AN OLD DRY-GOODS MERCHANT'S RECOLLECTIONS.
Our great cities have a new wonder of late years. I mean those immense
dry-goods stores which we see in Paris, London, New York, Vienna,
Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, in which are displayed under one roof
almost all the things worn, or used for domestic purposes, by man,
woman, or child.
What a splendid and cheering spectacle the interior presents on a fine,
bright day! The counters a tossing sea of brilliant fabrics; crowds of
ladies moving in all directions; the clerks, well-dressed and polite,
exhibiting their goods; the cash-boys flying about with money in one
hand and a bundle in the other; customers streaming in at every door;
and customers passing out, with the satisfied air of people who have got
what they want. It gives the visitor a cheerful idea of abundance to see
such a provision of comfortable and pleasant things brought from every
quarter of the globe.
An old dry-goods merchant of London, now nearly ninety, and long ago
retired from business with a large fortune, has given his recollections
of business in the good old times. There is a periodical, called the
"Draper's Magazine," devoted to the dry-goods business, and it is in
this that some months ago he told his story.
When he was a few months past thirteen, being stout and large for his
age, he was placed in a London dry-goods store, as boy of all work. No
wages were given him. At that time the clerks in stores usually boarded
with their employer. On the first night of his service, when it was time
to go to bed, he was shown a low, truckle bedstead, under the counter,
made to pull out and push in. He did not have even this poor bed to
himself, but shared it with another boy in the store. On getting up in
the morning, instead of washing and dressing for the day, he was obliged
to put on some old clothes, take down the shutters of the store,--which
were so heavy he could hardly carry them,--then clean the brass signs
and the outside of the shop windows, leaving the inside to be washed by
the older clerks. When he had done this, he was allowed to go up stairs,
wash himself, dress for the day, and to eat his breakfast. Then he took
his place behind the counter.
We think it wrong for boys under fourteen to work ten hours a day. But
in the stores of the olden time, both boys and men worked from fourteen
to sixteen hours a day, and nothing was thought of it. This store, for
example, was opened soon after eight in the morning, and the shutters
were not put up till ten in the evening. There was much work to do after
the store was closed; and the young men, in fact, were usually released
from labor about a _quarter past eleven_. On Saturday nights the store
closed at twelve o'clock, and it was not uncommon for the young men to
be employed in putting away the goods until between two and three on
"There used to be," the old gentleman records, "a supper of hot
beafsteaks and onions, and porter, which we boys used to relish
immensely, and eat and drink a good deal more of both than was good for
After such a week's work one would think the clerks would have required
rest on Sunday. But they did not get much. The store was open from eight
until church time, which was then eleven o'clock; and this was one of
the most profitable mornings of the week. The old gentleman explains why
it was so. Almost all factories, shops, and stores were then kept open
very late, and the last thing done in them was to pay wages, which was
seldom accomplished until after midnight. Hence the apparent necessity
for the Sunday morning's business.
Another great evil mentioned by our chronicler grew out of this bad
system of all work and no play. The clerks, released from business
towards midnight, were accustomed to go to a tavern and spend part of
the night in drinking and carousing; reeling home at a late hour, much
the worse for drink, and unfit for business in the morning until they
had taken another glass. All day the clerks were in the habit of
slipping out without their hats to the nearest tap-room for beer.
Nor was the system very different in New York. An aged book-keeper, to
whom I gave an outline of the old gentleman's narrative, informs me that
forty years ago the clerks, as a rule, were detained till very late in
the evening, and often went from the store straight to a drinking-house.
Now let us see how it fared with the public who depended upon these
stores for their dry-goods. From our old gentleman's account it would
seem that every transaction was a sort of battle between the buyer and
seller to see which should cheat the other. On the first day of his
attendance he witnessed a specimen of the mode in which a dexterous
clerk could sell an article to a lady which she did not want. An
unskillful clerk had displayed too suddenly the entire stock of the
goods of which she was in search; upon which she rose to leave, saying
that there was nothing she liked. A more experienced salesman then
"Walk this way, madam, if you please, and I will show you something
entirely different, with which I am sure you will be quite delighted."
He took her to the other end of the store, and then going back to the
pile which she had just rejected, snatched up several pieces, and sold
her one of them almost immediately. Customers, the old merchant says,
were often bullied into buying things they did not want.
