How did people shop in the early 1800s?

Although people in the early 1800s could not shop at supermarkets or department stores, they had plenty of other shopping opportunities, especially if they lived in cities. Markets, peddlers and hawkers, specialty stores, general stores and cheap shops all catered to early 19th-century shoppers. Here’s a look at what it was like to go shopping 200 years ago.

Shopping for groceries early 1800s

The Greengrocer, by James Pollard, circa 1819. Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Shopping at markets

Cities, towns, and many villages in North America and Europe had a marketplace in which people could buy fresh food and other goods. Some markets operated daily, others weekly, or on certain specified days. Some were indoors, some outdoors. For people who didn’t live on farms, a trip to the market for groceries was usually part of the daily routine. Visiting Cincinnati in 1828, Frances Trollope observed:

There are no butchers, or indeed any shops for eatables, except bakeries, as they are called, in the town; everything must be purchased at market; and to accomplish this, the busy housewife must be stirring betimes, or, spite of the abundant supply, she will find her hopes of breakfast, dinner, and supper for the day defeated, the market being pretty well over by eight o’clock. (1)

That same year, British naval officer Basil Hall toured the markets of New Orleans.

Under one long arched building, surrounded by pillars, the meat was exposed to sale, and under another the vegetables. On the river, abreast of these markets, which were built at the bottom of the slope of the Levée, were ranged numberless boats that had arrived during the night from various plantations, both above and below the city. …

In the vegetable market I saw cabbages, peas, beet-roots, artichokes, French beans, radishes, and a great variety of spotted seeds, and caravansas [chick peas]; potatoes both of the sweet and Irish kind; tomatoes, rice, Indian corn, ginger, blackberries, roses and violets, oranges, bananas, apples; fowls tied in threes by the leg, quails, gingerbread, beer in bottles, and salt fish. … Close to every second or third pillar sat one or more black women, chattering in French, selling coffee and chocolate. Besides these good things, they distributed smoking dishes of rice, white as snow, which I observed the country people eating with great relish, along with a very nice mess of stuff, which I took to be curry, and envied them accordingly. But I found it was called gumbo, a sort of gelatinous vegetable soup, of which, under other instruction, I learnt afterwards to understand the value. (2)

In Napoleon in America, Napoleon fictionally sets foot in the United States right beside the New Orleans markets.

Fly Market, New York 1816

Fly Market from the corner of Front Street and Maiden Lane, New York, 1816. Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library

Peddlers and hawkers

Another shopping option was provided by itinerant vendors known as peddlers (spelled pedlars in the UK) and hawkers. These terms, which tended to be used interchangeably in the early 1800s, included street vendors who advertised their goods by calling out loudly, vendors who went door-to-door offering their wares, and vendors who travelled from village to village selling goods at each house. They were basically travelling salesmen. Here’s an early 19th-century American tin peddler describing how he made a sale.

A few days since, in my travels, I called at a house where I suspected the family had money, and I determined before leaving it to obtain some of it in exchange for my wares. Upon inquiring of the good lady if she wanted anything in my line, I met with an indignant frown, and an emphatic no! But I knew better. I replied, my ware is very superior, I will bring in some of it, and you shall judge for yourself. Nothing daunted by her exclamations that she would not buy any, and that I might spare myself any further trouble, I deliberately proceeded to my cart and filled my arms with an assortment of articles which was forthwith deposited on the floor of the house. Then taking them one by one, I explained their uses, their beauty, their cheapness, and the lady’s absolute want of them. In the course of an half hour she was fully convinced she could not do without certain articles, and actually paid me thirteen dollars cash – besides all the paper, rags, old pewter, &c. she had on hand. (3)

A spoon peddler

A Spoon Peddler

While peddlers and hawkers provided a necessary service for shut-ins and people who lived in remote areas, they were often regarded as nuisances, particularly in cities. A mathematically-inclined letter-writer complained about them to a London newspaper in 1826.

I live in the vicinity of the City-road, where, like my neighbours, my family are exceedingly annoyed by hawkers knocking at the door. The practice is grown now to such a pitch, Mary our servant declares, that no less than 100 a day pay us a visit; which, according to her account, is as bad as the tread-mill itself; and had she 10 pair of legs, as she says, they would be all too few for her. ‘Why, Sir,’ says she, ‘if they go on in this manner, we must not only have a new knocker, but also a new door soon.’ Admitting Mary to have exceeded the number of visitors, and supposing we fix them at 30, which, perhaps, would be nearer the mark, and that to answer the door, she has to go from the attics, sometimes from the cellar, and sometimes from the garden – without saying a word about the inconvenience of leaving the ironing-board, or the wash-tub – supposing, we say, what with going and coming, she walks 20 yards each time, which multiplied by 30, would be 600 yards per day. Allowing Mary, who is rather heavy gaited, to be two minutes in performing the operation, besides half a minute more in exchanging a few mutual, acrimonial compliments (which she is by no means deficient in), two and a half times 30 would be 75 minutes. Here is, then, an hour and a quarter of the servant’s time taken up with those unwelcome visitants. Add to this the nuisance of disturbing infants in their cots, besides annoying the whole house.

