One hundred years of Shop Architecture

On Tuesday 19th March members went shopping! Ned Williams, a well-known authority on Black Country history, entertained the Society to an expedition into the history of shops. Perhaps this is something we just take for granted but if you stop and think how your shopping habits have changed over the years, you will realise that many of those specialist shops which existed both in town centres and possibly on your street corner, have now disappeared. In fact, nowadays some would argue that shopping is no longer a chore but a specific leisure activity with major shopping precincts and out-of-town shopping malls designed to transport the shopper into a fantasy world of consumption.

From Ned's talk and his excellent colour slides, it was clear that the subject had seized his interest. Here was a man who would not only take a photograph of the shop front but go and talk to the shopkeeper; listening to the history of the shop and the family that had run it, possibly over many generations. Ned had been at his work since 1987.

Even then, there were many examples of more traditional shops, some of which were still hanging on to a precarious financial existence. The arrival of the large superstore has accelerated their demise and Ned was clearly grateful that his interest had been aroused in time to make a photographic record.

Going back to the 1820s and 1830s, Ned explained that the first shops as we know them emerged at this time. Georgian shops are predictably symmetrical with two shallow bay windows flanking a central doorway.

A pastiche of this approach exists now and members may recall Lichfield examples. But it is difficult in the Black Country to find any surviving examples of this style.

With the coming of the Victorians, the shop-front changed again. Building techniques allowed larger windows rather than the smaller Georgian-style panes and the bay disappeared so that a large flat window was accompanied by a side door and not one centrally located on the fašade. Slowly the Victorian shop-front developed into a more sophisticated fašade, especially with the arrival of cast-iron frames which meant that more and more glass coverage could be provided for on the frontage.

The turn of the 20th century saw the arrival of multiple shops on the scene. Many members will recall the 'Home and Colonial' shops, as well as that well known West Midland name George Mason.

With the multiples came the first corporate identity schemes and the development of very similar shop styles. In addition, Ned remarked that these multiples brought with them a much more sophisticated approach to window dressing, even leading to window dressing competitions. Photographs had to be taken of these carefully designed window displays - doubtless to provide management at head office with visual information for judging. Ned remarked that many of the successor chains still hold such photographic records which are a true goldmine of information about the shopping trade in the early part of the 20th century.

Development of corporate images reached new heights of sophistication through the approach taken by both Woolworths and Burtons in the 1920s and 1930s. May members will still recall the styles developed by these two companies.

These were styles that although individually unique, still related between shops so that the concept of corporate identity was maintained. The Second World War stalled the development of the shop-front. The 1940s and 1950s were very much a 'make do and mend' era when cheap materials, particularly plastics, were used to try and upgrade the dingy images of previous decades.

But there were some isolated but interesting developments in the 1960s, now lost to us. The boutique arrived, quite often displaying unique revolutionary frontages whilst the 1960s saw a start to the change away from the mixing of shoppers and vehicles in high streets. The first new piazza- style shopping centres emerged - still in the open air of course and not covered over against the elements as are their more sophisticated successors.

Ned brought us up-to-date with the arrival of the 1980s; pointing out that the Laura Ashley chain symbolise the end product of this long period of development. As Ned so aptly put it, 'this is a shopping chain which provides shops which combine a pot pourri of styles drawn from different shopping eras'.

To conclude, Ned explained to us that his exploration of the physical designs had led to him learning much about the various trades carried on within shops. Butchers still take a strong pride in their history as high street salesmen. Greengrocers, he feels, are basically market traders at heart who want to try and sell out of the shops on the streets, usually by invading the pavement in front of their premises! We also visited fish and chip restaurants, bakers shops, hardware shops and even shops specialising in the sale of jellied eels and smoked haddock! Ned finished on a note of hope. Yes, he said, the corner shop still survives and provided us with up-to-date examples of small corner shops operating in the Black Country. But for how long, one asks?

Roger Hockney
March 2002