My wife and I are now reading Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety in the evenings; I’ve been a fan of hers ever since reading Eight Months on Ghazzah Street some years ago, and this fat historical novel about the French Revolution and three of the men who made it is every bit as good as I had hoped. And since I can never read a novel without wanting to learn more about the time and place it describes, I am also reading a book the excellent Noetica sent me a while back, The Making of Revolutionary Paris, by David Garrioch, which the author wrote because he looked for a general history of eighteenth-century Paris, found there wasn’t one, and thought there should be.
It’s an excellent work, tying together all sorts of recent developments in historical research, and I’m devouring it greedily (aided and abetted by my collection of historical maps, and it’s a good thing I have them, because the book only has one map of Paris, and that completely illegible—I wag my finger in annoyance at U. of California Press). But I have a minor lexical quibble that I bring to your attention because, hey, it’s what I do.
Garrioch has frequent occasion to mention the various tradesmen of the city, and on page 67 he says “At the peak of the pyramid were the great merchant guilds known as the Six Corps: the drapers, grocer-apothecaries, furriers, silk merchants, goldsmiths, and mercers.” What, you may ask (if you’re American), is a mercer? I think I had run across the word before, and even looked it up, but because it corresponds to nothing in my daily life it went right out of my head. Merriam-Webster says “British: a dealer in usually expensive fabrics”; AHD says “Chiefly British: a dealer in textiles, especially silks.” All well and good, except that of course these merchants were not British but French, and they were not mercers but merciers, and that pair happens to be a pair of faux amis. A mercier is what Americans call a “notions dealer” (and Brits, I believe, a “haberdasher,” which in America is a dealer in men’s clothing), selling needles, thread, buttons, and the like. Garrioch explains the term somewhat obliquely a couple of pages later: “The mercers were the largest of all, their numbers rising to over 3,000 in the 1770s — though that included both the sellers of objets d’art and the humble retailers of ribbons and baubles who trudged the streets with their wares on a tray suspended in front of them.” Very far, in other words, from dealers in silk, and however tempting the similar-sounding English word, he should have left mercier in the original French. (I am at least relieved he didn’t use “haberdasher,” which would have confused American readers no end.)


  1. A lot of what passes for silk, especially in the carpet biz, is really mercerized cotton:

  2. Carol Sandstrom says

    Reminds me of the term “dry goods” which seems to encompass the wares of both mercer and mercier: Merriam-Webster says “textiles, ready-to-wear clothing, and notions as distinguished especially from hardware and groceries”.

  3. My first reaction to “mercer” was that it had to do with textiles because I was familiar with the term “mercerized thread” on the spools used by people who sew. Looking it up, I found that this term for thread came from a John Mercer who invented a process for treating cotton thread with sodium hydroxide so that it would better accept dye. The American Heritage Dictionary also indicates that ‘mercier’ ultimately derives from the Latin ‘merx, merc-‘ meaning merchandise.

  4. marie-lucie says

    LH, the genderless “mercer” makes people think that only men were involved (and they were the majority in the other guilds mentioned), but among the merciers (the men may have been largely wholesalers) there were a large number of mercières, as the customers most likely to buy those “notions” were women. They operated both in shops and as individual sellers carrying their merchandise in front of them on a tray, supported by a strap around their necks. The merchandise they sold was called la mercerie, a word also used for a shop selling them, or more recently for the part of a department store devoted to them. There are few such specialized shops left now in France, but when I was young there were still many, usually selling knitting wool and supplies in addition to sewing materials (but not whole cloth) and supplies, including ribbon, seam binding, and other long and thin strips of fabrics used in making clothes. In past centuries, when most clothes, especially women’s and children’s, were not bought readymade but made at home or by individual dressmakers, and those clothes had to be regularly mended and often altered until reduced to rags (since cloth itself was expensive and women’s clothing required a lot of it), there was a consant need for sellers of sewing supplies. Nowadays if you need a needle you have to buy a whole package of them, but in previous eras people bought just what they needed. In my youth I have sometimes seen in a Paris street (not a touristy one) a street vendor (literally in the middle of a narrow street) walking around selling needles one at a time, each with a length of thread sufficient to sew a few buttons or to make a minor repair to a garment. He carried the needles on his person, stuck into his own clothes with threads of various colours dangling from the needles.
    The main item of mercerie was and still is thread, of which there is and was a very large variety depending on its purpose. Thread was used not only for garment construction but for embroidery, the latter not only for decoration on clothing, cushions, etc but to mark handkerchiefs, sheets, tablecloths, napkins, and other household linens with decorative initials. Some of this was done at home but marking linen was often done by professionals: a girl about to get married would be given sets of sheets, etc marked with the initials of her and her husband’s last names. Quite often the embroiderer (who could be the girl herself) would start long before the wedding (and even before any engagement was in the offing) with the bride’s initial on each object, and complete the work with the groom’s initial after the engagement. For sheets or tablecloths the typical embroidery used for initials creates the design in relief by using thread both for padding and for hiding the padding material, and therefore requires a large amount of thread.

