A Tiny Slice of What Life Was Like …
Today we think nothing of logging on to a website and doing our shopping online. The selection is endless and it is incredibly easy to source products from all over the world. Pandemic supply chain shortages aside, people generally find shopping much easier than in decades and centuries past. Shopping used to be a much different experience, often exacerbated by lax labor laws, lower expectations and government restrictions.
Specialty Shops versus Big Box Stores
What are referred to today as ‘specialty shops’ used to be the regular way to shop when seeking goods to stock the larder and home. In England, the once assigned daily task of a housewife was to head out with her basket and traipse around the high street shops which included the baker, butcher, greengrocer, dry goods and pharmacy (aka chemist). The milkman would deliver dairy products to the home every day and this saved a lot of weight in the shopping basket. Shop queues were often long and time was spent sharing news with other women in the same line. Today we see these types of specialty shops as high quality, one-off retailers; most forget that before the advent of the large supermarket, this was the standard option available for sourcing meal ingredients.
At present, of course, we have the option of one-stop shopping which greatly improves efficiency. One can purchase lawn furniture at a big-box grocery store just as easily as one can purchase a prescription at a drugstore that also stocks eggs, milk and canned soup. The lines have indeed become blurred as to what a shop will sell; if there is a market for it, the shop will likely carry it. Loss leader items such as milk, butter and eggs are used to entice people into non-grocery stores to buy other wares. It is considered a bit of a novelty, fun outing to visit a specialty market these days; many exist such as fish markets down at the docks, specialty coffee roasting shops, upscale delis and more.
When the true concept of retailing caught on in the Victorian era (1837-1901), clerks would wrap individual purchased items in paper and tie them up with string. In-store service was impeccable, with retail clerks being on their best behavior. Shoppers were invited to sit down while clerks and owners fetched goods for them to inspect. When purchasing grocery items, shoppers pointed at what they wanted from a shelf and the clerk would fetch it for them. This is in vast contrast to how we shop today which is predominantly self-serve. We also see a large difference in available brands. Centuries ago, there was one brand only of molasses, sugar, beef bouillon cubes and marmalade. Today we have multiple choices within a product range, usually offering prices to suit every pocketbook. Take eggs for example: today’s consumer has the option of choosing white versus brown, free range versus caged, organic versus not. Take any other consumables such as bread, ice cream or confectionery; there are so many choices it simply boggles the mind.
In the early twentieth century, children caught on to the idea of having a bit of fun with the service clerks in shops. When going in to spend their weekly pocket money on sweets, they would enter in pairs or groups of three. The first child would ask for a small amount of sweets from a glass jar stored way up high on the top shelf. The shop clerk would dutifully get out his or her ladder, climb up, bring down the glass jar, put the sweets into a small paper cone, make the sale and then put the jar away again. Next up to the counter was child number two who went through the exact same request for the exact same jar of sweets. Needless to say the ladder got quite a workout on those days!
Shop Employees: A Difficult Life
Shop clerks did not have the protection of labor laws when retailing first began. They worked six and a half days a week, starting between six and eight in the morning and working until shop closing early evening. Late opening Saturdays meant the shop was kept open until 10:00 p.m. Workers expected a half-day off on Sundays to attend church. These were the days when children were sent down into the coal mines and shop clerks were not allowed to ever sit down on the job as it was feared a seated clerk would make the store look idle and unpopular. Some shop clerks were made to purchase fidelity bonds to protect the shop owner against possible employee pilferage. When looking for staff, it was not uncommon for business owners to ask for age, height, skills, religious denomination, salary expectations, references, and experience. Of course, a lot of these requests are simply illegal today. Over time, labor legislation was introduced to ensure fair hours of work, paid holidays and sick leave, a ban on child labor and a halt to unreasonable working conditions.
It is interesting to note how delivery seems to have come full circle. Shop boys, often pre-teenagers, would even deliver purchases on their bicycle directly to the shopper’s home. You bet they worked through rain, snow and sleet to get the order delivered; there were many eager young children in line for the job if the incumbent failed to produce results. There were no plastic bags, just brown paper wrapped parcels and, later on, paper sacks with handles propagated by the supermarkets. Supermarkets meant self-service and sometimes self-checkout, where customers loaded their own groceries into bags as well as into their vehicles. In recent years, we have seen the introduction of curbside pickup, a hybrid model of the past, as well as delivery to the door for a small fee.
So much of history is around us, each and every day. Even the smallest focus on comparing past to present reveals an incredible evolution in both the style and manner of commerce. Look around you. You’ll see it. Think about it the next time you go grocery shopping – appreciate how the past—and its dedicated shop clerks—gave us the vast selection and quality we have today.
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Douglas, R.G., "Reminiscences of an EPR Apprentice (Part Two)", Bygone Kent, Volume 22, Number 6, 2001.
Horn, P., "Behind the Counter, Shop Lives from Market Stall to Supermarket", Sutton Publishing Limited, England, 2006.
Mortimer, I., "The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain", The Bodley Head, an imprint of Vintage, Penguin Random House, United Kingdom, 2017.