Bills, Bills, Bills

Governor WilsonAs a child I often fetched the mail from the box at the end of our driveway. Once in a while there was a letter in the mix, but I remember saying “Nothing but bills” on a regular basis when handing the envelopes to my mother. That blend of correspondence with demands for payment was probably as old as writing, but vintage bills have a flair that their modern counterparts lack.

1730's gownLooking through a collection of 18th and early 19th century bills for fabric, I was struck by the lovely handwriting, by the way most businesses identified their location by signs that were probably on nearby pubs, and by their upper crust clientele.

Robert Carr & Joseph Stanfield at the Parrot in Ludgate Street sent Governor Wilson a bill for 14 yards of green lutestring brocade in 1733. Lutestring was silk with a high gloss, and perhaps the gown made for his wife or daughter (or mistress) looked something like this fashionable frock from that time period.

Miss VerneyThe Honorable the Miss Verney was a little more economical with her purchase at a linen draper’s shop by the Hen and Chickens in Covent Garden; her yards of muslin and other trimmings cost but £2.5 in 1761 compared to Wilson’s £10. By some calculations, £10 in 1730 would equal about £600 today. However, costs of housing, food, etc vary greatly in proportion to equivalent costs today. To look at the price by another measure — 18th century wages, a clerk with the East India Company made around £40 a year, while a maid might pocket only £6 annually, along with her room and board. Compared to those salaries, the Wilson and Verney wardrobes were lavish indeed.

for Miss Gregg

Someone (perhaps Monsieur Innes and Co?) bought a lot of fabric for Miss Gregg in 1766: satins and lutestring in pink and blue and black. How many gowns did Miss Gregg have made? Was she assembling her trousseau for a wedding or a wardrobe for her first season of balls?

On June 20, 1766, the same day that Welch, Neale & Redhead, presented their bill, Horace Walpole wrote to his friend George Montagu, “There is a new thing published that will make you bepiss your cheeks with laughing. It is called The New Bath Guide. It is a set of letters in verse, in all kind of verses, describing the life at Bath, and incidentally everything else — but so much wit, so much humour, fun, poetry, so much originality, never met together before.”

Postcard2“Bepiss your cheeks with laughing” — what a great line!

Perhaps Miss Gregg’s gowns would have resembled these 18th century dresses preserved in modern-day Bath’s Museum of Costume.

But if she did visit Bath, I hope she was careful about drinking the same medicinal waters that others bathed in, for as The New Bath Guide warned:

“So while little TABBY was washing her Rump,
The Ladies kept drinking it out of a Pump.”

The Earl ofOur last bill was sent to an actual nobleman, Right Honorable the Earl of…something. I can’t make out the name. But I do know that the Earl had an eye for bargains in 1813 (and didn’t bother paying his bill until a year later). Woodhouse Son & Co boasted “the lowest price fixed” in London and sold a selection of silk and cotton hosiery, ready made gentlemen’s linen and family mourning. Jane Austen herself may have passed the shop when strolling down Oxford Street, but I doubt she would have stepped inside unless shopping for her brother, even if it was the “cheapest House in London for Irish Linens.”

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