9 November 2022

The joy of shopping


If you want to reach for a ready cliché, complain about the modern world’s ‘consumer culture’, about the prevalence of commercialism, of advertising or shopping centres. But cross your fingers as you do for you will be talking verifiable nonsense. Shopping is as old as cities – which makes it at least fourteen thousand years old and counting.

Take London. It has always shopped. It has all the ingredients: a good harbour, a strategic bridge, a major road junction, fertile hinterland and many people to buy and sell. There is clear evidence of the rapid creation of bakeries and shops selling household goods before the Boudican revolt destroyed Londinium in 60AD. Later Roman shops clustered densely around the Forum. Markets abounded in medieval London: at Smithfield, Newgate, Leadenhall, Cornhill, Gracechurch, Eastcheap, Queenhithe and Billingsgate. Visiting markets could be fun. One medieval writer explained how, ‘those places of display, the varied decorations for wedding entertainment and great feasts so pleases the gaze of those going by that, having looked down half of one row, the force of desire soon hastens them to the other… And then, insatiate, causes them almost infinitely to repeat their inspections.’

Cheapside was the combined Bond Street, Regent Street and Oxford Street of medieval London. By 1400, it contained over 400 shops selling not just staples but luxuries, armour, swords, jewellery, textiles and girdles. Most shops were tiny, less than 2m wide and between 2m and 4m deep. One, in 1299, was only 0.9m by 1.2m, no more than a market stall with walls. Many were crammed. In 1322 the shop of London mercer, Richard de Elsyng, held 1,750 items in stock.

As London grew, so did the size and number of her shops and stalls. By 1400 some shops were up to 37 square metres. By the 1750s London probably had 21,000 shops. Noble landlords were eager to play the role of retail property developers. Robert Cecil, chief advisor successively to Elizabeth I and James I, bought an old stable and developed it into the New Exchange on the Strand. Others followed. The exchanges along the Strand, long since demolished, were the fashionable malls of their day: with plate glass windows (not medieval wooden lattices), the latest, slightly gauche, Jacobean classicism, pilastered arcades onto the street, niches and statues. They created a concentrated space, open to the street but cleaner and safer in which the rich and fashionable could see, shop, socialise and serendipitously intermingle.

Samuel Pepys mentioned the New Exchange 132 times in his diaries. He went there to shop, meet people, discus business (‘while my wife was buying things I walked up and down with Dr Williams, talking about my law business’), drink whey (briefly fashionable and probably comparable to Indian lassi), catch boats down the river, hail carriages and ogle shop girls. His favourite was Dorothy Stacey, “pretty Doll”, who was his wife’s milliner: “but she is so pretty, that, God forgive me! I could not think it too much.”

Later, Bond Street was the fashionable place not just to shop but to live and saunter: those doing so were termed ‘Bond Street loungers’. At one time or another, Jonathan Swift, Edward Gibbon Laurence Sterne, James Boswell, William Pitt the Elder and Lord Nelson all lived upon it. Its windows got bigger as taxes reduced and glass-making technology improved. The 1851 abolition of window tax began the gradual substitution of plate glass for small panes. By the 1860s, individual windowpanes could descend to the pavement.

Shopping for fun was given a boost by another improving technology – faster transport. Late Victorian diaries are rich with references to West End shopping trips from the shires or suburbs. Suggested shopping itineraries in 1888 began in Old Bond Street before snaking through Mayfair and St James’s.

The finest design that money can buy is still poured into Bond Street. Although part of a conservation area since 1967, change still happens – though only of the most costly timbre. In 2011 a late Victorian building was demolished and replaced, by the architect George Saumarez Smith, with one of the finest street buildings created in London in the last 50 years.

Shopping is constantly being reinvented and always the same. In Bond Street, Georgian and Victorian exoskeletons have been entirely transformed within by Edwardian excess or modern minimalism as luxury brand or season’s colours dictate. But the joy of shopping and the ceaseless search for the latest look is timeless and ecumenical.

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Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets and the author of a new history of London’s streets, 'No Free Parking, the curious history of London’s Monopoly streets'

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.