Tuesday 31 August 2010


Another lost Victorian profession, just discovered - the professional shutter-man. All decent mid-Victorian shop windows had solid inflexible wooden shutters, which had to be removed at the start of the day, stored somewhere, and put back at night. The Punch cartoon below from 1860 (in which painted shutters are replaced in the wrong order, with hilarious consequences, ahem) shows the arrangement.

I had thought this was always done by the owner or shop-boy or whoever was available. But it turns out you could contract the work out ... an article from the Leisure Hour of 1855 is entitled 'Simon Shutters' and sketches the job out for us:

 ... yonder he goes, pacing placidly the broad pavement of Holborn, his arms folded beneath a mill:-white apron, and his sunburnt brows only half shaded by a little oval projection of leather appended to his blue cloth cap. Simon has done his morning's work, and now, with the air of a proprietor who feels that "the ground he treads on is his own," is patrolling his landed estate with an evident expression of satisfaction on his weather-beaten sexagenarian physiognomy.
    To be plain — for why should we confuse the reader? —Simon is a professor of the art of opening and shutting shops ; and if distinction were to be won in such a walk of life, we should say that he is a distinguished professor. His landed estate consists of a furlong or so of the southern side of Holborn, where the pavement is the cleanest, the roadway the broadest, the shops the most resplendent, the shopkeepers the most respectable and well-to-do — and where there is a cool and quiet court, in which a solitary tree rustles its green leaves in the summer breeze, and a convenient pump keeps its hospitable mouth continually open for the refreshment of thirsty lieges. Simon's especial function is to take down the shutters of his clients (or patrons, which you choose) in the morning, and to put them up again at night — in which operation he may with perfect truth be said to throw more light upon the respective developments and progress of the arts of commerce and manufacture than any other man in his parish.
    From long handling of shop-shutters, Simon has grown to regard them very much in the light that a shepherd does his sheep. He knows their ailments and infirmities, their individual constitutions and little stubborn ways ; and he will humour their caprices, and compassionate their maladies. He is aware that they have to put up with very equivocal accommodations in the day-time while off duty ; some he has to stack together under a little pent-house between their own and a neighbour's shop ; some have to be thrust into the cavernous recess beneath the show-board of the window ; some have to be carried into the back-yard in the rear of the house; and some are ignominiously shoved through a grating in the causeway into the coal-hole below. That they should at times prove a little refractory under such treatment, Simon regards as nothing more than natural, and he has patience with them accordingly. When, under the influence of the fogs and damps of winter, they swell, as they are apt to do sometimes, he will coax and humour them into their places; and when in the summer time they shrink, from the heat of the weather, he will judiciously ventilate their nocturnal position by allowing them to "inhabit lax," like Milton's celestials, while they sentinel the starry heavens.
    How Simon employs the long interval between the taking down and the putting up of his especial charge, the shutters, we are not in a condition to narrate. What we know is, that he is often seen polishing away with rotten-stone and chamois leather at the long fathoms of brass plate beneath the windows, and as often mounted on steps or a short ladder, armed with dusters and whitening, and rubbing briskly at the monster crystal panes which are the source at once of the shopkeeper's delight and apprehension. Again, we have seen him turn up suddenly from some undiscovered recess at the cry of "Shutters !" from one of his patrons, and incontinently take charge of a packet of goods to be carried home at the heels of a customer, or, it may be, only of a message of immediate importance. And more than once, of a summer's afternoon, have we encountered him in the cool court aforesaid, occupied in the cause of his wooden flocks  — now with a pocket plane, shearing off a shaving or two from the side of a refractory member ; now with a hammer and nails, or turn-screw and gimlet, adjusting or even renewing the iron sheathing at the corners of one aged veteran ; now with glue-pot and a rag or two of canvass, applying a breast plaster to a split panel. These kind offices he is at all times willing to perform of course not without a consideration. He is great, too, in the treatment of blisters — a disorder to which shop-shutters are as liable as sheep are to the foot-rot. This he cures by the application of pumice-stone vigorously administered, followed by a new coat of paint ; or, that being too expensive, of brown varnish, which for a time looks almost as well. When he has a family thus afflicted, be mounts his patients upon trestles, under the tree in the cool court aforesaid, and sets to work upon them with great deliberation.
    We know nothing of Simon's political principles ; but in practice he is strictly a conservative, and a stickler for the good old times. For more than thirty years he has obtained an honest livelihood by his present profession ; and be has been heard to remark, that during the whole of that period the hours of closing shop have, until very lately, been getting nearer midnight, to his increasing annoyance and discomfort. He is, therefore, on principle, a warm advocate of the early closing movement. He would like to see a return to the ancient fashion of putting up the shutters in summer at dusk, and in winter at six o'clock. He has a good word to say for the Saturday half - holiday, and would have no objection, if it could be managed, that a few more holidays should be scattered throughout the year.
    It is probable that the routine of Simon's daily life is as free from care as that of most men ; but we must not imagine, on this account, that he is exempt from troubles and anxieties. He has had in his time to do battle against rivals in trade, who would fain encroach upon his estate and underbid him in the market. He has at all times to fortify himself against the chances of the weather, and has grown so sensible to atmospheric changes, that, from various internal promptings, he can foretell a storm long before the black clouds rise in the horizon, or a dry season for days before it sets in. Then there is a bugbear constantly before his imagination, in the shape of that new invention which supersedes the use of shutters altogether to the shopkeeper, and which, if it comes into general acceptance, will most assuredly supersede the use of Simon. It is nothing less than a fatal contrivance for drawing up and letting down an effective yet flexible shutter concealed under the cornice above the window: it may be done by the shop- keeper's boy in a minute or less, and it reduces the whole art and mystery of Simon's profession to the simple act of turning a winch or pulling a rope. Simon affects the most sovereign contempt for a machine "that would go for to take the bread out of an honest man's mouth," and has no faith in its efficacy against burglars. Happily for him, John Bull is slow to adopt even the most palpable improvements, and he can console himself in perfect safety that the shutters will last his time. 
The ever-reliable Alfred Rosling Bennett, writing in 1924, reminisces of the 1850s/60s, "Flexible winding shop shutters were not much in evidence, although I will not say that the germ of the idea had not appeared in places. Even important premises were closed by upright wooden shutters which had to be fetched from a storage place, put in position one by one, and then secured by a locked iron bar."

But I don't know when 'flexible' roller-blind shutters generally came into play, given that they're mentioned in the 1855 article - any ideas?


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