A walk down a London street today elicits a torrent of requests and recognition: receipts and shopping bags offer “thanks” or “a nice day.” About two hundred years ago, a walk down a street similarly bombarded people with appeals from posters on street hoardings, handbills shoved into hands, and change packets—small envelopes given with change, soliciting respectful recommendations. Tracing the history of these fleeting pieces of paper shows a gradual shift in retail culture during nineteenth century England, a shift paramount to that shaping consumer culture today.
How can forgotten paper be retrieved from its status of ‘thrown away’ and reconnected to materialities of space and use? The imagining of paths within a historical landscape helps in understanding such ephemera through the making of a book. Indeed, this story of consumption and communication is created not only with words, in close examination of retail language, but also with handcrafted form. Recreations of handbills, change packets, and more are inserted throughout the text, itself printed and bound to mimic a nineteenth century book. If this abstract could be printed on a 7’x6’ thin cotton paper, still sticky with printer’s ink, it would. Additionally, describing Oxford Street in 1844 through a lady’s eyes emphasizes such changes in street and shop environments — hence also in class relations, gender, and market structure. This story of ignored paper recreates a landscape that has both changed and yet, stays the same.
A degree requirement for Princeton University’s Department of History, 2016.