The Victorian Era can be seen as a long period of peace, progression and prosperity. Under Queen Victoria’s reign, London became one of the richest and most successful cities in the world. As the population of England rose rapidly, there was an increase of demand for food meaning more shops were needed. As it was hard to keep food fresh, shopping quickly became part of the daily routine. Large supermarkets did not exist at the time, resulting in people purchasing goods from many different shops.
Shopping during the Victorian era was extremely different to now. Where we walk into a store and pick up what we want, the Victorians had to wait to be served by either the shop keeper or shop assistants depending on the size of the store. The shopkeeper or family members would serve customers in a small store whereas shop assistants were needed in bigger stores. Most of the goods were kept away from customers. They were behind the counters in boxes, on shelves, drawers and storerooms. This was to prevent thieves and shop lifters since the amount of crime committed in the Victorian era was nowhere near low. The shops would usually be open really early in the morning and close late at night.
I decided to visit the Museum of London where they have a ‘Victorian Walk’. This gave me the chance to do some ‘window shopping’ in the Victorian streets of London. Made up of original shop-fronts, the Victorian Walk really captured the image of Victorian shops. Since I’ve always pictured Victorian streets to be dark and creepy, I thought that the dim lighting in there worked really well.
As you can see there are a number of shops you can observe and explore. The details in each are amazing and really bring the shops alive.
Image of the interior of a Sainsbury’s store.
Tobacconist and Grocer in Victorian England, Museum of London.
As you can see from the images, most of the stock was behind the counters and in cupboards. Customers would have to queue up and wait to be served individually. Their items would be brought to them personally by shop assistants. Certain goods would also be weighed on the spot. I think you can imagine how long it would take to buy something if the store was packed. This is why it was mainly the middle and upper classes who purchased foods from these stores. As mentioned briefly in the blog entry titled ‘Domesticity and Food in Victorian Culture’, the working class were far too busy working. They simply did not have the time to stand around and wait for assistance. Normally, they would buy their food from markets and street stalls as it was much quicker and cheaper.
This is an example of where the lower working class would purchase bread.
Although window displays were extremely uncommon in food stores, other businesses used these displays to their advantage.
Toy Store in Victorian England, Museum of London.
Through the window of the Toy Store here you can see the different varieties of toys being sold. Just imagine how entertained the young Victorian children would have been just looking at them! However, children were not the only ones attracted by these views, as in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, it states
“it is a pretty sight to walk through a street with lighted shops; the gas is so brilliant, the display of goods so much more vividly shown than by day, and of all the shops a druggist’s looks the most like the tales of our childhood, from Aladdin’s garden of enchanted fruits to the charming Rosamond with her purple jar.” (59)
My photo of the pharmacy doesn’t really do the quote justice but you can imagine how pretty the shop would be with different coloured jars glowing in the dark at night. The counters, furniture and flooring in most of the shops in the walk were made of wood which suggests that it was very hard to keep the shops clean back then.
As there was an increase in shops and self-servicing was almost unknown, shop assistants were vital. You would think that since they were so needed they would be appreciated and treated nicely right? Wrong. According to Christopher P. Hosgood’s chapter "Mercantile Monasteries": Shops, Shop Assistants, and Shop Life in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain (1999), he states that "shop assistants were indeed "absolutely powerless and helpless."" (325) Not only were they under the control of their employer during work, but many of them had to ‘live in’. Accommodation was provided and this meant that “the shop assistants were "always within the glance of their master's eye; almost every movement of theirs [was] known to him."” (326) They were unable to negotiate with their employers about issues bothering them, they had no freedom and almost no status.
Sally Mitchell’s Daily Life in Victorian England (1996) also goes into great detail about the routines and lives of shop assistants. Surprisingly, “increasing numbers of women went into shop work.” (65) They only needed to have the skills of returning correct change to customers and reading- which was still quite rare during the Victorian era. Although the pay was fairly low, many young women were happy to work “for a few years between school and marriage” (65) However, if they were ‘living in’ a large proportion of their wages would be gone.
It is clear to see that the Victorian Era was one of the most successful eras in English history. The rise in trade meant an increase in shops resulting to more job opportunities. It is interesting to see how the simple job of being a shop assistant could be so depressing and how working rights and conditions have changed so much over the past two centuries.
- Gaskell, E. Mary Barton.UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2012.
- Hosgood, C. Journal of British Studies , Vol. 38, No. 3, Masculinity and the Lower Middle Class (Jul., 1999), pp. 322-352. Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/176059 "Mercantile Monasteries": Shops, Shop Assistants, and Shop Life in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain
- Mitchell, S. Daily Life in Victorian England. USA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.