Vintage view: Women and retail

Kya deLongchamps takes a stroll through the intimate history of women and retail.

SHOPPING appeals to our primitive roots as hunger-gatherers and we’ve been going to town for the better part of 300 years.

This being Mother’s Day weekend, you are probably out honouring this ancient instinct, but it was the Georgians who invented shopping, and the unmistakable ‘ecstasy of the purchase’, as writer Erma Bombeck dubbed it.

On both sides of the counter, shops gave women a new freedom. The running of a shop was as much a working-class woman’s business as a man’s. He might be the owner, but in the later 18th century the store was often operated by the wife.

The family lived above the shop, descending at dawn to prop up an exterior shutter that shielded the windows from break-ins overnight. An apprenticeship-in-trade was a valuable, coveted training and a source of inexpensive staff for everyone from mantua makers (who designed and constructed dresses) to booksellers.

As the number of household goods and fashions available ‘off the shelf’ increased during the industrial revolution, shops became larger, merchandise migrating out from behind the counters into displays on the shop floor.

Going shopping became a culturally acceptable activity. Gentile premises might have had a coffee- or tea-drinking area, where ladies could assemble and gossip, between browsing new off-the-peg garments to be altered by a neighbouring seamstress.

Shopping hours were only limited by daylight and many firms closed as late as 9pm in the summer. Novelist Jane Austen regularly placed her heroines in tantalising situations, caught in the path of likely suitors while fluffing ribbon in the haberdashery.

The local shop was a place of exchange of goods, glances and information, crucial to the polite espionage of a small community. Market days, or the visit of the local militia, stirred up heart-racing excitement, as well as valuable commerce.

In larger towns and cities, shops were highly specific to their goods: for example, tobacco, sugar, honey, hosiery or wigs, and would be trusted by families for decades of custom. However, it was the luxury goods that flagged a person’s social standing and purchasing power, and which really got the bourgeois out to the foggy streets of the 1800s.

By the mid-19th century, it became largely acceptable for even upper-class women to shop for leisure and to shop alone without besmirching their delicate reputation. They were on a mission, and, if necessary, in the protection of a servile lower class.

There were department stores as we know them, in London, as early as 1809, where Howard, Howling and Co were doing a brisk trade for ladies and gentlemen, in everything from furs and fans to ormolu clocks and song thrushes.

Kendal’s, in Manchester, still in trade as House of Fraser, was another very early department store, in the 1840s, patronised by middle-class women and described as the ‘Harrods of the North.’

TV viewers may remember the recent BBC series, The Paradise (the template of the business is based on Le Bon Marché, in Paris), which captures the complex social wobbles of early shopping expeditions by ladies to the new department store of a small town.

Women of quality, otherwise atrophying over their embroidery and flanked by their maids, were eager to see the latest in Oriental ceramics and French silk underwear. Gilded emporiums, staffed with formally attired clerks, were curated up into magical side-shows that make our retail outlets look like offal houses.

If they were lucky enough to get to London, ladies were treated to a glass of brandy after their exertions on the world’s first escalator, at Harrods, which was built of leather belts and clockwork.

A trip to the current food hall of Harrods (where a liveried member of staff will stiffly remind you there is no photography) still gives a real feel of early bourgeoisie consumerism. Perch on stool with an overpriced club sandwich and take in those Art Nouveau tiles.

Despite being burned to the ground in 1883, the rebuilt Harrods remains the biggest department store in Europe, with 330 departments. Arnotts, in Dublin, founded in 1843, is the oldest surviving department store in Ireland, followed by Clerys, est. 1853.

There’s an enduring tale that Pádraig Pearse popped into Arnotts to fatefully close his account, before his journey to the GPO on April 24, 1916. It being Easter Monday, would they have been closed?

Some present-day department stores, including Brown Thomas, have returned to a top-hatted doorman, who is picked for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city.

This is a throwback to the days when a tall, elegant, butler-style character guarded the door and society secrets of every posh hotel, club, boutique and department store.

For humdrum below-stairs shopping, Covent Garden, in London (est.1654), has changed little in essentials.

The unmatched charm of our own English Market, in Cork (est. 1796), allows you to imagine a determined housekeeper and her kitchen maid, elbows pinched on woven baskets, pushing through the throng of public, beggars, pedlars and hawkers to the reputable fresh-produce dealers.

With the stink and clamour surrounding the cook-houses, taverns and coffee houses (the scene of much early political networking), a trip to Cork, with its famous provision markets, was a stirring and potentially dangerous affair.

Today, our only hazard out shopping is the easy way that credit card slides from our purse. Still, it’s up to us to keep such a glorious tradition going, isn’t it?


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