It’s early morning and shopkeepers should be preparing the day by unfurling a large canvas awning over their shop front. But they don’t.
A common sight once, today the Victorian shop canopy has almost vanished from the high streets.
Now, if they exist at all, it’s often as a shelter for outdoor cafes, or as a signal that an upmarket retailer is trying to look a bit posh.
Yet the traditional Victorian style awning, which is such an iconic image of the Victorian and Edwardian high street had a very short-lived existence, and its emergence to dominate the streets went hand-in-hand with the arrival of retail stores and developments in glass manufacturing.
As Napoleon (never actually) said, we are a nation of shopkeepers, but the idea of a high street lined with shops is itself a fairly recent development.
Although trading in markets and fairs through open stalls had long been the way of things, it wasn’t really until the 17th century that shops started to emerge along main roads away from the market area.
Formal shop fronts usually came with an open area of the shop being enclosed by a simple screen or (if rich) windows, and a stallriser below the shop ‘stall’ at the lower level, which helped to protect against the damp and raise the goods display to eye level.
It was in the 18th century that shops really started to take off, as the cost of glass started to fall to levels that made it affordable to use in shop windows. Still very small panes of glass though, hence the classic image of an old shop with a bowed frontage and small panes of handblown glass in a wooden frame with glazing bars.
With the Georgian fashion for Ancient Greek and Roman styles, some of them still common designs for shopfronts emerged — pilasters or half-columns were located on the sides of shops to enhance elegance, with corbels above to support the shop sign. The shop sign would often be above a decorative cornice that projected out from the frontage to deflect rainwater.
In the 19th century, with the ban on the bow-frontage to open up more space on pavements, shops started to come with recessed doors and flat frontages using the newly developed larger sheets of glass to show off their wares.
The larger sheets of glass were increasingly popular not just because manufacturing techniques made them possible, but also because the much-hated Glass Excise taxes on glass production were abolished in 1845. Plate glass being taxed the most putting people off using them unless they were very rich.
It was this change in shop frontage that was to be largely responsible for the popularity of the Victorian awnings, also known as canopy blinds. These were developed to protect the shop by both shading goods from the sun and also the wind and rain.
Initially, they were fixed, with poles supporting the fronts – but later in the 19th century, retractable awnings appeared, which gave retailers a bit more control over allowing daylight into the shops on cloudy days. Remember this was the era of gas lamps, so the ability to retract the awnings on days when not needed was a boon to the retailer.
One of the first companies to mass-produce the awnings was London based Deans Blinds of Putney, founded by Tom Dean, but later taken over by his brother John Dean. The company started out making canvas bags, which were in great demand as water carriers by the British forces across the Victorian Empire, especially in South Africa during the Boer War.
It was John who also then went on to design the awning in 1894 that is now the iconic image of the Victorian high street.
In the second half of the 19th century, these manufactured operable awnings grew in popularity. Previously, most awnings had fixed frames-the primary way to retract the covering was to roll it up the rafters by hand. Operable systems for both storefront and window awnings had extension arms that were hinged where they joined the facade. The arms were lowered to project the awning or raised to retract the awning using simple rope and pulley arrangements.
Because the canvas remained attached to the framework, retractable awnings allowed a more flexible approach to shading-shopkeepers and owners could incrementally adjust the amount of awning coverage depending upon the weather conditions. When the sun came out from behind clouds, the awning could be deployed with ease. In case of sudden storms, owners could quickly retract the awning against the building wall where it was protected from wind gusts.
This image of the flat sheet of fabric held out by two iron rods was to become the defining image of the English high street for several decades, just as photography was also taking off. It was probably the emergence of early photography capturing street scenes that created the fixed image in our minds of what Victorian streets looked like – even though the Victorian era was far longer than this relatively short period of time.
Those early operable awnings had their own drawbacks, unsurprisingly.
When they were retracted, the fabric often bunched up against the building where it was still partially exposed to the weather, and if water pooled in the folds, then it could both rot the fabric, and be rather unpleasant for the person underneath when the awning was unfolded the next day.
It wasn’t long before the folding fabric was replaced with the roller blind that then was extended on the iron poles to the correct length. A long detachable handle (called a “winding brace”), or a gearbox and crankshaft attached to the building, was used to turn the roller.
The shops were often fitted with integral blind boxes which form part of the design of the shopfront, typically shops which date from the late nineteenth century until the 1930s. These have a blind box located within the fascia which is flush with the building so that the blind can be neatly rolled away. Even in our modern age of blind-less shops, you will often see the blind box above old shops, just no longer in use.
Incidentally, your correspondent once worked in an electrical retail store that still had a very large awning that was deployed as a roller, and we were also based next to a bus stop with no shelter. When it rained we would unroll the awning, to the considerable relief of the waiting passengers — and it did our shop no harm at all to be seen to be a community asset when people wanted a new TV for their home.
But, back to the 19th century…
Traditional canvas sun blinds were used extensively on shops to prevent sunlight spoiling the products on display however today that’s no longer required as UV glass can be installed to prevent harmful UV rays from damaging displays. Blinds were for a while mainly used for shops selling fresh produce when the heat of the sun can cause the items on display to spoil and become unsellable.
Today modern air conditioning systems render that use almost obsolete.
So you might presume that shops no longer bother with canopies outside their shops, yet vast numbers still have very modern, often plastic coated canopies.
These are the dreadful “Dutch blind”, a stain upon the high street with their often garish designs and bold colours that stand out from the rest of the street. They started appearing in the 1950s and have spread like a plague ever since.
They are the comic sans of modern retail, and indeed, a lot of councils are now frowning upon the Dutch blind, and asking shops, particularly in heritage areas to return to the Edwardian and Victorian style awnings.
In part they are disliked for their oft-times garish appearance, but also because they cannot easily be retracted, they conceal parts of the street frontages that would otherwise sometimes be visible.
So while Victorian awnings went Dutch, and are now frowned upon, there is an increased interest in their return. Councils now see the Victorian canopy as a heritage asset to be encouraged, especially when revamping a declining high street. The canopies that once protected goods behind shop windows now shelter coffee drinkers out from a break waiting for their Amazon parcel to arrive.
There is also an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of air conditioning in shops — not to mention the electricity bill of running them — and long canopies are still exceptionally good at shading the shop windows and keeping the temperature down.
And as I noted above, they are a community asset when it rains.
With luck, the demise of the Victorian awning could soon be reversed, and the high street a more interesting place again.
Hajdamach, Charles R., British Glass 1800 – 1914. The Antique Collectors Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1991.
Updated: 12th MArch 2021 – Deans Blinds is now owned by Riverside Works, the Dean family own Radiant Blinds.