Category Archives: 2018 Events

Workshop – Private Textiles and Dress

Private Textiles and Dress: Domestic and Intimate Textiles and Dress in Museums and Historic Houses

University of Wolverhampton

Thursday 13 June 2019


European silk socks, 1800-1850, Gift of Martin Kamer, 1985, Image courtesy of


9.30 – 10.00        COFFEE  AND WELCOME

Chair: Laura Ugolini, University of Wolverhampton, UK

10.00 – 10.30   Cassie Davies-Strodder, V&A and UAL

An uncomfortable fit?: The challenges and opportunities of personal collections of dress in design museums

10.30 – 11.00   Sarah-Mary Geissler and Caroleen Molenaar, both University of Brighton

Dressing the Decades: 85 Years of Visitor Clothing

11.00 – 11.30   Caroline Ness, independent scholar

Considerations of privacy and the intimate: a family’s decisions when choosing the appropriateness of items for public scrutiny

11.30 – 12.00   Rachel Neal, De Montfort University

Resonating the Narrative of Human Presence Through Everyday Dress

12.00 – 13.15   LUNCH

Chair: TBC

13.15 – 13.45  Elaine Mitchell, University of Birmingham

The efforts of her needle: Catherine Hutton’s counterpane

13.45  – 15.00 ‘Snap-shot’ presentations:

Catherine Howard, Wolverhampton Art School

Behind closed doors

Toni Buckby, Sheffield Hallam University and Victoria & Albert Museum

Blackwork Embroidery – an overview of a fragile archive

Jane Smith, National Trust

Cardinal Wolsey’s Purse … Perhaps!

M Faye Prior, York Castle Museum

The Hidden History of a Mystery Garment: A possible early twentieth century menstrual belt

15.00 – 15. 30   COFFEE  

15.30 – 16.00       Miriam Phelan, RCA / V&A and Frankie Kubicki, Charles Dickens Museum

Mr & Mrs Charles Dickens: Intimate Objects and Private Textiles

16.00 – 16.30      Rosalyn Sklar and Nic Fulcher, both The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Textiles, Care and Access at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

16.30 – 17.00       Emma Hardy, Geffrye Museum

At Home with Textiles: Furnishing Textiles and Upholstery in the Geffrye Museum’s Period Rooms



Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, South Netherlandish, Gift of Ruth Blumka, in memory of Leopold Blumka, 1974, image courtesy of

The workshop will be held on Wolverhampton City Campus, University of Wolverhampton (room TBC).

For maps and directions, please see:

 The fee is £ 20

 To register, please complete the registration form available here (The link will take you to the University of Wolverhampton’s E-store)

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




Boxed Valentine’s Day Card, British, 1840–99, Gift of Mrs. Richard Riddell, 1981, Image courtesy of

Toni Buckby, Sheffield Hallam University and V&A

Blackwork Embroidery – an overview of a fragile archive

This paper is a collection spotlight on the Blackwork embroidery collection held at the V&A. My PhD research project, “Re-embroidering Blackwork: exploring digital reconstruction and interpretation through contemporary art practice”, utilises my knowledge as an embroidery practitioner and experimental digital artist to create digital reconstructions of the Blackwork objects. Situated in a studio practice that identifies, distils, communicates and transforms the experience of making and the made through textile processes and digital experimentation, the project frames the process of reconstruction as forward looking, generating a new life for Blackwork through contemporary art practice. Embroidery is a deeply embodied making process. The majority of techniques and processes used in embroidery can only be executed by hand, the variety of stitches, the range of precise physical motions, and tacit reaction to the materials would be impossible to replicate mechanically. Through [re]making and the application of the material knowledge, I believe I can find a resonance between myself and the embroiderers who created the original objects. By experimenting with the act of reconstruction, the project questions the role of the artist as a creative and critical agent within the heritage organisation, and examines how the artist-makers’ understanding of materials and processes can enhance the experience of artefacts.

‘Blackwork’ was a popular 16th-century English embroidery technique, using black silk threads worked onto white linen. The technique was applied mainly to items of intimate dress such as shirts, smocks, sleeves and caps, as well domestic household textiles such as cushion covers and bed hangings. The V&A has about 25 examples of Blackwork, most in fragile condition. The iron mordant used with the black dye destroys the threads and no conservation treatment can halt this process. Several objects in the collection are in an advanced state of disintegration with little of the original stitching remaining and most cannot be displayed, limiting public access to them.

This paper will present a selection of these objects chronologically, to outline the evolution of the technique, design and motifs, from the early formal geometric counted-thread style through to the later shaded style worked in ‘speckle’ or ‘seed’ stitch. There will be a brief overview of the social and cultural context of Blackwork embroidery and its production, as well as a discussion around examples in other collections, possible design sources and representations in secondary sources such as portraiture.

Cassie Davies-Strodder, V&A and UAL

An uncomfortable fit?: The challenges and opportunities of personal collections of dress in design museums

This paper will look at two ‘wardrobes’ (personal collections of clothing) in the V&A belonging to two American women living in England; around 250 garments from Lady Fairhaven (neé Cara Broughton) (1867-1937) and around 150 from Emilie Grigsby (1876-1964). Both collections were split between the V&A and Norfolk Museums Service (NMS) on acquisition: the V&A selected according to its design history philosophy, NMS used social history criteria. The conflicts between personal narrative and design history are particularly acute in the V&A’s practice as a design museum.

Both women were staggeringly wealthy and have fascinating biographies which shed light on their personal style choices as well as what clothing survived and why. However, these stories remain largely hidden in the design-focused narrative of the V&A. This paper seeks to see what can be achieved by a more holistic approach to looking at the clothing and personal narratives together and what might have been missed through museum practice and acquisition.

Lady Fairhaven’s surviving clothing dates from the 1880s – 1930s and reflects ‘the arc of her life’, including: two dresses belonging to her as an unmarried woman, her wedding dress, mourning accessories (after the death of her first husband), a dress altered for maternity wear and 1920s and 30s dresses from her later life. The earlier clothes are purchased in New York, the later in London, reflecting her move to the UK. The dress altered for maternity wear is of particular note as a rare survival. It was acquired by NMS, (the curator Pamela Clabburn was particularly interested in ‘human intervention’ and looking at people’s lives through dress), the V&A would not have been interested in an altered garment with no designer label. The dress has been let-out in the skirt, and an extra panel has been added in the bodice where there is milk staining. The alterations are crude and probably made by a lady’s maid rather than a dressmaker –perhaps this was too intimate a task for a dressmaker.

In contrast to Lady Fairhaven, Emilie Grigsby moved on the fringes of respectable society, her mother ran a brothel in Cincinatti which funded Emilie’s convent education and Emilie’s wealth had been accrued as the high-profile ‘ward’ of robber baron millionaire Charles T Yerkes. Emilie’s wardrobe dates mainly from the 1920s and provides a ‘snapshot’ of her life in her early 40s, when she is still very fashionable and moving in artistic circles in Paris and New York. The collection is bold and bright and includes daring designs such as a pair of Poiret harem pants. As a person frequently in the press for her seduction of powerful men, it is interesting to note how much of her beautifully crafted, hand made silk underwear survives, much of it stylishly embroidered with her name.

Sarah-Mary Geissler and Caroleen Molenaar, both University of Brighton

Dressing the Decades: 85 Years of Visitor Clothing

Do you think about what you wear to museums? What could it tell future generations about society today?

To mark the 85th anniversary of Preston Manor’s museum status, rather than focus upon the historic house itself we wanted to celebrate those who came through its doors. The Brighton property has functioned as a museum since its original residents left in 1933 and has remained as a relic of early-twentieth century design. During this time, the house has survived hauntings, school visits, and even a WWII air raid. While volunteering in Preston Manor’s Working Dress Collection, an assortment of role-play costume, contemporary dress and props, we heard these stories among others which revealed an eclectic history behind the unassuming manor. Additionally, delving into the Manor’s archives revealed an array of characters, anecdotes, and a rich dress history that was unknown to the public.

