University of Cambridge Museums

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Shops and shopping in 18th century London

This is the concluding post about the collection of 18th century receipts – or trade bills – at the Fitzwilliam Museum that were issued to one family, the Blathwayts, who lived on Golden Square in the City of Westminster for twenty years from 1767. Research into the collection has culminated in an online exhibition about shops and shopping in London during the second half of the eighteenth century.

The online exhibition is divided into four sections:

The introduction has information about trade cards and bill heads, an interactive map from 1746 linked to some of the business names in the collection, information about money and coinage in the eighteenth century, and a price list based on the bills, to show what you could buy with, for example, 6 old pence (d)(a bottle of ink) or 4 shillings 6 pence (a pair of black silk gloves)

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The section called ‘Selling’ looks at nine of the businesses trading in London in the second half of the 18th century, how they advertised and identified themselves, and what they were offering.

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Some of the shopkeepers had very smart looking bill heads, especially those from the high end of the market like mercers. Despite the look of this bill head, Philip Margas’s shop was also an exclusive, specialist shop, selling luxury items (fans, japanned furniture, porcelain) and foodstuffs. One of the items on this bill is ‘2 doz. of mangoes’.

It is signed by a ‘J. Griffiths’ on behalf of ‘Mrs Margas’. Philip had died in June the previous year, and his widow, Catherine, continued to run the business until her death in 1769. Shopkeeping in the eighteenth century was by no means an exclusively male domain. Women were important members of a business, although perhaps hidden behind a man’s name, capable of taking over completely when the need arose. There were more women running businesses at this time than might be expected, even in surprising avenues of trade – one of the Fitzwilliam’s bills is from the female proprietor of a human-waste collecting service, a ‘night-soil’ carrier! Many women inherited businesses or money to buy businesses from their husbands or fathers. Widows had a special status as they inherited premises and money in their own right, and were allowed to go about their lives in a way that a single woman who had never married could not. Some of the other bills at the Fitzwilliam Museum are also signed by female apprentices.

The ‘Buying’ section takes a closer look at what the Blathwayt family purchased and the prices they paid. It’s illustrated with comparative objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum, the other University of Cambridge Museums and beyond.

The Blathwayts had their own lavish coach and regularly travelled back to their family home at Dyrham, just outside Bath, a popular choice of spa resort for the wealthy wanting to escape the city in warmer weather. The family’s letters (in Gloucester Archives) contain references to escaping the ‘dirty’ town. One undated letter to William Blathwayt reads ‘As the weather begins to be very warm & dusty, I presume you will remove soon from London to some of the Water drinking places till the latter end of the summer…’. There are a number of receipts from inns in the collection, including one from Brighthelmstone (Brighton).

There are a few objects in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that were found in fields in and around Cambridge, such as money boxes and keys, which were perhaps dropped by travellers. The image below, of an iron padlock and key, was described as a ‘fetter-lock, with key, used for hobbling horses, before the enclosure of the fields’ when it was donated to the museum in 1903. Given the small diameter of the inflexible metal loop it is perhaps more likely that the device was used to transport (and secure) humans than horses!

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The final ‘Gallery’ section shows all the trade bills on the Museum’s online catalogue to facilitate future research. You can select an individual record to view larger images and read the inscriptions of individual bills from a range of trades including stationers, haberdashers, chandlers, boot makers, linen drapers, ironmongers, hosiers, nurserymen and paper stainers.

Elenor Ling, Research Assistant, Paintings, Drawings & Prints, Fitzwilliam Museum

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