Very brief notes on 17th-century shopping

The first chapter in Linda Levy Peck’s Consuming Splendor is about shopping for luxury goods in 17th-century London. I found it to be a very enjoyable read and it would do well as a set text for courses on early modern consumption.

I think we’re all aware that 17th-century aristocrats had a lot of stuff. You only have to look at an old portrait to see that they set great store in expensive clothing. As Levy Peck notes: “Painters often painted the clothes not the person.” (p.25) It’s interesting to read about where they got it from. One very interesting fact about luxury in 17th-century England is that quite a bit of it depended on contact with the outside world. Levy Peck quotes a shop boy in Ben Jonson’s The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse: (p.50)

“What do you lack? What is’t you buy? Very fine China stuffs, of all kinds and qualities? China chains, China bracelets, China scarves, China fans, China girdles, China knives, China boxes, China cabinets. . .’

Silk came from China but it was also cultivated in mainland Europe. In Chapter 2 Levy Peck deals with the attempt made by James I of England to start a domestic silk industry.

Going back to chapter 1, I particularly like it because Levy Peck tells us what it was like to shop in the New Exchange and the Royal Exchange. “Historians have ascribed the emergence of luxury retail shopping, separated from manufactures, to the eighteenth century or the late seventeenth century when, in fact, it can be found much earlier. . . . Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange, which opened in the City in 1570, proved a new departure in luxury consumption.” (p.45)  In 1609 James I opened the New Exchange just off the Strand (the Strand is near Trafalgar Square). Levy Peck writes: “The New Exchange marked a significant departure in consuming because of its location: it was suburban (i.e. outside the City) and private, a shopping mall located close to the court and to new aristocratic housing that Salisbury and the Earl of Bedford developed in St.Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden, and elsewhere in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields.’ (p.46)

“The architecture of shopping at the New Exchange provides important surprises. Shopping took place both on the piano nobile and at street level. Seats and benches were built into the outer wall next to the street and an Office of Assurance at the Burse was furnished with wainscoting. At ground level, the street was newly paved. We might, therefore, expect shops at ground level to be the most coveted and to pay the the highest rents. Later in the seventeenth century expanses of plate glass invited window shopping. But the rents for shops on the lower level, facing the street, were the lowest. . . According to the New Exchange leases of 1633, the most prized shops were those on the upper level and in the interior, especially the larger shops at the corners. Most shops were 10 or 11 feet in length, but the corner shops were 15 feet.” (p.51/52)

Overall Consuming Splendor makes at least three important points. As mentioned above, luxury shopping did not begin in the long eighteenth century. Secondly, the civil war did not stop retail growth. Finally, Levy Peck claims that as the new retail spaces became important public meeting places they can be counted alongside coffee houses (which sprouted up from the mid-17th century onwards and were full of gossip and political discussion) as a part of the public sphere.

This is a bit of a hurried, random and rambling review of Consuming Splendor, but at least now you know it exists, and you can go and have a look at it if it’s the sort of thing you like.



14 Responses to “Very brief notes on 17th-century shopping”

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    […] The February issue of Carnivalesque is up at Pilgrim/Heretic! It’s a bustling fair filled with such wonderful wares as early modern astronomy, perspective drawing, gallows speeches, or an early modern view on the current hubbub over the Mohammed cartoons. I hadn’t yet spotted this review by Past Tense of Linda Levy Peck’s Consuming Splendor, and I’m going to dive straight in. […]

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