A revolution in store

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With TV costume dramas such as The Paradise and Mr Selfridge proving a big hit, social historian Pamela Cox talks to Sheena Hastings about the women of the retail revolution.

ANYONE with a reasonably long memory who laments falling standards of customer service these days will naturally compare the sorry state of their once-favourite department store to how different things were in the days of their youth.

They have a point: it’s infuriating, whatever your age, to be unable to find anyone in a shop who actually knows the merchandise – or to find someone to talk to at all.

Flashback only half a century and the staff knew their stuff. The women serving you in a fashion shop or at the haberdashers – for they were almost always women – knew every button, bow, needle and pin.

Back then assistants rarely erred in cutting the exact number of ounces of cheese with a potentially lethal wire aided by a keen eye. Spool back further, and everything from loose tea to soap was wrapped in sturdy brown paper and tied with string in a manner that spoke of pride and exactitude.

Expert staff in grander department stores or gentleman’s outfitters could tell a man’s shirt size at 30 paces. A woman’s glove requirements were sized up as soon as she wafted up to the counter and their well-honed X-ray vision quickly concluded which undergarments might flatter her shape.

In the late 19th and early 20th century “shopgirls” as they were called, were often dressed in slightly swishy black silk dresses. They hovered, ready to serve a growing number of middle class female customers for whom shopping was becoming a major social pastime.

Legions of women who a generation before would have gone into domestic service, were now liberated by an industrial revolution which took most of the men away from shop work into more muscular jobs. The shift away from the rural economy to lives spent in the town meant young women went beyond the field, dairy, mill or the big house to find work. “By the mid-19th century, men now had other options, but the growth in the number of shops in towns and cities would revolutionise the lives of young women,” says Pamela Cox, professor of history at Essex University.

She recently presented the BBC Two series Shopgirls, telling the story of how thousands of women who needed an income flooded into jobs in shops in the late 19th century. “It was seen as a huge step for a young woman to leave home and go to work in a shop. After an initial apprenticeship when they earned nothing, they were paid half to two-thirds of what men earned – just above entry level for domestic service.

“Shop proprietors felt a moral responsibility towards these 14 and 15-year-old girls, and gave them beds in dormitories above the shop. In larger stores such as Harrods, at the turn of the 20th century 1,000 people worked there. At that stage men still had the more important jobs like buying, and the young women who walked the floor, dancing attendance on customers, were not allowed to sit down – which is why so many fainted. Typically, in a 15-hour day an assistant might get a 15-minute break.”

The 1899 Seats For Shop Assistants Act finally allowed a shop worker to rest their aching feet now and then. Late night shopping was not a late-20th century invention, in the 1800s these young women were working 80-hour weeks, with large stores closing their doors as late as 10pm.

The book Shopgirls – The True Story of Life Behind the Counter has been co-authored by Prof Cox and Annabel Hobley, and Pamela Cox will be talking about it this weekend at a Harrogate International Festivals event.

While some shop proprietors were protective of their staff, others enabled – or turned a blind eye to – gentlemen buying more than a pair of kid gloves when they visited places like London’s upmarket Burlington Arcade in the latter part of the 19th century.

Prof Cox’s research reveals that many of these upmarket shops were closely linked to prostitution, with the common practice of a man buying an item, then disappearing upstairs with the shop assistant, who was later given the gloves or scarf and receipt in order to claim the refund for herself.

“It was a booming business,” says Pamela Cox. “ Politicians, dukes, earls... there was a steady stream of men, and it was more or less an accepted part of working in those places.”

The lives of some rather feisty shop assistants are explored in the book, including that of Margaret Bondfield who left her humble family home to live in as a shop assistant. She was so horrified by the working conditions endured by shop workers that she became a trades unionist and women’s rights campaigner.

The book’s narrative travels through to the first generation of female graduate trainees and 1940s working mums – trailblazers in their own right. It also acknowledges the importance of Barnsley’s famous fashion phenomenon Rita Britton, who for decades (and until very recently, when she suffered a stroke and its doors were closed) ran an internationally-respected independent designer emporium in the centre of the town.

She started out in the 1960s, leaving her job in a paper mill after she started selling Mary Quant frocks from the sitting room of her granny’s terraced house. Back then buying trips to London were facilitated by lifts from her lorry driver dad. “She set up shop as part of a lively 60s scene, a new wave of consumer culture, where each town had its boutiques and retail became much more creative,” says Prof Cox.

The relationship between the public and shopping has changed immeasurably, she says, and part of popular culture’s obsession with shops as historical artefacts is that they’ve always been part of our everyday lives. “We don’t need them as we once did, but a great deal of social change is bound up with the story of retail.”

Pamela Cox has presented a BBC series Servants: The True Story Of Life Below Stairs, inspired by learning that two of her great-grandparents had been in service. “My two great-grandmothers left the country to become maids in middle class homes in London and were available to the family 24 hours a day. One had two illegitimate sons while in service. No-one knows the details, but she later went back to the country and married a widower. I was intrigued by these ancestors’ lives and that helped to put me on the path to becoming a historian.”

Do Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs reflect a realistic view of domestic service? “In some respects they do, but most servants worked in smaller, middle class homes, where there would have been just one or two of them doing everything. The experience of those servants was different, and probably much harder.”

Shopgirls – The True Story of Life Behind The Counter, is published by Hutchinson, £16.99. Prof Cox will be taking part in a panel event in Harrogate International Festivals’ history festival, on October 26 at The Old Swan Hotel. Box office 01423 562303.