Yesterday, a woman selling hair brooms knocked at our door; and as I was on the eve of going out, I opened it myself and told her she should cry her goods, and not knock at people’s doors. ‘Poh,’ said she, ‘I have authority to do so, and shall, when I please, and as often as I please,’ and actually knocked a second time. I confess I was somewhat mortified at such daring conduct, but did not know how to prevent it. (4)

It was not unusual for hawkers to peddle stolen goods.

The ladies at the west end of [London] are not aware that when they are making bargains with persons who hawk about silks, they are encouraging the system of robbery…. There is scarcely a shawl purchased as a ‘bargain’ in this way, that has not been in the possession of some desperate house-breaker, who has risked his neck to get hold of what afterwards adorns the shoulders of many a beautiful woman. In fact, many a lady of rank and fortune may say with truth, when she looks at her new purchase, ‘This passed through the hands of a man who was or will certainly be hanged.’ (5)

Specialty stores

Most shops in the early 1800s were specialty stores. These were independently owned and often operated on the same premises on which the goods were made. Depending on where you lived and what you were looking for, a shopping trip might involve stopping at any of the following: bakery; bookstore; butcher; cabinet-maker and upholsterer (furniture); confectioner (sweets, preserves, candy); chemist and druggist or apothecary (medicine); carver and gilder (mirrors and picture frames); chandler (candles and soap); clothes shop; cookshop (cooked food); cooper (casks, tubs, pails); cutler (cutlery, scissors, penknives, razors, swords); draper or mercer (fabric); fishmonger; haberdasher (small items used in sewing); ironmonger (hardware); goldsmith; grocer; gunsmith; jeweler; lacemaker; milliner or hatter; printseller; musical instruments shop; optician (telescope, microscope, glasses); saddler; shoe store; silversmith; tailor; tanner (leather goods); tobacconist; watch and clock maker.

Shopping at the Linen Draper early 1800s

Shopping at the Linen Draper

Basil Hall amused himself in New York one morning by noting down a few of the signs over the shop doors: “Flour and Feed Store, Cheap Store, Clothing Store, Cake Store and Bakery, Wine and Tea Store, all explain themselves. Leather and Finding Store puzzled me at first. I learned, upon inquiry, that finding means the tape and other finishings of shoes and boots.” (6)

General stores

In small communities – particularly in North America – that could not support a range of specialty stores, there was often a general store where shoppers could obtain a wide variety of merchandise. Stephen Austin’s father, Moses Austin, operated a general store in Missouri “where he sold clothing materials, household and kitchen furniture, hardware, and other manufactured good for lead, peltry, and miscellaneous country produce. He exported these barter commodities to correspondents in New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and received his trade stock from them in exchange.” (7) General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes for a time ran a general store at the Vine and Olive colony in Alabama. Under the operation of an untrustworthy junior officer, the store lost its entire inventory, with money still owed to creditors.

Cheap shops

Cheap shops, or cheap stores, such as the one Basil Hall noticed in New York, were the discount stores of the early 19th century. They offered goods at lower prices than the specialty shops. As such, they were hated by regular merchandisers and attracted negative publicity.

There is no doubt but that a set of unprincipled adventurers have opened in various parts of London warehouses for the reception of perhaps smuggled…perhaps stolen, perhaps swindled, and frequently damaged goods, which they sell, and can afford to sell, at prices which set at naught all honest rivalship. What can be done with such men? Why, if the public will be cheated by them for the sake of twopenny savings, there is nothing to be done with the swindlers but to let them ruin themselves. …[They also have] a monopoly of the market…not alone the effect of roguery, and of their unfairly moderate prices, but…the consequence of their possessing large capitals, and of their being able to lay out money at seasons when other people are without it, and therefore of their being able to sell cheaper in consequence of having bought cheaper. Now, for a monopoly so obtained, we really know not what sort of legislative remedy can be invented. It is obvious that these large ready-money purchasers cannot be of the class of ‘desperate adventurers.’ (8)

The cheap shops did not all have “Cheap Shop” on their signs. In Britain, they assumed “the names of royalty, heroes, and battles, as attractive designations of their places of business.” As for what type of goods they sold:

You find in most of them the business carried on of the following curious admixture: the linen-draper, woolen-draper, silk-mercer, ladies’ shoemaker, jeweler, man’s mercer, haberdasher, hosier, glover, laceman, umbrella-maker, fancy china-man, carpet-dealer, furrier, plumassier, clock maker, upholsterer, perfumer, milliner, dress maker, &c. &c., each of which formerly was considered a distinct business or trade…. It may be asserted…that these monopolizers are the staunch advocates of free trade, and, by means of their extensive command of capital, are the greatest encouragers and importers of French and other foreign goods. (9)

In American cities, the cheap stores had tasteful displays in the windows, cheap articles exhibited at the doors, and pressing invitations to passersby to walk in. A critic described their business model as follows.

