AGNES TRAILL THOMSON and CHRISTIAN THOMSON
At the head of Broadgate on Narrow-wynd, Aberdeen, Alexander Thomson and Agnes Traill ran a bookshop and bindery, regularly advertising and selling current titles, together with patent medicines, from 1742. Like many eighteenth-century business women, relatively little is known about Agnes. Some accounts claim she was sister to Susan Traill [see separate entry], children of Rev. James Traill and Christian Allardes (Allardyce), born c.1717. As she named her first daughter Christian and her only son James, the connection is feasible. She probably married Thomson in 1750 and gave birth to four children in the next seven years.
Like most urban businesswomen, she would have worked with Thomson, taking charge of the selling side of the shop although all advertisements were in his name, while he handled the printing and bindery side of the enterprise. This would accord with the normal pattern of printing shops with the man responsible for the press and the woman for sales. On his death in 1781, trading as Mrs Thomson, she took over. Like Margaret Morice [see separate entry], she capitalised on the well-known business name to retain the prestige and custom of a respected firm. Her regular and often large advertisements in the Aberdeen Journal show the same array of titles and medicines, use the same tone and were often on the front page throughout her lengthy tenure. Located at the Castlegate end of Broad Street, adjacent to the New Inn and Town House and near to the publishing house of Susan Trail and James Chalmers and on the same street as Marischal College, this shop held a prime position for passing trade as well as the literate culture of the town.
Some of the most notable publications of the day passed through the shop, and despite Brown’s large, prestigious bookshop and circulating library nearby, the business clearly held its own. It was frequented by the educated population of Aberdeen and offered a vast array of titles from the erudite to schoolboy ephemera. She, and her shop, were remembered fondly by a boy, Alexander Bannerman, who spent many happy hours there. ‘This little shop, yet notwithstanding the unassuming appearance of its exterior, I will venture to affirm, that among all the booksellers' shops in Aberdeen, there was not one among the number so universally known to the youngsters there, either high or low, rich or poor, was was the little shopie aside the Plainstones.’ He comments that the small window was always literally covered from head to foot, with the favourite schoolboy authors of the day.’
Shopkeeping was in transition in the eighteenth century, and in fashionable towns like London ,‘shop design was a key form of marketing, promoting both the shop and its wares’. Clearly, shops varied and how they approached merchandising and clientele was reflected in their attention to fixtures and fittings. The issue of scale is at work in that in larger metropolitan areas and centres of fashion and sociability and where there was more competition, shops were more likely to need windows and displays to promote their goods. Yet, in towns like Aberdeen, older traditions continued, and Thomson and Traill’s bookshop confirms this. Bannerman said, ‘This little shop had nothing of the decorative style in its exterior, either to recommend or attract notice. None of your large windows, either straight or circular, were thought necessary in those days to carry on the business of this little shop … The shop had but one window and that certainly for a shop was very small.’ The front door to the shop was also always kept closed and customers were expected to knock. In contrast to Thomson and Traill’s, Alexander Brown, on Broad Street and around the corner on the Castlegate, had a very impressive bookshop, reading room and circulating library with Corinthian Pillars and was described as the ‘showiest shop in town … a fitting temple of literature.’ Marking the separation of private life and business life, the ‘family door’ of the building was located in Huckster’s Row, i.e., around the corner of Broad Street running parallel to Narrow-wynd, showing that home and work were the same place, but with a demarcation between entrances. After her death, shop and bindery were on the ground floor, as was the family eating space, though later the bindery moved upstairs.
When Agnes died in 1794, it is notable that her singleton daughter, Christian took on the business for a further fifteen years, together with her brother. She remained single, quite probably because an accident had caused a spinal injury, leaving her disfigured. Bannerman’s account credits her with ‘a strong masculine mind’ ‘improved by much reading’ and able to debate with the ‘gentlemen’ who attended the shop as an ‘equal adversary’. She had a ready wit, smart repartee and was esteemed and respected.
Through this brief history of the bookshop, the role of Agnes Traill Thomson and her daughter Christian emerge from the kind of invisibility which obscures many urban women of the shopkeeping classes. Aberdeen was, among other things, an academic and well-read community with numerous printers and booksellers peppering the area around Marischal College, and near to their shop. Although not carrying the prestige of Brown’s Reading Rooms, this shop with Agnes as partner and proprietor was a well-established and well-located firm supplying erudite works and ephemera meeting the needs of a wide custom. From Bannerman’s account we see two women operating successfully starting with the marital firm in 1750 to 1809.
Further reading William Bannerman, Aberdeen worthies, or sketches of characters (Aberdeen, 1840).
Written by Deborah Simonton