Window Shopping

Cynthia Wall, University of Virginia

It is a modern custom, and wholly unknown to our ancestors, who yet understood trade, in proportion to the trade they carried on, as well as we do, to have tradesmen lay out two thirds of their fortune in fitting up their shops. By fitting up, I do not mean furnishing their shops with wares and goods to sell . . .but in painting and gilding, fine shelves, shutters, boxes, glass-doors,sashes, and the like. [. . .] It is true, that a fine shew of goods will bring customers; . . . but that a fine shew of shelves and glass windows, should bring customers, that was never made a rule in trade ’till now.1

This is Daniel Defoe complaining in 1725, but it could as well have been a social or economic critic of the nineteenth century, as the Tradesman: records in 1809 of a man who came to London to set up shop near an old friend:

I proceeded to London to see how things were going on, when judge of thy friend’s surprise, when arrived in Cheapside, no longer able to discern the neat but unadorned shop which formerly bespoke the habits of its dweller, which was now entirely changed; the windows were such as Gulliver would describe as a glass cage in Brognibag [sic], each pane being no less than plate glass a yard square, and instead of his name in plain Roman capital, with his trade of chemist and druggist; after a quarter of an hour’s decyphering, I could make out --------- and Co. Chemicals& Galenicals in that kind of distorted characters which are pourtrayed on the Egyptian monuments of antiquity.2

In Sketches by Boz, Dickens’s peripatetic narrator dissects the disease of linen drapers and haberdashers as “the inordinate love of plate glass and a passion for gas lights and gilding.” 3 The image of the London shopfront has delighted and upset both shoppers and social critics since the institutionalization of the fixed shop in the eighteenth century. And it seems to be the idea of the shop window in particular that stirs up so many passions. The concept of literal transparency, of visual accessibility, seems to set up expectations that have been persistently—and in odd ways consistently--exceeded as well as defeated. Today I want to look at three aspects of the Victorian shopfront and shop window: first, its basic structural history; second, historical responses to its structures; and finally, the implications of its peculiar spaces that produce such squeaky responses.

The “fixed shop” really became a fixture in the 18thC, replacing much of the trade carried out in street markets, through itinerant pedlars, or from the “bulk stalls”--a board that acted as a shutter over a window that would unhinge down onto a set of legs to make a table, with a little “pent roof” overhead.  In the 16th and 17thC, many more craftsmen began to use the front room or the ground floor of their houses as workshop and salesroom; by the 18thC many purpose-built shops were incorporated into uniform street building façades. And glass windows came into great vogue, at first in small panes (Defoe says twelve by sixteen inches), made of Crown bullion glass (a bubble of glass spun until flattened, with the little knob remaining in the center). Plate glass was introduced in 1827.  Between 1830 and 1860 the size of shop window glass panes zoomed from seven feet high by three feet wide, to fourteen feet high by eight feet wide.4 Sashbars disappeared from the windows, and merchandise could thus be seen from across the street. The shop fronts began undulating as well--fronts flush with the street began giving way to recessed doorways and bow windows (where the customer taking refuge from weather or “hustling” “may be said to be half-way into the shop”5). Ornamental ironwork and classical orders appeared everywhere—in fact, some of the nineteenth-century shops of Regent Street were built with their structural support on the inside, precisely so that their fronts could be easily altered to fashionable trends. 6

Mingling with architectural changes were changes in sales techniques and shopping attitudes. Glass windows prompt displays; innovations in display encourage improvements in glass technology. Defoe notes of a pastry shop in 1710 that it boasted

SASH windows, all of looking-glass plates, 12 inches by 16 inches in measure; ALL the walls of the shop lin’d up with galley-tiles, and the Back-shop with galley-tiles in pannels, finely painted in forest-work and figures; Two large Peir looking-glasses and one chimney glass in the shop, and one very large Peir-glass seven foot high in the Back-shop; Two large branches of candlesticks, one in the shop, one in the back-room; THREE great glass lanthorns in the shop, and eight small ones; TWENTY five sconces against the wall, with a large pair of silver standing candlesticks in the back room, value 25 l.; . . .Painting the ceiling, and gilding the lanthorns, the sashes, and the carv’d work, 55 l. 7

Sophie von la Roche, visiting London shops in 1786, exclaimed that “behind the great glass windows absolutely everything one can think of is neatly, attractively displayed. . . There is a cunning devise for showing women’s materials. They hang down in folds behind the fine high windows so that the effect of this or that material, as it would be in a woman’s dress, can be studied.”8 One old Victorian draper, who learned his trade in London and brought his tricks to Bristol, noted in 1876 that in Bristol “they had never been in the habit of displaying any quantity of goods in the windows and my style of window-dressing was looked upon as a decided innovation. A roll or two of cloth, with a few men’s hats in paper in the background, would constitute all the show that was originally made. People seemed to depend more upon their connexion and usual customers than to seek for new ones.” 9

