Rather than the majority of people in the UK buying masses of Christmas presents and fighting through crowds of frantic shoppers, 17th Century seasonal shopping was reserved for the rich and took place in the New Year, and Paris, not Oxford Street, was favoured by consumers.
As part of ongoing research Claire Walsh, from the University of Warwick, has discovered the wealthy would present gifts at New Year for those in powerful positions to curry favour and patronage.
Samuel Pepys, English public official, and celebrated diarist, recorded in 1660 that he met a friend to go shopping for a substantial amount of silver, to present to the Secretary of State as a political gift. Pepys went to one of the most prestigious goldsmiths in London and enlisted his friend’s help for the taste and judgement required over the selection of a very expensive and socially sensitive gift.
Claire Walsh, from the History Department at the University of Warwick, said: “Consumer culture did exist 400 years ago, but rather than flocking to London’s Oxford Street to shop till they dropped, the 18th Century English elite travelled to Paris at New Year for present buying. The intricate design of snuff boxes in gold and silver was particularly admired, and the latest designs, held back until their revelation in the shops at New Year, were a talking point amongst foreign tourists and Parisians alike.”
Writer Horace Walpole, a figure of central importance in the cultural life of the 18th century, was a prodigious shopper, recording his visits to the Paris shops in his diary on an almost daily basis. For New Year presents he would shop in Paris’s most famous shopping locations – the Rue St Honore and the Palais Royal, where shopping in the evening with friends by candle and oil light created a fairy tale atmosphere.
Matthew Boulton, the famous silver and steel manufacturer, recorded the excitement of New Year’s shopping in Paris in a letter to his daughter in 1786, describing Paris shops:
“We have rode in our coach through the Rue St Honore to the Palais de Justice. All the shops were illuminated and set out with all the finest goods and at the Palais there were many hundreds of Shops all illuminated and thronged as much as Cheapside on a Lord Mayor’s Day. From there we went to the Palais Royal which is in the same style but to a greater extent and is such a sight as is not to be seen in the World. These sights and this way of keeping this good Sunday would shock all the sober and thinking part of English men but the French seem never to think of anything but nonsense and gaiety.”
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