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A Nation of Shopkeepers: Five Centuries of British Retailing

Author(s):Benson, John
Ugolini, Laura
Reviewer(s):Alexander, Nicholas

Published by EH.NET (May 2003)


John Benson and Laura Ugolini, editors, A Nation of Shopkeepers: Five Centuries of British Retailing. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2003. x + 269 pp. $65 (hardback), ISBN: 1-86064-709-X; $24.95 (paperback), ISBN: 1-86064-708-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nicholas Alexander, School of Business, Retail and Financial Services, University of Ulster.

The arrival of a volume on the history of retailing by respected researchers in this area is to be welcomed. The history of retailing has not been sufficiently considered by researchers over the years. Current knowledge is therefore patchy and owes more to individual enthusiasms than a fundamental understanding and consideration of the historical processes at work within the distribution systems that have served and helped shape society and social engagement.

This volume provides a collection of articles on the history of retailing in Britain. Edited by John Benson and Laura Ugolini, who are both based at the University of Wolverhampton, the contributions are divided in sections dealing with “Representations and Self-representations,” “Patterns and Process” and “Property, Politics and Communities.” Within this structure, the authors explore moral attitudes to retailing, shopping galleries, advertising, consumption patterns, multiple retailing, the department store, mail order, municipal and city centre developments, and retail property. A broad range of issues is considered. This gives the volume depth and adds to its overall contribution.

There is a wealth of information and fascinating detail in this volume. Based on academic research of a high quality, this volume provides academics and the general interest reader with an intriguing glimpse of retailing in specific contexts and locations. In this, it contributes to a further and greater understanding of retailing within its historical, social and economic setting. In Claire Walsh’s article on “The Shopping Galleries of Early Modern London,” she does an impressive job in conveying the reality of shopping in these early retail malls. The historical magnificence of shopping in Westminster Hall is drawn out of her material and powerfully conveyed. Likewise, Richard Coopey and Dilwyn Porter convey the reality of agency mail order by placing this aspect of retail distribution within a broader social framework of interaction at the community level. This volume clearly indicates that scholarship in the area of the history of retail distribution has developed rapidly in recent years. Simply, if you are interested in the history of retailing, you need to read this volume.

However, and there is a “however,” the volume, while indicating how far historical research in this area has developed also clearly indicates the substantial work that has still to be achieved. The history of retailing in Britain is dominated by material that focuses on the period from around 1850. Thus, while the volume does cover retailing from the early sixteenth century (for example, Nancy Cox provides a valuable evaluation of attitudes to retailing in that period), this volume is not a history of retailing from 1500. While three of the nine articles cover the early modern period, the remaining six articles are concerned with retailing from the late Victorian period. Thus, as with previous publications in this area, the period c.1890 to 1939 attracts the greatest coverage.

Benson and Ugolini are aware of the emphasis that research has placed on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They note the value of early modern research and the manner in which it has been able to draw attention to the developments in retailing that preceded or foreshadowed practices identified as personifying modern retail practice. It is greatly to the credit of this volume that space is given to material that helps to place the supposed innovations of nineteenth century retailing in their historical context.

The editors of this volume are, therefore, well aware of the current state of historical research in the area of retailing. Likewise, there is little doubt that this volume advances the study of retail history. However, the volume also indicates that there is still a substantial amount of work to be done on retailing. In particular, it is essential that earlier periods of retail activity are studied and that retail activity in those periods is placed firmly in its social and economic context. Also, it is equally important that a fundamental understanding of the longer-term developmental processes in retail history should be better understood and delineated. There is an inherent danger with retail history that it has a tendency to fall into an antiquarian trap. Thus, the artefacts of retailing should not be allowed to obscure the importance of operational processes and a better understanding of the long-term development of those processes should receive greater attention in the future if the history of retailing is to progress.

Nicholas Alexander holds the Chair of Services Management, within the School of Business, Retail and Financial Services at the University of Ulster. He is also the Head of School of Business, Retail and Financial Services. He is an editor of the Service Industries Journal and has been guest editor of the International Marketing Review and Business History. He is the author of International Retailing (Blackwell, 1997) and Global Retailing: Strategies for Success (Retail Intelligence, 1999). He has edited books on Values and the Environment, The Emergence of Modern Retailing, 1750-1950, Retail Structure, Retail Marketing, Retail Employment and The Internationalisation of Retailing.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII