Reality, Expectations, and Fears: Women Shop Assistants in London, 1890-1914

Kellie K. Bradshaw

Advisor: Dina M. Copelman, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Yevette Richards Jordan, Sun Young Park

May 02, 2019, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM


Reality, Expectations, and Fears: Women Shop Assistants in London, 1890-1914 examines the lives of London’s shop assistants between 1890 and 1914. This was a crucial period when, alongside existing types of shops, new department stores were opening or expanding and employing staffs of thousands. Many of the approximately 60,000 women shop assistants in 1914 worked in department stores. These stores, mostly located in the West End, London’s shopping and cultural center, were part of London’s growth and global identity as a cosmopolitan center. Department stores changed the city’s retail landscape and simultaneously transformed a previously skilled occupation – being a seller in a diverse array of shops – into an unskilled one. While department stores windows were packed with the latest consumer goods, inside shop assistants, standing behind their counters, were both part of the display and working hard to serve their employers and customers.

            Though shop work was considered respectable and easy work, the reality was long hours for low pay. Women shop assistants dealt with harassment from male customers and rude women shoppers. Jobs for shop work often required shop assistants to live in company dormitories where assistants had no control over their living conditions, roommates or meals. Stores had strict rules and a curfew for the assistants living in store housing. Shop owners also tried to discourage shop assistants from exploring the city for entertainment by offering amenities and supervised social and sport activities. Public street entertainment, pubs and music halls represent just some of the temptations feared by shopkeepers and reformers.

Nonetheless, women shop assistants were eager to take advantage of the vibrant metropolis around them, and this dissertation argues that, despite many obstacles, they developed a complex understanding of their work and how they wanted to live their lives. They joined reformers and union activists when they sought to change their difficult conditions of work. However, they stood apart from those groups when their understanding of their needs differed.

This project relies on archival sources including newspapers, union tracts, novels and government papers to examine the work life and living conditions of London’s women shop assistants at the turn of the century. Especially important was having access to a previously unknown set of employee records from Harrods department store, which allowed me to create a profile of the average age, wage, work and educational background of Harrods’ women shop assistants.  

Understanding London’s women shop assistants allows for a better understanding of the changing opportunities for women workers, and how, in the decades before World War I, these women sought to both make a living and shape meaningful lives.