Abstracts for Retailing and the Senses: Historical Perspectives - 5 September 2013

Anneleen Arnout, University of Leuven and University of Antwerp, Belgium, 'Sense & sensibility. Shopping and comfort in the Galeries Saint-Hubert in nineteenth-century Brussels'

Shopping in the nineteenth-century has most often been linked to the history of spectacular culture. Especially the turn of the century has been regarded as a time during which there was a proliferation of visual stimuli in urban environments. Department stores, wax works museums, auction rooms, panorama’s and diorama’s, the world exhibitions, theatre and the written (and illustrated) press, were all identified as having contributed to an elaborate culture of visual entertainment. In fact, the visual narratives created by these institutions turned urban life itself into a visual spectacle. People strolling along the boulevards and the shops were looking to the (represented) goods on display and to each other equally. With department stores as a main focus in historiography, it is no wonder there has been a slight bias to the sense of sight. Both the architecture and the way goods were displayed, aimed to tantalise potential buyers.

Although it is clear that the visual sensations were central to the bodily experience of shopping, the other senses were nevertheless engaged as well. In this paper I will focus on the way shopping places catered to the nineteenth-century shopper’s senses and bodily sensibilities. I will turn to two examples of bodily comfortable sites for shopping established in mid-nineteenth century Brussels: the arcade and the market hall. I will demonstrate how these sites were designed to transform the bodily experience of shopping. Their material configuration was geared at responding to new modern-day bodily sensibilities. By unravelling both the discourse surrounding the establishment of the Galeries Saint-Hubert (1847) and the Marché de la Madeleine (1848) and their material construction, I will argue that in these sites, the olfactory, auditory and tactile senses were pleasantly engaged in order to make sure the goods on display would catch the eye of the shopping public.


Clare Backhouse, Courtauld Institute of Art, UK, ‘Broadside ballads, Dress and the Senses in Seventeenth-Century England’

This paper analyses the multisensory ways that broadside ballads and dress appealed to consumers in seventeenth-century England. Black-letter broadside ballads were cheap single-sheet prints aimed at extremely wide audiences and were ubiquitous in England until the nineteenth century. Composed of rhyming texts and woodcut images, vendors advertised them by singing the lyrics on streets, at fairs, and door-to-door. The fact that ballad-sellers were often pedlars as well meant that the success of these products was intertwined with other retail items, in particular clothing and haberdashery.

This paper will examine how ballads represented both print and dress during the seventeenth century so as to appeal to audiences' sense of sight, sound and touch and to attract sales from the pedlar.  First, it will establish the character of pedlars' retailing and the ways in which this itself appealed to the senses. It will show how ballad sheets self-reflexively represented this experience in a bid to promote sales.  Secondly, it will outline the multilayered material associations between print and dress that were obvious to seventeenth-century consumers but have been overlooked today - haptic and conceptual connections which encompassed the stages of production, circulation and consumption.  Thirdly, it will analyse the importance of retailing and the senses for interpreting the visual qualities of the ballad. Scholars have long ignored ballad images, but this paper will assert that, to be interpreted productively, these pictures must be seen both in relationship with their sung texts and in context of their particular mode of sale.  Finally, this paper will suggest how, over the course of the century, ballads' multisensory retail strategies reveal shifting ideals of what fashionable dress and print could and should look like.  As will be made clear, the senses played an integral role in the sale of broadside ballads and dress and are in turn vital for our understanding of these two commodities today.


Lucy A. Bailey, University of Northampton, UK, ‘An Assault on the Senses: Cultural Representations of the Victorian Village Shop’

Whilst the Victorian period is widely recognised as a dynamic chapter in the history of retailing and consumption, savvy shopping for everyday goods still required consumers to apply various basic skills in their interaction with the marketplace, which necessitated the use of their senses. The foodstuffs on offer needed to be inspected, sniffed, pinched and tasted and dialogue or negotiations entered into with the shopkeeper on what was required, the price to be paid and the method of payment.

