18th-century retail therapy

One of the things we really enjoy doing during our research is to look at the advertisements in the newspapers of the day to see what sort of items were for sale. Don’t you just wonder what it would have been like to go back in time and visit some of the shops? Perhaps a visit to the perfumier would be worth a visit, especially to get away from the pungent odours of eighteenth-century London.

From the late eighteenth-century onwards, people would have carried a vinaigrette containing a sponge soaked in perfume or vinegar, to mask the unpleasant odours from the streets, such as this lovely one depicting Newstead Abbey, the ancestral home of Lord Byron.

Perfumiers weren’t quite what we view them as today. Yes, they sold perfume, but they also catered for other essentials required by both men and women.

Trade card - Charles Sharp c1770. Yale Centre for British Art
Trade card – Charles Sharp c1770. Yale Centre for British Art

In this post, we take a look at some of the ‘essentials’ that every self-respecting man or woman would have owned.  In the late 1770s, Mr Lewis Hendrie owned a shop in the Haymarket area of London and these are some of the items he sold and it’s always great to see some prices bearing in mind that one shilling would have been the equivalent of about £5 in today’s money.

Wash Balls

These would have been priced at around one shilling each, usually white or brown almond and were used to whiten the skin and to prevent chapping. White almond was slightly more expensive than brown almond.

French School; Portrait of a Lady at Her Toilet Table, Dressed in a Peignoir; The Bowes Museum

French Powders

These came in a variety of fragrances, such as jasmine, orange, rose, violet or simply ‘common hair powder’. Also, tooth powder, powder bags, powder masks and puffs.

A powder for the face which answers all the intents of white paint, without having any of its pernicious effects. 8 shillings per pound (and sold in smaller quantities).

Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg

Brushes

And combs for hair, for shaving, toothbrushes and tongue scrapers. Body brushes and oil silk bathing caps.

 Soaps & Waters

These again came in several varieties such as Castille, Windsor, Naples. Improved soap for shaving with a brush. Double distilled lavender, Hungary, honey and other floral scents.

A shop lifter. Lewis Walpole Library
A shoplifter. Lewis Walpole Library

Oils

Almond, Rhodium, Jasmine, Rosemary and shaving oil.

We weren’t quite sure how shaving oil was used and found a reference to it some ten years prior to Mr Hendrie’s advertisement which described it as ‘the best thing ever invented for the purpose of having or washing fine lace and greatly useful where there is a scarcity of water. Price 6 pence or 1 shilling for a larger bottle’. Not a cheap product then!

Winterthur Museum, garden and library
Winterthur Museum, garden and library

Foreign Pomatums

Orange, lemon, bergamot and bouquet.

Miscellaneous items such as

Genuine Bear’s Grease:

the only certain remedy to make hair grow thick and to prevent it falling out – one shilling and six pence an ounce.

Tragically, yes it was made from the rendered down fat of young bears.

A composition to take off superfluous hair from the forehead and eyebrows. Takes off hair instantly, 6 pence a stick. For a while, in the eighteenth-century, it was fashionable to remove forehead hair, although we’re not quite sure as to why you would want to do that.

Best French rouge, two shillings and sixpence per pot, which is about the same amount as a skilled tradesperson would earn for one day’s work.

A pomatum that destroys nits in the hair, warranted without the least injury to the person. One shilling per pot.

A liquid, that without injury will dye grey or red hair to a glossy black or brown. This came with a money back guarantee, if it didn’t work!.

Pen knives, scissors, powder knives, tweezers, toothpicks, patches and patch boxes and snuff boxes.

Snuff shop. Yale Centre for British Art
Snuff shop. Yale Centre for British Art

Crimping, curling, nipping, pinching, toupee irons, hair rollers and hair ribbons, but no products such as heat protector or hairspray existed! In 1783, a Mr F Day advertised a new type of styling comb to replace the ‘frizzing comb and curling iron’ which he claimed produced a better result than either of the existing products. He was selling these newfangled combs at three shillings each.

A Hairdresser curling a lady's hair, one of the sketches made in Edinburgh and the neighbourhood after the rebellion of 1745. Paul Sandby. British Museum
A Hairdresser curling a lady’s hair, one of the sketches made in Edinburgh and the neighbourhood after the rebellion of 1745. Paul Sandby. British Museum

There was no such thing as a nail bar in the Georgian era, but if you wanted your finger or toenails to look good, you could visit a chiropodist. As well as treating corns and warts, they also offered products described as ‘ivory-nail models’. They were described as being as ‘portable as a tooth-pick case, which forms the nails on the hand into an agreeable shape’. They were priced at ten shillings and sixpence and came with directions for use. Were these the first false nails? If these weren’t for you then you could buy fine steel nail-nippers at five shilling per pair.

They were nothing if not entrepreneurial, for example, in 1794 we have Mr Nosworthy of Queen Street, Norwich, a perfumier, who expanded his business to include everything you needed for sewing, toys for children, crockery and cutlery, stationery, fashion accessories such as purses, fans, parasols, umbrellas and perfumed gloves.

A barber's shop. Lewis Walpole Library
A barber’s shop. Lewis Walpole Library

Perfumed gloves date back at least a century and had a more sinister use; they were coated in a form of poison, but we’ll leave the rest of that to your imagination.

Adult only items!

Although we haven’t spotted any adverts for them, condoms would have been readily available for sale from the likes of Mrs Phillips and Perkins, on Half Moon Street in London or from Miss Jenny who sold second-hand, washed ones. The other retailers would have been apothecaries or barbers. They were made from lamb’s caecum and often tied with a ribbon.

Blackguardiana: Or, A Dictionary of Rogues by James Caulfield c 1793
Blackguardiana: Or, A Dictionary of Rogues by James Caulfield c 1793

The same went for sex toys, relatively recent discoveries have shown that there was a demand for dildos too, these were often purchased by upper-class women and made of wax, horn or leather, wood or ivory.

Blackguardiana: Or, A Dictionary of Rogues by James Caulfield c 1793
Blackguardiana: Or, A Dictionary of Rogues by James Caulfield c 1793

If only we could have gone back in time to visit their shops. They almost sound like modern-day department stores, where you could spend hours buying everything you didn’t realise that you needed.  Oh, and of course perfume!

Part of the reason we started looking at shops, apart from our own curiosity, was that we were lucky enough to have discovered the inventory for Dido Elizabeth Belle’s husband, John Davinière and whilst it’s still in the process of being translated into English with the help of Etienne Daly, we can share with you some of the items listed within the jewellery section of it. Sadly, it is simply a list of items that he owned at the time of his death with very little by way of description, but the fact that they were silver implies that they would have been quite expensive.

There were 3 rings, two kept together and one on its own which we suspect was more than like Dido’s wedding ring. A carriage clock, a silver enamelled toothpick; a silver necessaire, scissors, a type of silver braid, perhaps John received an honour of some sort, but there are no further clues as yet to indicate what it related to.

Whilst it isn’t clear as to whether the silver necessaire was a man or woman’s it would have been a small container which held small items perhaps for sewing such as small scissors, a thimble, possibly a vial of perfume. For a man, it would perhaps contain scissors, a small knife and an earpick.

Sources used

Public Ledger or The Daily Register of Commerce and Intelligence, October 13, 1761

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 14 November 1793

Bury and Norwich Post, 06 August 1794

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, November 15, 1783

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7 thoughts on “18th-century retail therapy

  1. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 50) | www.weyerman.nl

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