Shopping in the 18th Century

A colleague passed on this paper regarding the sensory skills required of genteel, female shoppers in the 18th Century. The author makes a series of interesting points about the haptic experience of shopping at that time…

Smith argues that despite some ambiguity in the attitudes towards these women expressed in the fiction of the time, “women’s efforts to browse […] were crucial in the selection of good quality products.” Smith focussed much of her discussion on the purchase of ceramic goods and she presents an engraving of an interior view of a Wedgewood and Byerly store in Wesminster (which perhaps also helps to place the social status of the shoppers) where the central female figure is handling the objects on display.

During such retail experiences shop assistants would engage in the ‘selective revelation’ of objects to individual customers “who employed various sensory skills: they touched, looked and, perhaps, even smelled and listened in or to produce multiple perceptions of each object. Thus […] sensory interaction with the goods was an important part of shopping practice.”

Meanwhile, “[h]ousewifery manuals giving advice about purchasing foodstuffs stressed the need for shoppers to establish knowledge independently of the shopkeeper’s advice by using sensory skills. Shoppers were encouraged to be proactive in their touching. Pulling, squeezing, pinching and poking were all necessary skills in assessing the freshness of food.”

The need for independent judgements extended even to the refined domain of Wedgewood and Byerly… Archival material attests to the fact that even such esteemed manufacturers could not be trusted to be entirely honest about the quality of the products they were selling as they used surface detailing and décor to cover up faults in the body of the ceramics. “Thus, as many faults were often hidden beyond sight, the purchase of [ceramic] objects required highly tuned tactile skills to uncover the various problems they contained.” Holding the pot might reveal information about the thickness of the body. “Touching inside the pot, consumers might question the quality of the finish within. […] A short tap would reveal sounds that alluded to the truth of the shape and type of material.”

In contemporary Western culture vision is almost certainly the dominant modality of perception with the others being suppressed during childhood. Smith alludes to scholarship on the rise of the visual in the 18th Century Britain but there is, as she recognises, other literature which points to place of touch as a valid sense for the connoisseur. She relates an oft-cited account of a visit by Sophie von La Roche to the British Museum in 1786 wherein Sophie recounts the emotional impact of handling a Carthaginian helmet and household utensils from Herculaneum. “[T]aking time to handling museum objects allowed visitors to confirm or contradict what they learned from sight. […] [I]n the eighteenth century touching objects marked visitors as serious and contemplative.” This intimate access declined as the numbers of visitors increased.

But these haptic skills are not innate – they must be learnt. Smith quotes David Pye as saying “The expertise we acquire [in knowing things] is built up by making comparisons, and we make a judgement about something by considering what it looks like among all the things we have already seen.” She also draws on Susan Stewart, who noted that “we perceive the world through our senses but the understanding we have of a particular object is shaped by our body’s ‘somatic memory’ of previous interactions with other objects.” In the eighteenth century shoppers would have developed that through active participation in multiple shopping trips.

(I would quibble with Stewart’s use of ‘body’ in that last quote. It is important that we don’t inadvertently tease apart the body-brain whole. It is not the body that holds the somatic memory but the brain which is, in turn, utterly dependent on the body for the somatic inputs.)

Smith argues that shopping should be considered as a form of information gathering that required constant updating. “The repetitive interaction with a variety of goods facilitated the construction of concepts such as design, quality and fashion.” At this point Smith turns to an assertion by Lakoff and Johnson, academics in the field of embodied cognition, to make the (apparent) leap from perception and object manipulation to “conceptualisation and reasoning”.

Skip forward to the present day: Smith cites research suggesting that, “despite the rise of online shopping, tactile interaction with objects in shops continues as an important and valued part of consumer culture today.”

Skip backwards to the 1950s: the reason why I want to skip back to the 1950s is related to the interest in reminiscence. Staff from Beamish recently went on a trip to Den Gamle By, a similar organisation in Denmark, where the collection of buildings extends into the 20th Century and where staff use the buildings as immersive environments to stimulate reminiscence. The staff from Beamish observed that participants were not simply served tea and biscuits in this period setting but were asked to go and prepare the food and drinks – thus evoking social scripts and patterns of learnt behaviour. Most of the people who are now in care and at risk of dementia were not children in the 1950s but they were becoming independent adults in their own right with homes and (perhaps) children of their own. Thus the haptic experience of shopping in the 1950s holds one of the keys to the content of what they might possibly remember during reminiscence or to the content of the prompt to reminiscence. What were the tactile practices of shoppers in the 50s? How did they test for the quality of produce? What was their olfactory experience? (Anyone who has ever wandered through an old-style indoor market like Grainger Market (Newcastle) will know that it is definitely an olfactory experience!) Assuming that archival material does exist which would answer that question – how would we put that knowledge into practice?


Smith, K. (2012) ‘Sensing Design and Workmanship: The Haptic Skills of Shoppers in Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of Design History, 25, 1


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in memory, object handling, Perception. Bookmark the permalink.

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