keeping shop

As part of my research for the introduction to our People Make Glasgow book, I’ve been doing some highly enjoyable work poking about the city’s eighteenth and nineteenth-century post office directories, which provide intriguing lists of Glasgow’s merchants, manufacturing and retail businesses (much like the yellow pages). Looking at these directories across a century or so gives a very interesting picture of the city’s changing material life, its rising and waning social and economic activities, and a fascinating sense of where its money was coming from: the imperial trades of tobacco and sugar (underwritten by the plantation slavery in which the city was so invested) dominate everything, and the directories includes huge numbers of West India merchants, sugar houses, tobacconists, and purveyors of rum.

(John Knox, Old Glasgow Cross (1826) The arcaded front of the old Tontine hotel is visible here. The building was home to the Tontine Coffee Rooms, favoured haunt of late-eighteenth century West India merchants and local tradespeople)

One of the great pleasures of these directories is the snapshot they afford of the wide range of manufacturing and retailing activities that occurred in Glasgow – often in the same workshop spaces. Along Trongate, Gallowgate, and the High Street Glaswegians were variously occupied as dry salters ( fish curers), brewers, glove makers, wig makers, makers of bricks and pan tiles, milliners, leather cutters, anchor makers, wire workers, watchmakers, ham curers, cabinet makers, book binders, bridle makers, cork cutters, coopers, brush makers, upholsterers, and producers of fringes and tapes (with which to finish garments and hats).

James Brown, The Trongate (1774).

It’s been particularly interesting for me to see the variety of occupations under which women are listed in these directories. In Jones’ directory of 1787, for example, there are 6 women-led businesses listed on Gallowgate alone, including a woollen and linen dealer; a toyshop, a baker, a tobacconist, a comb maker, and a stay and habit maker – the memorably named “Mrs Booz.” In the late eighteenth century, Glasgow women are working throughout the city as bleachers, embroiders, hook makers, and haberdashers, as dealers in animal feed and “sundry vegetables”, as the owner of a wholesale barley business (supplying the local brewing indudstry) and as a copper and white-iron smith.

Discovering all these enterprising women in the city’s directories reminded me of one of my favourite local portraits, an anonymous image, probably from the last decade of the eighteenth century. It’s held in the People’s Palace, and is known simply as The Woman Shop Keeper.

This well-attired woman is selling lemons and sugar ( which is displayed on the shelves behind her, wrapped in its characteristic paper cones). Her wares belie her city’s imperial connections: by the late eighteenth century sugar was Glasgow’s principle plantation slavery commodity, brought from ships to be processed in one of the city’s many small refineries, known as sugar houses. Lemons, meanwhile, were routinely combined with the rum which enslaved people distilled on Scots-owned plantations, to create the “Glasgow punch” which formed a favourite tipple of the city’s late-eighteenth-century gentlemen. So while this woman’s the picture of local business, she’s an image of the empire too.

I find this portrait enormously appealing. I love the shopkeeper’s direct gaze, her neat appearance, the attention to detail that’s paid to the cut of her clothes and cap (look at her kerchief; the pleats and ruffles of her striped bodice; her cap’s green trim) and perhaps especially the straightforward way in which her commercial capability is being represented here (starting straight at us, her left hand resting lightly on the counter, the right counting out tokens or coins). It’s a picture that says a lot about the roles of bourgeois women in this period, about late eighteenth-century shops and commodities, about Glasgow, and, from the anchor about her neck to the sugar that she sells, about the wider imperial world with which the material life of the city was inescapably intertwined.