John Benson and Laura Ugolini, editors, A Nation of Shopkeepers:
Five Centuries of British Retailing (I.B. Tauris and Co., 2003)
This edited collection of scholarly articles arrived in a package from St. Martin's Press, which distributes books from this London-based publisher in the United States and Canada. The title and the cover art (photos of men in aprons posing in front of a grocer's stall) attracted my attention. Some of my favorite pieces of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction (including Emile Zola's The Belly of Paris and The Ladies' Paradise, as well as Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives Tale) revolve around retail establishments. I'm also developing an undergraduate sociology course on leisure and consumption, so I am thinking even more than usual about changing social mores around the practice of shopping.
One of the charms of the edited collection as a format for non-fiction is that the reader may pick and choose articles based on their titles and can complete a piece of reading in a relatively short time. This is decidedly an advantage with this particular book. I doubt that even those people who share my interest in retail history as a field of scholarship would be inclined to read it cover to cover. The book features nine articles, organized into three sections with the somewhat less than helpful headings, "Representations and Self-representations," "Patterns and Processes," and "Property, Politics and Communities."
In the "Representations and Self-representations" section, I read Claire Walsh's article "The Shopping Galleries of Early Modern London," which is based on her PhD thesis. Dr. Walsh used references from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century plays, guidebooks and tourist accounts to describe several such venues that flourished in London during this time period. She notes that the term "shopping gallery" is her term for these places, which were at the time known by specific names such as "the Royal Exchange." The galleries were housed in large, well-appointed buildings that enabled people to shop for high quality goods (typically clothing and accessories, books and stationery) in comfort and style, away from the noise and dirt of the city streets. Not surprisingly, they also provided places where people of the higher social classes could, as we say, "see and be seen," thus serving as settings for several Restoration comedies. The designers of these spaces aimed for a consistency of appearance among all the shops that anticipates the "look" of the great department stores that began to open in the mid- to late nineteenth century in the cities of England, Europe and the United States.
In the "Patterns and Processes" section, I read Sheryllynne Haggerty's article "Women, Work and the Consumer Revolution: Liverpool in the Late Eighteenth Century." Despite its brevity (twenty pages long from start to finish including five pages of endnotes!) this article does a splendid job of giving the reader an understanding of what the city of Liverpool was like in the late eighteenth century when it emerged as an international trading port. It also shows how the city's occupational structure for men and women changed during the decades leading up to that point. Dr. Haggerty used data from church burial registers to document shifts in the male occupational structure consistent with the transition of Liverpool away from manufacturing and toward trade from 1766 to 1805. Because she could not obtain equivalent information for women from the same source, she used several editions of Gore's Directories, a trade listing to which people could submit entries, to construct a database of women by occupation for the same time period. Her analysis showed that the total number of women engaged in work outside the home increased more than twelvefold in this time period, from 66 in 1766 to 838 in 1805. Most of these women worked in occupations categorized under Food and Drink, Grocers and Shopkeepers, Textiles and Clothing, and Merchants, Brokers and Dealers. She refers in a number of instances to specific records from her dataset to show what these women actually did. For example, she mentions two women who sold provisions to the ship Ingram in 1784 and several who ran grocery shops in various parts of the city.
Typical of good historical research, every article in this book includes pages of detailed endnotes documenting references and data sources. I always find these at least as interesting as the articles themselves. In the endnotes for the "Shopping Galleries" article, for example, I found a reference to a book that analyzes references to consumer culture in the fiction of Theodore Dreiser, George Gisssing and Emile Zola. Since I have read and enjoyed two of these authors, I tracked this one down right away!
The editors have added considerable value to this book. They've included biographical sketches for each of the contributors, enabling me to confirm that they are all scholars affiliated with British and European universities. Their introductory essay, "Historians and the Nation of Shopkeepers," provides a useful overview of the pieces in the collection and situates them in the context of the growing interest in the history of retail and consumption. They have created an index that makes it easy for someone using the book as a reference work to find information on a specific topic across the all the articles in the collection.
A Nation of Shopkeepers is not a book I would recommend for the casual reader. However, it would make a fine addition to a collection of reference works on retail and consumption. It contains meticulously researched information that a writer of historical fiction might find quite useful. At $24.95, the paperback edition is reasonably priced for a book of this type.