City Women in the 18th Century Exhibition

Dr Amy Erickson, University of Cambridge

‘City Women in the 18th century’ is a free outdoor exhibition in Cheapside, London, which runs until 18 October 2019. Using an extensive collection of trade or business cards, it shows that many women were among those manufacturing and selling luxury goods in the capital. The exhibition grows out of my research on the life histories of a milliner and a family of fan-makers, which was the subject of a small exhibition of guild records at the London Guildhall Library in late 2018. City Councilman, Tijs Broeke, asked if there might be scope for a larger exhibition as the City celebrated the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 which allowed women entry into the legal profession and other occupations.

The most visually appealing records of eighteenth-century businesses are their trade or business cards, elaborately engraved with images and lists of goods sold. The British Museum holds a collection of over 15,000 such cards. We focused on shops located in Cheapside because it was the centre of luxury shopping in the City for 500 years. The name had nothing to do with ‘inexpensive’: cheap was the old English word for ‘market’.

At least 75 cards for women in the area from the eighteenth century have been identified. But this was only a fraction of all women’s businesses. Many cards gave first initials only, or only a last name, or a last name ‘& Co.’, which could have been either female or male. In only a few cases could we confirm from other evidence that the owner was female, like the milliners ‘Sandys & Co’ and the artificial stone manufacturer ‘Coade’. Some female-run businesses appear never to have created a business card, like the printers Mary Lewis or Tace Sowle Raylton, or Elizabeth Caslon who ran the Caslon type foundry.

Images of the cards are enlarged on display boards as near as possible to the location of the original shops. Engravings of Cheapside from the eighteenth century are also shown, since no buildings from that period except for the churches survive in the street today.

Credit: ‘Trustees of the British Museum’.

Eleven four-sided display stands two metres high are spread out over 700 metres between Paternoster Square (next to St Paul’s Cathedral) at the west end of Cheapside, and the Royal Exchange (next to the Bank of England) at the east end. While we are offering guided tours to adults and schools, it is possible to view the exhibition from either end, or simply to read one display stand in isolation. Each location includes an introductory panel with a map of the locations, and the text is designed to be self-explanatory about the businesswomen themselves – although the intricacies of London’s guild system to which they belonged, the punitive legal structure which made marriage hazardous, and the definitions of the more obscure items that they were manufacturing are harder to explain.

The exhibition deliberately challenges the assumption that women before the twentieth century did not undertake gainful employment unless forced to do so by poverty. It instead highlights the extent to which middle class women were found among luxury manufacturers and traders in the eighteenth century, suggesting that they were trained in and exercised commercial and artisanal skills, and relied on these rather than on marriage to provide their living.


About the author: Amy Erickson teaches early modern economic history at Cambridge University and is a member of The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. She has published two case studies of 18th-century businesswomen, the most recent of which is on open access until 1 November 2019: 

Acknowledgements: The exhibition is funded by grants from the City of London and the University of Cambridge, and support in kind from the British Museum, Cheapside Business Alliance, and Metro Bank.

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