Economic History Society

Women's Committee 24th Annual Workshop: Single people and the world of goods


Diana Russell - '"Location and Relocation" Bath’s Female Run Businesses c1800-1851'

Recent years has seen an expanding historiography that explores the importance of location for businesses, especially those connected with the retailing of goods, during the long eighteenth century. The work of historians such as Jon Stobart, Andrew Hann, and Victoria Morgan (2007) and Claire Walsh (2003) has extended our knowledge of the growing importance of spatial awareness, both within retail premises and within the wider urban environment. Shopping street particularly within leisure towns became what has been termed by Jon Stobart as ‘arenas of consumption’ (Stobart, 1998). The location of a retail business within a town or city could enhance its chances of success or failure. The acquisition of a prestigious address not only conveyed an air of fashionability but it also suggested that the proprietor was genteel, reliable and above all respectable. It afforded the opportunity to display goods in the shop window in order to entice the shopper in to inspect further wares.

This paper forms part of my doctoral research and will focus upon Bath during the first half of the nineteenth-century. The main shopping areas were situated within the city centre. The early prominent shopping area around the Orange Grove gave way, by the 1790s, to Milsom Street which changed from a residential area to Bath’s most prestigious shopping street. The paper will explore the ways in which female run retail businesses used the importance of location in order to maximise the potential for trade during this period. It will also explore if location related to the success or failure of female run business ventures. It will also look at whether this changed over the time period under study. To investigate the locations and numbers of those involved female run retail businesses will be plotted at 10 year intervals on contemporary maps. It will draw on a number of sources including directories, advertisements and contemporary literature.

Amy Louise Erickson - 'Capital acquisition by apprentices in the London clothing trades c.1700'

Using the records of the London companies because they offer the most complete record of girls' gild apprenticeship in England, this paper will examine the social capital necessary to obtain such an apprenticeship, the physical capital necessary to set up shop, and the material goods that these women produced and sold.

An apprentice was by definition single; a master or mistress was usually married, but could also be single. I focus on the higher end of the clothing trades, including milliners, mantua makers, seamstresses, head dressers, peruke makers, lace dealers, and fan makers. These women, some of whom remained single while others married but continued their trade, were involved in production, in retail and in wholesale. Some men were also apprenticed and practised in these trades but it is not possible to distinguish single from married men.

While apprentices were in service to their masters in even more restrictive ways than servants were, they acquired specific lucrative skills in the production of fashionable items of clothing. This paper will build on my article, 'Eleanor Mosley and other milliners in the City of London companies 1700-1750', _History Workshop Journal_ 71 (2011), to look at the wider range of goods produced specifically by female apprentices and their mistresses for female consumption.

Derek Janes - “The Business of Smuggling in SE Scotland 1740 – 1790: John and David Nisbet and their Associates”.

John Nisbet of Gunsgreen House and his housekeeper Janet Ferguson. Gunsgreen House is a John Adam merchant’s house which dominates the town and harbour of Eyemouth in Berwickshire, south east Scotland.

It was built in the early 1750s by John Nisbet, a lifelong bachelor, who lived there with his unmarried brother David and housekeeper Janet Ferguson. The house is an extraordinary monument to Nisbet’s aspirations – especially as his main line of business was smuggling. As well as the exterior, several of Nisbet’s interiors survive, including samples of his choice of wallpaper.

There is no evidence that Nisbet had any children - his will includes bequests to his brother William’s descendants, the illegitimate son of a long term associate, and a younger merchant who seems to have been his protégé. In addition Janet Ferguson was left £100 and £50 per annum, a substantial bequest to a servant. Her papers from the period of her retirement survive, so we know something of the nature of her life.

The paper will review Nisbet’s life and career, the phenomenon that is Gunsgreen House, his relationship with Janet Ferguson and her later life.

Judith Spicksley (Department of Economic and Related Studies, University of York) - Ribbons, curls and a coach: the importance of appearance for the gentle spinster in seventeenth century Hereford.