"Many a half-frightened girl," he remarks, "have I seen go out of the
shop, the tears welling up into her eyes, and saying, 'I am sure I shall
never like it:' some shawl or dress having been forced upon her contrary
to her taste or judgment."
The new clerk, although by nature a very honest young fellow, soon
became expert in all the tricks of the trade. It was the custom then for
employers to allow clerks a reward for selling things that were
particularly unsalable, or which required some special skill or
impudence in the seller. For example, they kept on hand a great supply
of what they were pleased to call "remnants," which were supposed to be
sold very cheap; and as the public of that day had a passion for
remnants, the master of the shop took care to have them made in
sufficient numbers. There were heaps of remnants of linen, and it so
_happened_ that the remnants were exactly long enough for a shirt, or
some other garment. Any clerk who could push off one of these remnants
upon a customer was allowed a penny or twopence as a reward for his
talent; and there were certain costly articles, such as shawls and silks
of unsalable patterns, upon which there was a premium of several
shillings for selling.
There was one frightfully ugly shawl which had hung fire so long that
the master of the shop offered a reward of eight shillings (two
dollars) to any one who should sell it at the full price; which was
twenty dollars. Our lad covered himself with glory one morning, by
selling this horrid old thing. A sailor came in to buy a satin scarf for
a present. The boy saw his chance.
"As you want something for a present," said he to the sailor, "would you
not like to give something really useful and valuable that would last
In three minutes the sailor was walking out of the store, happy enough,
with the shawl under his arm, and the sharp youth was depositing the
price thereof in the money-drawer. Very soon he had an opportunity of
assisting to gull the public on a great scale. His employer bought out
the stock of an old-fashioned dry-goods store in another part of the
town for a small sum; upon which he determined to have a grand "selling
off." To this end he filled the old shop with all his old, faded,
unsalable goods, besides looking around among the wholesale houses and
picking up several cart-loads of cheap lots, more or less damaged.
The whole town was flooded with bills announcing this selling off of the
old established store, at which many goods could be obtained at less
than half the original cost. As this was then a comparatively new trick
the public were deceived by it, and it had the most astonishing success.
The selling off lasted several weeks, the supply of goods being kept up
by daily purchases.
Our junior clerk was an apt learner in deception and trickery. Shortly
after this experiment upon the public credulity, a careless boy lighting
the lamps in the window (for this was before the introduction of gas)
set some netting on fire, causing a damage of a few shillings, the fire
being almost instantly extinguished. As business had been a little dull,
the junior clerk conceived the idea of turning the conflagration to
account. Going up to his employer, and pointing to the singed articles,
he said to him:--
"Why not have a selling off here, and clear out all the stock damaged by
The master laughed at the enormity of the joke, but instantly adopted
the suggestion, and in the course of a day or two, flaming posters
announced the awful disaster and the sale. In preparing for this event,
the clerks applied lighted paper to the edges of whole stacks of goods,
slightly discolored the tops of stockings, and in fact, they singed to
such an extent as almost to cause a real conflagration. During these
night operations a great deal of beer was consumed, and the whole effect
of the manoeuvre was injurious and demoralizing to every clerk in the
This sale also was ridiculously successful. A mob surrounded the doors
before they were opened, and to keep up the excitement some low-priced
goods were ostentatiously sold much below cost. Such was the rush of
customers that at noon the young men were exhausted by the labor of
selling; the counters were a mere litter of tumbled dry-goods; and the
shop had to be closed for a while for rest and putting things in order.
To keep up the excitement, the master and his favorite junior clerk rode
about London in hackney coaches, in search of any cheap lots that would
answer their purpose.
In the course of time, this clerk, who was at heart an honest,
well-principled fellow, grew ashamed of all this trickery and fraud, and
when at length he set up in business for himself, he adopted the
principle of "one price and no abatement." He dealt honorably with all
his customers, and thus founded one of the great dry-goods houses of
Two things saved him: first, he loathed drinking and debauchery;
secondly, he was in the habit of reading.
The building up of the huge establishments, to which some persons
object, has nearly put an end to the old system of guzzling, cheating,
and lying. The clerks in these great stores go to business at eight
o'clock in the morning, and leave at six in the evening, with an
interval for dinner. They work all day in a clean and pleasant place,
and they are neither required or allowed to lie or cheat. A very large
establishment must be conducted honestly, or it cannot long go on. Its
very largeness _compels_ an adherence to truth and fact.