Guest post: Alexi Baker on science, sales and spectacles in 18th-century London

Today’s guest post brings together early modern object studies and life-writing: Dr. Alexi Baker (Cambridge) shares her research on the life and innovations of an 18th-century optician and instrument maker, George Willdey.


Selling toys and tech in 18th-century London

I have now finished the best Burning Glass in the World, and plac’d it upon the Top of my House; it produces a Heat many Degrees exceeding that of the most Artificial and hottest Furnace, and in less than a Minute melts Iron, Gold, Silver, Copper, or Brass [… it will also] serve for a Hot Bath [… and] for a Sun Kitchen, where Meat may be Boil’d, Bak’d, Roasted, Stewed, or Broil’d; Coffee, Tea or Chocolate made […] It and its surprising Effects are shew’d Gratis to any of my Customers, that lay out Five Shillings, or more with me; provided the Sun shines, and the Air be Clear. N. B. This far exceeds that show’d in the Privy Garden in White Hall, though each Person paid Half a Crown for the Sight of that.

Post Man and the Historical Account, 22 October 1720.

George Willdey, who contributed this pseudo-scientific spectacle to the theatre of early eighteenth-century London, ran a popular optical and ‘toy’ shop near St Paul’s Churchyard. His copious advertisements painted it as a stylish and luxurious Aladdin’s cave – full of technologies and curiosities, jewellery and fabrics, paintings and maps, cutlery and china, toiletries and elixirs, and snuff and hot beverages. These toys were intended for adults rather than children.

To modern eyes, most of these goods, and the flamboyant rooftop spectacle, seem far removed from Willdey’s training in the ‘scientific’ instrument trade. However, before the advent of the unified Victorian field known as science, proto-scientists like the Fellows of the Royal Society pursued a great variety of interests and activities. Similarly, the objects that curators and scholars today call scientific instruments were actually more akin to modern technology, which is used for far more than just science.

Early modern instruments were called optical, mathematical, or philosophical. Most mathematical instruments had a graduated scale for performing calculations or for measuring angles or distance (e.g. drawing instruments, sextants, globes, etc.). Optical instruments involved glass or metal lenses and mirrors (e.g. microscopes, telescopes, vision aids, etc.). Philosophical instruments were for the demonstration or investigation of natural phenomena such as magnetism, electricity, and the attributes of air (e.g. air pumps, planetaria, electrical machines, etc.).

Most were produced in affordable as well as luxurious forms. They could be precision technologies, everyday tools, status symbols, or entertainments. Beyond science they were employed in activities including drawing, surveying, navigation, education, vision improvement, military and naval manoeuvres, and fashionable display. The London trade in these instruments was the most respected in the early modern world and also the most extensive, encompassing hundreds of shop-owners and thousands of supporting actors.

Understanding this wide-ranging trade, which I’ve been studying for a decade, requires piecing together many different types of evidence. This is true of early modern history at large, given the varying degrees of record-keeping and of rates of document survival. As I discussed at the OCLW’s inaugural Lives of Objects conference last year, it is sometimes specific biographies that lay bare the dynamics only hinted at in other sources.

George Willdey was a highly successful optician and toyman but was previously ignored by historians of science and technology. This was largely because he was a fashionable diversified shopkeeper – note the unscientific air of frivolity – and because it was commonly but wrongly assumed that he did not make his own instruments. However, his partial shop accounts, which I discovered during my doctorate, are the only ones known to have survived for an instrument maker before at least the late eighteenth century.

Advertisement for Willdey's shop
Advertisement for Willdey’s shop. Copyright National Maritime Museum.

Willdey moved to London from Staffordshire and served an apprenticeship with the Spectaclemakers’ Company beginning in 1695. He then opened a shop in Ludgate Street with a partner, selling spectacles and optical instruments in direct competition with his former master and employer. This led to a brief but vitriolic advertising war, with the older men labelling Willdey’s ‘foul Language no better than Billingsgate Railing’ – in other words, no better than the strident harangue of the fish hawkers at Billingsgate Market. In return, the tradesman and his partner accused the older men of ‘Envy and Malice’, and challenged them to public comparisons of their products.

In 1709, George married Judith Sene or De Senne, who was of French Huguenot descent. Within two years of marriage, the toyman separated from his partner and went on to run his own fashionable and increasingly diversified retail and wholesale shop at the corner of Ludgate and St Paul’s. His new French Huguenot connections, which were further strengthened when his daughter Jane married into a well-known goldsmith family, fostered this diversification. These ties would also provide loans, suppliers, customers, and apprentices including an unusually high proportion of women – one of whom would go on to manage the store for two generations.

Willdey constantly expanded his stock, but his optical instruments often took pride of place in his advertising and self-identity and remained a large proportion of the wares sold and especially bartered. Telescopes, spectacles and instrument tubes were the main currency with which the optician bartered with other luxury retailers and manufacturers in order to diversify but also to get raw materials. Here is one of the two surviving telescopes that I have so far been able to attribute to Willdey:

This barrel of this non-achromatic telescope is covered in black rayskin, while the four draw tubes are made of green leather and decorated with gold tooling. The lens holders and other fittings are made of ivory, but all the lenses and eyepiece fitting are missing. Black rings around the draw tubes indicate the optimum length in use.  A handwritten inscription around the base of one of the draw tubes names 'George Willdey', an optical instrument maker working in London in the early 18th century. Copyright National Maritime Museum.
This telescope, one of only two surviving Willdey telescopes identified so far, is covered in black rayskin. It has four draw tubes in green leather and gold tooling – one of which was hand-signed by the toyman – and ivory lens holders and other fittings. Its lenses and eyepiece fitting are missing – although they survive in the other Willdey telescope in Germany, which has silver fittings engraved with a maker’s mark rather than ivory. Copyright National Maritime Museum.

Wholesale customers ran the gamut from makers of apparel and jewellery and cutlery and toys, to those of maps and books and maritime goods. They even included other members of the instrument trade in London. This shows that a wide range of tradesmen across Britain and Europe – including in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands – recognised that their customers desired instruments.

The optician sold and bartered thousands if not tens of thousands of instruments – mainly tubes, spectacles, telescopes, burning glasses, microscopes, and reading glasses. He offered a wide variety of fashionable styles and price levels of each item, at both the retail and wholesale levels, and was also an agent for tube makers.

There are many indications that Willdey achieved impressive financial success and socio-economic status during his career. He was the longest-serving Master of the Spectaclemakers’ Company for most of the long eighteenth century. He even counted members of the Royal Family amongst his customers, and one newspaper commemorated him as ‘the most noted Toyman in Europe’.

The optician died with two comfortable homes, fashionable trappings including a carriage, and an estate worth more than £9000 despite having been ill towards the end of his life. As late as 1750, the poet Mary Jones would still be writing wistfully of withstanding the ‘temptations thick and strong… [to] stop At Wildey’s toys’.

Willdey’s example indicates that the instrument trade of early modern London as well as its exporting and bartering were even more extensive than previously thought. It reinforces that women were deeply involved in facilitating the trade, a factor which was previously ignored. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it emphasises the extent and importance of those elements of the trade which served a fashionable clientele and intersected with other retail specialties.

A life once entirely ignored in the history of early modern technology, has now been revealed as one of its most illuminating!


Alexi Baker completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2010 on the trade in optical, mathematical, and philosophical instruments in eighteenth-century London. She was a post-doc on Simon Schaffer’s Board of Longitude project  at the University of Cambridge from 2010 to 2013. Dr Baker is currently a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH).


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