Regency Content

Regency Shopping

Fashion & Fabric

Shopping has always been a popular pastime, particularly among the affluent and the Regency was no
different. Living at the dawn of the industrial era, the selection of goods available was larger than at any
other time before in history. The large department stores of the Victorian era was yet to come but
companies such as Debenhams, Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols started out in Georgian times
as haberdashers, grocers and linen drapers that soon expanded their line of goods to attract a wider
range of customers. Shopping centers on the other hand are nothing new, as the different exchanges,
arcades and bazaars of the Regency can testify to. Let's go shopping!

Linen-drapers, Haberdashers and Hosiers

Linen-draper Harding Howell & Co at Pall Mall, 1809 1

Although ready made apparel was not yet commonly available, cloth manufacture was among the first to be industrialized. Cotton and wool fabrics abounded in many qualities, cheap printed cotton muslin being a particular favorite of the era. By 1811 the import of raw cotton exceeded 90 million pounds (around 45,000 tons), about twice the amount imported in the 1770's. MC a Messrs. Harding Howell & Co, b pictured, was one of the choice linen-drapers (as fabric merchants were called) of the era. This interior print shows the large inventory, with shop assistants, all male, serving the female customers. c

Haggling was still common, but fixed prices were now getting a toe-hold. Buying on credit - "coming to terms" - was expected by the rich. Many storekeepers went bankrupt while waiting for a year or more to collect what's due.

Cheapside 1813, East India House left 2

Waithman & Sons Warehouse c. 1810 3

At this time merchants serving the rich began to move into the Mayfair area but Covent Garden, Cheapside and Fleet Street were still havens for shopping. MC

In the Regency Cheapside was still closely linked to trade, shops lined the street with the shop owners living above. Caroline Bingley's disdainful comment "Yes; and they have another [uncle], who lives somewhere near Cheapside." was meant to point out Elizabeth's humble origins. d

Linendraper interior 1818 4

G. Sutton had his silk manufacture at 53 Leicester Square e and Waithman & Sons, Shawl and Linen Warehouse, whose storefront as it appeared around 1810 is shown left, was at 104 Fleet Street, the notorious prison area. f No wonder fasionable ladies were attended by sturdy footmen!

Habedasher shop anno 1818 5

Dressmakers, Mantuamakers and Dress Shops

Since clothes were custom made and not off the rack, a lot of time was spent choosing fabric at the linen-drapers, trimmings at the haberdashers and selecting designs at the dressmaker.

Dress shop interior of 1818 7

In 1813 Clark & Debenham (known in modern time as just Debenhams) advertised that they sold "A large elegant assortment of Cottage Twills, Stuffs, Bombazines, Sarsnet, Satins Millinery -Pelisses and Dresses" g indicating that there was at least some ready made clothes to purchase. Since their shop was at 44 Wigmore Street, Cavendish Square, MC right smack in the heart of Mayfair, it obviously was a shop for the affluent. An 1830's advertisement from the same store mention ready made underwear for adults and dresses for children. h Clothes were still hand stitched at this time. Men were busy inventing sewing machines, i as old patents testify, but its impact on the fashion industry was still decades into the future.


Dress Shop of 1777 6 : New gowns are ordered by consulting the many fashion sketches. Sometimes a dress maker was also a designer and would draw a new design for a favored customer. Fabrics were held up toward the light to be inspected for flaws. Noticed the many drawers behind the counters? This dress shop offers trimmings, that is lace, braiding, ribbons, buttons and beads to enhance the dress as well as dress making skills. Almost ready dresses had to be tried on and last minute alterations done on the spot. This is a busy place. Shop assistants not with a customer are busy at work sewing.

Modiste with assistants 8 The early 19th century saw the fledgling beginning of the modern fashion designer. Up to this point a woman went to the dressmaker for her gowns, the milliner for her hats, gloves and other accessories were purchased from other shops. The fashion designer, on the other hand, offered the whole package. Our print shows just such a shop, with the proprietor in black showing off the sample garment while one assistant adjusts the hat and another brings in a second.

Dresses were hand stitched all the way and even a simple muslin with moderate trimming would take thousands of tiny little stitches, the shorter the stitch the finer the work. The wages for a seamstress were ridiculously low, many were apprenticed and the indentures were so large that they were kept in poverty all their lives. By 1840 the number of women in the dress making trade was estimated to be about 15,000. The government report released in 1843 j states that "The evidence of all parties establishes the fact that there is no class of persons in this country, living by their labour, whose happiness, health, and lives, are so unscrupulously sacrificed as those of the young dress-makers." It wasn't much better in USA. In 1821 a Philadelphia seamstress made about $1.05 per week, out of which she paid not only her own living expenses but for supplies such as thread and needles as well. A cobbler (shoe maker) would earn $.72-2.00 per week and a milliner (hat-maker) about $1.50-1.75. k

Next: Accessories

1. From Ackermann's Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics (1809) 'Harding, Howell, & Co.s grand Fashionable Magazine, No. 89, Pall Mall' (Plate 12: Vol. 1, No. 3, March 1809)
2. 'Cheapside', published 1813 in Ackermann's Repository of Arts Vol 9, Plate: 44.
3. Trading card, Waithman & Sons. Shawl and Linen Warehouse c. 1810
4. 'Linendraper', print from 'A Book of English Trades' by Richard Phillips, 1818 edition.
5.'The Habedasher Dandy' by Thomas Tegg, 1818. Printed by C. Williams
6. Dress shop 1777
7. 'The Ladies Dress Maker', print from 'A Book of English Trades' by Richard Phillips, 1818 edition.
8. Le Bon Genre, French caricature print from around 1815


