A visit to Coppens in the 1950s
To visit one shop in Epsom was a visit to a treasure trove. Coppens was a large shop on the corner of East Street and Upper High Street.
Entering it there was a kiosk on the right where the cashier sat.
There were drawers full of patterns for all ages and sizes, for adults and children. Others were full of buttons of all different sizes, shapes and colours, although the most common were those for dresses, shirts, coats and blazers. Then there were the threads, from silks in skeins for embroidery, and wooden bobbins for cotton, button thread etc. Matching the colour to the fabric, wool or button was most important and might be discussed at length with the shop assistant.
All around there were fabrics of all types, colours, weights and feel. The rich colour and feel of a deep red velvet; the soft slippery and shiny satin perhaps buttercup yellow, the crisp fresh feel of brightly coloured, chequered gingham. Then there were the heavier fabrics for curtains, cushions and furnishing.
An advert from 1953 for Coppens - click to enlarge
On the counter was a fixed measure with inches, feet and yards (the old measurements for length). Lengthy discussions with a member of staff might cover the suitability of the fabric for the purpose, whether it would shrink, whether the colour was fast (i.e. would the colour run when washed) and which colour would be best. Customers would often bring in a piece of wallpaper or wool to find the most suitable colour. A bolt of cloth might be taken to the door to see the colour in daylight as artificial light can make a red seem rich but, when looked at in ordinary light, might seem orangey.
The fabric selected, the staff would pull out what seemed like yards and yards of fabric. A small snip at the selvedge edge of the fabric and then how your piece of fabric was separated from the bolt of cloth would vary. For cottons it might be torn straight across (how straight a tear depended on how well the fabric had been woven). For fragile fabrics in which the scissors might pull the cloth or for the heavier weights of fabric where tearing would not work the saleslady would cut the material with large, heavy scissors. These shears were never quite snipped shut until the last piece of cloth (this prevented the jagged edge that could otherwise result).
Near by the racks of fabrics would be a box full of remnants: these leftovers from the rolls of fabric might be enough to make cushions, a short sleeved top or to dress a doll or make a patchwork quilt.
An example of a cash carrier.
Photograph taken (with permission) by Barclay B at Dartford Museum, Kent, UK
Source Wikipedia Article
But for adults and children alike perhaps the most entrancing thing about the shop was the wires that ran between various points in the shop and the cashier's kiosk. A sales person would accept the money from a customer and with the bill would put it into a little wooden container that screwed into a fixture attached to the wire. They would then pull a handle attached to a wire and the little container would whizz along the wire to the cashier. The cashier would return the bill, with any change via the same mechanism. Children would watch this in fascination and sometimes did not want to leave this shop of magic.
Patricia Reed © 2010