QUICK action by the Friends of Exeter Museums & Art Gallery has added pieces of very good quality hand-made continental lace to the city’s extensive lace collection at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM).
Offered for sale by Lunn Antiques, London (via Allhallows Museum in Honiton), unusually this lace still has its original shop labels.
Devon is famed for its lace and hand-made lace produced in the 18th and 19th centuries is commonly referred to as Honiton lace, recognising the town’s central role in the production and distribution.
The lace collections at RAMM were started in 1869 with the donation of small fragments of antique and contemporary laces collected throughout Europe by Mrs C.E. Treadwin, a prominent Exeter lacemaker and trader.
The latest additions, comprising three lengths of broad Valenciennes lace with contemporary designs and a length of very fine Mechlin (Brussels) lace with a hand-made ground, were probably made in the 1870s at a time when both machine and hand-made lace was still an essential part of the female wardrobe.
All have labels linking them to Mrs J. T. Tucker who traded in Exeter during the second half of the nineteenth century specialising in fashionable goods in the latest styles.
Her business is listed in shop directories and newspaper advertisements from the 1850s onwards.
In 1856 she announced a new stock of spring bonnets, having taken over the business from a Mrs John Green three years earlier.
In March 1867 The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette advertised the latest ‘Spring Fashions’, describing the establishment as dealing in ‘dresses, mantles, shawls, silks and fancy drapery’. She also stocked feathers and artificial flowers, in many ways foreshadowing the drapery and haberdashery departments of the modern department store.
Anyone who enjoyed watching the TV drama series The Paradise, based on Emile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames and set a decade or so later, could conjure up a picture of something similar to Mrs Tucker’s establishment.
Millinery, lace, muslin and baby linen, ribbons and sashes of all kinds were Tucker's stock in trade. Traditional lingerie, as in collars, caps, sleeves and undergarments, was also on sale. Her advertisements emphasise 'taste' and elegance, while it is promised that layettes for the new baby and bridal trousseaux are catered for with 'promptitude and economy'.
The shop appears to have been an important local business with a good reputation for selling high end fashion, silks and haberdashery.
It had already been long established by the time of the 1878 international exhibition in Paris. Mrs Treadwin’s lace manufactory and showrooms were in business at the same time, just around the corner at 5 Cathedral Yard.
Judging by a full page advertisement in White's Directory, and others in the Flying Post, Tucker expanded the business to take in both 243 and its neighbour opposite the Half Moon Hotel in the High Street.
The Half Moon was one of the main coaching inns in the city, on the corner of the High Street and Bedford Street. The hotel was demolished in 1912 to make way for Deller's cafe. Tucker's shop was still at 243 High Street in 1896 according to an advertisement for a January sale.
Like Mrs Treadwin, Mrs Tucker or her agents would have travelled to London and the continent to buy the latest garments, millinery, lace and hosiery to stock her shop.
The demand for English and continental laces was still high in the 1870s and 1880s. Fashionable dressmakers added lengths of broad trimmings to children’s clothes and underwear as well as day and evening dress.
The lace offered for sale reflects the fashionable interest in new continental designs; these are contemporary rather than traditional patterns, while the labels indicate the prices Tucker was charging customers for her stock, as well as reflecting the retailer’s buying and marketing practices.
The ‘Exposition Universelle’ label adds to the assurance of quality and novelty of design. The labels not only indicate the full price for the lace, but also the sale price. For instance, the Mechlin was reduced from 45 shillings to 29/11d a yard, only a penny below 30 shillings but a sales trick still used today.
Ten shillings (50 pence) in 1870 had the purchasing power of around £23 today.
It is also interesting that the lengths are marked as ‘REAL LACES’, again emphasising the quality of the products and distinguishing them from the many variations of machine embroidered net and imitation laces available in the late nineteenth century at a time when the names of hand-made laces imported from France and Belgium were synonymous with high-end products.
Registered charity no. 306649, the Friends support the museum in many ways, both practically and financially.
Members enjoy a wide range of benefits including a newsletter, invitations to private views, social functions, outings and lectures. The Friends also contribute towards RAMM’s busy programme of public talks and special events.