  5. Glad you’re enjoying the Garrioch book, LH. (This reminds me: I must check how he pronounces his name, as I said I would.)
    Mercer is a pleasant historically impregnated word, no matter how the details are worked out. We have Marie-Lucie’s typically lucid exploration of the theme in its French connexion. That would indeed be a haberdasher, in Australia as well as in Britain. I am reminded of Manchester, whose meaning is well summarised in SOED:

    Used attrib. to designate things from or associated with Manchester, esp. cotton goods.
    Manchester cotton: see COTTON n.2
    Manchester goods cotton textiles. …

    Attributively, yes; but also independently, at least in Australia. In Australian KMart and similar shops, Manchester is the settled term for towels, sheets, curtains, certain mats, blinds, and so on. See Kmart Australia documentation. How widespread is that use, I ask? I note that the Wikipedia article Kmart Australia mentions “manchester” (lower case); but the term is not linked, or glossed anywhere in Wikipedia. Certainly not in the many listings at Manchester (disambiguation).

  6. The equivalence of mercer and mercier is not as far off the mark as you might think. Mercers, especially in the 18th century, especially the humbler kind, might often carry the sort of merchandise found in merciers. Although I don’t think that English mercers included street peddlers.

  7. Bathrobe says

    Is that last post a piece of spam or a real comment? Getting mighty hard to tell the difference!
    Actually, I think haberdasher would have been rather charming 🙂 Why steer away from words merely because they’re slightly unfamiliar?

  8. Interesting. Although they are kind of false friends, I must admit I don’t really think of them that way – in my head they are the same word, only mercers sell somewhat different things in France than in Britain. If you see the difference.
    To be fair, the OED does say it is ‘occasionally’ used to refer to a dealer in haberdashery….and I guess you could also argue that because it’s a less familiar word now, it’s more open to a wider range of references.

  9. Finally, something I know about. The Mercers’ Company.
    Also the Wiki article.
    Dick Wittington was a member of the Mercers.

  10. Oh well, since the Mercers’ Company’s link doesn’t work, at vast expense I’ll reprint it:

    Mercers and the trade of mercery
    The term ‘Mercer’ is derived from the French for merchant, and from the Latin merx meaning merchandise. Medieval mercers were involved in the trade of ‘mercery’ – the exporting of woollen materials, and the importing of luxury fabrics such as silk, linen and cloth of gold. In medieval times the Company was at the centre of the commercial life of the City and the development of overseas trade. The trade of mercery no longer exists, and indeed the Company’s links with an active trade have died out over the centuries. This was partly because admission to the Company was possible by ‘patrimony’ (i.e. because your father was a member), and this necessarily weakened the link between the trade and the Company. The other main form of admission to the Company was by an eight year apprenticeship. Apprenticeship had to be genuine, rather than token, but as links with an active trade declined this became difficult. By the 18th and 19th centuries apprentices were being bound to Masters who were no longer practising mercers. No more apprentices were bound after 1888.

