Promoting Natural & Cultural History
The rich information on trade cards and bill-heads in the form of illustrations, printed texts as well as hand-written notes may be compared with observations by the social reformer Charles Booth for historical studies of London. Together these sources give a multitude of facts linked to upholstering as an occupation and other interests of the trade during two hundred years. This case study aims to present a glimpse of the commerce of such goods, in the eyes of the shop-keepers and customers, as noticed on trade cards from the 18th- and first half of the 19th century. To be contrasted with the later observations – mainly 1880s-1900s – by Booth where the conditions and daily lives of the manufacturers/shop-keepers as well as the upholstery workers were included.
Sir Ambrose Heal (1872-1959) had a historical interest foremost in 18th century trade cards. Thousands of cards in his former care are kept at the British Museum, among these the 103 cards linked to upholsterers. This selection of cards also include Heal’s factual notes, giving the time range for most businesses, and therefore an approximate year for the majority of these trade cards, bill-heads and receipts. His sources for dating the individual establishments were primarily poll books and directories of London. The hand-written receipts are additionally dated in connection to the order, purchase or delivery of the goods.
Even if upholstery of furniture was the link between all these traders a multitude of goods and services were included in such businesses. The branches for textiles could for example be: bedding, carpets, curtains, feather beds, mattresses and Venetian blinds. But the upholstery trade was also often combined with cabinet making, chair manufacturers, selling of looking glasses, paper for rooms, all sorts of household goods, pianos or second hand furniture/goods. Additional trades could be appraiser, auctioneer, undertaker, estates were bought and sold as well as that “warehouses” were often mentioned in various combinations to emphasise the extensive trade. Lastly, some rarer business opportunities were listed as “dealer in”; coals, upholstery to the admiralty, cabin furnitures for ships and military tents.
This study will not draw conclusions of pricing, inflation or the financial side of the upholstery trade, but it may be mentioned that quite substantial sums were the norm – £10-£40 was not unusual – upholstering, curtains and ordering of furniture were in general costly investments. One receipt even stretches over three pages and totals £155.22.5 by the upholsterer Johan Hanbury who listed upholstery work and furniture delivered/ordered in various months by one wealthy customer in the period from 1751 to 1758.
The trade cards and the receipts from this collection dating 1689 to 1841 only demonstrated the upholstery trade from the view of the owner/manufacturer and their customers. The many workers who were part of this trade are invisible, therefore this case study is backed-up with some notes by the extensive material from Charles Booth (1840-1916) and an introduction to his work from the 1880s to the early years of the 20th century.
In Booth’s material the upholstery workers were mentioned – particularly regarding their wages – side by side with matters concerning the shop-owners of such businesses. One may also speculate that due to that upholstery was a skilled trade including several years of training, these manufacturers and possibly also the majority of their workers could avoid the most deprived areas of London, not a reality for various other textile workers like untrained tailors or numerous women working as seamstresses or laundresses. This circumstance is also demonstrated on the “Booth Poverty Map” which mainly placed people involved in the upholstery trade in the light blue, purple and pink areas – regarded as poor, mixed and fairly comfortable streets. Some individuals even in a red area – regarded as a middle class/well-to-do: As was the case in a ‘Completed wages questionnaire: Thomas Lawes and Company, cabinet makers and upholsterers, 65 City Road, 7 March 1893.’ It may also be noted that an extensive census search of individuals working within the upholstery trade, would give further detailed evidence for where and under which family circumstances this occupational group lived in late 19th century London.
Booth’s interests included all trades but when it concerned upholsterers he particularly made notations for: lists of practitioners of this occupation, and interviews; the fact that they were often also cabinet makers, wages for these workers and facts relevant to the Society of Upholsterers. This occupation was mentioned on 29 individual occasions in his original survey notebooks, as the third most listed textile trade after tailors and drapers.