Going Shopping: The Victorian Experience

Some of you will recall that I recently posted a photo-series about the sort of shops that were around when I was very young. Some more research shows that around one hundred years earlier, during the Victorian Era, many of those same shops were already trading. It seems very little had changed between 1860, and 1958.

Sainsbury is one of the largest supermarket chains in Britain. British readers will know the name well, as there is hardly a town or city in the UK that does not have a branch nearby.

This is how they started out.

Much in the same way as so many Victorians liked to be photographed standing outside their beloved houses, the same applied to the shopkeepers of the time.

Long before local authorities banned excessive on-street displays for ‘health and safety’ concerns, it was usual for many goods to be stacked outside the shops. There was rarely enough room for everything inside, and all that stock had to be laboriously carried back in at closing time.

There were always lots of small shops selling household essentials.
This would have been the ‘Homebase’ of its time

An ‘Off-Licence’ (or License) is a shop that sells beers, wines, and spirits that have to be consumed ‘Off’ the premises. Unlike pubs, it was forbidden to open any bottles inside, or to drink them in there. Customers could take in their own pots and jugs though, to be filled from barrels of beer inside.
They continued until the supermarkets began to sell alcohol, and drove them out of business.
I actually operated one, with my mother, from 1976-1981.
Not this one though.
(The sign ‘Free House’ doesn’t mean that the drinks were free of charge. It means that the shop is not tied to one particular brewery, so ‘Free’ to sell all brands)

Sweets and chocolate were always very popular. Dedicated ‘sweet shops’ could be found everywhere, usually with small children inside, trying to decide which sweets to spend a very small amount of money on. They almost always sold cigarettes and tobacco too, and you can see that stated in small print over the entrance door.

Tobacconists usually sold newspapers and magazines too, as well as offering some sweets or confectionery to tempt customers.

At the same time in America, shops were getting grander and grander. This is a Philadelphia drug store, in 1880.
The interior is magnificent.

After trudging around doing all that shopping, the Victorian consumer usually liked to stop off for a cup of tea, and perhaps a bite to eat.
Popular ‘Tea Rooms’ offered genteel surroundings, and fair prices.
You would be served by very smart waitresses too.
Still prefer Starbucks?

I think it is a great shame that these character-filled small shops with their dedicated and knowledgeable owners have all but disappeared.

Like many good things of the past, they have been consigned to History.

81 thoughts on “Going Shopping: The Victorian Experience

  1. Thank you for a great article. I am currently researching Victorian shops for a doll’s house project. Your photographs have given me some great ideas about what to include – judging by the quantities of stock involved in most of the images, i should cram in as much as possible?
    Have you done any articles on Victorian food?
    Thanks again. I’ll look forward to your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did a few like this a while back, but no food, sorry.
      Here are the others.
      Good luck with your project, Lindsay.
      If you search ‘Pinterest’ on Google, then type ‘Victorian Food’ in the search box of the home page, there are lots of photos, and links to articles.
      You don’t have to have a Pinterest account.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this post, Pete. The old photos are wonderful. A picture really is worth a thousand words. Like you, I think this was an era that is sorely missed. In America, malls are becoming a thing of the past. Now, developers are building neighborhoods of street shopping. Itโ€™s a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I now understand the “off license” and “free house” terms so this was very informative. I do a lot of “small shop” shopping… but online. I buy loads of things from independent producers via Instagram or Etsy… My groceries however are delivered to my front door by Mr J Sainsbury.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great pictures and goes to show how much things have changed especially with the advent of health and safety legislation. Of course you can still see the same sort of outdoor displays when you go to places like the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries in the developing world.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating post, Pete. When I was researching for the first local history book I found postcards of a butcher’s shop in Dumfries whcih had carcasses on the pavement outside and another with literally hudreds of chickens suspended outside the shop – no health and safety worries in those days.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think Poland has become the new nation of shop keepers, the villages are peppered with small shops, which incidentally can stay open on a Sunday if the owner is serving customers, whilst all other shops are restricted to one Sunday a month.
    Our nearest Tesco shut down about six months ago, not such a bad thing in my eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like to hear about a Tesco closing down because people prefer small shops.
      Unfortunately, our local Town Council increased business rates by close to 100% in 2018. That put many shops out of business, including Ollie’s dog groomer. She now has to operate from a converted garage at her house.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hear about the troubles of the small business on the radio on quite a frequent basis, although it seems to be lots of talk with little action.
        I believe they have imposed a tax on shops over a certain floorspace to try and help out the small shops, although I think there may be a fight with the EU on that one, but as you probably know Poland like to fight with the EU ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for another fascinating trip into history by photo. We still have ‘Off-Licence’ arrangements with most beer and wine sales points. I don’t believe it is legal to drink in a liquor store either. My how times don’t change. Warmest regards, Theo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cindy. I am always intrigued by how little it had changed when I was young. Most of those shops would have been much the same in the 1960s, if not identical.
      Best wishes, Pete. x


