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Why Victorians Loved a Sale

We’ve discussed previously that the Victorians practiced economy, but within a decade of the start of the era the concept of shopping at a sale began. Shopping had taken new form and catalog distribution by the postal carriers sparked the images of the new trends which Victorians didn’t want to pass them by. Shopping, then, was not as it has become. Here are a few reasons of what influenced merchants.

I was dining at the Neiman Marcus in San Francisco on tea and sandwiches and admiring the painted décor when I asked a waiter about the history of the original tent sales and the building construction history. Victorians it was clear considered shopping a serious if time consuming past time or even an avocation.

Observers of the time declared a shopping-phobia to have come over ladies of grand interests. They would be shopping for days in the same places, selecting endlessly through merchandise, then over-buying in small fortune quantities, then returning the items. It was declared a sickness of the time. Ladies of Society actually didn’t shop in a fevered frenzy because they’d been trained to procure in other manners.

One such manner was to visit the salon of the designer and then to spend the afternoon in that salon. Gabbing and gossiping with clientele selected exclusively fostered the aura that the patronage had to be up to par of the offerings. Tea and champagne and just the right dash of information about happenings accompanied the unhurried hours with designers altering and ordering fashions.

In any event, shopping was a fashionable event. The invitation by courier to a private sale was well received for many a lady-of-the-manor. She would welcome the discount which was akin to that she would hope for with regular patronage. But the idea of spending time being catered to alongside her social peers was just something to anticipate. Procuring estate items was previously handled by secretaries to the man of the house or a lady in waiting or similarly appointed staff. The lady of the manor would pay the weekly accounts from the purchases she selected that had been brought to her, or delivered in finished form. The reason is that it was safer than carrying money in the still dangerous times. Letters of credit preceded a lady and were still in effect in the Victorian era.

A sale, then, was as much for socializing as for a bargain. The Victorian lady was after all quite adept at conversation, politicking of a sort, mini-adventures, the Arts, and keeping her household in fine form, all of which could be refreshed at the local exclusive designer’s salon of the merchant with the open bins of well-ordered stock.

I’ll see you next month on the third Thursday for more Victorian insights.  tophat1






  1. How refreshing a vision! Contrasting that beautiful image of shopping while being catered to with today’s self serve gas pumps, and even self-serve grocery checkouts! This is one bit of progress I wish had never happened.

  2. Melissa says:

    Great post…I still think of shopping as much like this. I’m a HUGE bargain hunter, and can spend hours pouring over sale items while chatting and gossiping with friends looking for just that perfect bargain. And around here it is still considered special to be invited to those private sales. I LOVE them!!

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