And this suggests perhaps the two largest and most controversial changes from 18th to 19thC shops: the clientele and the pricing. Basically, pricing went from fluid to fixed; shopkeeper/customer relations went from personal to public; and shopkeeper/customer transactions went from haggling to ticketing. There were a few fixed-price, cash-only shops in the 18thC; James Lackingham, the first large-scale bookseller, is also the first well-known and successful instance of the technique in the 1780s.10 There was a great deal of early resistance, both moral and economic, in the early 19thC. The London Tradesman of 1819 warns against cheap selling and price-ticket shops as “Imposter Shops” and insists “cheap selling is a mere pretence”; the Economist and General Adviser in 1825 sniffs: “Putting up prices in windows at all is far from respectable.”11

In my research for this talk I found some of the twentieth-century historians’ rhetoric just as interesting as their subject; very few address these changes without a similar moral tinge of one sort or another. James B. Jefferys, in the long-standard Retail Trading in Britain 1850-1950 (1954) claimed that by the mid-19thC,

The developments in the techniques of selling took the form of transforming the fixed shops from units that existed solely to fulfill customers’ wants to units designed and planned to attract customers and create wants. Gone for the most part was the decent pride that Lord Macaulay had expected of retailers in their relations with their customers, and in its place, assisted by technical innovations such as plate glass and gas lighting, every possible device was being used to startle and attract assersby.12

This claim is obviously distinctly undermined by Defoe’s depiction of the early pastry shop, but the rhetoric of nostalgia and loss is repeated in a number of sources. Dorothy Davis characterizes some of the 19thC sales innovations as “summed up in a new saying: small profits and quick returns. It meant ceasing to rely on the loyalty of regular customers and appealing to the passer-by it meant resorting to advertising, which was a matter of pushing handbills though letter-boxes; it meant display and cheapness and it therefore involved strictly cash sales and the rather vulgar practice of price tickets in the windows. Price tickets were not at all genteel, as will be remembered by readers of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale.”13 One problem with this nostalgia for the old bond of trusted shopkeeper and neighborhood client emerges suggestively in a rather good history of Harrods. Charles Henry Harrod took over a little grocer’s shop in the then-unsavoury area of pre-Exhibition Knightsbridge, and the historian notes that the grocery trade, like other trades, was dependent on the repeat custom of prosperous local households--and grocers were therefore in the habit of offering bribes to the servants who came to purchase goods, and offering extended credit so that the servants could get reimbursed by their employers for what they didn’t shell out, and not have to worry about paying it back for several years. Naturally, says the Harrods historian, this “pushed up prices,” and “although bribery and extended credit were the order of the day, Harrod stopped both practices at his shop. It was a bold innovation when even the most fashionable of grocers (among which Harrod’s shop certainly did not number) were happy to ‘play the game.’”14 The Old Draper refers to “the healthy system of sticking to one price,”15 and by the end of the nineteenth century English society had begun to adopt the French sensibility that had set Bon Marché and the Department Store on its way: the gentility of fixed prices (the remoteness of the transaction) over the vulgarity of haggling.

Moral highgrounds are assumed--then and now--over the architectural changes of the shop as well. Architecture has its own vocabulary of harmony and truth. A 1985 guide to shopfront design notes: “Street rhythm is best maintained by designing shopfronts and advertisements o that they reflect existing architectural features of the building façades to which they are applied.”16 A 1915 treatise, Chemists’ Windows: An Illustrated Treatise on the Art of Displaying Pharmaceutical and Allied Goods in Chemists’ Shop Windows advises: “The primary condition of successful window-dressing is that the display should be in harmony with the requirements of the neighborhood.”17 Very often, one historian notes, “the shopfront has to be superimposed on a building of an earlier period, and it is difficult to achieve harmony.”18 The reason Regent Street shops make so many architectural historians happy is that they were “in harmony with the streets that [contained] them because they were designed together as a unity.”19 The problem with the great glass shopwindows of the nineteenth century is that they make the building as a whole seem topheavy: “Such a building has been accused of having a structural fault, or rather a lack of structural truthfulness.”20 And another historian moans: “After the Industrial Revolution in the mid-Victorian period the tradition of architectural restraint was interrupted, and there grew up a rampant individualism, not only in domestic building but in other kinds as well.”21

Such “rampant individualism” was professionally sanctioned by the mid-Victorian architects Victor Delassaux and John Elliott, who argued in Street Architecture (1855) [and this is the handout with the shopfront engravings] “one of the natural results of the great exhibition of 1851 has been the impetus it has given to the Arts of Decoration.”22 They have a few thoughts on causes (“the conviction of our own deficiencies”; “the remarks of foreign visitors . . . on the bad taste of our street architecture”), but in general see the new aesthetic awakenings as good for the elevation of public taste—and a matter that “must be left to individual efforts.” Their own architectural agenda is “to give each shop front or façade that peculiar character which each particular trader requires,” and we can see from the architects’ notes on their engravings that indeed each shop front has a social and commercial language of its own. For the Poulterer and Bird Fancier, “The rustic style is considered the most suitable” and “the construction should be in oak and white wood, varnished so as to preserve their natural colours”, whereas the “linen drapery business varies so much in character as to require for itself a distinct series of designs”; for the Boot and Shoe Maker, “the taste of the gentlemen following this profession is so decidedly classical, as evidenced by the Greek names given to all their inventions in leather, that it ought perhaps to have induced us to design á la Greque, but the recollection that wooden shoes preceded calf, decided the question in favor of timber.”23