From this research we devised the exhibition, “Dressing the Decades: 85 Years of Visitor Clothing” at Preston Manor. This 20-minute talk will discuss how we used clothing in the exhibition as a medium to communicate personal stories. We staged our exhibition as a costume trail, taking visitors chronologically through the manor with each room inhabited by dressed mannequins and their corresponding stories. Our presentation will also consider how dress can be a democratic tool for community engagement. Dress is intrinsically linked to social history, and acts as shorthand for class, taste, and occasion.[1] Therefore, the familiarity of dress makes it accessible to the wider public, including those not necessarily interested in fashion.

Finally, our paper illuminates how we staged an ambitious exhibition in a small museum with an unconventional dress collection and negligible budget. We were met with several limitations, especially what clothes were available and suitable within our own collection, where we could procure other pieces for display, and how we could display them. The curation process created opportunities for collaboration with local museums, costumiers, collectors and a private school. We hope this case study acts as an inspiration for other small museums and historic houses to engage visitors through the medium of dress.

[1] We are defining ‘dress’ as clothing and accessories that exist in material form.

Emma Hardy, Geffrye Museum

At Home with Textiles: Furnishing Textiles and Upholstery in the Geffrye Museum’s Period Rooms

The Geffrye Museum of the Home is best known for its series of period rooms representing the living rooms of middle-class Londoners from the seventeenth-century to the present day. These displays have their origins in the early part of the twentieth-century when the museum’s collections of architectural woodwork, furniture and domestic metalwork were arranged into a series of rooms intended to show how everyday domestic life has changed over time. The most recent redisplay of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century period rooms introduced a more rigorous historical approach, using the evidence of surviving buildings, probate inventories, and first-hand accounts (in the form of diaries and letters) as sources for the spaces, furnishings, behaviour and practices.

Textiles and upholstered furniture play a significant role within the domestic interior, they have a huge impact upon the look and feel of the space, they can be a way of displaying wealth, status or taste but they are also intimately connected with changing conceptions of comfort. Experiencing textiles in historical domestic settings, with other furnishings and in changing lighting conditions can transform our understanding of the objects, the spaces and the people who once inhabited them.

However, displaying textiles within the period rooms at the Geffrye presents a number of challenges. Documentary and visual evidence for domestic textiles can be limited or difficult to interpret. Textiles are inherently fragile; non-elite, everyday textiles are generally used, worn out, recycled and destroyed. If they do survive, their appearance may be significantly altered by deterioration. Furthermore, balancing display and preservation requirements for rare, fragile early textiles can be difficult.

In this paper, I will discuss how the Geffrye has approached researching, collecting, conserving and displaying textiles and upholstery. I will focus particularly on a project to create replica upholstery for two early seventeenth-century chairs displayed in the period room representing a hall in a London merchant’s house in 1630, using this case study to draw out some questions around research, conservation and display in more detail. Finally, I will give a preview of current work in progress on a new Victorian room and displays of textiles and upholstery for the new ‘Home Gallery’, which are being created as part of the Unlocking the Geffrye development project.

Catherine Howard, Wolverhampton Art School

Behind closed doors

The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, in Coventry, is home to a significant collection of ribbon pieces stored in over a hundred books and ledgers dating back to the early 19th century.

In its own right the collection is a beautiful thing.  Opening each archive box reveals tissue and wadding wrapping large, leather bound books, which have been used to house what may best be described as snippets of ribbon. Interleaved and in some cases entombed in plastic pockets, the pages offer thousands of patterns and hundreds of colours.

Some sense of the process is there as there are also designs drawn and coloured in on squared paper providing a pattern for the weavers and some roughly stitched prototypes. There seems to be little order in the presentation, shapes and sizes of the snippets are random. Companies like Cash’s and Franklins are evidenced but the basic questions remain unanswered.  Who went to the trouble of compiling these books?  A weaver to show his skills? A salesman to show the available patterns and colour ways?  An undertaker managing his stock and out-workers? There are clues only in a few instances. Scribbles in the margins written in 1808 tell us that Pontin blue is a new colour or that a pattern sold well everywhere except Liverpool from whence everything was sent back. 

The politics of the time show themselves, trade is hampered by Napoleon Bonaparte, the death of a royal princess puts the country in to mourning and the industry slumps.

Who bought these ribbons? What did they do with them?  That remains a mystery. We may imagine the rich ordering their latest ball gowns trimmed with yards of ribbon, or perhaps working women re-trimming last year’s bonnet to make it look different or last a little longer. Can we assume the power of fashion and style was strong two centuries ago?  A phrase that leaps out from the hand written notes quite often is ‘all the rage’ suggesting that perhaps little has changed.

The people, the weavers, the families, the bosses, the wider workforce are all hidden.  There are so very few names and no sense of their lives. More untold stories.

And today the whole thing is a secret. Few know the archive exists. The books rarely if ever leave their home in rack 28.  There is a poignant sadness in the secrecy;  this beautiful, highly skilled work is losing its impact, relevance and significance.  I am not sure who cares about that.

Elaine Mitchell, University of Birmingham

The efforts of her needle: Catherine Hutton’s counterpane

In 1844 the Birmingham novelist and letter-writer Catherine Hutton (1756-1846) recalled for a friend the many ways in which she had employed her needle since the age of seven. She had sewn shirts and dresses, caps and aprons; made curtains for beds and windows, created patchwork ‘beyond all calculation’ and quilted counterpanes ‘in various patterns of my own invention’.  

One of the counterpanes that resulted from Catherine’s industry was recently brought from private hands into the collections of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where it remains in store. Signed and dated 1804 by Hutton, the pattern of her invention projects a landscape of botanical abundance, its floriferous border design translating the cultivation, culture and consumption of plants from the exterior landscape of the garden into the interior landscape of the house.

Catherine Hutton’s counterpane is not only a canvas on which she created a decorative botanical design and displayed her skill with the needle for private consumption, it is also a material object that represents the public world of colonial projects, global trade and new technology. Made from processed plant material, the counterpane is an object which captures the contribution of plants to visual culture and, in its very matter, to the materiality of material culture.

Through Catherine Hutton’s quilt, this paper will look at ways in which the botanical landscape and its products were re-purposed for the interior landscape of the house. By examining the counterpane it draws attention to the significance of plants as commodities that connected Birmingham to the Atlantic, Asian and African worlds. This opens up new perspectives on the town within wider narratives of trade, slavery and the incorporation of new aesthetics from the East.

Rachel Neal, De Montfort University

Resonating the Narrative of Human Presence Through Everyday Dress

The intimacy of dress to the body suggests the capacity of clothing to establish a material link to the intimate, immaterial story of a life lived. This paper explores the display of clothing as the tangible evidence of a more personable narrative of the social history museum.

Drawing upon the examples of historic sites such as Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes and the National Trust Property Mr Straw’s House, Nottinghamshire, this paper considers the naturalistic placement of dress, such as a knitted cardigan hanging on a wooden chair in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park or the woollen coat hanging in the hallway at Mr Straw’s house, as a means to evoke a sense of human presence. Discussing how they demonstrate an essence of movement and implying human touch and use by positioning material objects around the space and engaging a sense of haptic connection to history through their tantalising tangibility.

The topic of this paper draws from developing discourses in the study and curation of historical dress, considering the signs of human wear as significant material evidence embodying the narrative of social life. These debates have elevated the subject of everyday dress and its capacity to communicate the intimate story of private human lives. This paper considers how this interest in the everyday can be reflected in the museum, engaging the visitor in the life stories of social history.

