The Shops are Open! Let’s Explore York’s Retail History

The Shops are Open! Let’s Explore York’s Retail History

Chapped skin from all that hand-washing? There’s a cream for that! (Copyright: City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd)

Flicking through pictures of trade cards (originally transferred to us from the Castle Museum) feels like window shopping through history. These ephemeral pieces of paper and card were never intended to survive, and yet they offer us so much insight into 19th-century life. Looking at the cards, it is no wonder that Yorkshire continues to boast such a diverse and friendly community of independent businesses. Join us as we glimpse through the windows of their predecessors and explore all the weird and wonderful products they have to offer.

(Copyright: City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd)

It is interesting to compare these cards and notices to the glossy adverts favoured by colossal companies today. In his notice of moving premises, W.C. Turner refers to customers as ‘friends’ and ‘respectfully solicits a continuance of their Patronage, to deserve which will ever be his study’. Turner promises to pay ‘scrupulous attention’ to all areas of his business and thanks his friends for the ‘liberal support’ they offer him. All this before he even mentions the products he has on offer (despite the shaving cream being ‘the best article of the kind ever offered to the Public’).

Such prioritisation of customers remains a hallmark of independent businesses today. Rather than spending vast amounts of money on adverts, local shops often rely on word of mouth. One benefit of social media is how easy it has become for customers to spread the word and share their experiences of good customer-service.

Marks and Spencer original premises, 15-16 Pavement, c.1907.
Image reference y9_pav_7606_b Copyright: City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd
(See more photographs from our archive at

Specialism also stands out when looking through these trade cards. Today many shops have grown to encompass multiple services. Marks and Spencer may have started small, but the business now boasts so many product lines that we can purchase groceries, suits, homeware, furniture, and even bridesmaid dresses from a single company. This certainly saves time, but is something lost when we can find everything under one roof/website?

Thankfully, Yorkshire continues to keep the independent, small-scale ethos alive and, now that shops start reopening, one shopping list can easily direct us to so many different local traders (keeping a suitable social distance of course!). That isn’t to say that wide-ranging shops aren’t also valuable, because York boasts multiple independent department stores that still manage to specialise in excellent customer service!

Although many large chains offer online services, it tends to be smaller and independent businesses that rely on footfall. Hopefully, these will be boosted by locals returning to shops this week. Yorkshire evidently has a rich and diverse retail history. Here’s to supporting its future!

Or perhaps you prefer keeping yourself to yourself? Maybe you think we should stop peeking into the past and mind our own business? In which case, the Neglected Home Department has just the job for you…

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