The ‘diary’ of Mistress Joyce Jeffreys, spinster and member of the lesser Herefordshire gentry, is not a diary in the usual sense of the word, but rather a set of accounts listing the author’s cash receipts and expenditures between 1638 and 1648. In addition to the extraordinary detail they offer about her moneylending activities in and beyond Hereford, these accounts allow us to see aspects of her daily life, her social relationships and her spending patterns, a significant part of which relate to purchases of fabrics for dresses and other personal items.  This paper aims to draw on the content of these entries to glean information about the way Joyce as a single woman chose to present herself to her world, and to what extent she was prepared to engage with the fashions of seventeenth century provincial society.

Britt Denis - 'Singled out (in) the ideal of domesticity? How single homemakers in Antwerp and Ghent shaped their domestic environments in the 19th century'

According to the ideal of domesticity, home became a controllable, intimate realm where the nineteenth-century bourgeois family could shelter from the anxieties of urban life. This widely cultivated ideal, however, also seemed to create conditions for inclusion and exclusion at different levels. What about for instance those city dwellers who did not live in enclosed, harmonious families? The way single heads of households – whether spinster, bachelor or widowed – created their domestic sphere can possibly reveal if and to what extent they were able to live up to the expectations of domesticity. By confronting the domestic ideals as constructed in a wide array of normative literature with the everyday material reality that is revealed by post-mortem inventories, it will become clear how single homemakers in Antwerp and Ghent shaped their domestic environments. It allows us to compare the strategies of homemaking across a relatively broad social and occupational group, since we have retrieved inventories of (among others) rich spinsters, a priest and a beguine, but also of retailing singles (widowed or unmarried) who were even more restrained in their possibilities in shaping their domestic environment. They even show evidence of a servant’s own modest array of goods as a means to accommodate him/herself to all aspects of the domestic environment. By tracing the discrepancies between ideal and everyday practice, we hope to gain a more nuanced insight in the material practices of this ‘bourgeois’ domesticity, which have not yet been studied for Belgium’s ‘long nineteenth century’.

Presentations by PhD candidates

Jane Hamlett (Royal Holloway University of London) - 'None of That Rotten Effeminate Stuff Here’? Domesticity and Material Culture in English Public Schools, 1840-1918

At late nineteenth-century Wellington, a public school for boys in Berkshire, a young pupil, later to become a leading horticulturist, attempted to cultivate a window box of rare bulbs in his dormitory. But the box was discovered by the Dorm Captain, who threw it to the floor and trampled the plants underfoot, exclaiming “There is no room for this rotten effeminate stuff here!”. This incident, related by a former pupil, chimes with historians' understandings of the relationship between schools for upper and middle-class boys and domestic material culture. Public schools have been seen by historians such as John Tosh as crucibles of masculinity -- the house system, the cult of athletics and corporal punishment forged a manly elite fit to govern country and empire. In this environment, any tokens of femininity, like the bulbs, might be quickly stamped out. This paper, however, offers a different interpretation based on a close examination of school material culture. While school authorities sought to repudiate the femininity of the middle-class home, the boys themselves could construct a parallel domesticity at school, through the decoration and personalisation of small individual spaces.

Drawing on research conducted for the ESRC At Home in the Institution Project this paper will explore the material worlds of five schools in south east England: the 'great' public schools Winchester College and Charterhouse; Lancing College and Christ's Hospital which provided public school education for boys from the lower middle classes and Bedales, a radical co-educational school. Drawing on institutional records, photographs and surviving objects, as well as diaries, letters, memoirs and autobiographies, the paper will reconstruct the material worlds of these schools, examining how they shaped the lives and emotions of their occupants.

Pamela Sharpe (University of Tasmania) - The world of Hester Pinney c.1680-1740: problems and progress

I am currently writing a book about Hester Pinney, a London-based spinster who never marries (although she almost does) and manages a London lace business for many years as well as acting as a financier in the emerging money markets. She is the mistress of an aristocrat and appears to live in a harmonious association with him and his wife. This project has been developing for many years - i count myself as a 'slow historian' - and it is a good time to review the findings but also the (perhaps intractable) problems of research in this area. I imagine that many of the challenges are shared by others attending the workshop.