Stobart, J. (2009) Geographies of selling: the grocery trades in Georgian provincial towns. Paper presented to: Annual Conference of the Association of Business Historians: 'Cities of Business, the Business of Cities...', University of Liverpool, England, 3-4 July 2009.
Previous research on the development of retailing through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries presents a picture of shops growing rapidly in number and becoming increasingly widespread, both across the country and down the settlement hierarchy (see, for example, Mui and Mui, 1989; Hann, 2005; Stobart et al, 2007). At the same time, a growing number of studies have examined the changing distribution of retailers within towns and cities, highlighting in particular the emergence of the High Street. Within this work, shops selling groceries have occupied a somewhat ambivalent position. For some they were downmarket and back street – the ubiquitous ‘dealers in provisions’; but for others they were respectable high street tradesmen, often at the forefront of battles with less reputable shopkeepers and hawkers. My paper questions these dichotomies by exploring in detail the shifting intra-urban geography of those selling groceries in a variety of provincial towns. Drawing on evidence from trade directories, I argue that clustering and dispersal were both evident in a sector of the retail trade that was highly variable in its status, degree of specialisation, and selling practices. Building on this I consider the importance of what I term 'virtual landscapes of consumption', as produced through advertisements placed by grocers in local newspapers, and the itineraries mapped out by a growing number of urban guide books. At one level, I seek to assess the extent to which this abstract retail space reflected the reality of shops 'on the ground'; at another, I explore the ways in which these drew on and reinforced the iconography of the commercial and civic landscape.