Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 12 - A Chapter on Shop-Windows

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A CHAPTER ON SHOP-WINDOWS

GOOD reader, I am one of those poor unfortunate people you sometimes meet with in the streets — a perambulating board-man. I have dined at good men's tables, and seen better days; but what matter, I am now reduced to carry a board, and wander the streets from morning till night. Being always of an observing turn of mind, notwithstanding the sleepy, half vegetable kind of life I lead, I amuse myself with studying the physiognomies of shop-fronts, and much there is to be learned from them of human nature, without doubt. Of all shop-windows, tailors' afford me the most matter for speculation; they are such a fine, demonstrative race these tailors —so artful, get on so by slipping to the blind side of poor human nature. What can be more enchanting than an East-end "emporium of fashion?" — the smaller the shop the bigger name they give it — no angler knows better the right kind of bait to suit the water. I hate "splendacious" pantaloons, with checks big enough for the wearer to play draughts upon his knees; and that "superior vest," with a pattern that would require a Daniel Lambert to display it. What a thorough aggravator it is ! Sometimes, as I rest my board [-124-] for a minute and look about me, I see the "gents" flock round such windows, and then pass on as though they had got some new idea, some vision of a future killing cut, such as a Cremorne or Vauxhall would
           "Startle, waylay, and betray."
    And then these city tailors, how artfully they play upon the feelings of affectionate mothers — what genteel-looking little boys with the bluest eyes — that stare so long, one feels annoyed that they do not wink — and the most golden-coloured hair and the most genteel features, all done in the best wax-work, are fixed to the side of the doorways, and show off their tight-fitting tunics. Pretty darlings, guiltless of tops and of soap-alleys, how many Billies and Bobbies, revelling in all the glorious ease of frockhood, have you not reduced to the cruel purgatory of breeches and button-dom; but, as I have said before, these tailors play upon the feelings of the human race with such remorseless vivacity. There is one feature, however, in the tailor's shop worthy of observation, and that is the facility with which it can throw off its character of a philanthropist anxious to clothe the whole brotherhood of mankind at the lowest possible figure, and assume an aristocratic reserve quite chilling to a common spirit. Sackville-street, for instance, is the head quarters of the West-end tailors, and yet not a vestige of shop-front is to be seen. A well built pair of trousers might sometimes be observed thrown carelessly over some window-blind, — of course, with no idea of show — and this is all the trace to be seen of the refined Schneider within. In the tailoring [-125-] trade, as in electricity, there are, as regards public favour, poles of attraction and repulsion. At the one end Moses, Doudney, &c., with their bands of poets, hold the sway; at the other, Buckmaster, and other West-enders of the craft, preside with a self-sustained dignity and a chilling  hauteur.
    What tailors' shops are to men, linendrapers' are to women. In all my experience — and I have trudged up and down the world a good bit — I never saw a woman pass a mercer's without taking a good long draught with her eyes at the silks, satins, and muslins within. They may be going for their half-ounce of tea, their pat of butter, or the tops-and-bottoms for the "babies," or for anything else farthest in the world from a "warranted fast colour," but just peep in they must, and in my belief  'tis the happiest five minutes in a woman's life; and for an idle half hour, what a mine of wealth is the mercer's window. How many ideal dresses do they not possess in the course of an afternoon's walk!, How many shabby Leghorns revive with illusory ribbons ! As the sculptor sees the statue in the block of marble, a woman perceives a full-trimmed body in the simple goods piece, and as she goes from window to window, a whole wardrobe passes through her mind like so many dissolving views, as she glances from the flaunting and profligate satins to the staid and sober-minded stuffs. But it is to "bankrupts' stocks" that women "most do congregate." The taste ladies have for "fifty per cent. under prime cost" is extraordinary. There is one shop in St. Paul's Churchyard that, with laudable gallantry, makes a "frightful sacrifice" of itself every autumn for their especial pleasure. For a few days pre-[-126-]viously it puts its shutters up, and retires into itself to contemplate the great act of devotion it is about to perform.
    Then, at an appointed time, the shutters are withdrawn, and the mental agony the stock has endured, at the thought of its approaching dissolution, is observable. The ribbons lie dishevelled in every corner; the "5,000 dozen of muslins" precipitately pitch themselves into the window, as though in despair at not being able to get rid of themselves before the wet weather sets in; lace visites implore you by their emphatic tickets to save them from the wreck; and glossy satins coax to be removed from the vulgar neighbourhood of "warranted washing colours."  There should be a bill brought by Lord Shaftesbury to put down the infamous manner in which mercers thus agitate the feelings of the softer sex.