It is this architectural language, articulated not surprisingly by architects, that seems to invest the whole shopfront question with its various historical tensions. The whole architectural premise behind the earlier shops (or at least behind later architects’ approval of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century shop structures over all-glass department store façades) is that they appeared to “preserve the solidity of the ground-floor storey, which should have the character of an enclosure rather than that of a cavity.”24 One the one hand, an enclosure suggests security, intimacy, the human pleasure of haggling, the proximity of goods. And the ever-larger windows appear to promise ever-truer ransparencies. But with the wider visibility, intimacy and immediacy actually receded. Haggling became vulgar and stock disappeared into drawers. Alexandra Artley notes the “utterly devastating impact” the pioneer sales of the pioneer department stores had on their customers in the restrained climate of the late nineteenth century: “Tactile access to goods . . . was in fact a literally riotous innovation”25 --the experience of touching (or in Swift’s nighteenth-century term, “cheapening”) the goods had disappeared into temporal recesses, to reappear as a carnivalesque event disguised as the new gentility. The nineteenth-century shop turned its eighteenth-century predecessor conceptually inside-out. Where the shopfronts of the eighteenth century might have had an architectural uniformity and “harmony” of streetspace, yet of the goods within, nothing was branded, or standardized, or guaranteed. No two manufactured articles could be relied on to be exactly alike. About their materials, their design, their workmanship, the buyer could only guess; he had to rely on the shopkeeper’s word as an expert.”26 With mass production of goods--a “reliable” stock--came the “rampant individualism” of their containing structures. The perennial appeal of the shop window was its promise of transparency, its invitation to intimacy; the perennial irritation of the shop window, as the Voice from the Shop Windows says in The Language of the Walls (1855), is that “the shop walker . . . is paid for being gentlemanly . . . [and] is paid to smile.”27 Window shopping is reading outsides and watching insides, because insides are not answerable to outsides--to end, as I began, with a phrase of that Man of All Shops, Defoe.


1   Daniel Defoe, The Complete English Tradesman, in Familiar Letters (London, 1725),315.

2   The Tradesman,3, no. 1, July 1809, 31.

3   Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, ed. Dennis Walder (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995).

4   Bill Evans and Andrew Lawson, A Nation of Shopkeepers (London: Plexus, 1981), 120-21.

5   Chemists’ Windows: An Illustrated Treatise on the Art of Displaying Pharmaceutical and Allied Goods in Chemists’ Shop Windows (London:  Published at the Offices of ‘The Chemist and Druggist, 42 Cannon Street, 1915), 9.

6   Evans and Lawson, 117.

7   Defoe, 314-15; formatting altered.

8   Sophie von la Roche, Sophie in London (1786), ed. Clare Williams (1933), p. 87; quoted in Dorothy Davis, A History of London Shopping (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), 191.

9   Reminiscences of an Old Draper (London: Simpson Low, Maston, Searle, & Rivington, Crown Buildings, 188, Fleet Street, 1876)

10   Davis, 187.

11   Quoted in David Alexander, Retailing in England During the Industrial Revolution (London: The Athlone Press, 1970), 163.

12   James B. Jefferys, Retail Trading in Britain 1850-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954)

13   Davis, 258.

14   Harrods Knightsbridge: The Story of Society’s Favourite Store (London: Ebury Press, 1991), 30.

15   Reminiscences, 6.

16   S. Loew, Shopfront Design Guidance (London: Department of Town Planning, 1985), 20.

17   Chemists’ Windows, Bv.

18   Evans and Lawson, 120.

19   Evans and Lawson, 121.

20    A. Trystan Edwards, The Architecture of Shops (London: Chapman & Hall, 1933), 30.

21   Edwards, 29.

22   Victor Delassaux and John Elliott, Street Architecture, A Series of Shop Fronts and Façades, Characteristic of and Adapted to Different Branches of Commerce (London: John Weale, Holborn, 1855), Preface.

23   Delassaux and Elliott, Nos. 3, 6, 7.

24   Edwards, 29; echoed in Evans and Lawson, 121.

25   Artley, 7.

26   Davis, 182.

27   The Language of the Walls: and A Voice from the Shop Window.  Or, The Mirror of Commercial Roguery.  By one who thinks aloud. (London: Sold by William Tweedle, 337, Strand, 1855), 223.

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