Wholesale merchants eager to extend their business, caught with the chaff of ‘cash customers,’ never hesitate to furnish goods to these gentlemen [the cheap store owners], whose honesty and ability are unimpeachable because unknown, and thus provide facilities of business which an upright and candid man is unable to procure because he lacks effrontery to make as fair (or rather unfair) representations. The stock thus obtained being gaily exhibited and offered for sale at cost-price enables the trader to make quick returns, while he avails himself of the solicitation of the merchant to buy heavier. Ready payments induce easy credit. The stock increases and the sales improve proportionably. Out of the proceeds our adventurer lives in style and luxury. ‘He is doing a smashing business.’ In time the notes become due, and the merchant advances money to assist in their payment. Other notes mature, and are protested, and the game is over. Out of the refuse of the business, the gentleman manages to glean some fifty percent, twenty-five of which he proposes to his creditors in compromise of his affairs (which is never rejected) and he retains the balance as capital wherewith to buy new credit for a second game. … Honest men, taking note of what is apparently a flourishing business, are at a loss to know the secret of these profitable speculations, and with a blind faith (would faith be faith with the eyes open)…sell their goods at cost, but unlike their exemplars, they pay for their goods, and hence the only thing they make is loss. (10)

Who did the shopping?

If you had servants, they did the shopping for you, especially for food and household items. If you did not have servants, or if you wanted more personal or expensive items, or if you wanted the social experience of going to the stores, you shopped for yourself. Both men and women frequented stores and markets. A visiting Englishman noted, “[i]t is much more the fashion at New York for gentlemen to go to market than ladies, and they very frequently carry home their purchase, especially if it be poultry, in their own hands.” (11) Women would typically shop for clothing for themselves and their families, although not all women enjoyed the experience. Irish writer Melesina Trench wrote in 1816, “I hate shopping, dislike conferences with milliners and dressmakers, fidget while anything is trying on, and give no credit to the pert Miss who always assures me the most expensive of her caps is exactly the one which becomes me the best.” (12)

At Market

At Market, by William T. Annis, 1803. Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The shopping experience

Stores were not generally set up for customers to browse in, the way they are today. Products were typically kept behind the merchant’s counter, and the shopkeeper, or a shop assistant, would bring forward whatever the customer wanted. The item would then be measured if necessary (for example, in the case of food or fabric), and then wrapped. Although prices could be negotiated with peddlers and market sellers, it was considered bad manners to try to bargain down the price in reputable stores. A British guide for young married women advised:

You yourself must endeavor to decide upon the real value of the articles laid before you, and to satisfy yourself that you are not called upon to pay more for them than what is reasonable. If the price exceed your expectation, then it becomes more just to bring down your wishes to the purchase of articles of lower value, rather than to attempt, as many do, to beat down to your own terms the price of those of higher value. This I cannot but consider as a wrong principle to act upon, and I should be inclined to withdraw my custom from any tradesman whom I found to be in the habit of asking one price for his goods and accepting another. (13)

Servants would be sent to the shops and markets with money to buy things, or would put things on their master’s account. A manual for servants noted:

The best and most economical way possible for marketing is to pay ready money for all that you can, especially for miscellaneous articles, and to deal for the rest with the most respectable tradesmen, whose bills should be settled weekly, or, at any rate, frequently, to prevent mistakes; without these precautions, even those of much experience may chance to be cheated by unprincipled strangers, with old poultry, stale fish, tough mutton, or cow beef. (14)

Liverpool merchant Adam Hodgson noted that “cash store” was painted over the shops in most towns he visited in the United States, “to tell the customers that the shopkeepers sell only for cash, while they may almost be induced to sell even a thimble on credit.” (15) Some merchants, especially on the frontiers of America, would accept payment in the form of other goods or services (payment-in-kind) rather than cash.

Frances Trollope noted that women in the United States often had difficulty paying cash.