    And now for a word or two upon the chemist and druggist's shop, and I hope it is not offended at being, however inadvertently, placed after the linendraper's. The chemist establishment is such a rare dandy, that one scarcely likes to talk of it as a shop, and one feels quite ashamed to step in among so much looking-glass, polished mahogany, and gilding, for a pen'orth of salts; and then the gentlemen behind the counter, they don't seem quite to have made up their minds whether they are professionals, or only tradesmen. What have they got those queer conjuror's letters on the big bottles for? 'Tis only to "impose" upon poor ignorant people; and what's the meaning of the big bottles?  Many times I've asked that question, as I have gone by and seen myself coolly walking upon my head round the great globes of blue —  how disgusting 'tis at [-127-] night to see them glare out upon you like great goblin's eyes — glaring right out into the dark night, across the road, along the pavement, and up the wall, giving every passer-by, alternately, the scarlet-fever, or the last stage of cholera. One feels the chemist's shop is a great sham, the real stock in trade is the French polish, and the gilt, and the bottles, and the "bounce" of the proprietors — all the rest is "leather and prunella." Contrasted with the affected gentility of the druggist is the harness maker's, a good honest shop, where the master is a real working tradesman, who stitches away in his shirt-sleeves among his apprentices, without an atom of pride; look in when you will at the harness maker's, there is the master and his men cutting and sewing away, in that slow methodical manner so fitted to one of our great Saxon staples, as yet guiltless of any of the improvements of the "go-a-head" world. A saddler's shop appears chiefly famished with the honest-looking craftsmen you see pursuing their labours through the loops of pendant bridles, the glistening steel bits, and the ranks of whips.
    I scarcely like to begin about pawnbrokers, over the threshold of whose doors the footsteps of misfortune so furtively glide. What an odd museum the window of mine "uncle" presents! From the flat-iron of the drunken laundress to the wedding-ring of the starving widow, everything is ticketed and has its price. If each article could give its story, what despair, what misery, would be laid bare to the world! A little tray in the window is filled with articles of jewellery: there lies a  locket containing hair — the hair of some dead lover — and many a summer evening has its owner sat in the twilight [-128-] kissing it with unavailing tears; she would not have parted with it for her life's blood, but the pinched face of that poor little sister, through which starvation gauntly glares, how can she resist its mute appeal? Can you not fancy the shame, the revolting pride of the poor creature, as she nears the dreaded door? Now she passes, as though she did not intend to enter, now she returns and looks about her, as though she were about to commit a dreadful crime, and now, at last, she plunges in, and gives up for ever a portion of her heart for a sister's meal. The next article in the tray is a gold pin, plucked by a street-walker from the breast of a drunken man. Then again we see a silver pencil-case — it bought the last meal for a ruined merchant, ere the fatal leap was taken from the bridge. A desperate history stares you in the face in each trinket of the group. The prison, the deep water, the mad house, and the midnight grave, hold possession of their late owners, and here they all lie huddled together, marked "Anything in this tray for 4s. 6d." The pawnbroker's shop puts on a different complexion, according to the neighbourhood in which it is situated. At the West-end, the old battered plate, the choice cabinet picture, the signet ring of value, show the necessities that exist in the upper as well as the lower circles. In the meaner neighbourhoods, old clothes, counterpanes, sheets hung up at full length by the dozens, flat-irons, and workmen's tools, tell the straits to which the poor are driven sometimes for a meal. There is, at all times, a dignity in fortune and suffering which we cannot but respect; let us pass on then, from the pawnbroker's window without any ill-timed jest. 
    [-129-] The book stalls are, perhaps, the only really picturesque shops, reminding one of the olden time, extant. There is a keeping about these stalls which is quite delightful; all the books seem to have acquired by companionship such a family likeness; such a dingy old-world appearance. It would be too great a stretch for the brain to imagine the time when they were wet from the press, and guiltless of those old mouldy stains, like maps of out-of-the-way countries, scattered over their pages. And then the stallkeepers — they say that foxes and other wild animals of the desert grow to the colour of the sand; so it is with the old stall-keeper, there he stands, his face the colour of a vellum MS., and his body bound in cloth the hue of that musty volume of "Hervey's Meditations among the Tombs."
    The only thing out of keeping with the book-stalls is that sharp little face peering out of a peep-hole between the books, like a spider watching for a heedless fly. There is a cunningness about the book-stall boy unworthy of the old-fashioned, trustful, respectable dulness of the presiding spirit in ancient spectacles. And then the old pinched-up faces that daily poke over the books, withered men, in camlet cloaks up to their knees, with great bunching umbrellas under their arms, poking out to the infinite danger of passers-by. How they moon over the ragged, dirty surface of the book-range, "Anything new to-day, Mr. Maggott?" "Nothing particular, Mr. Wormy." The same question and the same answer have been exchanged every day these last twenty years. "Anything new to-day?" Lord love you; none of those camlet gentry would look at anything that was not drilled [-130-] through like a honeycomb, and as old as the parish steeple. But, alas! the genuine old book-stall is getting rarer and rarer; the gloomy hollow space, in the dim distance of which the old tomes were faintly discovered, have been parted off from us by glaring plate glass.
