Thursday, February 20, 2014

Shopping in Regency England

by Linore Rose Burkard

"'Take note of this bonnet, Ariana,' Mrs. Bentley said. Ariana obediently surveyed the page open before her and exclaimed, 'How lovely!' It was a novel and elegant little piece of headwear, trimmed in Brussels lace and ribbon and sporting a dashing little ostrich feather. Forgetting her qualms she noted boldly, 'None of my bonnets has a real feather!'"

"We shall look for one just like this," Mrs. Bentley said. "But we do not bespeak bonnets from the seamstress. We shall go to Pall Mall or Bond Street. Even Oxford Street or to a warehouse down on Piccadilly. Some very respectable shops are there, and I want a certain style of Grecian head wreath for you which I feel certain we shall find on Oxford Street." (From, Before the Season Ends)

Ah, shopping. 

One of the challenges historical authors face, depending on the story line, is where to take their heroine shopping. In Before the Season Ends, Ariana Forsythe is faced with being outfitted by her wealthy aunt for a fashionable London season at the height of the Regency--any girl's dream, right? Not for Ariana! Since her Aunt Bentley is fashionable herself, however, she insists upon dragging the young woman along for a foray into London's elite shops for the best of the best.

One such place sure to be on any fashionable lady's agenda was "Harding, Howell and Co.'s Grand Fashionable Magazine" at 89 Pall-Mall. Quite a mouthful, that. But it tells its patrons with no apologies that it is the place for fashion, since the word is in its name. When Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice laments that she must be on hand to show Lydia where all the best warehouses are in London, no doubt she had this place in mind.   
Harding, Howell and Co's Grand Fashionable Magazine 

Technically a linen-draper's, Harding, Howell and Co.'s sold much, much more than fabrics. And today's multi-level department stores might be taller than their regency counterparts, but make no mistake, HH&C was huge! In addition to the latest French muslins or silks, a lady could purchase the following:

  1. Haberdashery of "every description"
  2. Lace, gloves
  3. Furs and fans
  4. "Jewellery"
  5. Ornamental articles in ormolu, French clocks, etc.
  6. Perfumery and everything necessary "for the toilette"
  7. Millinery and dresses
  8. All manner of novelties
 Ackermann's Repository gives this description of HH&C:  "..There is no article of female attire or decoration, but what may be here procured in the first style of elegance and fashion." (1809, vol 1 No 3)

As you can see if you look at the above illustration, HH&C had a large circular "solar" window. It was the sort of place that didn't look so very large from outside, but once indoors, you could go on and on and deeper and deeper into a seemingly endless variety of rooms and recesses.  

As a teen and young adult, if I went into NYC with a friend, we could easily spend the whole day shopping at Macy's (yes, the same one from "Miracle on 34th Street").  We'd avail ourselves of the elevator instead of the escalator whenever we could, and elbowing through the crowd, shop til we were ready to drop, literally. Then we had to face the subway or Long Island Railroad to get back home.  (What amazes me is that I thought such outings were fun.) Anyway, a trip to HH&C could easily occupy a regency lady's whole morning, which is when most shopping was done.

Western Exchange, ca.1817
 Another destination sure to appeal to the regency lady or gentleman seeking most anything necessary for fashion was the Western Exchange, located off of Old Bond Street. Similar to a consignment market, sellers rented booths to sell their wares, and one could expect to find a wide range of goods available.  According to one website, the Western Exchange was principally used as a shortcut to the Burlington Arcade (which opened in 1819, and therefore was not available to my regency heroine, who had to suffer the London shops of 1813. But no worries: By the end of the day, like most women, Ariana found it was not such an awful thing to have new attire after all.)

For jewellery, despite the offerings at HH&C and other places, the destination for the fashionable elite was Rundell's. (Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, technically goldsmiths.) Even the Crown commissioned Rundell's when it wanted new pieces, and not only for jewels, but other pieces in gold, silver, bronze and gilt, such as the fabulous centerpiece, below.   
Elegant Regency Centerpiece, 1815

Some of the research tomes on this subject were as fascinating in their titles as the subject matter promises to be: Witness the following, for example: (Links to Amazon provided if they were available there. Most, alas, are not.)

Dress as a Fine Art, by Mrs. Merrifield, 1854

Too rich for my blood, but sounds terrific: Crime, Gender and Consumer Culture in Nineteenth Century England (The History of Retailing and Consumption)

One I could not find but would love to get my hands on:
Necklothitania or Tietania being an Essay on Starchers by one of the Cloth (pub.1818), J.J.Stockdale

(Does that sound like fun or what?)

For the serious fashionistas: Rudiments of Cutting Coats etc.of all sizes to fit the human form by anatomical proportions in conjunction with geometrical principles. Printed and sold by the Author 1819 Thomas Hearn
(Don't you just love the lengthy titles of the past?)

Another amazing title:  A Lady: The Lady's Economical Assistant,or, the art of cutting out, and making, the most useful articles of wearing apparel, without waste; by the....of appropriate and tasteful patterns 1808

Did you enjoy this short peek into regency shopping? Do you have a favorite resource book the rest of us might find illuminating? Please share!


  1. Amazing the pomp and circumstance that went in to just getting ready to go shopping in Regency England, not to mention the gobs of money spent while on the outing.

    Speaking of which, even though this doesn't really compare, my grandmother wouldn't even walk to the mailbox in the 1940s without getting "dressed" for the occasion, even going so far as to wear her pillbox hat!

    Me? As long as I fairly presentable, I'm good.

    1. Great tidbit, thanks, Pam. Society seems more relaxed today, for sure, when it comes to being presentable, doesn't it?

  2. How fun to learn a bit about shopping in Regency England! What a task!! I must say, that type of shopping experience doesn't appeal to me. Thank you for sharing.

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

    1. It was definitely an undertaking, but I'm sure there was much browsing done just for pleasure, too. (I think I could have enjoyed many such forays. I'm a diehard shopper, alas.)

  3. Wow! Shopping in Regency England was really something. Thank you for sharing your most interesting post.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  4. I am not a shopper, but do some online shopping, as I don't get tired like walking around stores all day! I would say the Regency shoppers had to work and look pretty hard to find wardrobe items, and they were probably very expensive and available only to the wealthy. Thanks for your post. sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com