A female shop worker operating a vacuum cleaner
A female shop worker operating a vacuum cleaner at Gorringe's department store in 1910 © Historic England BL21028
A female shop worker operating a vacuum cleaner at Gorringe's department store in 1910 © Historic England BL21028

The Fashion for Shopping

The history of the department store and of women's rights is surprisingly interdependent. The Victorian boom in stores built on a monumental scale with vast windows was firmly directed at women. They displayed an enticing range of goods sold at lower, fixed prices instead of the old system of negotiated prices.

The many layers of clothing worn by middle and upper-class women helped to transform them into major consumers. The role of such women was to carry out a round of social transactions on their family's behalf such as marrying off children, and representing and improving their husband's status.

The number of outfits required during a day of this type of socialising fuelled the size and success of the department store, also employing an army of working-class women to make and sell the goods.

Just looking

By 1850, two of the earliest department stores as such, Bainbridge, Market Street, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Kendal, Milne & Co., Deansgate, Manchester were established. The 1876 floor plan of Marshall & Snelgrove (London W1, Leeds and Scarborough) shows space to sell mourning skirts, ball dresses, a silk room, ribbons, parasols, embroideries, lace, shawl room… plus furnishing and household departments.

In 1849 Harrods moved to the Brompton Road, London SW3 and by 1900 carried at least 17 types of ladies' stocking, whilst the lavishness of its fashion departments was only rivalled by the elaborate décor and architecture. 

There was one early exception to the male-dominated ownership of department stores. In 1820 Elizabeth Harvey inherited her father's linen shop on the understanding that she took Col. Nichols into partnership to sell luxury goods. The subsequent transformation of a successful department store, Harvey Nichols, saw it move to its current location on Knightsbridge in the 1880s. 

But there was no luxury for those working class women and girls exploited as shop assistants. William Whiteley Ltd, Westbourne Grove, London W2 had expanded rapidly into a row of shops by 1875. His assistants worked from 7am to 11pm, six days a week. Throughout these stores fines were imposed from meagre wages for breaking the numerous rules, assistants had to stand all day, were forced to live-in at the shop, and pay for the poor quality food provided for them.

Accommodation was another problem as a letter from a member to the Shop Assistants' Union testified,  'The bedrooms are like barns, with water trickling down the walls…and we cannot sleep for the cold.'  Brixton's 1877 Bon Marche, Ferndale Road, London SW9 was the first purpose-built department store with 50 staff bedrooms, marking consideration for staff welfare. 

In 1894 the drapery union called this work 'The Slavery of the Counter'. Lady Jeune's (c.1849-1931) 1895 article, 'The Ethics of Shopping' condemned the exploitation and physical conditions that ruined the health of young women assistants. Although the 1899 Seats for Shop Assistants Act prompted inventions for temporary seating for women assistants, it was a dead act because there was no enforcement.

Women making the actual goods were often worse off, as the 1895 Co-operative Women's Guild enquiry found. Female apprentice milliners and dressmakers under 18 in its 104 Co-operative Stores received no wages at all.

The 1909 Women's Industrial Council reported that women homeworkers such as London 'fancy blouse-makers' made only 5s (25p) a week after expenses. By comparison, Fabian Women's Group research showed men's weekly wages in Lambeth averaging from 18s (90p) to 30s (£1.50).

As early as 1855, 'The Sempstress' carried an article on how rich young ladies could help working women by refusing to shop at any 'emporium' where 'one gets such delightful bargains' and asking why the goods were so cheap.

Visible in Stone - Public Freedom

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