Retail Therapy 1800s Style

Yes, I’m guilty. I’ve been known to go out and buy myself something pretty when I’m feeling down. Haven’t we all? Ah! Retail therapy! It’s a modern curse, right?

Not necessarily.

Harrods of London Wikicommons - Carl Frieder Kathe

Harrods of London
Wikicommons – Carl Frieder Kathe

We think of zipping out and buying something ready-made at a mall or department store as a relatively modern invention. Maybe the practice was around in the 1950s, right? But we’re sure it’s a harbinger of the modern age. After all, in the past everyone had their clothes ready-made and bought local goods from specialized stores – butcher, baker, tailor, haberdashers. Shopping as we know it is relatively new.

Or is it?

In fact, one of the world’s first department stores, Bennett’s of Irongate in Derby, England, was opened in 1734. What? 1734? A department store? Yes. Bennett’s began as modest ironmongers, but they soon expanded and added different goods: agricultural supplies, guns and silver goods, “oils and colours”. When it was bought out in the 1860s by George Bennett (who gave the existing store his name) the amount and type of goods was expanded again to include sporting equipment and whatever else old George felt like selling. It was a 19th century one-stop shopping treat. And guess what? It’s still open in the same location today.

Of course, Bennett’s wasn’t the only department store to open in the 19th century. Far from it. The 1820s and 30s saw a boom of department store openings, from Harrods to Kendals to Bainbridge’s. And that’s just in the UK. By the 1850s, Macy’s was founded, and in the 1870s in Philadelphia, Wannamaker’s (where my mom used to take me shopping when I was a kid). So many of the major anchor stores in malls actually had their beginnings in the 19th century that we tend to forget that shopping has been around since our grandparent’s grandparents were kids.

But what were these stores? What did department stores sell? And how was that different from the way things had been before they existed?

Ah, the mechanization of production! Wikicommons - Bain Collection

Ah, the mechanization of production!
Wikicommons – Bain Collection

The easy answer is that before department stores, consumers had to shop at many different, smaller stores to get all of the goods they needed. If they were shopping at all. Many of the items that filled the homes and lives of pre-Industrial people were hand-made at home or treasured heirloom tools passed down through families. Life was more rural and centralized and in general people shared what they had. All that changed with the upheaval brought by Industrialization. Suddenly more goods were available to a wider area of people thanks to mechanization, and vast amounts of people were displaced from the country to cities. With that upheaval came the need to start over, including revisiting material needs.

Okay, that’s a huge, sweeping generalization of a complex time in our history. The point is, people’s needs changed as the means of production changed. But what has always tickled my curiosity in the history of retail is the question of when clothing went from being something we made individually for ourselves or had a tailor construct for us to something we bought ready to wear at a store.

The answer is, of course, closely tied to the development of the department store.

Back in the day – meaning all the way from the Middle Ages up to the 19th century – cloth intended for clothing was distributed and sold by drapers. Drapers sold cloth to individuals and tailors. It was a successful draper, Charles Henry Harrod, who began his business in 1825 in London and worked to expand it over the next few decades to sell groceries, then home and luxury goods and the like to morph into what we now know as Harrod’s department store. So the connection between clothing and department stores has existed from day one.

This lovely dress would have been literally tailor-made. Wikicommons

This lovely dress would have been literally tailor-made.

As for the arrival of ready-to-wear fashion, that actually did come much later and in gradual steps. With the development of mass production of textiles, fabric became less expensive. It was possible to buy pre-made clothing as early as the early 1800s, but sizes weren’t standardized and most items didn’t fit particularly well. The exceptions were in coats and outerwear and underwear. Those items were more commonly found pre-made. For the most part, though, the women of the family sewed everyone’s clothes.

The first inklings of a shift away from this came with the wider availability of both sewing machines and standardized patterns. The introduction of graded pattern paper in 1864 by Ebenezer Butterick, with the help of his wife, of course, meant that patterns could be made more quickly and cost-effectively and distributed more easily. The founding of Sears and Roebuck and the evolution of their catalog in the 1890s helped this process along.

Meanwhile, the manufacture of ready-made clothing was developing. The “sweating” system, by which merchants contracted work out to groups of seamstresses, often working in poor conditions, reached a pitch of development in the 1880s. Men’s clothing began to be mass-produced in this way in the 1860s with women’s clothing following behind in the late 1880s and 90s. By the early twentieth century the balance of hand-made to factory made clothing was beginning to shift. It wasn’t until the late 1920s and 30s, though, that factory-made clothing became more the norm than hand-made. And by then all sorts of issues of working conditions and worker’s rights blossomed with it.

The moral of the story is, if you were feeling down a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago and wanted to cheer yourself up with some retail therapy, it would have been pretty easy to get out there and impulse buy. Although if you were an American anywhere other than the heart of a big city in the 1890s into the early 20th century, you would have been just as likely to flip through the Sears catalog to order what your heart desired. The point being, consumerism and shopping have been around about as long as the Industrial Revolution, far longer than most people think.

4 thoughts on “Retail Therapy 1800s Style

  1. Cool post. One of the big tipping points, to my mind, was the Great Exhibition of 1851 – showing off just what a huge range of things the industrial world (and Britain in particular) could make – and people could buy. The advent of aniline dyes made a big difference to clothing from the mid-nineteenth century, opening up the prospect of bright (and cheaply made) colours for the first time. I think consumerism in the modern sense is a product of the industrial revolution (more so the Second Industrial Revolution) but the more basic concept of social status deriving from possession of the goods pre-dates it – really, it’s one of the human universals.

    • Very good point about the Great Exhibition and the other World’s Fairs that came after it in the later part of the 19th century. That was also the first time people could see and experience (and therefore want) “stuff” from around the world. The world really opened up and became a bigger place after the Industrial Revolution … for good and bad.

      Thanks for mentioning it!

  2. Can I just say what a reduction to seek out somebody who actually knows what theyre speaking about on the internet. You positively know the right way to carry a problem to light and make it important. More people have to learn this and perceive this aspect of the story. I cant consider youre no more fashionable because you positively have the gift

  3. This was fascinating. I had no idea department stores had been around for hundreds of years. It does seem retail therapy has been around a lot longer than I thought. I remember the Sears catalogs from my childhood days. Now we surf the Internet!

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