Cultural representations of retailing can provide a wealth of detail on the everyday sensory shopping experience and how both shop and shopkeeper were perceived and defined. By delving into the rich array of material which survives, this paper provides an insight into the popular image of the village shop in the Victorian period as portrayed by writer, artist and illustrator, many of whom sought to evoke the senses of their target audience in order to elicit an appropriate emotional response and convey a specific cultural image, which appears to have changed over time. Collectively these images reveal the cultural progress of the urban middle classes whose influence on the arts increased dramatically. They reflect the middle-class taste for narrative paintings and sentimental imagery, as well as the so-called golden age of childhood and changing attitudes towards the countryside.


Serena Dyer, University of Warwick, UK, ‘”Discomposing the Goods”: Sensory Shopping and the Consumption of Clothing, 1750-1850’

This paper explores the experience of browsing, choosing and purchasing women’s clothing in the long eighteenth century, and the centrality of sensory (and in particular haptic) interaction to the successful completion of these transactions. This paper also promotes the use of the material remains of these interactions, such as fabric samples and magazine advertisements, to examine the sensory experience of shopping.

Shopping in the eighteenth century has been established to have been a cultural leisure experience as much as it was a method of consumption. The shopkeeper would produce item after item that could interest the client, providing a platform for handling, comparison and interaction between the goods and the purchaser. When absent from city retailers, the practice of shopping by letter, and the exchange of fabric samples, enabled the continuation of this haptic experience. Furthermore, from 1809, the popular ladies' magazine, Ackermann’s Repository of Art, began to include samples of fabrics in each edition, along with information about the retailers from whom they could be obtained. In doing so, the magazine became a locum shop front, enabling a continuation of the haptic browsing process undertaken within shops.

This shopping methodology has often been interpreted as being primarily inspired by the pursuit of leisure and enjoyment, and simply as part of a wider practice of urban politeness. Numerous contemporary sources bemoan how female shoppers would “tumble silks they have no mind to buy”, often passing from shop to shop, taking up the shopkeepers’ time without making any purchases. However, this paper argues that this process can also be seen a method of sensory education for the consumer. Not only did this enable the individual to shop successfully, but also made them a valuable proxy shopper amongst their friendship networks. Once able to assess the relative quality of both workmanship and materials, consumers could become effective, moral and informed shoppers


Ben Highmore, Sussex University, UK, ‘Provençal Herbs and the Chicken Brick: Sensual Orchestration at the first Habitat Store’

The first Habitat store opened in 1964 on the Fulham Road, London. The stock combined products (furniture) designed by Terence Conran alongside a variety of mainly imported merchandise: pasta jars from Italy for instance. The variety of the products on offer suggested something close to a department store (it sold kitchen utensils, radios and record players, textiles, furniture, and so on), and yet unlike Liberty’s, for instance, Habitat had a single albeit inclusive aesthetic: everything was meant to work together. If there was a name for this aesthetic it would be something like ‘cosmopolitan-rustic-peasant-modern’: pine ‘servant’ tables were favoured – as was the rustic Mediterranean ‘chicken brick’ (Habitat’s biggest selling item) and everything was accompanied by the odour of Provençal herbs.

My argument here is not that Conran and the other retailers who created Habitat used sensual materials to entice customers to part with their money: or rather that isn’t my only argument. Habitat represents part of sea-change in taste, or a transvaluation of taste: high and low taste is being re-orchestrated into a cultural continuum where, for a certain class, kitsch and classic can work together. At the heart of this was a design ethos that was beginning to be known as ‘the basic course’ in British art schools: it promoted a design and craft enquiry into the nature of materials – the woodiness of wood, for instance. Conran attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts at a time when the basic course was being fashioned by his teachers: William Turnbull, Eduardo Paolozzi, Alison and Peter Smithson, Victor Pasmore, and Richard Hamilton. The sensorial orchestration of the shop – its architecture, its layout and interior decoration, and the display of merchandise – is the articulation of a sensibility that will reshape consumer experience in the decades to come.   


Ai Hisano, University of Delaware, US, ‘The Color of Taste: Selling Food in Clear Packages in the Early-Twentieth-Century United States’

This paper examines the role of color in the marketing and retailing of food products by focusing on the increasingly popular presentation of food in clear packages in the early-twentieth-century United States.  In the 1910s, a candy company began using cellophane to package their products.  During the following decades when an American chemical company, Du Pont, introduced moisture-proof cellophane, the packaging material became popular among many food manufacturers.  Clear packages ostensibly showed consumers the inside of the package.  Yet transparency did not necessarily mean that consumers could better understand food quality.  At a super market where meat had been already cut and bread packaged and where consumers rarely had a chance to actually eat, smell, or touch pre-packaged food products, they needed to rely mostly on visual information, especially color, in selecting food.  Moreover, with the industrialisation and commercialisation of food and the expansion of the national market, controlling and standardising the color of agricultural products, as well as processed foods, became essential for the food business.

