I attended the annual Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution Conference for this first time yesterday, and gave a paper on my research into correspondence shopping for clothing. Unfortunately I was only able to attend the first day of the conference, but I thought I would write a short review about some of my favourite (and most relevant) papers.
The venue for the conference was the beautiful Priorslee Hall at the Telford campus of the University of Wolverhampton. Priorslee Hall was originally built in the 1720s for the Jordan family. It was occupied by the Lilleshall Company from the early 1800s until 1964, when it became the headquarters of the newly-created Telford Development Corporation, before the University of Wolverhampton took it over. This watercolour was painted by John Homes Smith in the early nineteenth century.
The day started with a session entitled On the Streets: London’s retail markets 1800 – 2012, which was convened by Victoria Kelley of University of the Arts and University of the Creative Arts.
The first paper was A History in Rags: Reckoning with London’s ‘Cast-offs’ in the Old Clothes Market, 1800 – 1870 by Peter Jones from QMUL. This paper considered literary and visual representations of of old clothes sellers in mid-nineteenth-century London. Peter began by identifying the key geographical areas, notably Monmouth Street, Field Lane, Petticoat Lane and Hounds Lane, as well as key fixed indoor markets such as Mr Isaac’s Old Clothes Exchange. The importance of itinerant traders was emphasised, citing the stock character of the Jewish old-clothes man who wore many hats and a gabardine coat. This paper also focused on Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Edgeworth’s Harrington, drawing out the importance of the old-clothes trade in contemporary literature.
This was followed by Shopping on the Kerbstone: London’s Street Markets, c.1880-1939 by Victoria Kelley. Victoria began by painting a picture of the late Victorian London street market as a place of sensory entertainment and as providing a voyeuristic glimpse of working class life. This paper emphasised the continuity of the market as a retail venue, particularly in regards to their persistance in the face of attempts to move or terminate the markets. Lewisham High Street provided a very good case study for the market in the early twentieth century. This paper examined the relationship between the owners of fixed shops and the market stall traders who worked in front of them, reading it as highly nuanced.
Finally, there was May Rosenthal Sloan from the University of Glasgow with her paper Ridley Road: An Edible World in Miniature. May focused on Dalston’s Ridley Road, examining its changing character. Now, Dalston is known as a centre for fashion, style and music. However it has a strong ethnic market history. May cited some fantastic quotes from some of her interviewees, recalling physical fights for pitches.
After lunch we returned for the second session, ‘Marginal’ and informal markets. These papers were generally less relevant to my own research, so I will not detail their contents, however they were all excellent. First there was Bart Lambert (University of York) who gave Falling out of the Cradle of Capitalism: Informal Markets in 15th-Century Bruges. This was followed by José A. Nieto Sánchez and his excellent translator (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain) who spoke about El Rastro of Madrid: The Survival Strategies of the Urban Lower Classes, 1740-1830. Finally Brigita Tranaviciute (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) gave her paper on The Transformations of the Soviet Enterprise in Lithuania in the Late 20th Century.
The final session started with my own paper. I spoke about the consumption of women’s clothing through correspondence shopping in the eighteenth century, which I am sure I will cover more on this blog at a later date.
The last paper of the day was by Jon Stobart on Buying Books: Networks, Knowledge and the Georgian Country House. Jon’s paper examined the purchase of second hand books, and the relation of reading and buying books to luxury and leisure. The paper focused on two case studies. The first was Sir Rogar Newdigate, and MP and devotee of the ‘gothik’ style. The second was Edward Leigh, who was declared mad at 26. Jon examined how these men acquired their books, looking at correspondence and how they used shops. He also emphasised the importance of trust and reputation in maintaining contact with a particular retailer. An interesting point was also raised about the motivation to buy second hand rare books. As rarity was apparently more important than costliness, it was not wealth that was being displayed (although vast amounts of money were spent) but discernment and knowledge.
Overall the day was fantastic, and it’s a shame I couldn’t attend today’s papers as well. A full list of abstracts can be found here.