52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 29: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick maker…..How To shop local
This week we are shopping with the Anstruthers of Balcaskie, a family who have been in Fife since the 12th century, their seat being the mansion house of Balcaskie near Pittenweem. As local land owners they have been instrumental in the economic and social development of farmland and village communities in the East Neuk of Fife and also further inland, their estates stretching from the coast up to Largoward. The men were often found serving king and country in diplomacy, politics and warfare, while the women managed the estates and dealt with the household.
We are lucky enough to hold their fabulous collection of estate records here. The collection was closed while it was being listed but is now gradually being made accessible.
Thank goodness they never threw anything out. There are masses of account books and receipts (msdep121/4/1/2), often with elaborate letterheads, and they give an amazing amount of detail on the local shops, businesses and crafts people of the East Neuk and further afield, and also the array of goods and services available in what today are small and sleepy villages.
All these accounts use what seems a very funny system to us in our decimalised world. It is based on pounds, shillings and pence, there being 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, so a total of 240 pennies in a pound. Seems a bit crazy but then one king of Burma loved the number 9 so much he converted all his country’s currency into multiples of 9, so it could have been worse. Also of course they aren’t called pounds, shilling and pence in old documents, but lib, s and d, coming from the Roman currency of librae, solidi and denarii. Makes perfect sense doesn’t it?
So the task this week was based on this 1832 receipt for goods purchased from Thomas Davidson, Tailor & Clothier, Grocer, Tea, Wine & Spirit Dealer, Ironmonger, located on the High Street in Pittenweem. I decided I would go shopping in 21st c Pittenweem to see if I could still buy those goods, find out how much they are today, and use a fancy converter to see how the prices compare. I realised I was going to have to visit more than one shop to get everything. I started off at the very friendly FMA or Fisherman’s Mutual Association shop, for some ironmongery goods, then to the wonderful wool shop The Woolly Brew in the High Street where the owners Karen and Fiona helped me find needles and thread. Then I was going to use the only grocery shop left in Pittenweem for the foodstuffs, but the unexpectedly hostile attitude of the shop assistant there put paid to that. Which is a shame because the engraved glass door bears an uncanny resemblance to Davidson’s letterhead. I didn’t want to retreat to the supermarket where bulk buying would mean the prices wouldn’t compare to a small village shop, so I took myself to the next village of St Monans to the indispensable Spar to fulfil my mission. This family-run shop was founded over 100 years ago and has been run by a succession of strong women who have made it into a local institution. The latest in the line, Janet Grieve, helped me to find everything I needed except green tea and ground rice. I could even have bought the ironmongery and sewing items here too, so the Spar is the true inheritor of the mantle of the 19th century grocer-tea-wine-spirit-merchant-cum-ironmongers.
Would my bill come to more than £4 18s 4d? I suspected it might. I used the calculator of relative worth of £1 sterling over time on the Measuring Wealth website which gives lots of options for comparing old money with new, depending on what kind of thing it is, commodity, project or income. There’s lots of confusing explanations of the different ways of doing this here. I took the simplest commodity price comparison based on the Retail Price Index. The results are very approximate as some items don’t have exact modern equivalents (bottle of Cayenne pepper became hot chilli sauce) and some are in old measures – a peck is a measure of volume not weight, loaf sugar could be any size and thread comes by the metre now, but I have attempted to make informed estimates for these. So don’t take any of this as gospel, and did I mention I was never very good at maths? But it does give an interesting comparison.
