[No: LIII | By Viveka Hansen]
Display windows became popular in the last decades of 18th century in London giving rise to clear improvements for showing off such goods as drapery in the most desirable way – a novelty which was also introduced in many other English cities and towns around the year 1800. This innovation was primarily due to the technical advancement of producing larger glass windows, but secondarily this also had an important role in the growth of a consumer society. Previous expositions towards the shop front had been through much smaller cased windows, with a limited view for prospective customers to admire luxury goods or decide for purchases of necessary everyday cloths for one’s family. A few illustrative examples will form this brief study, giving some evidence for the change in how drapery and ready-made garments were presented in the shop windows for a period of more than one hundred years.
This case study of the drapery trade will give a glimpse into how the larger display windows increased the shop-keepers possibilities to present imported luxury goods, the draping of fabrics and further on in time ready made garments of the latest fashion dressed on wax dolls or adjustable stands. However, the smaller windows were in use parallel with the novel display windows, particularly in many old properties built before the invention and desire for large scale models. Even if the new design from the late 1700s and first half of the next century stretched almost from floor to ceiling, each window was made of up of twenty or more separated glass panes – like on the image above.
It must also be emphasised that the opening hours after dark in many ways limited the view of goods for sale, despite the large-size display windows. Daylight was overall of greatest importance for the traders and customers alike, which among many matters is thoroughly described in the excellent book Shops and Shopping 1800-1914 by Alison Adburgham. This meant that oil lamps became replaced by gas-lighting in the early to mid-19th century and at the end of the described period electric lighting was gradually introduced. Unsurprisingly rural environments often had a somewhat late introduction of innovations such as display windows, effective lighting compared to urban environments and even to a greater degree in comparison to London.
A very informative observation was made by the young Swede J P Bager who travelled via Denmark and Germany to his destination in England in 1840. Already during his second day in London (29th August) he noticed the busy central streets;
‘A Considerable obstacle for making headway on the streets is, more than the swarming crowds of people, through which one quickly learns to negotiate on the excellent wide pavements, the seductively inviting and constantly beautiful and tastefully varied boutiques… In these windows one can see either a lady or a proud man, made of wax, dressed in the most fashionable clothes, hats, millinery and other adornments so several people can inspect from all sides as they slowly wander around. The owners of houses with such exhibitions are mostly perfumery or fashion traders… But how would it be possible to count all these unusual curiosities that are displayed in the countless London boutiques that in multifarious ways attract the attention and interests of strangers and tempt them to buy, and with constantly changing ingenuity for speculation and capricious fashion, they bring fourth new items.’
Shop windows also became an important part of everyday town and city life making it possible for more and more inhabitants – when the standard of living rose for many during the 19th century – to buy goods displayed in such windows. Shops and shopping became more visible and even if you could not afford to purchase the desirable luxury items or fashionable clothing on display, the existence and the rapid changes of such merchandise became more widespread than ever before to larger groups of the society.
A Guide to Window-Dressing for the drapery trade printed in 1883 was additionally the first book describing how to professionally arrange a window display. This fact gives evidence for that before this year personal taste and experience, inspiration from other traders, traditions etc must have been the main influence available for shop-keepers together with their assistants and apprentices alike for attracting as many customers as possible to their decorative shop windows.
- Adburgham, Alison, Shops and Shopping 1800-1914, London 1964.
- A Guide to Window Dressing…book printed 1883 (Wikipedia).
- Bager, J P, Impressions of London from the Late Summer of 1840, London & Whitby 2001 (translation of his handwritten diary).
- British Museum, Collection online.
- Hansen, Viveka, The Textile History of Whitby 1700-1914 – A lively coastal town between the North Sea and North York Moors’, London & Whitby 2015.
- Hansen, Viveka, ‘Textile Shopkeepers in a Coastal Town – A Case Study’, TEXTILIS.
PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:
- Hansen, Viveka, ‘Shop Windows – The Drapery Trade in the Long 19th Century’, TEXTILIS (January 3, 2016); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)