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Blog Post by Sarah Mass, Winner of the 2016 NACBS Dissertation Travel Grant.

Published: June 27, 2017

“The firm” is the source base par excellence in the new history of capitalism. Prolific recordkeeping and influence in the political economy of cities, regions, nations, and empires mean that these bodies cast a long shadow in the historical archive. My research enters this conversation from a different angle. I see the local retail market—a collection of firms working under the very watchful eye of the state—as a nexus of informal, sometimes desperate, economy. The flexible structure and low-overhead costs of market trading attracted fledgling entrepreneurs, either women who straddled the divide between family and business, or recent immigrants seeking non-manual work. While working at the West Yorkshire Archive Service in Bradford this February, I came across an entry in the local market committee records that sheds some light on this particular socio-economic configuration: 

Application for stalls, 25 Oct 1951. H. Sharp. Trading as Sharp & Aldred.

Stall 69. Mrs. Aldred was looking after the stall but owing to domestic issues she had to finish with the business. Mr. Sharp has now arranged a partnership with an Indian, Sohal Singh. The Indian supplies the goods (or as he says acts as buyer) and Mr. Sharp’s mother looks after the stall. All profits are shared 50/50. 

Subsequent meeting: Sohal Singh gets 25% for buying and supplying the goods for the stall. This is not an actual partnership. I informed Mr. Sharp that if he gave up the stall at any time, Sohal Singh must not expect the stall to pass to him. Mr. Sharp accepted this.[1]

However brief and elliptical this entry may seem, it actually gives us a rich picture of a market firm in Bradford in the early 1950s. First off, we’re introduced to the various people involved with the stall. Behind the official façade of Sharp & Aldred are Sohal Singh and Mrs. Sharp; however, they are hardly equal partners in the firm. Despite doing the legwork of securing supplies during post-war rationing and price regulation conditions, Singh gets neither the full share of the stall’s profits, nor the benefits of stallholder rights (which usually meant the ability to inherit the business). Singh is literally spoken for in this exchange, as Sharp “accepts” that his Indian partner cannot expect the stall to pass on to him.

Just as Singh’s participation is circumscribed by race, Mrs. Aldred and Mr. Sharp’s mother are affected by traditional gender roles. It seems that Mrs. Aldred was the face of the business, currying customer favor during a period of shortage. However, an unknown upheaval in Mrs. Aldred’s personal life forces her to choose, presumably, between family and business. Her retirement clears the way for another woman to enter the stall, Mr. Sharp’s mother. While Mr. Sharp is the official side of the business, the one side we hear in dealings with the markets committee and Bradford local government, more informal economic relationships form the foundation of the Sharp & Aldred stall. The raced and gendered inequities of this system are inscribed in this source document.

While this brief record affords us a fairly complex picture of one market stall’s power dynamics, the source ultimately raises more questions than it provides answers. We don’t know how Singh became involved with Sharp & Aldred in the first place, or how long their relationship lasted. I have found evidence of other Anglo-Indian market trader partnerships in the archives, some of which arose from marriages or other domestic relationships that spilled over into business. It appears, however, that there was no domestic connection between Singh and the Sharp or Aldred families.

The goods on sale at this stall are also left unspecified. From my related research, I know that the specific goods on offer at open-air markets like John Street in Bradford could change quite quickly. This was especially true in the 1940s and early 1950s, when rationing meant that itinerant traders moved quickly between goods depending on supply and demand.

That said, Singh’s identity as “an Indian” provides some useful information on this front. In the mid-1940s, Indians trading in combs garnered interest from the Board of Trade. In periodicals and Board of Trade documents, demobilized South Asian workers or deserters were caricatured as mobile “spivs” who supplied such goods to gullible provincial women.[2] In 1950-51—the period when Sharp, Aldred, and Singh were active—the nylon trade caught the nation’s attention. In late 1950, there was a high profile case at the Old Bailey in which Framrose Patel, an Indian trader who came to London via East Africa, was found guilty of supplying nylons to itinerant Indian traders working the markets in Birmingham and Bradford.[3] While we can speculate that Sharp & Aldred was a women’s clothing and accessories stall based on the Indian supplier profile, it is impossible to be certain.

Finally, we can’t speculate about the duration of this business. Most of the archival information surrounding market trading in the immediate post-war period is found in the records of local Price Regulation Committees. Open-air market stalls like Sharp & Aldred did not appear in trade directories and only entered the public record when they broke the law or made changes to their ownership or goods structure. In this case, a firm personnel change brought Singh into the archive, but we can only imagine how many other “unofficial” suppliers were left unrecorded. In the ladder of informal trading, suppliers like Singh occupied a very low rung, more often than not below the level of official documentation.

My project, in many respects, suffers from an embarrassment of archival richness. Local government bureaucracy—compounded by the particular attention that retailers attracted in the 1940s and 1950s—provides multiple entry points into the retail market. This stall application entry, however, underscores the tenuous nature of this coverage. Archival records largely replicate the power structure of businesses themselves, privileging the identity of the white, male entrepreneur. To meet this challenge in my research, therefore, I integrate the methodologies of cultural history, namely reading against the grain for hidden subjectivities, to bear on who “counts” as an economic agent. 

-Sarah Mass, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan and winner of the 2016 NACBS Dissertation Travel Grant.


[1] West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS), Bradford, Bradford Borough District Council, Market and Fairs Department, John Street Market, application for stalls, 1950-1952, BBD12/1/3. Thanks to the WYAS for permission to quote this archival material.

[2] “‘Black Market’ in Combs” Birmingham Post, 13 July 1944.

[3] “Nylons Diverted for Export,” Drapers’ Record, 23 December 1950. 

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