By exploring the use of cellophane packaging, this paper analyses how producers manipulated food color to meet consumer expectations and how consumers developed their perceptions of naturalness and freshness.  In doing so, I aim to show the formation and transformation of a dominant world view concerning food, nature, and society in the United States.  The color of food cannot be understood solely as an indicator of abundant variations or consumer choices.  Food, specifically its appearance, held a different role than other consumer products for which color was a crucial element of brand identity and variety.  Food color was a visual communication that not only appealed to the eyes of consumers but also stimulated gustatory, olfactory, and tactile sensation.  Color conveyed sensory knowledge that consumers understood, and helped them imagine the taste, smell, and texture of a product.  Due to changes in retailing and purchasing patterns, including the expansion of self-service stores, consumers learned to discern the various traits of food by looking at its appearance.  Color became a barometer for consumers to evaluate the product quality and a set of cultural norms, determining the acceptability of food.


Angela Loxham, Lancaster University, UK, ‘Clothing, Touch and Liberal Governance’

Using archival research, and drawing in particular on Jaeger, this paper outlines how retailers could draw on the sensation of touch and its relation to the deeper self when buying clothing, and argues for a research agenda that focuses on how consumerism, clothing, touch and the skin were both implicated in the personal and social problems of the day but were also given a role in curing them.

The concept of liberal governance is now understood as having been the ruling concept of nineteenth-century Britain. This extended to such fields as the economy, family, industry and the urban sphere. By applying a neo-Foucauldian framework, it has been argued that society was intended to become self-governing through the production and internalisation of knowledge and norms about the ideal, healthy subject, aided by assemblages of technologies.

However, this concept remains underdeveloped in relation to consumerism, in particular, the selling and buying of clothing and its relationship to body. While the haptic potential of shopping in the eighteenth century is starting to be better understood, the nineteenth century is still largely considered to have witnessed a shift towards the spectacle, with all being a feast for the eye. But touch, as a sensation that could be mobilised through the body’s entire surface, was vital in aims to refashion the healthy, rational subject through clothing and shopping, as a leisure activity, could be considered as a way of doing this that fitted in with liberal doctrine. This paper outlines how the healthy body was understood in this period, and the part that clothes and the skin, acting as a portal to the self through the sensation of touch, were considered to play in this. The analysis moves to why certain clothes were considered unsuitable for the skin and the physical and moral problems that the buying and wearing of these clothes could lead to. The final part of the presentation discusses the technologies of the body that were advanced in response to this. Nineteenth-century governmentality assumed more than an ocularcentric dimension of self-inspection, but was deeply connected to quotidian, yet fundamental, issues of dress and the skin and this, as a discourse of power which penetrated throughout all of society, affected retailing too.


Katy Mullin, University of Leeds, UK, ‘Victorian Shop-girls, Sexuality and the Senses’

This twenty-minute paper will outline and analyse a sustained cultural conversation about the morality and meaning of shop work for young women between 1870 and 1900. Positions behind the counters of the emerging department stores had, from around 1870, become increasingly available to young, upwardly-mobile, working women. But the nature of their work became the subject of moral panics circling around two senses: sight and touch.

On show behind their counters, fashionably dressed and hired for youth and good looks, shop-girls were coded as advertisements for their shops. Often, they doubled as fashion models. The spectacle of the shop-girl framed behind her counter became the subject of considerable unease, but also of erotic fascination. Social reformers, music hall artistes, Punch cartoonists, fine artists, novelists and Parliamentary committees competed to analyse the social and moral significance of her exposure. This part of my paper will analyse some key visual images of shop-girls, from James Tissot’s La demoiselle de magasin (1882-1885) to the publicity material and sheet music covers from the 1894 hit musical The Shop Girl.

