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.