Consider this trade card of “Philip Fruchard, Coale Merchant,” most likely printed sometime before 1750. It shows a charged threshold, a representation of the exact moment when and where coal arrived in London during the eighteenth century, the completion of its long journey from coal mines in the northeast of England, a distance of about 250 miles along the island’s eastern seaboard.
In the image, a small boat filled with coals occupies the foreground. Three men stand within this pile—two of them shovel fuel into a cylindrical bushel measure, heaped up with material; a third laborer stands beside them, ready with an empty bag. To their left, a fourth man crosses a small plank, his body weighed down by a filled coal sack. He heads towards the wharf where a wooden wagon waits, attended by a horse and driver who stand ready to cart the fuel off the card and into the city. Across the image, in the top right corner, another mass of coals spills from a ship into a small vessel, one which will presumably continue the local chain of delivery, either at this wharf or a different one. On the other side of the card, at top left, floats a faintly drawn figure. A female embodiment of justice seated in a cloud and holding a scale, she furnishes the virtuous terms of the market.
This was a predictably self-serving depiction. Trade cards served as advertisements, souvenirs, and sometimes bills of receipt; they provided fragmentary, idealized views of the expanding urban commerce of this period. Changes to both printing and commerce in mid-eighteenth-century London spurred the production of trade cards, which reflected an urban scale that was expanding beyond the personal, local transactions of a more manageably-sized city. The trade card was thus both an index and product of the growing metropolis and its increasingly anonymous exchanges. Costly to make, such cards most often served as what historian Philippa Hubbard calls a “visual celebration of consumption.” Printed in the service of high value goods like timepieces, globes, domestic furnishings, and similar items, trade cards usually showed idealized images of expensive things, or even portrayed the specific retail environment of the shop that printed it.
Fruchard’s image is different. It displays not a coveted commodity, but instead a series of labor-intensive transfers. It shows no specific object, but instead piles of material, heaps of fuel being moved around. As coals are taken from the large ship anchored in the distance, to an adjacent boat, and finally onto the wharf, the mass of fuel is broken down into smaller and smaller units, capable of being pulled by a horse-drawn cart or carried on a single human back. Most of this fuel is destined for household stockpiles, where coals will be, finally, burned, one coal scuttle load at a time. This branching, capillary action was a function of material necessity—the bulky nature of moving coal around determined its patterns of distribution, storage, and use. At a larger scale, however, the supply of coal to London lifted a crucial constraint on urban expansion. Mineral fuel endowed the city, writes historian Derek Keene, “with a virtually unlimited source of energy to support its physical growth.” The coal trade was both intensive and extensive; while its commerce was concentrated in narrow places, like the bottleneck shown here, the use of coal in aggregate led to immense, practically uncontainable consequences.
The view of this trade card implies the view of the coal merchant, standing just outside the wharf where the labor takes place. Fruchard chose to portray his business, that is, as an image of management. On similar cards of other coal merchants, this was a common trope—among those that survive from this period, almost every one that includes an image shows this kind of material transfer.
The coal merchant, that is, did not display his wares, but advertised his perspective just above the physical labor in the port of London, his coordination of supply and demand that—as these depictions seemed to argue—kept the cycle in motion and the city supplied with fuel. This was a representation taken at a close, but still reasonable, distance. The composition of laborers, vessels, and fuel implied that Fruchard and his colleagues were the judicious maintainers of supply and demand, though the suspended figure of justice indicated that their activities were supported by another, higher power.
As chaotic as this space might seem, it also maintained a kind of stability. Another image from the 1808 illustrated volume, The Costume of Great Britain, made perhaps seven decades later than Fruchard’s image, showed the same scene with similar laborers moving the same fuel. While the metropolis had grown considerably between these two depictions, its internal life remained tethered to a single congested site for one of its crucial commodities. This labor-intensive commercial pattern would not be seriously disrupted until the 1840s, when coal began arriving in the metropolis for the first time by railroad—its routes laid in coal-fired iron; its locomotives propelled by coal-fired steam.
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