    Richard Whittington is the most famous member of the Mercers’ Company, immortalised as Dick Whittington the pantomime figure. Everybody knows the story of Whittington from childhood, a highly romanticised ‘rags to riches’ tale of a boy and his cat going to London to seek his fortune.
    The real Whittington was born in the 1350s in Pauntley, Gloucestershire, the youngest son of Sir William Whittington, a local land-owner. He was apprenticed to the Mercers’ Company, and became a successful Mercer, dealing in valuable imports such as silks and velvets. The major market for such wares was the Royal Court, and in 1389, for the first time, Whittington sold two cloths of gold to King Richard II for £11. This was followed by great quantities of luxury fabrics for the Royal Wardrobe. Richard II owed Whittington £1,000 when he was deposed in 1399. Whittington also supplied similar luxuries for the new king Henry IV.

  11. Ginger Yellow says

    In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Mercerism is the pseudo-religion based around the Mercer mood altering device. Nothing to do with the guild, as far as I know.

  12. Actually, I think haberdasher would have been rather charming 🙂 Why steer away from words merely because they’re slightly unfamiliar?
    The problem isn’t unfamiliarity (I think of the word as a familiar one, but that’s probably my age showing), it’s that it means completely different things in the U.S. and the U.K./Australia.

  13. mollymooly says

    When I first went to Australia I saw a sign in a shop window “Italian Manchester”. I thought it was a travel agent trying to sell tours to Turin. OK, I didn’t really, but still.

  14. In the midwest, a “haberdasher” sells men’s clothes–and hats, the word not being used in speech but on store signs or advertisements. For buttons, zippers and thread, you go to the “notions” or “sewing notions” department of a fabric store, if you can find any still in business.

  15. Ginger Yellow says

    “When I first went to Australia I saw a sign in a shop window “Italian Manchester”. I thought it was a travel agent trying to sell tours to Turin”
    Well, Birmingham is sometimes called the Venice of the North, despite not being in the North.

  16. I don’t think the word “notions” is current in Australia in that sense. At least I’ve never heard or seen it. But I’m not exactly the sort of person to buy them 🙂

  17. The Windsor Button shop is a Boston institution. If you’ve lost a button, sometimes they have a match and other times they’ll sell you a whole new set that, while not a match, is suitable for the garment.

  18. My father-in-law went to the Mercers’ School.

  19. marie-lucie says

    The merchandise carried by the Windsor Button Shop is exactly what one would hope to find in an old-fashioned mercerie. No bolts of cloth, but everything else you need to make clothes.
    sometimes they have a match and other times they’ll sell you a whole new set that, while not a match, is suitable for the garment.
    On first reading I thought that if they didn’t have a match they would give you a whole new set of buttons. Of course if you lose a button that is not very standard (like a woman’s coat button, not so much a man’s shirt button) you have to replace all the buttons, therefore to buy a whole new set, and the staff at the store would make sure that the new buttons would be the right size, colour and style for the garment, if the customer didn’t know how to determine those things.

  20. We laugh at Birmingham as the Venice of the North: ha, ha. Any fule kno the Venice of the North is Hamburg, and Venice ‘the Hamburg of the South’.

  21. I went to a secondary school funded by the Mercers’ Company. Despite the backing of a half-billion pound endowment, they still send me begging letters.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Back to the definitions in LH’s post, the Six Corps were made up of dealers in luxuries. But the mercières may have started as adjuncts or “ladies’ auxiliary” to the merciers, dealing not with the expensive cloths but with the supplies and accessories necessary to transform cloth into clothing.

  23. clodhopper says

    I luv ‘ow words devolve, involve, and revolve;
    the problem with ‘aberdasher, besides it being a place where one learns polysyllable words,is that in of itself has too many syllables thus it is doomed for the modern learned one to spout to the gnu.
    Mercer be another of those scholastic institutions that took kids off the streets from the great wool prophets and provided the ‘free’ R’s ‘ritin’, reckonin’, very handy for counting threads, and of course readin’ as they required new blood to run new merceries, but as progress be essential, profits be lost to the new woolen centers tried new ways to get new profits, so the word loses on meaning and grabs another.

  24. Ah, and now I get to tell one of the Classic Jokes:
    Q: What was said of the guy who left the presidency of the University of Chicago to become CEO of Woolworth’s?
    A: That he went from ideas to notions.

  25. We laugh at Birmingham as the Venice of the North: ha, ha. Any fule kno the Venice of the North is Hamburg, and Venice ‘the Hamburg of the South’.
    Isn’t it Stockholm that’s the Venice of the North?
    I myself live two towns over from the “Venice of America” (Fort Lauderdale).