This paper explores how objects of dress can animate the static space, recreating a sense of human presence into the domestic or social interior, evoking an atmosphere of human interaction. Whilst objects of worn dress can often display the signs of human wear, this paper considers the naturalistic placement of these objects of clothing and the suggestion of the body as significant in developing engagement with the human narrative.

Curating objects of everyday dress to set a scene can sometimes fall into the category of ‘set dressing’, subsequently framing these objects as props or objects of lesser importance in the collection. However, this paper reasons that these objects of dress that appear to be casually left by their wearer, like the knitted cardigan or the woollen coat, are instrumental in engaging the visitor in the idea of human touch, resonating a relatable human story of life experience. They afford value in bringing to life the immaterial, intimate human story of a social life that can extend beyond the walls of the museum.

Caroline Ness, independent scholar

Considerations of privacy and the intimate: a family’s decisions when choosing the appropriateness of items for public scrutiny

It is likely that there are a large number of private historic houses dotted about the UK that hold fascinating collections of dress and textiles that have never been accessed by the public. This seam of hidden treasures is tantalising to the historian who might dream of unravelling the stories contained therein. One such collection is the subject of this paper. Hitherto unseen by anyone outside a private family circle, an historic collection of lace and brocades from the seventeenth to early twentieth century, household linens and items of intimate and celebratory dress from the early to mid-twentieth century came to light as the result of researching a large donation from one family given to the Fashion Museum, Bath.

The donation was given to the museum following the death of Lady Ward in 1964 by her daughter-in-law. It contains items of dress including a Busvine riding habit from ca.1905, court trains, and British and French couture from the early-mid twentieth century, some worn at coronations. This paper will investigate why the donation did not include the many other items of dress and textiles remaining in the family’s private archive. How might Mrs Ward have selected from her family’s possessions those that would be offered to the museum? How selective might the curator of the museum have been in the process? Did the intimate nature of some of the garments have a bearing on selection? The riding-habit given to the museum includes accessories such as silk linings for breeches and a linen bodice undergarment. Were these items of intimate apparel considered different, appropriate for inclusion? Was the age of the garments a factor in the selection process?

Intimate apparel remains a problematic area when it comes to donations to public institutions. When considering what might be appropriate for public display, it is understandable that many families might have qualms especially if the original wearers of the garments remain in living memory. Looking to the future of the remaining private collection, this paper will close by considering how likely the current family will be to give the remaining items to the Fashion Museum or any other institution.

Miriam Phelan, RCA / V&A and Frankie Kubicki, Charles Dickens Museum

Mr & Mrs Charles Dickens: Intimate Objects and Private Textiles

This paper will give an overview of new research project which has been carried out at the Charles Dickens Museum entitled Mr & Mrs Charles Dickens: Intimate Objects and Private Textiles. The project has focussed on the Museum’s textile and dress collection including items such as stockings, handkerchiefs, furnishing fabric samples and examples of Catherine Dickens’s needlework. Funded by the Textile Society this project has uncovered the value of dress and textile items in uncovering the story of the Dickenses private lives and has invited a new interpretation of the collections of a literary house museum like the Dickens Museum. A key aim of the project was to reconsider the context of dress and textiles on display, and in storage and how these objects could be used to illustrate aspects of the Dickenses private and intimate lives. Tracing provenance of the objects was key to establishing a link with the Dickens family, while also uncovering how and why these particular objects came to be in the Dickens Museum collection.  This paper will also discuss how these dress and textile items have been collected, catalogued and displayed alongside other items, such as manuscripts, more commonly associated with a literary house museum. By focussing on dress and textiles in context of the Dickens Museum this paper will address issues faced by museums in highlighting issues around the distribution of labour in the middle class Victorian home and on changing attitudes towards gender.

M Faye Prior, York Castle Museum

The Hidden History of a Mystery Garment: A possible early twentieth century menstrual belt

York Castle Museum has a Designated collection of over 30,000 items of costume and textiles dating from the late fifteenth to the twenty-first century, with an especial strength in the area of nineteenth and twentieth-century everyday wear. This collections snapshot will explore a garment which has been in the collection for over 30 years, but misleadingly catalogued.  

Initially catalogued as drawers it is unlike any pair of drawers that we had ever seen. It was discovered in 2018 while curators were searching the collection for a different garment, and it immediately seized attention. Clearly intended for wear on the lower body, it exhibited features familiar and curiously novel, from the covered linen buttons to the dungaree-like straps. The documentation was not useful; although we have clear and certain provenance, the object had been documented simply under the term ‘Horrocks Longcloth’, and dated to 1890-1910. All other items from the same donation have full and clear descriptions, making this object an anomaly.

This short paper will explore the various possible interpretations of this mystery object, trace its provenance, and describe how we came to believe that it is a home made menstrual belt (sanitary girdle) dating to around 1910-1930. The paper will highlight the difficulties resulting from the idiosyncratic initial documentation of the object; it will propose a maker (a home sewer whose work features strongly in the same donation), as well as potential influences for the garment in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century documentation. If this is the case, the brief nature of the description in the late 1970s museum ledger suggests an unwillingness to discuss the bodily realities of menstruation, or to reference them in the museum ledgers and catalogue. Despite this, the garment was considered important enough to keep as part of a far larger donation comprising of several generations of the same family’s clothing.

Rosalyn Sklar and Nic Fulcher, both The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Textiles, Care and Access at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Items of historic dress in museum collections are notoriously difficult to store and display. Limitations on space and resources can mean that historic dress has to be stored folded and flat. Many of the finer textiles used to make clothes and clothing accessories are highly attractive to clothes moth and extremely vulnerable to light damage. Because of this, they can be difficult and expensive to display.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) cares for an important collection of early modern textiles as part of its accredited museum collection. SBT’s collections are also designated of national and international importance by Arts Council England. This paper will introduce our textiles collection through a discussion of dress during the reign of Elizabeth I and the ways in which the Trust has explored creative access to textiles through exhibition, replication and preventative and remedial conservation.

Through an examination of recent exhibitions, displays and events we will look at the processes involved in facilitating meaningful access to textile collections. This will include textile packing and conservation as well as environmental threats to textile collections. We will also look at the different ways in which textiles can be presented to visitors, beyond traditional museum displays. Through a thorough process of photography, specialist approaches to packing, bespoke mount-making, working with specialists and volunteers we have been able to overcome some of the difficulties in caring for and providing access to our textile collection

Jane Smith, National Trust

Cardinal Wolsey’s Purse … Perhaps!

This sumptuous purse is on display at Seaton Delaval, a National Trust property in Northumberland. It is reputed to have belonged to Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530) and there is a metal clasp which has Wolsey’s name engraved onto it; but did he ever own it?

It is a richly embellished and beautiful object made from leather embroidered on the outside with metal wire. The purse opens to reveal silk embroidery and inner pockets in silk and leather. There are three leather loops on the back indicating it was worn on a belt.

The purse came into the Studio to enable research into its provenance and for conservation treatment. This paper will briefly look at the conservation needed. This was minimal as the purse was in good condition and largely intact but involved cleaning, securing of threads and humidification of the green silk inner purse.

The paper will also discuss the thoughts around whether this did belong to Cardinal Wolsey. A definitive link was unfortunately not established; however the purse appears true to the 16th century. The design of the embroidery, metal clasps and shape of the purse appear to be typical of that date and the design of the purse is very similar to one recovered from the Mary Rose which sank in 1545. 

In 1857 it was exhibited at The Manchester Art Treasures exhibition as a label stuck to the back, though now partly lost, reveals.

The purse remains a fascinating enigma with further questions for future research.


Pillow from crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, South Netherlandish, Gift of Ruth Blumka, in memory of Leopold Blumka, 1974, image courtesy of


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2018 Conference blogs – Quilted petticoats in eighteenth century London: genuine and imitation, bought and stolen

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 strategies and subterfuges 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.

