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The man to ultimately blame for Wal-Mart

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I’ve explored before the early modern practice of charivaris, or rough music, but was surprised to read of a late 19th-century example, and in London.

It was Guy Fawkes Day, 1876, and small retailers were protesting about the practices of William Whiteley, a former draper who was developing what would be London’s first department store. About noon …

A grotesque and noisy cortege entered the thoroughfare [Westbourne Grove]. At its head was a vehicle, in which a gigantic Guy was propped up … vested in the conventional frock coat of a draper… Conspicuous on the figure was a label with the words ‘Live and Let Live’ … In one hand of the figure a piece of beef bore the label “5 1/2 d” and in the other was a handkerchief, with the ticket “2 1/2 d. all-linen”. (Quoted in Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End, Erika Diane Rappaport, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 16)

So this might be the man you could ultimately blame for Wal-Mart. “He became known as the “Universal Provider” – a merchant who claimed to sell anything to anybody. By combining dissimilar goods in one business and offering cut-price goods for cash only.” (p. 17) He was consequently, local shopkeepers complained, putting them out of business.

(His store’s successor, by the way, is an American-style mall.)

So one debate of our time has echoes in late Victorian London. And there are others.

In 1872 Whiteley had applied for a liquor licence for wine in his new refreshment room. But this could mean LADIES drinking spirits in PUBLIC! The otherwise general liberal editor of the local paper complained: “… sherry and silks, or port and piques, need not of necessity go together when ladies go ‘shopping’.” (p. 30)

Today the debate in England and Wales is over the extension of liquor licence hours, which is producing a similar moralistic backlash.

Some complained that the provision of abundant goods in opulent settings encouraged consumption. Even the provision of “rest rooms” encouraged “excessive shopping” that produced a “wild and reckless period …. things are done in a financial way that would make the angels weep … The afternoon’s excitement has … all the attractions of a delightful dream, with the slight dash of an orgy, leaving a lingering pleasure even over repentance”. (p. 38) Today’s debate is over-consumption of credit, and also, of course, plain over-consumption.

And finally, for those who complain about the pavement jaywalkers of Oxford Street, there’s the consolation to know that once “two young servants were fined for driving their perambulators abreast… The magistrate asked them: ‘How are the people to pass if you girls are gaping after soldiers and policemen?’ (p. 44)

You can read more posts like this on my home blog, Philobiblon.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.