No matter how grim the economy may be, we Americans do love our shopping malls. (I'm no exception, living right down the road from the Mall-Heaven that is King of Prussia.) A mall is a bright, cheery place for seeing and being seen as well as for buying everything from soft pretzels to washing machines and designer dresses. All the must-haves from around the world are collected in one place for the convenience of consumers and the profits of merchants.
Yet as All-American as the mall may seem, it’s hardly new. Sixteenth-century Londoners would feel right at home at our local Galleria. Merchant Sir Thomas Gresham built the first Royal Exchange in 1566, as a lasting tribute to his generosity and wealth ––and, of course, to keep the coins flowing into the family coffers. Based on similar buildings on the Continent, the Exchange was a large quadrangle with two floors of shops surrounding an open courtyard. This courtyard was a favorite place for a rendezvous or a quick snack, as well as for spotting the next trend in starched ruffs. While visitors (“shopping” and “shoppers” are 19th century terms) could buy prosaic items like mousetraps, there were high-end shops, too, selling French lace, Italian gold necklaces, and hats made from New World beaver-skins. Nothing quite like Build-a-Bear or Wicks’n’Stix, but pretty close.
After being dedicated in 1570 by Queen Elizabeth I, the first Royal Exchange had a good long run as the center of mercantile activity in Cornhill until it became one of the victims of the Great Fire of 1666. It was also one of the first structures to be rebuilt, bigger and better, to survive until another fire in 1838. The present Royal Exchange still stands on the same lot that Gresham purchased for £3500.
The picture to the right is of the Royal Exchange in 1644, engraved by Wenceslas Hollar. Above left is a 17th century consumer (aka "Winter", also by Wenceslas Hollar), with the belltower of the Exchange in the background.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.