Fig. 1 T.306-1982 max

Fig.1. Green silk petticoat quilted in diamond grid, worn with a non-matching short gown. British, 1740-50c. T.306-1982. © The V&A Museum

The social and material variety of quilted petticoats

Trade cards in the Guildhall Library and the Heal and Banks collection at the British Museum show the variety of petticoats on sale: in 1767, Paulins & Coates of Tavistock Street, Mercers and Haberdashers (Guildhall Library)  listed  petticoats in ‘satin, sarsnet and Persian’ (silk), ‘all sorts of stuff’ (wool) and ‘callico’ (cotton). The implication is that these were hand-quilted, with an upper layer of decorative fabric, a lining of loosely woven wool, and a middle layer of carded wool wadding for warmth.  There were also petticoats made from ‘Indian’ or ‘Marseilles’ quilting, with outer and lining fabrics of undyed cotton or linen, with intricate patterns worked either in yellow silk or in inserted cords. These were cool for summer and could be washed, unlike wool petticoats. The terms ‘Indian’ and ‘Marseilles’ referred originally to the place of origin, but the distinctive techniques were soon imitated in Britain, either by hand or on specially adapted looms. Retailers deliberately blurred the difference between textiles stitched in France and woven in Manchester by calling them both ‘Marseilles’.

Consumers purchasing through an intermediary and unable to examine the goods in person had to pay close attention to clues such as where the quilting was placed on the trade card. For example, the 1792 trade card for William Stock’s Linen Warehouse listed ‘Marseilles’ quilting with woven goods (Heal Collection, British Museum).

The Old Bailey records of criminal trials include statements that clarify how consumers understood these distinctions. For example, in a trial of 7th July 1784 the victim was asked by the judge ‘Is that a Marseilles petticoat? – It is what they call a mock Marseilles, it is not a right Marseilles.’ (POB t17840707-60). ‘Mock Marseilles’ was presumably the woven rather than hand-stitched version. Two points of interest in this type of testimony are the values given to the stolen garments – 6 shillings for the petticoat and 10 shillings for a silk gown, both used – and the social level of the owner, in this case the wife of a man ‘at sea’, presumably a merchant or a naval officer rather than an ordinary sailor.

Displays of goods

The detailed narratives of thefts in the Old Bailey Papers also throw a light on retail practices, particularly the methods of displaying and showing goods for sale. A common method of display, particularly for lower-priced establishments, was to hang items outside the shop door where they could be seen by passers-by. However goods displayed in this way were vulnerable both to damage by rain and sun, and to opportunistic theft.  A trial record from 1775 states: ‘I saw the prisoner take the petticoat from a hook at the door post, I informed Mr. Judson of it, we pursued him and took him’ (theft from Richard Wallford, Mercer,  Houndsditch, 26th April, 1775. POB t17750426-99).

Fig. 2 Bermondsey shop fronts

Fig. 2. Eighteenth-century shop fronts in Bermondsey Street, London: a transom above the door to light the interior and wooden shutters secured with a lockable bar (author photo)

More valuable items might be displayed in the window, or on shelves behind the counter, and handed to customers by shop staff. However this system was not foolproof; customers would wait until the sales staff were distracted before filching goods from the window or from the counter. One way of distracting the shop staff was to engage them in a lengthy bargaining process, as in a case on 8th July 1719 when:

The Prisoner went to the Prosecutors Shop and cheapen’d a Quilted Petticoat, and while they were reaching some to shew her, she took an Opportunity to take the Gown from off the Compter, which was taken upon her… The Jury found her Guilty of the Indictment. Death. (POB t17190708-24)

The implication here is that the thief was not well dressed enough to be a plausible customer for the silk gown, but was a likely purchaser for a cheap quilted petticoat.

It was not only customers who posed a threat to shopkeepers, as the Old Bailey transcripts reveal.  Business premises were secured at night with heavy wooden window shutters held in place with a locked bar. Some merchants had junior staff sleeping in the shop as a further line of defence. Archdale Rooke, Mercer in the Strand, instead fitted shutters to close off the counter and shelves of goods: ‘ They went along the counter, and were put up of nights, and made it like a passage, with the goods within-side’. This was not enough to deter his maidservant, who picked the locks on the shutters and stole textiles worth £8 over a period of weeks in 1761 (POB t17610506-4).


Fig. 3 1782 Dighton A morning ramble or milliners shop colour - cropped

Fig. 3. Robert Dighton, ‘A morning ramble, or – The Milliners Shop’ . Hand-coloured mezzotint. 1782. 1935,0522.1.31 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Outworkers and subcontracting

The Old Bailey records also cast a harsh light on the systems by which goods were made up for sale in London shops. Merchants might claim on their trade cards that their quilted petticoats were in the ‘Genteelest taste and newest Fashion’ (Hermans and Broady, 1769, Guildhall Library) but the settings in which they were stitched were anything but genteel. A 1736 court case was brought by Mrs Battiley, a quilter making petticoats in her home for the merchant Thomas Street. Battiley subcontracted some of the work to an acquaintance who had fallen on hard times; but her ‘friend’ stole the petticoat and pawned it. When brought before the court the woman admitted taking the petticoat, but claimed that this was condoned by Battiley, who was selling sexual services and wanted her to put on a good appearance. This accusation laid Battiley open to double penalties, for theft and for prostitution; fortunately her protestations of innocence were accepted. The interest of this case lies in Battiley’s assumption that her acquaintance would have adequate needlework skills to work on a quilted petticoat without specialist training. The form of the counter-accusation implies that a quilter’s earnings were low enough that she might have to turn to prostitution as a side line.

Distinctive products

Without images of the products on sale it is hard to be sure how the design and workmanship of quilted petticoats varied between retailers, or even within the range sold by a single merchant. The Old Bailey descriptions of stolen petticoats refer mostly to wool fabrics in dark colours, or from the 1770s onwards to undyed cotton. Both these choices would be hard wearing and relatively inexpensive; it is likely that they were stitched in simple grids or wave patterns for speed and cheapness. Unfortunately these do not survive; all the examples in British and North American museum collections are faced with pale coloured silk satin.[1] These silk petticoats do reveal different standards of workmanship; most are worked in widely spaced stitches with motifs of stylised flowers or filled diamonds, placed around the hem where they would be most visible. A small group of surviving petticoats, two with matching gowns, stand out for their distinctive technique combining wadded and corded quilting and elaborate patterning of scrolls and feathers extending over the surface of the garment.[2] These are similar enough in design and workmanship to be from the same workshop, presumably one that catered to elite consumers. This kind of workshop is implied in the affirmation of a quilter in September 1782 that: ‘I quilted this petticoat for Messrs. Boucher and Alderson … I have quilted several, but never for any body else.’ (ROB t17820911-12)

CP566 0004

Fig. 4. A cream silk petticoat worked in a distinctive combination of wadded and corded quilting, one of a number attributed to the same London workshop. British, 1750-70c. 2009.300.894 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


This case study of quilted petticoats has indicated the many different ways that the Old Bailey papers can illuminate the history of retailing practice, from subcontracting manufacture to semi-skilled outworkers, to methods of displaying stock, to the protracted bargaining that was an expected precursor to the final purchase. They provide a means of evaluating the values placed on goods, and the steps taken to secure them. As the database stretches from the 1690s to the 1913, it could also be used to clarify the dates when new types of goods were introduced and when they  fade from use – or become so old-fashioned that they are no longer worth stealing.


[1] Clare Rose, ‘Textiles and Texts: Sources for studying 18th Century Quilted Petticoats’ in Sabine de Günther & Phillipp Zitzlsperger (eds.) Signs and Symbols – Dress at the Intersection between Image and Realia (Munchen: De Gruyter, 2017), pp. 89-114.

[2] Clare Rose, ‘Boutis de Londres: Marseilles quilting and its imitations in 18th-century London’, CIETA Bulletin vol. 76, 1999, pp. 104-113.