    The very books in some of the new shops seem to have suffered a resurrection: old editions, published "at ye Sunne, over against ye Conduit, in Fleete Street," issue afresh from the press ; the genuine originals, that have lain on dusty shelves for a couple of centuries, are aghast at seeing the very counterparts of themselves arise, in all the pristine beauty of youth, and push them from their stools. It is a wonder to me that Tonson and other ancient publishers don't bustle out of their graves at the sight of their old copyrights revived again, and kicking, in this low, degenerate age, when cabmen and others of the vulgar can command the books that, in their time, were soiled by no thumbs meaner than those of dukes and duchesses.
    I have well nigh gone through my beat for the day, but I have a word or two to say about butchers, and an odd change that comes over them towards night-time on Saturdays. We all know what a jolly good-natured race they seem, as they smile at their well-to-do customers through the ranks of legs of mutton and the carcases of sheep. Good reader, you would never think that that bland breadth of beef-like cheek could do anything but laugh; if you think so, come along with me one Saturday night, and I will show you what a changed man he can make of himself. There he sits in his empty shop; the hooks all guiltless of sweltering legs and ruddy surloins; the great block [-131-] scraped up clean for the week; the gas flaring out in a stream from the open neck of the pipe, now only in a blue stream of light, now in a  flaming sword of fire, as the wind plays with it, and alternately plunges the shop into intense light and deep shadow; the board before the window is spread about with a hundred miserable scraps of meat — it is the feast of the poor. A dozen wretched women, with their little baskets, hang about the board, and turn the scraps over, one by one, whilst the butcher sullenly looks on.
    "What's the price of this, mister ," one of them demands.
    "Sixpence," is the reply, without the moving of a muscle.
    "What, for that bit?"
    "There, if you don't like it, missis, you can move on ;" and here the attempted barter ends.
    Another and another eager pair of eyes scrutinize the miserable flaps of meat, but they never seem to buy, but pass on, whilst the butcher steadily keeps his seat.
    And in the next and next street, the gas flares, and a butcher sits in plethoric insensibility, keeping guard over his scanty scraps, and the pale crowd of women wander from shop to shop, and covet the offal their means cannot obtain. Reader, if you wish to believe in the jollity of the butcher, don't go out on a Saturday night and watch his dealing with the poor.
    And now I will conclude with a word or two upon doomed shops.
    The doomed shop is originally some respectable old concern that has outlived its neighbourhood. How often [-132-] in some bygone street do we see some such gloomy establishment, wearing the same aspect it did fifty years ago, when it was first opened by the firm. Fashion and the town have moved on long ago, but no change is to be seen in its dismal windows, filled with articles of a quality and nature which have reference to out-of-date times. It is looked up to with deep respect by the meaner class of shops, which have sprung up around it, to suit the fallen fortunes of the locality. The very stillness and absence of vulgar bustle which distinguishes it gives a certain dignity, and. implies a certain wealth in the proprietors. At last the concern, which everybody looks upon as a fixture, as much as the parish church, becomes bankrupt, or the partners die, and it is closed. Shortly afterwards it reopens with a dash, as a cheap tea mart, the whole place is transformed, and becomes the talk of all the old women of the courts round, who make a trial of its "good strong Congou, at 2s. 9d." Its dazzle is of short continuance, however; the bailiff some fine morning walks in and makes a clear sweep of the whole stock for rent, and so it is closed again. The next time the shutters are taken down 'tis by some meek-minded individual from the country, who sets up a cigar-shop, and calls it a divan, upon the strength of a few bundles of home-made Havannahs, a dozen Dutch pipes, and two jars of "rag," the whole stock being kept guard over by a painted plaster-of-Paris brigand, with a cigar in his mouth, half as big as himself. One can always foretell what such concerns will come to; the proprietor some night putting the key under the door and decamping. At this stage of the doomed shop's disease its symptoms of change are very rapid, a [-133-] milliner is succeeded by a slang printseller; then comes a sweetmeat shop; the shifting of tenants taking place almost as quickly as in a pantomime. At last the place is closed for a long, long time; but, for dear existence, it makes one more struggle, divides itself up the middle, and opens as two different establishments, the original door serving for both concerns. A boot and shoe maker takes possession of one window, and a fancy baker and confectioner the other; the most opposite trades always thus falling cheek by jowl. One wonders how they manage to live, nobody ever goes in to buy anything, and what becomes of the stale pastry is a puzzle; the boots 'tis irue, will keep themselves, but not their proprietor. The children of the respective establishments — dirty and squalid — fraternize upon the door-step. At last the two firms are reduced to a system of barter, a pair of children's shoes being considered an equivalent for a baked meat pie, but alas! two people can't go on living upon each other in this way, and the place is finally closed, the shutters, after a vain struggle, give themselves up to the bill-sticker, and an old apple woman, with her stall, takes possession of the doorway. It might open years hence, perhaps as a miserable broker's, when an old meat screen, two or three Windsor chairs, a few saucepans, some odd pieces of crockery, and a buggy-looking bedstead swathed like a mummy in its own sacking, will form the whole stock in trade, and to serve which, a woman in a dirty cap, and a gown freely opening, will rush out from some back slum at the sight of a customer. But this picture I must leave for another time to bring to perfection.

source: Andrew Wynter, Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, 1865