[F]ew ladies have any command of ready money entrusted to them. I have been a hundred times present when bills for a few dollars, perhaps for one, have been brought for payment to ladies living in perfectly easy circumstances, who have declared themselves without  money, and referred the claimant to their husbands for payment. On every occasion where immediate disbursement is required, it is the same; even in shopping for ready cash they say, ‘send a bill home with the things, and my husband will give you a draft.’ (16)

It was considered impolite to look at a variety of items and not buy anything. The guide for young married women complained:

This ranging from shop to shop has also given origin to a fashionable method of killing time, which is well known by the term shopping, and is literally a mean and unwarrantable amusement at the expense of the tradesmen and shopkeepers who are subjected to it, and an insulting trial of the tempers of these poor people. I have seen ladies get down half the goods in a haberdasher’s shop upon his counter, and, after talking for an hour or two on their qualities and prices, leave the shop without making a purchase. I do not judge too harshly in saying that they entered without any intention of purchasing, and merely for amusement. (17)

An American retailer also bemoaned the practice of “shopping.”

Chattering gaily in pairs and triplicates, [women] flaunt along from shop to shop, making known their wants with dignity and self-possession, conscious of their vast superiority of intelligence and position over the poor creatures whom they condescend to honor with a knowledge of their need. Seating themselves complacently, they intimate their inclination to inspect the various patterns and new styles the shop may be so fortunate as to possess, and insinuate, with most graciously bland looks, seasoned with polished patience, their desire to see the entire quantity of which the assortment is made up.

Should the rash animal behind the counter venture to enhance a pattern by a word of praise, and tremblingly invite them to denote their admiration or denial of his taste; nay, more, should he (foolhardy though it were) be bold enough to ask whether the goods pleased them, the modest reply would be, (if they replied at all,) ‘Oh, tol loll!’ or some such definite and satisfactory proposition clearly confirmed by their leaving the store. Or if, perchance, there might be something fanciful enough to fix their attention and awaken their desire to possess it, prompt with this desire comes their wonted keenness and cupidity.

The retailer names a price; the ladies dissent on the ground that it is too high; – they have seen the article elsewhere for much less, (Heaven only knows why they did not buy it there!) and they do not want to pay more than they think it worth; the retailer makes a small reduction; they will not give so much; again he reduces; the ladies make an offer of a sum less than the prime cost; the shopkeeper again comes down in hope to divide the difference; the ladies make a small advance, to which the shopkeeper at length accedes, and commences measuring the quantity wished for; the ladies consult again, and decide to look a little farther; again he strives to enforce the sale; again they relent, and he cuts off the dress; he turns to procure a paper to envelope his sale and beholds his customers at the door, who kindly intimate to him that they will call again; he entreats them to stay one moment and hear him – he will bestow the trimmings if they will take the dress. With this proposition the ladies agree; the articles are procured and nicely packed together, and the direction of the parcel registered; the bill is presented and the money tendered and change about to be returned, when lo! one of the banknotes is a counterfeit; the ladies deny it – they have none but good money; the bill is shown them – it is not possible it came from them – the shopkeeper must have received it from some other person; this he as strenuously contradicts, for the bill has not been out of his hand; this latter being proof positive, they no longer demur, but exchange the bill and depart in great glee, having made a capital bargain. (18)

For more about situations you might have encountered if you went shopping in the early 1800s, see my post on “Shopping in the Early 19th Century.”

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  1. Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London, 1832), p. 67.
  2. Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828, III (Edinburgh, 1830), pp. 330-332.
  3. “Secrets in Trade,” National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), May 20, 1829.
  4. “Hawkers Knocking at Doors,” The Times (London, UK), May 23, 1826.
  5. George Smeeton, Doings in London, Tenth Edition (London, 1849), p. 252.
  6. Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828, I (Edinburgh, 1830), p. 18.
  7. Eugene C. Barker, The Life of Stephen F. Austin (Nashville & Dallas, 1925), p. 17.
  8. The Times (London, UK), January 8, 1829.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John Slater, A Peep into Catharine Street, Or the Mysteries of Shopping (New York, 1846), pp. 4-5.
  11. James Stuart, Three Years in North America, Vol. I (New York, 1833), pp. 329-330.
  12. Richard Chenevix Trench, ed., The Remains of the Late Mrs. Richard Trench (London, 1862), p. 344.
  13. Samuel and Sarah Adams, The Complete Servant (London, 1825), p. 55.
  14. Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America, Vol. I (London, 1824), pp. 360-361.
  15. Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, p. 245.
  16. Frances Parkes, Domestic Duties; or, Instructions to Young Married Ladies (London, 1825), p. 175.
  17. Ibid., p. 176.
  18. Slater, A Peep into Catharine Street, pp. 9-10.

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This ranging from shop to shop has given origin to a fashionable method of killing time, which is well known by the term shopping.

Frances Parkes