Clare Rose is a dress historian whose work frames object-based research with analyses of archives such as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and the Stationers’ Hall Archive. She has published extensively on quilted goods, on children’s clothing, and on fashion before 1920. Her monthly blog on the French fashion industry during World War I is available at –

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2018 Conference blogs: Eighteenth–Century Upholders as Appraisers and Brokers

Steve Sanders, Oxford Brookes University

Eighteenth–Century Upholders as Appraisers and Brokers

Campbell and T. Waller’s apprenticeship advice books, both published in 1747, recognized that appraisers and brokers of household goods were generally associated with upholders. Because they took an oath to do justice between each party, they were called ‘sworn’ appraisers and brokers.[1] Upholders were providers of the goods needed to ‘fit out’ a residential interior. They were upholsterers and furniture-makers, and they manufactured and assembled much of what they sold. After 1760, many upholders changed their business model by adding service-oriented business lines. These new businesses included appraising and brokering used household goods.

It might be assumed that used household goods were not in high demand, but there were vibrant markets for used furniture and household goods.[2] For example, purchasing second-hand furniture was an alternative to purchasing new and fashionable furniture from the expensive West End dealers, the less costly East End manufacturers, or from the dishonourable trade.[3] For example, the replacement of walnut and older oak furniture by new and fashionable mahogany furniture created a surplus of used furniture. Subsequent changes in style and fashion further increased the supply of used furniture.[4]

Where did the demand come from? The ‘middling sort’ could be practical in their consumption. If a family needed a table, for instance, it could have been a utility purchase, rather than a conspicuous or fashionable purchase. By purchasing second-hand furniture, a consumer could save money, obtain quality, and, sometimes, have an item that could be sold later for nearly the same price.[5]

Brokers were legally regulated through Parliament from 1603, when an act gave the City of London oversight of brokers.[6] Parliament passed additional acts regulating brokers at the turn of the eighteenth century. The number of brokers was limited to a maximum of 100, with twelve additional licenses allowed for those unable to take up a City freedom.[7] In 1708, the City authorized the issue of twelve additional broker licenses for Protestant refugees. A rule was established that licensed brokers had to provide a £500 bond, along with a £250 surety from a second party.[8] The initial capital outlay for the £500 broker bond was a sizeable amount, about £1.5 million in value today.[9] Brokers were issued a numbered medal with their name on it, which could be sold and transferred for between £800 and 1,500.[10] The fact that medals sold for a premium in the secondary market indicated that being a broker could be a lucrative business. Wearing a broker medal may have been a status indicator.

Although Campbell indicated that sworn appraisers and sworn brokers were the essentially the same, there were differences.[11] Brokers were paid on a commission basis for their services. Appraisers were paid according to established fees, rather than on a commission basis. Their sworn duty was to give a fair value of stock in trade or merchandise, usually stating it on a gross amount basis, rather than on an item-by-item basis. Upholders who were appraisers were qualified to value household goods, both new and used. Death and debt were primary reasons for requiring an appraisal, along with the purchase of property insurance. However, the valuations appraisers gave were often skewed lower because they could be compelled by the owner to purchase items at their appraised value.[12]

Upholders wanting to participate in the appraising and brokering businesses on a large scale were financially dependant on the ability to afford the sworn broker bond and associated costs, but it is naïve to believe that unlicensed general upholders did not occasionally sell items on consignment. The Index to Brokers’ Bonds and the Broker Sureties held at London Metropolitan Archives lists sixty-two upholders who posted a broker bond and/or a broker surety in the eighteenth century.[13]  An analysis of these upholders found the majority of them were admitted as sworn brokers during the last four decades of the century.

Many London upholders sought out new opportunities to make more money by entering non-traditional business lines after 1760, including the appraising and brokering of household goods. One characteristic of London’s eighteenth–century consumers was that they wanted choices in how to spend their money. Upholding was one trade that met this demand.


[1] R. Campbell, The London Tradesman (London: T. Gardner, 1747), 175; T. Waller, A general description of all trades, digested in alphabetical order: by which parents, guardians, and trustees, may make choice of trades agreeable to the capacity, education, inclination, strength, and fortune of the youth (London: Printed at Crown and Mitre, 1747), 4-5.

[2] Jon Stobart and Illia Van Damme, “Introduction” in Modernity and the Second-Hand Trade: European Consumption Cultures and Practices, 17001900, Jon Stobart and Ilja Van Damme, eds. (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 4–6.

[3] J.L Oliver, The Development and Structure of the Furniture Industry (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1966), 4. Pat Kirkham, The London Furniture Trade 1700–1870 (Leeds: Furniture History Society, 1988), 76–8.

[4] Michael Snodin and John Styles, Design & the Decorative Arts: Georgian Britain 1714–1837 (London: V&A Publications, 2004), 44–53, 78–9, 145.

[5] Clive Edwards and Margaret Ponsonby, “Polarization of the Second-Hand Market for Furniture in the Nineteenth Century” in Modernity and the Second-Hand Trade, 93–5.

[6] John Raithby, ed. The Statues at Large of England and of GreatBritain: From Magna Carta to the Union of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland (London: Eyre and Strahan, 1811) Vol. IV, 612-15.

[7] Danny Pickering, The Statutes at Large from the Eighth Year of King William III to the Second Year of Queen Anne (London: Joseph Benthan, 1864) Vol. X, 112.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, Sworn Broker Archives.

[9] This calculation is based on the economic status value method and estimates the value of £500 from 1708 (when Parliament established the bond requirement) to 2016. Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, 2016. (accessed 3 June 2016).

[10] Joshua Montefiore, A Commercial Dictionary: Containing the Present State of Mercantile Law, Practice, and Custom (London: for the author, 1803), BRO.

[11] Campbell, The London Tradesman, 175.

[12] Montefiore, A Commercial Dictionary, APP.

[13] 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.

Steve Sanders is a late-stage PhD student at Oxford Brookes University. The title of his research is ‘The Upholder During the Age of Thomas Chippendale’. Among his British eighteenth-century research interests are livery companies, furniture and decorative art, and retailing and distribution practices.

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CfP: Private Textiles and Dress

Workshop and Call for Papers

Private Textiles and Dress: Domestic and Intimate Textiles and Dress in Museums and Historic Houses

Thursday 13 June 2019


European silk socks, 1800-1850, Gift of Martin Kamer, 1985, Image courtesy of

CHORD invites submissions for a workshop that explores private, domestic, intimate and / or secret textiles and dress in museum, historic house, archive and other collections.

Papers focusing on any historical period or geographical area are welcome. We define ‘private’ broadly, and also welcome papers that challenge simple categorisation, including domestic objects or collections that might be intended for public view, or ‘intimate’ items that might also have a political meaning. Both textiles and clothing are of interest, as are all aspects of their acquisition, care, display, interpretation or conservation.

Museum professionals, conservators, archivists, students, academic scholars or anybody with an interest in the topic are warmly invited to submit a proposal. We welcome both experienced and new speakers, including speakers without an institutional affiliation.


Boxed Valentine’s Day Card, British, 1840–99, Gift of Mrs. Richard Riddell, 1981, Image courtesy of

Individual papers are usually 20 minutes in length, followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion. We also welcome shorter, 10 minute ‘work in progress’ or ‘collection spotlight’ (which aims to draw attention more briefly than in a full paper to a particular item or collection) presentations, also followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion.

Some of the themes that are of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • Textiles and furnishings for the home
  • Underwear and sleepwear
  • Collecting, conserving and displaying private and domestic items
  • Textiles, dress, intimacy and emotions
  • Unused, stored or hidden garments and textiles
  • Recreating domestic interiors
  • From private to public: house sales, auctions, re-use
  • Secret, ritual or religious textiles

Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, South Netherlandish, Gift of Ruth Blumka, in memory of Leopold Blumka, 1974, image courtesy of

Small bursaries will be available for speakers to subsidise the cost of travel (within the UK) and the workshop fee.

