapolitan society, the only part that could afford that kind of social activity.

The context had changed a great deal by 1992. The performance which took place in 1991 in the Teatro Mercadante and in 1992 in the court theatre of the Royal Palace was the result of a collaboration between Emanuele Luzzatti and Roberto De Simone. The latter had an important role in promoting the rediscovery of Neapolitan culture, particularly through music. He inspired the ‘Paisiello Renaissance’ and many other rediscoveries, such as La cantata dei pastori and La gatta Cenerentola, both from seventeenth-century Neapolitan texts. The nineteen-nineties were a period of cultural rediscovery in Naples, even if not a full renaissance, with many flourishing cultural events and the restoration of some historical monuments. In this context, participating in the performance of a Paisiello play became affordable for a wider part of Neapolitan society and in particular for the middle class. In this sense, the luxury element provided by the prestigious location became less prominent.

By this period, a considerable change had occurred in the meanings attached to Chinese things. The age of mass consumption required a mass production of lower priced goods; rapidly China and Far Eastern countries became the place where to produce cheaper stuff, thanks to workers’ low wages and goods’ poor quality. ‘Made in China’ had become synonymous with poor quality.

This economic phenomenon was not visible in the 1992 performance of L’Idolo Cinese. What was shown there, according to the sketches and scenery pictures by Emanuele Luzzatti, was once more an exotic, fantastic ideal of China, created according to an earlier taste for China. Many pictures, indeed, show how the scenery used Delftware porcelain as a reference, a perfect example of the kind of goods created during the eighteenth century to please a European desire for exotic places and luxury.

As a result, the 1992 performance showed a different kind of exoticism, temporal and not spatial: the recalling of a faraway past (the eighteenth century with its culture and its objects) instead of the recalling of a faraway place.

Gaia Bruno was awarded a PhD in the History of European Society in 2016. She is currently a teaching assistant in Modern History at the University of Naples, “Federico II”. She is the author of ‘Cultura materiale aristocratica nel Settecento napoletano: l’esempio dei Carafa di Ielsi’, published in the highly-rated journal Studi Storici. Her research interests, forthcoming publications and conference papers focus mostly on the history of material culture.

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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.

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‘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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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