Saturday 3 August 2013

A short history of shopping therapy - by Eve Edwards

It is probably a familiar moment for many if not all of us: you've had a bad day, so you just pop down to the shops and cheer yourself up with a little shopping therapy, buying something small and spirit-lifting, frivolous.  It is such a part of modern life that we even counsel others to do it, advice on a parr with 'make yourself a nice cup of tea', or 'have a hot bath with scented candles'.

My question is: when did shopping therapy begin?

Shopping as a leisure pursuit was certainly around by the end of the eighteenth century.  The Earl of Glenthorn in Maria Edgeworth's Ennui (1809) passes an idle hour with a 'lounge' at the watchmakers.  A little earlier than that, in Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), we see the heroine mentioning the word as if emphasising its modishness: 'We have been a shopping, as Mrs Mirvan calls it, all this morning, to buy silks, caps, gauzes, and so forth.' Perhaps she is highlighting here that it has become an activity in itself: before that people shopped for goods, now they go shopping.

This is not to say that previous generations couldn't go to the fair when it rolled into town, or buy something to lift their spirits from the pedlar, but I think something is coalescing by the end of the eighteenth century: a social practice of shopping for its own sake.

This leads to scenes such as the familiar ones in Pride and Prejudice where Lydia and Kitty have to make do with the limited shopping opportunities in Meryton.  They are living out on the small local scale the imagined wonders of shopping in a metropolis such as London or, disastrously, Brighton.  Shops become possible venues for flirting - Pride and Prejudice again - anguished heartache (Persuasion), or just learning the social ropes (Northanger Abbey).  

But do any of these fit our modern idea of shopping as therapy?

I suppose Kitty and Lydia would argue that it was a kind of therapy for them, cheering them up during the tedious days of being a gentleman's daughter in a small place.  From their generation onwards it gets more established and with it come the development of larger shops to cater for this taste.  I think we have hit here a chicken and egg situation: which came first - the large department stores or the public who wanted them?  In Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain, social historian Judith Flanders looks at the rise of these large shopping districts in London, Paris and elsewhere.  Many times the shopkeeper presented his tactics as new - the invention of sales, window displays, life styling, buy-one-get-one-free and so on - when in fact he was just making over an old practice that had served other retailers well.  Selfridges, Liberty, Heals (furniture), and Harrods all rose out of this period. Shops no longer just wished to sell us things, they wished to entertain, draw us back by their quality of service, make their goods part of our lives and image (is this also the start of mass market designer culture?).

I was wondering if there were any pivotal scenes in late Victorian literature set in these wonderful locations and couldn't think of one immediately (it's too hot!).  If your memory is better than mine, please leave a comment as I'd like to follow it up.  My vision of London shops is rather Dickensian, quirky little stores selling old clothes or butchers with geese hanging outside on hooks; I'd like to refocus it on a cutting edge, Empire London where shops were like palaces and the customer was king.

I have a family history interest in this too as my grandmother worked in the London stores in the 1920s.  She told me stories of the film stars and bright young things who used to come to her counter.  No longer did the lady stay outside in her carriage and have the goods brought to her (as had been the practice in the early nineteenth century); now almost everyone except possibly the king and queen came into the store for their shopping therapy.

Shopping had arrived and has remained at high tide for a century.  Only now is the tide receding as Amazon and online sales take us away.  My grandmother - and Kitty and Lydia - would hate it.  What do you think?

You can visit my website at but don't forget to buy a real book in a real bookshop where you can *sigh* browse!


Sue Bursztynski said...

I only buy online what I can't get locally. Lately I have begun buying ebooks, due to running out of space on my physical shelves, but I still prefer to browse in a bricks and mortar bookshop, not to mention other kinds. And I agree, Kitty ad Lydia would HATE Internet shopping, though they would almost certainly set up a Facebook account and look up the dating sites. ;-)

Sunny said...

Did you watch 'Mr Selfridge' on TV ? A fascinating window into late Victorian/Early Edwardian department store shopping. I also loved the televised version of Barbara Taylor Bradford's 'A woman of Substance' which shows the development of Harte's store from a small Yorkshire emporium. I am a big fan of Internet shopping but nothing beats browsing around antique shops or proper book stores in my opinion ! :)

Penny Dolan said...

Eve, a lovely post. I am sure I read somewhere that 19C developments in glass manufacture - making larger, stronger sheets of glass available - encouraged window shopping and displays, as well as bringing light into the small-paned Dickensian shops.

Sandra, I'd have loved a factual tv progamme about Selfridge but couldn't - at the time - bear wading through all the dominant lurve & class drama for the interesting facts. Maybe I'd be Downton-ed out.

Dorian said...

I can't think of any UK books about department stores, but "Winnie Childs" by A. M. & C. N. Williamson gives a detailed look behind the scenes of a US department store in the early 20th century (and is also a pretty good story). It's on Project Gutenberg if you fancy checking it out.

Joan Lennon said...

I love Judith Flanders' books but haven't read the Leisure one - will now have to go shopping for it! Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

i've been looking for something like this for a while now. thanks!

Anonymous said...

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