Shopping in 1804

One of the great delights of researching the history of houses is finding an unusual source that gives you a real insight into some aspect of people’s lives that still has resonance today. Take shopping, for instance.

I recently discovered a set of grocer’s books in which he recorded all his customers’ orders, including the price due for each item. When the account was paid, he drew a vertical line through the centre of that order to indicate it was settled. Taking a page at random, I found that Mrs Lightwood appears not to have paid for the ‘1 large door handle and nails’ delivered by Henry Bentley to her home on 3 November 1804. Amount due: 10½d – that would be the equivalent of £1.34 today – so a pretty cheap door handle.

Green tea, enjoying something of a revival at present, was very popular in this Staffordshire village. It was sold loose by the pound of course and cost 1s 10d a quarter, that’s about £2.95 now, so quite a luxury item.

I’m curious as to what Mrs Dunn of the Swan in Lichfield wanted with ’32lbs of fat’ all in one go, and nothing else. Perhaps she made a lot of pies. Similarly, I wonder whether Mr Levett was planning to use his ‘1lb saltpetre’ as a food preservative or for making gunpowder.

The order in which items are listed is odd. Perhaps customers wrote their shopping list like I do, as I think of things. Here is Mr Dawes’ order, as received by the grocer, that set him back £1 8s 2d – £45.31 or thereabouts today:

Spices

Shopping in 1804

1 dozen white plates, 6lbs currants, 1 wool mop, 6 blue and white cups and saucers, 1 teapot and cream jug, 2 pudding dishes, 2 dozen cambric buttons, 1 yard calico, 16 needles, ½oz mace, ½oz cloves, 1 tea kettle, 1 iron pot, 1 carpet broom, 1lb butter, and 3 pints of vinegar.

I’m still puzzling over William Smith’s order in August 1804 for a ‘drink for a cow that could not clean him’, 1s 4d. That might stump even Tesco. Any ideas?

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