Sunday 24 April 2016

The Commodity Culture of Victorian London

"The street-seller cries his goods at the head of a barrow; the enterprising tradesman distributes his goods at the door of his shop."  (Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor)

Imagine a newsboy hawking papers:  "Extra!  Extra!  Read all about it!"  That was how goods were sold in Victorian times, in the streets.  Street sellers would appeal to sound rather than sight.  Their targetted audience was London's working class.  Street-sellers appeared in the form of barkers, bill deliverers, bill stickers, sandwich board men and advertising van men.  

While the street sellers focussed on the working class, the shop owners set their sights on the middle class.  While most of the working class could not read, the middle class could.  Advertisers appealed to their sense of sight.  Street ads appeared on walls and in newspapers.  Early ads, in black in white, focussed on text.  In the later Victorian period, the ads contained colourful pictures.  

The Great Exhibition, the launching pad for many new products, set the tone for London advertising in the second half of the Victorian era.  On the pretty walkways of Hyde Park, visitors could gaze at pretty displays.  No longer was did entrepreneurs just focus on the product, but also on its presentation.  "The Great Exhibition represented the material world as an unchanging configuration of consumable objects." (Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England)  Organizers of the event even printed a catalogue for the six month exhibition.

Note:  For more information, read The World for a Shilling;  How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation by Michael Leapman at

Advertisement for Calvert's carbolic soap, a mild disinfectant soap used for household cleaning, 1899 (COPY 1/146 f.634)

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