  8. About the pics taken out of the shop, I think it is simply because of lighting issues and because photographs were so expensive and rare that you would take one with your family and shop/house just to include everything that mattered to you. โ˜บ๏ธ
    Also, we still have loads of old-fashioned shops in India, though supermarkets are killing them pretty fast. I love the experience of being treated special just when attendants acknowledge me by showing their wares rather than just go-pick-pay culture of malls where attendants are only there to ensure I don’t mess up the arrangement.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You have done so many interesting things, Pete. I love these photos. They remind me of the photos in my grandmotherโ€™s stereoscope. Most of the images were from Victorian times.

    I love the character and individualism of stand-alone shops. One of the reasons I loved to travel to new places and shop in stores we did not have. Now, every city in America has the same stores.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much the same here, Maggie. You could be dropped off blindfolded in any major town or city, and all the shops would be the same as those at home. I understand why the small shop is failing due to economic pressures, and people like me buying cheaper from Amazon.
      I still do my best to support local businesses though, and buy all our electrical and household goods from a shop that only has three branches in Norfolk.
      When they are all gone, it will be a sad day indeed.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Must have been fascinating to have an “off-license” – do you have pictures of it? I ask because in those days you needed to take the time to take photos…today it’s point and click your phone! If I had an iPhone growing up Id have million photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are some old photos somewhere, John.
      Just don’t ask me where they are at the moment. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Rest assured that if I ever find them, they will be posted!
      Best wishes, Pete.


  11. Lovely photographs, Pete. I dimly remember a Sainsbury’s like the one in the photo, in my home town: it was the way they patted the butter from a huge block with big fluted wooden paddles, into a smaller pat to sell, that stuck in my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Nice post! Interesting to learn about how they went shopping during that time and I love those pictures! Itโ€™s amazing how people used to dress up back in the day too. Nowadays people can stay home in there pajamas and order groceries online.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wills was a large tobacco company. W.D. & H. O. Wills.
      Superfine Shag was a loose cigarette and pipe tobacco, designed to be easy to light, and to burn well. Its opposite number was ‘Rough Shag’, which the pipe smoker would rub into the consistency he (or she) preferred. Some brands of Shag tobacco were described as ‘Ready-Rubbed’.
      Sherlock Holmes is described as enjoying his ‘pipes of shag’ in many of the novels.
      Because of the common use of ‘Shag’ later on as referring to the sex act, the double meaning of this was not lost on us as giggling schoolboys. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. There are no definite answers, but one of them is this.
          Advertisements often used the phrase “For A Good Smoke”.
          The first four letters are FAGS, so they became known as fags.
          Older versions refer to the small pieces of droopy cloth that sometimes hung from clothing, known as a ‘fag of cloth’. Early hand-rolled cigarettes drooped from the mouths of smokers, and it was said that they resembled a ‘fag’.
          Last but not least (and more plausible) is that faggots refers to a bundle of small irregular-shaped sticks. Tied together, they were often used to start fires, and burned quickly when lit. Cigarettes reminded people of these small sticks, and became know as faggots, shortened to ‘fags’.
          You have to remember that homosexuals were not called fags here at the time. That usage was imported from America in the 1900s, also an abbreviation of faggots. That originated from the same small bent sticks, and homosexual activity was described here as being ‘bent’.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. I commented on Alan Burnett’s News for Nowhere site recently that people are standing outside their shops and houses in almost every street scene in early twentieth century postcard. It’s sad that unless labelled and passed down in a family album, we no longer know who any of them are.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. (1) I’d like to try their brilliant burning lamp oil. Preferably at midnight.
    (2) Wills’s superfine shag was eventually topped by Austin Powers’s superfine shag.
    (3) Those ladies at the tea room are winking at me. Four tea winks. I think I’ll take a nap.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I think I said that to you recently, Iโ€™m sad that so many shops seem to be disappearing. Everyone buys their goods on internet, and physical stores are becoming a thing of the past. I honestly still love shopping (I make a trip to my favorite shopping city Utrecht every 6 weeks or so). This pictures look amazing. I especially like the Philadelphia drug store…Sometimes I wish I really had a time machine to travel back to times such as these. Always love these posts Pete…keep them coming! ๐Ÿ˜Š

    Liked by 3 people

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