A Nation of Shopkeepers (2001)

This is a slightly edited version of the catalogue to the 2001 exhibition: A Nation of Shopkeepers. The style has been updated. The original version can be seen here.


Catalogue cover

This exhibition of the ephemera of trade in the British Isles from 1654 to the 1860s draws primarily on the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera in the Bodleian Library. Trade cards and bill headings, in spite their small format, contain a wealth of information both in their textual and iconographic content.

Despite the wars in Europe, this period saw commercial expansion and increased mechanisation. There was also considerable overseas trade. A noticeable feature of the trade cards of the 18th and early 19thcenturies is the number of products mentioned which were imported, notably from Europe and from the East and West Indies. Changes in society and technology and the growth of commerce with foreign lands reached both a culmination and a fresh starting point in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The aim in focussing on the ephemera of trade is twofold: to show something of the way in which printed ephemera helps us piece together our social history and to demonstrate how (with the aid of new technology in both cataloguing and digitisation) these bibliographically challenging materials can be made more accessible and thus more useful, both to the academic researcher and to the casual web surfer. The exhibition coincides with the launch of the John Johnson catalogue (with digitised images) on the Internet.


When Napoleon defined the English as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ great offence was taken by the aristocratic government of this country. But he was stating a fact; as he explained during his exile on St. Helena, ‘ I meant that you were a nation of merchants, and that all your great riches, and your grand resources arose from commerce.’ This exhibition of printed ephemera, drawn for the most part from one of the great collections of such material, demonstrates in all its rich variety the central place which trade held in the life of the country during the period covered. We are most grateful to Julie Anne Lambert, Librarian of the John Johnson Collection, for all the effort she has put into making the exhibition such a fascinating demonstration of the truth of Napoleon’s words.

Clive Hurst, Head of Rare Books and Printed Ephemera 

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