To submit a proposal, please send title and abstract of c.300 to 400 words, specifying whether you are proposing a 10 or a 20 minute presentation to Laura Ugolini, at by 15 March 2019.

If you are unsure whether to submit a proposal or would like to discuss your ideas before submission, you are encouraged to e-mail Laura Ugolini at

The workshop will be held at Wolverhampton University City Campus, a short walk from Wolverhampton’s bus and train stations. Maps and directions are available HERE

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


Pillow from crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, South Netherlandish, Gift of Ruth Blumka, in memory of Leopold Blumka, 1974, image courtesy of

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2018 Conference blogs – Defining ‘Traders’ in Bankruptcy Proceedings, 1700-1750

Aidan Collins, University of York

Defining ‘Traders’ in Bankruptcy Proceedings, 1700-1750

In 1571, a rather curious provision was entered into English law which attempted to restrict the scope of bankruptcy to certain trades or professions. Commonly known as the ‘trading distinction’, the wording of the statute is worth quoting at length, as bankruptcy only applied to any person, ‘exercising the Trade of Merchandize by way of Bargaining, Exchange, Rechange, Bartry, Chevisance, or otherwise, in Gross or by Retail …  or seeking his or her Trade of Living by Buying and Selling’.[1] On the surface, the wording of this act seems slightly unusual, as every person would have been engaged in an act of ‘Merchandize’ – put simply, everyone buys and while perhaps less frequently, everyone sells in one form or another. However, this provision remained in English law for nearly 300 years, until bankruptcy became applicable to ‘all debtors, whether traders or not’ in 1861.[2] So why was this trading distinction created? And how was this broad definition interpreted prior to the nineteenth century?

In order to answer these questions, our focus must turn to contemporary attitudes towards debt — and particularly credit — in relation to trade. The trading distinction was built upon the assumption that only overseas traders were liable to the sorts of losses, and used the sorts of credit, that the law sort sought to deal with. In this manner, the jurisdiction of bankruptcy was intended to be kept away from the landowning community and limited only to the business world. Perhaps an oversimplified categorisation of a sixteenth-century trader would be any person who was engaged in manufacturing, or the buying and selling of goods on a self-employed basis. In contrast, a non-trader would be any person in employment, engaged in a recognised profession, or occupying the position of landowner or farmer.

However, as we move through the seventeenth century, such distinctions were very hard to maintain and implement in a consistent manner, not least because of the way in which the economy changed and developed during this period. In 1600, if credit was used mostly by merchants, then by 1700 it was widely accepted that credit was vital to all businesses, not to mention being used extensively at home as well. With no legislation being passed that explicitly addressed this issue, judges and lawyers were compelled to work towards their own definitions of a trader. In so doing, much of their attention focused on the particular nature of buying and the particular purpose of selling. For example, one rule stated that you could not be classified as a trader if you did not buy the materials you used. This point can clearly be applied to farmers and landowners who sold the goods they made on their estate, and it was accepted throughout this period that farmers were categorically outside of the jurisdiction of bankruptcy.

Yet, despite attempts by legal experts to try to define and categorise a trader, litigation throughout the eighteenth century demonstrates just how complex this issue had become. One such example can be found from a case entered in the Court of Chancery in 1724.[3] In Hope v Salmon, the suit centres around the occupation of the bankrupt and named defendant John Sabb, who described himself as a yeoman, from Maidstone, Kent. As a prominent farmer, Sabb should have been outside the jurisdiction of bankruptcy. But what is interesting in this suit, is the manner in which the opposing parties attempted to manipulate Sabb’s day-to-day activities for their own benefit. Broadly speaking, as the major creditors, the plaintiffs argued that Sabb was not simply a farmer, but got his principal living through the buying and selling of hops. John Swinnock suggested that Sabb was an ‘esteemed’ dealer in hops, while Samuel Webb claimed Sabb bought and sold hops, ‘by which method he got his Livelyhood’.[4] In contrast, the defendants stated that Sabb had been brought up and educated as a farmer and continued to make his living through the standard activities of a farmer: he rented out several acres of his land, kept cows and sold their milk, and employed a team to work his land and sell a variety of goods, such as corn and hops, at Maidstone market. What is clear from this case, is that the plaintiffs are trying to persuade the court that Sabb was not simply a farmer, but got his principal living through buying and selling, and therefore should be considered a trader within the true intent and meaning of the statutes. Obviously, on the opposing side, Sabb and the other defendants are trying to explain to the court that, as a prominent land owner and farmer, it is clear that Sabb cannot be declared a bankrupt as he is engaged in an occupation that has always been excluded as a non-trader.

This is just one example taken from a range of suits in which the scope, jurisdiction and procedure of bankruptcy are examined in the Court of Chancery. Taken in isolation, these suits give us an insight into the way in which individuals dealt with specific issues and attempted to circumnavigate problems within the bankruptcy process by manipulating the legal system for their own benefit. Taken collectively, they demonstrate that the ideals established by legal experts did not always conform neatly to the practical realties of day-to-day experience. What becomes clear, is that the trading distinction and its subsequent interpretation was far too complex to simply be reduced to a list of acceptable and unacceptable occupations. Even an occupation such as farming — which was excluded almost as an intention of the earliest bankruptcy statutes — contained specific working activities that by the eighteenth century, many considered to be a staple and important part of trade.


[1] 13 Elizabeth I c 7 (1571).

[2] 24 & 25 Victoria CXXXIV.

[3] TNA, C 11/2774/6, Hope v Salmon (1724).

[4] Ibid., deposition of John Swinnock and Samuel Webb.

Aidan Collins is a third year PhD student at the University of York interested in all aspects of the credit-based economy across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His research explores bankruptcy proceedings at different stages of the legal process within Chancery to illuminate social and cultural aspects of financial failure during this period.

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2018 Conference blogs – The Life and Times of 54-56 Fossgate, York

Phil Lyon, Umeå University, Sweden and Dave Kinney,

The Life and Times of 54-56 Fossgate, York


Numbers 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate were for many years the trading premises of the York Army and Navy Stores. The buildings housing the store were much older (c. 1796) with 55 and 56 Grade II listed and 54 listed Grade II* (Historic England, n.d.). The business had started out further down the Fossgate in 1919 and closed in July 2012 with the retirement of the youngest of the original shopkeeper’s grandsons – David Storey (DS). In the final few days of trading we were able to photograph the shop and storage areas, and to talk with the current owner to reflect on the loss of a local landmark.1


In the aftermath of the First World War there had been a flourishing trade selling the tons of army surplus – one of the less-heralded peace dividends.2 The shop had originally serviced the needs of working people – boots, coats, headwear and overalls – in the factories, kitchens and building sites of the town, and the fields of surrounding areas. Items designed and made for military purposes were practical and often of superior quality. New or used, and usually cheap, this was workwear at its best. The business did well, expanded into 54-56 Fossgate. Over the years, it continued to thrive with the army surplus that was abundant once more after the Second World War. As the years went by, the family established branches in Redcar and Scarborough. However, these coastal shops eventually closed as market conditions changed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the austerity that kept demand alive for affordable workwear slowly gave way to a relative affluence where leisure requirements were also important. Supplies of hiking and camping equipment were a logical development. However, a more innovative venture was the use of surplus RAF oxygen tanks for the leisure diving market. The offshoot store in Scarborough sold flippers, masks, wetsuits and tanks to meet a demand that few other retailers addressed: ‘Me and my brother did a lot of scuba diving and spear fishing … and we were in on that in the very early days … because that was just coming in. The early scuba tanks were out of World War Two bombers, you know the big air cylinders that used to … oxygen … and the thing then was there was nobody who sold it … we ended up mixing stuff, selling flippers and masks, snorkels and their cylinders and such and everything that goes with it … and that went on for quite a few years … 5 or 6 years’. (DS interview) With the growth of leisure activities there had been a successful exploitation of new opportunities but, in later decades, it had been harder to compete.