  26. Ah, and now I get to tell one of the Classic Jokes
    I just passed that along to my wife, and she laughed in a very pained way.

  27. I thought St Petersburg was the Venice of the North.

  28. mollymooly says
  29. marie-lucie says

    In that case, are there Venices of the other cardinal points?

  30. bruessel says

    As mentioned on mollymooly’s Wiki list: ask any Belgian and he’ll tell you that Bruges is the Venice of the North.

  31. Trond Engen says

    The name Venezuela was originally devised by the European explorers for a town on poles (in the Lake Maracaíbo, IIRC).
    There’s more than one Paris of the North, too, the Norwegian contestant being Tromsø, but so far the Wikipedia entry has been monopolized by the Danish city of Ålborg.

  32. That’s interesting that Hamburg isn’t on Molly’s list. Any Hamburger will tell you that the city is known elsewhere as the Venice of the North.
    Tromsø is, in fact, the Paris of the North. It has very expensive shops, ultra-fashionably-dressed inhabitants and good, gourmet-type restaurants.
    A bit further south, Ålesund is an art-nouveau Venice of the North. You can pretty much do the whole of Europe without leaving Norway.

  33. Presumably the root of “mercer” is the same as that of “mercenary”?
    And I am completely confused as to why Americans should refer to buttons, ribbons etc. as “notions”. “Notions dealer” sounds like a sort of Pratchettish retail philosopher (“FRESH AXIOMS DAILY”).

  34. marie-lucie says

    Yes, it refers to buying and selling, it does not matter what.
    “Notions” is weird for those odds and ends, but that is the accepted word in sewing circles.

  35. Bathrobe says

    Well, both Bangkok and Osaka (when it still had its canals) have been referred to as the Venice of the East. You might dig up a few more if you look around….

  36. Bathrobe says

    Google quickly turned up Suzhou, Ayutthaya, Alappuzha, Basra, Kumarakom, Brunei Darussalam, Zhouzhuang, Udaipur, the Melaka River, and Palembang.

  37. Bathrobe says

    Oops, missed Barisal.

  38. And I am completely confused as to why Americans should refer to buttons, ribbons etc. as “notions”.
    The OED gives sense 9b as “Small wares, esp. cheap useful articles of some ingenious design”; I think the final phrase provides the vital clue.

  39. To sew the notions together:

    So I hope to tell you I marched in and got that radio, and they could of all bit a nail in two, especially Stella-Rondo, that it used to belong to, and she well knew she couldn’t get it back, I’d sue for it like a shot. And I very politely took the sewing-machine motor I helped pay the most on to give Mama for Christmas back in 1929, and a good big calendar, with the first-aid remedies on it. …

    … “It’s too late to stop me now,” I says. “You should have tried that yesterday. I’m going to the P.O. and the only way you can possibly see me is to visit me there.”

    So Papa-Daddy says, “You’ll never catch me setting foot in that post office, even if I should take a notion into my head to write a letter some place.” He says, “I won’t have you reachin’ out of that little old window with a pair of shears and cuttin’ off any beard of mine. I’m too smart for you!”

  40. That’s a great story; if anyone isn’t familiar with it, here it is.

  41. marie-lucie says

    Many thanks, LH. Believe it or not, I studied American literature but had never read Eudora Welty!

  42. As for Venice of the East, I read many years ago that Saigon was called that.

  43. The Venice of the West may be Venice, CA.

  44. There’s a Victorian area facing on to a canal in west London, called Little Venice; like in Amsterdam there’s a road between the canal and the houses, whereas in Venice the buildings loom right out of the water.

  45. The buildings in Venice are sinking; they are built on poles with the ends driven straight down into the water. What used to be the ground floor is now parking for the boat. Who knows what Venice looked like centuries ago.

  46. marie-lucie says

    Who knows what Venice looked like centuries ago.
    Many painters made pictures of Venice in its heyday, and no doubt the city archives have information going back several centuries.

  47. David Marjanović says

    So Amsterdam, The One More Venice of the North, has already been mentioned? Good.
    (Stockholm? WTF.)
    Venice isn’t sinking that quickly, or at least it hasn’t been sinking for that long.

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