|Item||1832 Price||1832 in today’s money||Today’s price|
|3 Mouse traps @ 6d, 11d, 1s||2s 5d||£9.81||£7.50|
|100 needles||1s 2d||£4.70||£6|
|¾ lb patent thread||3d||£1.28||£20.38|
|1 client lock||1s 6d||£6.08||£12|
|2 loaves of sugar||£1 2s||£89.17||£14.40|
|8 lbs raw sugar||5s||£20.27||90p|
|4lbs black tea||£1 8s||£113.50||£19.56|
|½lb green tea||5s||£20.27||(£11.20)|
|4lb raisins||2s 8d||£10.78||£8.44|
|4lb currants||3s 4d||£13.54||£9.72|
|3lb rice||1s 3d||£5.11||£2.85|
|3lb ground rice||1s 6d||£6.08||(£2.31)|
|6 cakes of soap||1s||£4.05||£4.50|
|2 pecks salt||1s||£4.05||£7.44|
|1lb black pepper||2s||£8.11||£11.16|
|½ lb white pepper||2s||£8.11||£5.75|
|1 bottle Cayenne pepper||1s||£4.05||£1.10|
|1 box 1 bag||1s||£4.05||£4.05|
|Sub-total||£4 9s 6d||£351.31||£158.41|
|9¾ lb cheese||8s 10d||£35.83||£34.12|
|Total||£4 18s 4d||£387.14||£192.53|
|Price per lb||Equivalent||Today|
|Raw (brown unrefined sugar)||7½d||£2.51||90p (Demerara)|
|cake of soap||2d||64p||75p|
|loaf of sugar, c.12lb in weight||11s||£44.49||£7.20|
|if 1 peck of salt = 12lb||½d||16p||31p|
What I found was that today’s shop for the same items would cost about half the price of 1832 – £192 vs £389. Although some items are surprisingly similar in price eg cheese and soap, not so surprisingly items imported from abroad (probably colonies of the British Empire back in 1832) have come down in price considerably, such as sugar, tea, coffee, dried fruit and rice. However black pepper is actually more expensive now than 200 years ago, but white pepper is cheaper. The greatest price difference is for black tea, down 84% from its 1832 price, while green tea is down 75%. It’s amazing to think that all these exotic goods were even available in this apparently remote corner of Scotland – there’s nothing new about international trade.
I also looked at the book of household accounts kept by Lady Janet Anstruther from 1763-1767 (msdep121/4/1/1). She was born in 1742, the daughter of Alexander Erskine, 5th earl of Kellie. She married Sir Robert Anstruther in 1763 and had 5 children, sadly dying just after the birth of her third son in 1770.
She kept meticulous accounts of goods bought, often saying where they came from, which is of great interest today as an illustration of the local economy (click here for the accounts for 1769). She regularly buys salt from Largo, short bread from Anstruther and Cupar, oysters from St Monans, fish from Pittenweem, lemons from St Andrews, hard biscuit from Leven, coals from Kellie, Balcarras and Kilbrackmont. Elie, or the Ely, gave a constant supply of women for spinning, weaving, linen making and bleaching, as well as sweet bread, bun, short bread and seed cake from the baker, and candles, both common and moulded. Geese were grazed on the marshy ground, and stones taken to line the oven.
Lady Anstruther was fortunate in having the estate to provide staples such as ‘flower for baking’, ‘wheat from the girnal’ for the house, ‘Lamb from the parks’, but everything was priced and documented nonetheless. There are separate pages of accounts for hops, barm and corks for brewing, and full accounts for wines and spirits purchased for the cellar. Meat includes bacon hams from various farmers, beef from Pittenweem, veal from Cupar, while the poultry accounts, known as ‘kain’ include ‘Kain hens at 6d each’, ‘to the nurse at Kelly for bringing up turkies’, ‘eleven geese from the Elie’ ‘pidgeons from the Inch’ and pease, oats and meal to feed them.
The accounts also included household furniture and servants’ wages. The chamber maid was paid £2 10s for her year’s salary, the same as Brussels lace purchased earlier in the year by Lady Anstruther. There are several records of a dozen horn spoons bought for the servants and for the nursery; these are antique shop items today but at the time must have been very inexpensive.
She also had to account for every penny of her pin money, used for accessories, clothing, items for the children, expenses while traveling, tooth pulling, doctor’s fees, a sort of equivalent of petty cash today.
Lady Anstruther rarely gives a quantity so it’s hard to compare prices with later records but comparing her book to the 19th c receipts shows the huge growth in shops and services in local villages between 1760 and 1830 – particularly in Colinsburgh, Pittenweem and Anstruther. She bought her goods direct from the local farmer or artisan, whereas by the 1830s most goods came from village grocers and other shops.
Later 19th c receipts also show the family’s increasing dependence on better class shops in Edinburgh and London, moving away patronising local shops apart from for perishable foodstuffs and basic ironmongery and household items. There are many bills for Edinburgh companies for china, home furnishings, jewellery, even plants and seeds, as well as clothes, candles and soap from London. Even at this distance the dominance of Tesco and Amazon was not so far away.