By 2012, retail prospects had changed rather more than the premises at 54-56 Fossgate. Two of the shop fronts dated to the 1950s and the third was older. In fact, the relatively unchanged nature of the premises was both an asset and a liability. Shop window display, counter service, and the associated storage of most goods in drawers and on shelves was a lingering reminder of what had been commonplace when the business started, and not uncommon even in the 1970s. The popular ITV television series Heartbeat (IMDB, 2018), set in the 1960s, used the shop for filming in 2002 because it offered a period setting for one episode (The Press, 2002). Similarly, some customers enjoyed the authentically old-fashioned retail experience. ‘We could have modernized, but we kept the museum effect because the tourists like it and customers like it. A lot of people have told us not to change it, he said’ (The Press, 2012).


Although nostalgia can be effective both as a marketing strategy and a distinguishing feature for some retailers, it is not a panacea. Circumstances were changing for the practical everyday retailing that had made the shop successful. ‘The trading in the town has dropped dramatically over the years. I mean I’ve seen it. We’ve got quite a lot of tourists in, but they don’t really spend anything. These out-of-town places, they’re giving me a real bashing’ (DS Interview).




Behind the Scenes

Supporting the counter-based retail areas had been the largely-unchanged upstairs rooms. Where there had once been three separate premises, there was now a continuous link between the upper stories of 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate. Storage, there and in the cellars, was important because retail display space was limited and some items were seasonal so needed to be brought out or put away as circumstances demanded.





The emphasis in these ‘backstage’ areas was utility and shelving was often made from whatever was available – a trend that went back to the original owner who at one time had described himself as a joiner. ‘I mean he never served any time; his joinery work is still … in evidence … and I don’t think he’d have made a living as a joiner’ (DS interview).






After so many years of trading, several display items had been put by for potential advertising use at some future date – even if that was never realized.







Short term and long term perspectives

The York Army & Navy Stores had been a successful supplier of workwear over the years but that market changed with the decline of manufacturing jobs, health and safety legislation, and direct competition from manufacturers for end-user sales. Reduced footfall along the Fossgate and the attractions of out-of-town and online shopping were additional problems. With the imminent retirement of the youngest grandson as catalyst, the business was closing in 2012. In spite of the difficult trading conditions, there were hopes of finding a clothing retailer to take over the premises but these efforts were to fail. Almost inevitably, in the eyes of local residents, a new bar and restaurant (Sutler’s) was to open there (The Press, 2014, 2015a). It is easy to understand and sympathize with adverse local reactions (The Press, 2015b). Something familiar, even if little used, was to be lost. The question of what 54-56 Fossgate was to become took longer to answer and, reflecting changed times, it was to become Sutler’s bar/restaurant. Some questioned the need for more bars and restaurants on a street where such ventures were already well represented.

However, even with a 93 year old business, such adverse reactions represent the perspective from a single point in history. Over time, the premises at 54-56 Fossgate had actually been the home to many different enterprises – including being part of a substantial local property portfolio and indications that rooms above one of the shops were let out.

Table 1 – Timeline for 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate

Tables 2 and 3 – Newspaper advertisements placed by occupants of 54 Fossgate and Newspaper reports of Fossgate property sales

In the public announcement of closure, there were voices of concern about the number of bars, cafés and restaurants already in the area but adapting to consumer markets that emerge has been part of a continuous cycle for these premises for more than 200 years. Undoubtedly there would have been some adverse reactions to any of those changes of use in earlier decades. However, there is a twist in this change of use from shop to bar/restaurant.

In this closure, it is not simply the replacement of one enterprise with another. Quite starkly, we see different representations of the past – from the simply old-fashioned, a survival of the past into the present, to the re-imagined past – ‘involving as it does a contemporary orientation towards the past rather than just the survival of old things’ (Wright, 1985, 229). The new bar/restaurant, Sutler’s, contrived to look old and well-established in the 54-56 Fossgate premises – much older than the shop fronts it replaced. The new bar/restaurant façade could be Victorian but the interior was anachronously described as being themed on the 1920s and 1930s. The original counter and some decorative drawer fronts added a sense of indeterminate age and an imagined location. Oddly, considering the austerity of Second World War food rationing, it was reported that ‘Sutlers’ menu evokes wartime. It is designed like a ration book and has a section called Officers Mess featuring dishes such as sirloin steak, rump of lamb and Yorkshire beef, with prices from £13 to £23 for main courses’ (The Press, 2015a).

Commercial ventures had come and gone in 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate but the Army and Navy premises had been there so long it became a well-known reference point in this part of York. As David Storey said, ‘Even if we sell the shop, people will [still] say “On the Army and Navy Store’s corner” ’ (DS interview).  Perhaps that will be true while memories last but, in this transition from the genuinely old fashioned to the fashionably aged, ‘sometimes the authentic trace of history is precisely what just has to go’ (Wright, 1985, 231).


1 In addition to the recorded interviews, photography and traditional library searches, the British Newspaper Archive ( ) was used to search for references to Fossgate.

2 Although stock is generically described as army surplus it is better described as military surplus. In later years most of the stock was manufactured for the retail trade.


Historic England (n.d.). (accessed 2 September 2018).

IMDB (2018). Heartbeat. URL (accessed 28 July 2018).

Kelly’s York Directory (1901). Available at (accessed 23 April 2018).

Pigot’s Directory York (1829). Available at (accessed 23 April 2018).

Stevens’ Directory of York and Neighbourhood (1885). London: George Stevens.

The Press (2002). Heartbeat star draws crowds. 9 July. Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

The Press (2012). Army & Navy Stores up for sale after 93 years. 5 May. Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

The Press (2014). Famous York shop to become brasserie, bar and coffee house. 14 April. Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

The Press (2015a). York’s former Army and Navy Stores transformed into new bar and restaurant. 28 March. Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

The Press (2015b). LETTERS: York city centre doesn’t need any more bars or restaurants. 5 December.  Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

White’s Directory of York and Neighbourhood (7th edition) (1895) Sheffield: William White Ltd.

Wright, P. (1985). On Living in an Old Country. London: Verso.

Phil Lyon is Affiliate Professor in the Department of Food and Nutrition at Umeå University in Sweden. His long-standing research interest is in food and social change and publications include the advent of food broadcasting and the early days of food journalism; the transition from small food shops to supermarkets; the historical impact of the canned food industry; current and historical discourses on cooking skills, and picnics in the 1930s.

David Kinney has been working as a professional photographer and educator for more than 20 years. In education he has taught on highly successful photography degree programmes in the UK and in Russia. Professionally, he has worked with major companies as well as small and medium size businesses with commissions ranging from jewellery and food to the commercial, industrial and architectural. Focusing on conservation of the built environment, many projects explore our architectural heritage from ancient Rome to post war modernist iconic structures. At present he works between Andalucia in Spain and the UK.

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2018 Conference blogs – Glass Blocks and the Fashion Retail Space of the 1930s and 40s

Myriam Couturier, (Ryerson and York Universities, Toronto, Canada)

Glass Blocks and the Fashion Retail Space of the 1930s and 40s

This project examines American fashion retail architecture in the 1930s and 1940s using as a starting point a specific architectural element: the glass block. Through an analysis of articles published in the influential American trade publication Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) between 1936 and 1949, I explored how glass blocks were part of a wave of building modernization – which included precise light and colour elements, as well as modern amenities such as air conditioning and escalators – that transformed the fashion retail experience during the Depression, World War II, and the immediate post-war years.

