Dr Hillary Taylor, Lecturer at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, and currently our Bedford Fellow, writes:

Billheads were used as receipts and as an advertising method. The Bedford Collection contains over a thousand examples of them from the furniture trades. They served similar functions to trade cards — a precursor of modern business cards — and began to be used in the 18th century. Early billheads could be fairly rudimentary. At a minimum, they contained the name and location of the individual trader or firm, along with details about the trade(s) in which they specialized. John Kaye’s 1814 billhead from Manchester is a representative example.

billhead with brown typeface on cream paper featuring furniture
W. Lusty & Sons Ltd. billhead. MS 2241/3/1/2/418. Image credit Leeds University Library.

By the 20th century, businesses used billheads to advertise their uniqueness and particular products. In the 1930s, for example, the East London firm W. Lusty & Sons used its billhead to project its modernity via typeface and labour saving devices such as its ‘Maidsaver’ cabinet. Around the same time, Len Limited was more explicit and told readers that it specialized in ‘modern design’ including its patented Sorbo Rubber Suspension Seating.

billhead with orange and black typeface on cream background featuring a chair
Len Limited billhead. MS 2241/3/1/2/400. Image credit Leeds University Library.

As I was looking through a stack of billheads, one caught my attention. The billhead itself — detailing a transaction between a Mr Davenport and an upholsterer and cabinet-marker named G. B. Marsden in early 19th-century Manchester — is fairly unremarkable. But upon further inspection, the billhead is more interesting. The ‘G. B.’ had been crossed out and ‘Mary’ had been written above it, seemingly by the same person who wrote the rest of text. What was going on here? For a speculative answer, I looked at ‘The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840‘, parish registers, and 19th-century newspapers in online databases.

billhead with black typeface on white paper featuring a woman reclining on a rock
Mary Marsden’s billhead. MS 2241/3/1/2/446. Image credit Leeds University Library.

George B. Marsden had operated as a chair-maker and upholsterer in Manchester since 1800; he died just before his 50th birthday and was buried in St Mary’s parish in March 1822. At this point, Mary Marsden (his widow — they married in 1796) started running the business independently, presumably using knowledge of the trade that she had acquired in the previous two decades. This was not uncommon; some women would help run their husbands’ businesses and then continue to do so as widows. Even among furniture makers in early 19th-century Manchester, Mary Marsden was not a one-off. In 1804 Elizabeth Baron put an ad in the ‘Manchester Mercury’ to announce that she was taking over her own late husband’s cabinet making and upholstery business, noting that it had ‘the advantage of a steady set of workingmen.’ 1

The transaction on the Marsden billhead is dated December 6th 1822, some months after George Marsden’s death. It’s unclear what motivated Mary Marsden to strike through the ‘G. B.’ and write her own name. Presumably she wanted to indicate that she was now in charge of the operation. But if the surviving items in the Bedford Collection are any indication, Mary Marsden never had new billheads printed in her own name. One from 1828 indicates that she was still using the same design, but on this occasion, she did not amend the ‘G.B.’ or add her own name. If Marsden had chosen to get new billheads, she would not have been exceptional. For instance, Elizabeth Bell — a widow who took over her husband’s cabinet making firm in 18th-century London — had trade cards printed in her own name. 2

Whatever her thoughts about the billhead, Mary Marsden seems to have maintained the business at St. Ann’s Street for the better part of the 1820s. In 1828 her bankruptcy was announced in the ‘Manchester Courier’. The following year, she began trading in partnership with a ‘G. Mather.’ That firm also appears to have gone bankrupt shortly thereafter.

1 For Baron’s case, see Hannah Barker, ‘The Business of Women: Female Enterprise and Urban Development in Northern England, 1760-1830‘ (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 119.

2 For Bell’s case, see Amy Erickson, ‘Wealthy businesswomen, marriage and succession in eighteenth-century London,’ Business History (2022), p. 15; p. 22.