Researching the history of shops

Tudor shop in Coventry. (Engraving 1842)Towns are built on trade. For centuries its focus was markets and fairs. The medieval housewife would buy much of what she needed at stalls regularly set up and dismantled. Gradually stalls were replaced by permanent shops with living space above or behind. John Stow's Survey of London (1598) describes the process in Old Fish Street.

Shops lined many a medieval market place or high street. They could even be built on bridges. Typically a shop would have large, arched, unglazed windows. The windows could be protected at night by a pair of horizontal shutters, the upper one of which could be hooked up to provide shelter while the lower one folded down to form a counter, or one shutter could be hinged to form a counter. Few medieval shop windows survive, but a pair of 15th-century shops are preserved at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, while Gladstone's Land in Edinburgh has a reconstructed 17th-century shop with shutters, and the Merchant's House, 45 Church Street, Tewkesbury is a restored medieval shop and house, all open to the public.

By the late 17th century England and Wales had about 40,000 shopkeepers, according to the estimate of pioneer statistician Gregory King.

The shopkeeper aims to draw attention to his wares. No wonder that one source for the history of shops is disputes between traders and local authorities over encroachments onto the street. A stall set up just outside a shop window, perhaps under an awning, can put a tempting array of goods under the noses of passers-by. Hanging signs often displayed an emblem of the trade. They so cluttered street fronts that they were banned in the City of London in 1764; other towns followed suit.

Glazed shop windows gradually took over from open ones during the 18th century. Small panes of glass were set in a grid of glazing bars. Bow windows were popular by the end of the century. Shopkeepers were among the first to take advantage of cheaper sheet glass, after excise duty on glass was abolished in 1845, to create large windows with the view unbroken by glazing bars.

Paris was the cradle of the shopping arcade. The narrow streets without pavements, crowded with horse-traffic, must have made shopping hazardous. An arcade - a covered pedestrian shopping alley - provided comfortable, stylish and safe shopping away from the dirt and clatter of the street, not to mention the rain. Starting with the Galeries de Bois in the 1780s, arcades gradually spread across Paris, with a burst of building in the 1820s. The arcades of this decade mainly have pitched glass roofs. The Galerie d'Orleans, which replaced the Galeries de Bois in 1828-30, was the first to be covered by the glass tunnel vault which subsequently dominated arcade design.

Argyle Arcade, Glasgow. Photo by Marshall MateerArcades suited the British climate. London has two fine early arcades. The Royal Opera Arcade was built by Nash and Repton in 1816-28. The elegant design with a dome over each bay was the inspiration for several others. But it was soon outshone by the outstandingly successful Burlington Arcade built in 1818-19 to the design of Samuel Ware. Regency arcades also survive in Bath, Bristol and Glasgow. A second wave of arcade building from about 1870 to 1910 came in the age of iron. The Victorian imagination ran riot with the possibilities of wrought and cast iron: the County and Cross Arcades in Leeds are among the most flamboyant. Cardiff has no less than five arcades from this period, another one earlier and yet another later. In the 20th century the concept grew into the multi-level shopping centre or mall. See also the development of the market hall.

One remarkable retail development of the Victorian period was the department store. It had its origins in the warehouses and bazaars of the late Georgian and early Victorian period. A bazaar was a huge space surrounded by galleries and lit from above, where space was let out to traders offering a variety of products. The first was the Soho Bazaar, opened in 1816 in Soho Square, London. By the 1830s several other British cities could also boast a bazaar, increasingly making use of cast iron in their construction. The Crystal Palace was described as the greatest bazaar of all. Warehouses and emporia arose from the expansion of specialist shops (such as drapers) into showrooms stocking a range of goods. From there it was a short step to the department store in the mid-1870s. Such massive buildings offered scope for grand façades. The shop had turned into a retail palace.

Studies and gazetteers

Primary sources