Popularized in the 1930s, glass blocks were seen as a functional and versatile way to light commercial buildings both during the day and at night. As detailed by architectural historian Gabrielle Esperdy in her book Modernizing Main Street, in 1934 the US Federal Housing Administration passed the National Housing Act, which included a “Modernize Main Street” initiative. This project insured private lenders for building improvement projects (both residential and non-residential) that would help stimulate the economy during the Depression. In the next ten years $5 billion dollars were spent, and lent, in order to revitalize existing retail spaces. Esperdy examines how shop facades in small town Main Streets across the country were renovated through this program, using glass, stainless steel and other ‘streamlined’ architectural materials, with the idea of appealing primarily to female shoppers (1). In line with Esperdy’s analysis, the WWD articles I surveyed consistently mentioned the use of glass bricks as a new, modern material for storefronts, but also as a key decorative selling point inside the stores.

Beginning in the 1910s, corporations became increasingly interested in the effects of light and colour on human perception, psychology and consumption. Ahead of the New York World’s Fair, in 1938, a WWD commentator predicted that the “subtle use of light and color may advantageously be extended throughout practically all departments of a store, as an aid in the creation of a desire for things, not because we actually need them, but because we want them for what they are.” (2) In that spirit, in the 1930s and 40s, glass blocks were often combined with stainless steel or chrome finishes, fluorescent lighting, and carefully selected colours in pink, natural, and pastel tones, to create an optimal shopping environment for women. Glass blocks were used to engineer a new kind of lighting that presented products in a flattering way, with minimal distortion of colour and design. A piece goods buyer for the Indianapolis department store Wasson’s claimed, in 1938, that glass brick lighting had increased sales of silks and rayons at the store, stating: “the department has benefited greatly from the new lighting arrangement […] Wide strips of semi-transparent glass brick, running from top to bottom of the floor, and continuous from the roof to the first floor of the building, admit much more daylight than was formerly available, send the light farther into the interior, and aid in the matching of fabrics, and the consequent increase of sales.” (3) (Fig. 1)


Fig. 1 – Former Wasson’s department store, Indianapolis, IN (March 2018). Author’s own photograph

It was often argued that glass bricks provided a better, softer version of daylight, one that actually enhanced the beauty of various products, from swimwear to furs. WWD constantly praised the way daylight now bathed, even flooded, these renovated shopping spaces. It is crucial to note however that this light – described variously as “a maximum daylight effect”, “direct daylight” and “natural outdoor light” – was never entirely natural, as these spaces were often precisely light conditioned. Glass bricks were commonly used in dressing rooms as well, providing flattering lighting for both garments and the body itself.

Glass blocks were useful for admitting daylight but they also served an important window display function after hours. In 1938, commenting on new colour trends in storefronts, WWD pointed out that already “[f]requent use has been made of glass blocks in decorative panels, which become effective display media when illuminated at night.” (4) Another article described how glass brick panels, combined with fluorescent lighting strips, could even reproduce the “directional effect of sunlight” at nighttime. (5) The combination of cathode and fluorescent lighting with glass brick panels was often used as a way to add dynamic, visual interest to store displays in a streamlined, cost-effective way.

One glass brick wall could act as different backdrops depending on which coloured lights were projected above or behind it. WWD often discussed glass blocks with a sense of stylish motion, describing attractive ‘ribbons of light’ dancing and floodlights ‘playing’ behind them. The journal also recalled a high-end women’s shop in Harrisburg, PA, being “illuminated by flood lights, so that behind the glass brick walls countless thousands of diamonds seemed to twinkle.” (6) In both high-end and more affordable shops, softly lit glass blocks were installed to pleasantly reconfigure the shopping space. They were used to create warm, inviting nooks and corners within stores; they also elegantly concealed things like radio-phonographs, sales booths, fitting rooms, alteration rooms and executive offices from shoppers.

Figure 2 - Glass blocks

Fig. 2 – A.N. Finn, Chief of the glass section of the US Bureau of Standards, inspects panels of glass blocks before testing, June 20, 1938. Photograph by Harris & Ewing. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (7)

Glass bricks provided light and a sense of openness but importantly, they also defined and closed off space. In 1937 one executive observed that glass blocks allowed shops to be well-lit, even when they were located on streets with undesirable views. Following the growing popularity of swimwear and sportswear during this period, shop décor often evoked physical activity, the outdoors, and natural landscapes – with painted murals, plants, and specific colour schemes, it helped replicate the outside world, but located it firmly within the sealed off, air conditioned comfort of the retail space. Glass blocks, used with the proper lighting, could also help recreate a variety of weather conditions. After a visit to the 1936 Chrysler Motor Car exhibition building in Austin, TX, WWD suggested that “blocks of ‘moire’ pattern, immediately have the cooling influence suggested by their icy simulation.” Paired with large deep blue mirror sheets, they gave an impression of “marine coolness.” Such techniques, the article argued, could be especially useful to fur retailers: “This adherence to the cool dark blue and the natural white glass is definitely recommended to the notice of fur manufacturers for their showrooms since they make their most important efforts in showing merchandise during the warmest months of the year.” (8)

As much as retailers tried to frame these new design touches as thoroughly modern and original, even unique to each store, they became a standardized template used all across the country, from big cities to small Midwestern towns. By 1949, one WWD author declared: “I’ve seen so much glass brick, chromium, free form tables and carpeting sections, so many intricate floral arrangements that I’ve begun to believe there isn’t a store left in Texas or Oklahoma which hasn’t been bitten by the expansion and modernization bug.” (9) Just as contemporary fashion advertised the ideas of simplifying and streamlining – in the 1930s and 40s magazines like Vogue promoted ‘restrained design,’ rational consumption, and uncomplicated (yet stylish) clothes produced at lower price points using the latest technological developments in cut and fabric (10) – WWD actively extended this discourse into the architecture of the shopping space itself. Glass blocks were a cost-effective, mass-produced tool for retailers to sell products and organize their spaces; yet, just like the fashions they displayed, they were presented as being fully modern, versatile, and functionally elegant.


  1. Gabrielle Esperdy, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 3, 7, 162-63.
  2. Donald L. Pratt, “New York World’s Fair Under Microscopes Of Trend Detectors,” Women’s Wear Daily, 8 September 1938, SII12, SII13, SII24.
  3. “Well-Trained Salesforce Is Keystone Of Wasson’s Success In Selling Fabrics By The Yard,” Women’s Wear Daily, 21 February 1938, 8.
  4. “Use Of Color In Store Fronts Noteworthy Trend: Swing Toward Color,” Women’s Wear Daily, 28 December 1938, SII68.
  5. Julietta B. Kahn, “Retail Executive: Demonstrate Effect of Lights on Merchandise: Lighting to Give Seasonal Effects,” Women’s Wear Daily, 8 August 1945, 27.
  6. “The Customers’ Room,” Women’s Wear Daily, 14 March 1938, 6.
  7. Harris & Ewing, photographer. Bureau of Standards making extensive tests of glass building blocks. Washington, D.C., June 20. Hollow glass building blocks are being used more and more extensively for structural purposes when both greater light distribution and air conditioning are required. Extensive tests to determine the strength of glass block walls and their resistance to wind pressure and moisture penetration. A.N. Finn, Chief of the glass section, is inspecting some 8 x 4 feet panels before they are tested, 6/20/38. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.
  8. “Texas Marches On: Color On Parade,” Women’s Wear Daily, 10 June 1936, 2, 28.
  9. “Cutting Corners,” Women’s Wear Daily, 25 October 1949, 1.
  10. See Rebecca Arnold, The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009).

Myriam Couturier is a PhD student in the joint Communication and Culture program at Ryerson and York Universities (Toronto, Canada). Her work focuses on the relationship between fashion, gender, material, and visual culture. Her doctoral dissertation examines historical collections of twentieth-century clothing and printed fashion ephemera in Toronto, focusing on the spaces where fashion has been produced, consumed and performed in the city.

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