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High Street History: Shops

Updated Tuesday 3rd July 2007

The places where our forebears bought their vitals might have vanished, but they have left traces behind them.

Stockbridge market, Edinburgh Creative commons image Icon scratch n sniff under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license


Supermarkets as a sort of one-stop-shop for all grocery needs did not take off until the late 1950s. Before that, shopping might have been a time-consuming task, with several small shops to visit before it was completed.

Some independent shops – like pharmacists or ironmongers – managed to hold on for longer than grocery shops, but even they are rarer nowadays. There are still many traces of those independent shops on our high streets; it’s just a matter of looking closely. For instance, Victorian shops sometimes had bay windows constructed to better display their wares. You might even discover hints of an older enterprise in a building’s tiles, glass, or façade.

These hints can help us to understand how people shopped in previous eras. Remember that once you have come across these remnants of past shops, you might be able to find out more by visiting local archives – many of which will keep old trade directories – or even by searching the web.

Shop window Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Bay windows

Shop windows have long been crucial assets for the effective displays of a shopkeeper’s goods. Bay windows such as these became very popular in the eighteenth century. As glass became cheaper and techniques for its moulding improved, the individual panes (reasonably small in the picture) became larger.

Shop Doorway Mosaic Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Doorway mosaic

It’s worth looking down as well as up! This panel in the doorway of a shop probably dates from the late 1800s, when such complex tiling and mosaics – often in this art nouveau / arts and crafts style – were popular. ‘Doorway advertising’ of this kind remained popular well into the 1950s, though designs steadily became less decorative. The shop itself has long been superseded, but it should be possible to find out about it at a local archive.

Shop3 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Controlled

Stockbridge Market

Okay, this interesting remnant just north of Edinburgh is not technically a shop, but it nonetheless reminds us that markets used to be at the centre of local community life. A rather grand neo-classical entrance fronts what was, at the time of its opening in the late Georgian period, an enclosed area. The market operated for almost 100 years, but by 1906 trade had gone elsewhere and it closed. Rather later, flats replaced it. You might be surprised that – given its age – the words are so clear, but that’s because the arch was considered valuable enough to be reconditioned in the 1980s.

Taking it further

If you’re interested in the economics of shopping, you might investigate Understanding economic behaviour: households, firms and markets (D319). Also of interest may be the historical courses Cities and technology: from Babylon to Singapore (AT308) and Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400-1900 (A200).


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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