Behind this intense interest in the shop-girl as a visual phenomenon lay darker compulsions around touch. On display behind their counters, tightly corseted and beguilingly clad, shop-girls were ostensibly inviting their customers to look but not touch. But, as department stores became increasingly notorious as centres of transgressive heterosociability, questions about erotic tangibility and consumption came to dominate both reforming discourse and contemporary fiction. This second part of my paper will indicate how moments such as the touch of hands across the counter at the charged moment of payment dramatised the prostitutional undertones of  the profession. After glancing, necessarily briefly, at two late-nineteenth century shop-girl fictions – Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886) and George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1894)—the paper will conclude with a loaded moment of contact between shop-girl and moneyed gentleman customer in Katherine Mansfield’s 1907 short story, ‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’.


Stephanie Rains, NUI Maynooth, Ireland, ‘Touch Wood: Women, Shopping and the Politics of Sitting Down’

For women, the act of sitting down in public has historically been fraught with difficulty.  To do so was often to imply a lack of respectability, especially if the seating was in proximity to men or alcohol.  Therefore throughout most of the nineteenth century there was little or no seating available to respectable women in city centres.

And yet during that century shops developed on the understanding that middle-class women would spend more and more time shopping away from their homes.  This presented women shoppers with a social and physical challenge, in that they might have no chance to sit down during a shopping trip lasting several hours and involving considerable walking.  Bars and taverns were of course quite unacceptable places for respectable middle-class women to enter, but so were most restaurants, not least because they served alcohol.  Temperance establishments often served tea and coffee, but were largely aimed at the working-classes and anyway were often some distance from fashionable shopping streets.

It is therefore not a coincidence that by the 1890s, the respectable and even fashionable cafés and tea rooms emerged as a new retailing space within city centre shopping areas, sometimes located within department stores themselves.   Strictly non-alcoholic and occasionally women-only, they were often part of the fashionable orientalism of the period, with ‘exotic’ décor including divan seating, palm trees and Liberty-style fabrics. At the same time, some restaurants began opening ladies’ dining rooms, which were carefully segregated from the main restaurants which served men and sold alcohol and cigars.

The basic purpose of all of these spaces, however, and the one which assured their success, was to provide middle-class women shoppers with a chance to sit down and rest during a lengthy shopping trip.  Not only did these cafés provide the first spaces in which women could respectably sit in public, they also provided more private opportunities to sit down, in the important form of toilet facilities.

Using Dublin city centre in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a case study, this 20 minute paper will examine the ways in which these cafes and tea rooms developed, and the politics of female sitting which they expressed. 


Tracy Smith, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK, 'Pleasure, Identity and the Absence of Touch: The Conflicting Characteristics of the Online and Physical Retail Environments'

What impacts have technological advances and the accessibility of technology had on the consumer’s shopping experience and the ways in which they interact with retailers?

The physical world is becoming increasingly dominated by technology and many consumers conduct large parts of our lives through the screens of their televisions, computers and mobile devices. With the increasing number of channels for shopping, how do fashion retailers merge the experience of the traditional physical retail store with their online presence?

This paper uses an ethnographic approach to identify the ways that technology has altered the fashion shopping experience of consumers, in particular examining the impact that the inclusion of virtual shopping environments has had on the consumers’ ability to tangibly interact with the products they are purchasing. This paper utilises the findings from a programme of ethnographic fieldwork in order to provide insights into the effects that different retail platforms have on the hedonic motivations of consumers when shopping for fashion clothing. Furthermore this paper examines and provides an understanding of how the hedonic motivations of consumers are related to the creation of identities and the ways in which the online and offline environments impact on this process.

A wide ranging set of data has been collected for the purposes of this research, provided through the continued immersion into different shopping environments, the study of participants during the shopping process when browsing and purchasing via different platforms and findings from subsequent semi-structured interviews.

Through a qualitative approach to the data collection and analysis, I will provide an in depth and detailed understanding of what it means to shop for fashion clothing within a volatile and constantly changing multi-channel environment, summarising the key hedonic drivers of fashion.

This paper concludes that in order to provide consumers with the sensory attributes necessary to build and sustain the tactile brand experiences associated with fashion shopping, retailers will need to move towards increasing integration of their online and offline activities


Dr Laura Ugolini

Room MC334

Tel: 01902 321890

Email: L.Ugolini@wlv.ac.uk