As 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.
Looking 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.
The 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.
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.”
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.”
Our 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.”