Notes on the text:
For the information on this page I have made extensive use of M. Corina, 'Fine Silks & Oak Counters', published by Hurchingson Behman 1978. References to this source are marked "MC". For other sources see footnotes below.

a: See also Cotton Times: Understanding the industrial revolution

b: Existed in it's present form until 1820 when the partnership ended and Howell, taking most of their customers with him, established a new company as Howell & James, which lasted until 1900 when it was acquired by Debenhams. MC

c: Description of plate above: see the Shopping Mall page.

d: Jane Austen 'Pride & Prejudice' first published 1813, available as e-text

e: Trading card before 1813) Text: 'G. Sutton. Silk Manufacturer 53 Leicester Square, Wholesale & Retail. Handkerchiefs Figured, Fancy Main Color'd & Black. Sarsnet, Satins, Persians, Modes. Velvets, Bombazines, Barcelona Hkfs. Florentines, Mantuas and Armozines.' Also advertisement in La Belle Assemblee 1812 as G Sutton and 1813 as Sutton and Meeks.

f: Trading card c. 1810 Text: Waithman & Sons. Shawl and Linen Warehouse

g: Trading card 1813 Text: Cavendish House; Clark & Debenham; On the same termas as FLINT &.
Every Article of the best Quality FOR READY MONEY ONLY
Silk - Merchers, Haberdashers Hosiers, Milliners & Lacemen
No 44 Wigmore. Cavendish Square
A large elegant assortment of Cottage Twills, Stuffs, Bombazines, Sarsnet, Satins Millinery -Pelisses and Dresses

h: Handbill after 1837. Text: Cavendish House; Promenade, Cheltenham:
beg to announce their intention of OPENING their NEW and EXTENSIVE PREMISES on MONDAY NEXT, when they will offer for Sale a Stock unrivalled in extent, and selected with the greatest care from the British and Foreign Markets, consisting of every novelty in
SILK, CACHMERES, SHAWLES, MANTELS, CLOAKS, LACE and EMBROIDERY; HOSIERY, FLANNELS and BLANKETS; MOREEN, DAMASK and CHINTZ FURNITURE; SHEETINGS, DAMASK TABLECLOTHES, and Line Drapery of every description; COBOURG and ORLEANS CLOTHS; A Large Lot of French Merinos, Exceedingky Cheao; READY-MADE LINEN, for Ladies and Gentlemen; Baby Linen and Children's Dresses of every kind; also
FUNERALS conducted in the most careful manner, at moderate charges

i: The first possible patent connected to mechanical sewing was a 1755 British patent issued to German, Charles Weisenthal. Weisenthal was issued a patent for a needle that was designed for a machine, however, the patent did not describe the rest of the machine if one existed.

The English inventor and cabinet maker, Thomas Saint was issued the first patent for a complete machine for sewing in 1790. It is not known if Saint actually built a working prototype of his invention. The patent describes an awl that punched a hole in leather and passed a needle through the hole. A later reproduction of Saint's invention based on his patent drawings did not work.

In 1810, German, Balthasar Krems invented an automatic machine for sewing caps. Krems did not patent his invention and it never functioned well.

Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger made several attempts at inventing a machine for sewing and was issued a patent in 1814. All of his attempts were considered unsuccessful.

In 1804, a French patent was granted to Thomas Stone and James Henderson for "a machine that emulated hand sewing." That same year a patent was granted to Scott John Duncan for an "embroidery machine with multiple needles." Both inventions failed and were soon forgotten by the public.

In 1818, the first American sewing machine was invented by John Adams Doge and John Knowles. Their machine failed to sew any useful amount of fabric before malfunctioning.

The first functional sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. Thimonnier's machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. The inventor was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment as a result of his new invention.

In 1834, Walter Hunt built America's first (somewhat) successful sewing machine. He later lost interest in patenting because he believed his invention would cause unemployment. (Hunt's machine could only sew straight steams.) Hunt never patented and in 1846, the first American patent was issued to Elias Howe for "a process that used thread from two different sources." Howe's machine had a needle with an eye at the point. The needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop, creating what is called the lockstitch. However, Elias Howe later encountered problems defending his patent and marketing his invention.

For the next nine years Elias Howe struggled, first to enlist interest in his machine, then to protect his patent from imitators. His lockstitch mechanism was adopted by others who were developing innovations of their own. Isaac Singer invented the up-and-down motion mechanism, and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle.

Sewing machines did not go into mass production until the 1850's, when Isaac Singer built the first commercially successful machine. Singer built the first sewing machine where the needle moved up and down rather than the side-to-side and the needle was powered by a foot treadle. Previous machines were all hand-cranked. However, Isaac Singer's machine used the same lockstitch that Howe had patented. Elias Howe sued Isaac Singer for patent infringement and won in 1854.

j: House of Commons, Reports from Commissioners: Children's Employment, Trade and Manufactures, Sessional Papers XIV (1843) 555.

k: 'Socioeconomic Incentives to Teach in New York and North Carolina: Toward a More Complex Model of Teacher Labor Markets, 18001850' by Kim Tolley and Nancy Beadie. See also Alice Kessler-Harris, 'Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States', published by Oxford University Press, USA.


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