Thursday 5 May 2011

Shop Assistants

A lovely article from the Woman's Signal on the daily life of late-Victorian shop-assistants:





IT strikes me that the above title is rather suggestive of the operations of hungry little humans in their parents' pantries. But to the shop assistant it has quite another significance. To him it spoils a weary round of shops in search of a situation.
    With one or two notable exceptions, no West End drapery establishments advertise for assistants, nor do young people who wish to secure situations, or, as they are called " cribs," in the better class business houses depend upon answers to advertisements.
    It has now for some years become a recognised proceeding to go round from shop to shop, asking if there are any vacancies in the departments applicants have been accustomed to serve in.
    Assistants who know anything about the lack of dependence to be placed upon keeping a situation any length of time, are always especially careful to have at least one good "rig out" by them in case they have to go "cribbing."
    The uninitiated might imagine that, given a ready tongue, good appearance, excellent references, etc., the dress of the "cribber" was of quite secondary consideration. Not so, however.
    Young men wear high silk hats, frock coats, and neat kid gloves; the young women fashionably made gowns of the best material their last salaries would allow them to procure. Their hats, boots, and gloves, irreproachable in point of style, are all additional items for approval by critical managers.
    As special seasons of spring and autumn commence, "cribbers" are extremely numerous. They may be seen in little streams going to the best houses, awaiting their turn to be interviewed by managers. They are uncomfortable, to say the least of it, the minutes that pass while the applicants are being closely questioned as to why they left their former situations, what salaries they have been in receipt of, their qualifications to fill the present vacancies; how they have spent the time which has elapsed between their last engagement and present applications.
    And a dozen and one other questions are asked which have more or less important bearing upon the business in hand. Then from the single file of applicants who entered the shop a little while before, the likeliest are selected to fill the vacancies, and the others troop out again, to continue their systematic round of business houses until, like the dove of old, they find a little rest for the soles of their feet, arid they can have a couple of days' freedom from anxiety before entering the new "cribs."
    Of course, those who possess the "gift o' the gab" stand the best chances of securing good engagements. But as showroom hands, managers try their "level best" to secure young women with tall handsome figures, and those with pretty faces for millinery department.
    In large houses the day upon which they enter the "crib" is the last they see of the man who engaged then ; they may be in the same house for years, but for all the business relations they have with one another, one of them need not exist.
    Their boxes having been handed over to the housekeeper and been disposed of, the young people are conducted to the counting-house of the firm, where they are requested to sign a formidable-looking document, binding themselves by their signatures to serve the fresh employer faithfully and to the best of their abilities, declaring solemnly that they will not seek to injure him or his business in any way whatsoever, and so on, ad lib., which document, having been signed, sealed, and delivered into the hands of the employer's representative, the assistants are introduced with a few curt words into their various departments. And for the time being "cribbing " is it thing of the past, and "cribbers" are once again in harness—some of them, no doubt, making idle speculations as to the luck or ill-luck of those who were once fellow-applicants for the situations they now occupy. Whether they managed eventually to secure  good, had, or indifferent "cribs" must remain mere conjecture until Misfortune's wheel throws thorn together once more, and they are again members of the fraternity of Unemployed. (To be continued.)



Those last engaged in large houses have to rise the first in the morning for at least three months after their engagement. They are, for that time, known as "squadders." Their special extra work consists in getting into the shop at seven o'clock every morning, winter and summer, dusting and cleaning, and putting stock in order for the day's trade. This they have to do until eight o'clock, when they scramble back upstairs to dress properly.
    "Squadders " are generally men only. Non-"squadders" come to business at eight o'clock, having breakfasted beforehand. The first appearance of shop assistants in the morning, with the exception of "squadders," is timed by either "shop-walkers" or " buyers."


Under the title "Cribbing," it was mentioned that in engaging assistants slickness of tongue was much taken into account. Men who can exaggerate with a fine appearance of speaking the truth are highly valued, as all know, in commercial life.
    So much trade depends upon persuading people into buying what they don't want. And, of course, assistants have to practise the art of cramming most assiduously.
    What woman amongst us, while waiting in a drapery establishment, has not heard the most audacious and often ridiculous statements made concerning the wearing and washing qualities of certain materials the assistants are desired to "push"?
    Who has not noticed the look of incredulity pass from the customer face, giving place to an expression of satisfaction at having secured that treasure dear to housewives' hearts—a "bargain"?
    Every day witnesses the manufacture of "tall," very "tall," crams, to be told to the disadvantage of the gullible part of the community. But surely one of the "tallest" over made was used in a large West End establishment only a few days ago.
    An elderly, middle-aged lady sat at the counter, evidently unable to make up her mind concerning the merits of some rather sombre-looking "prints." There was a pile of the goods in various patterns before her, but she only looked more undecided with each passing moment. At last the smart assistant engaged in serving her hurried away somewhere into regions evidently visited but seldom, and fetched from thence a large roll of "print " round which was fastened a piece of snowy tissue paper. The roll was uncovered amidst the other "prints," and a hideous combination of black and yellow was exposed to view.


    The customer suggested that it appeared old-fashioned and didn't look washable. "Madam," and the truthful assistant spoke very earnestly —" madam, it's quite new, only just unpacked, in fact ; it arrived a few hours ago from the warehouse. And as for not washing, madam, why it is made by an entirely now process. This is one of the latest firewoven prints, the colours of which are burnt in."
    The lady had two young nieces in the country, she said, who just fancied something "really now" above everything. So she took enough of the material for them to make a dress each, besides purchasing several yards for herself.
    But it is not only women who are persuaded into buying totally different articles to what they intend. Men daily purchase flannelette garments, under the impression they are buying pure flannel. As for articles that ought to wash, but won't - just send a man, an ordinary everyday man, shopping, and he's warranted to bring back something wrong in the way of non-washables.
    Of course, it is a deplorable state of affairs that compels wholesale lying by assistants, who desire to be successful. But we cannot expect the after-erected fabric to be bettor than the foundation ; and who can doubt that the commercial system of to-day, competitive, cutthroat, degrading as it is, is anything but one gigantic lie?
    It is known to most of the SIGNAL-ites that in nearly all the larger houses of business, and in every one o f the smaller retail shops, wherever labour is hired, a system of "spiffs " obtains.
    These "spiffs" are sometimes called "premiums," and they are also known as "commissions," but by far the more general term is "spiffs."


    When a tradesman has old stock which he desires to get rid of, he offers his assistants a certain percentage upon the sale of such stock. The money thus gained, being over and above their settled salaries, is known as "spiffs."
    Naturally the dress departments, more especially amongst the silks, are far and away the best regarding the amount earned in "spiffs." Many large firms make a point of buying up "job lots " of things, on which they think they can get a good profit.
    Numbers of these co-called "job lines" require the most dexterous pushing on the part of the assistants, who in their turn take a percentage on the sales they manage to effect.
    In some of the leading West End establishments, drapers' employés may, by means of "spills," augment their salaries from throe to six pounds a month. Considering the way assistants in the majority of large drapery houses are required to dress, their salaries certainly need addition from some source or another. Young ladies, unless employed as leading show-room, millinery, or mantle hands, rarely exceed £25 per annum. But by far the greater number do not average £15 a year.
    In the drapery, as in most other businesses, men receive a higher "screw," or settled salary than the women. Certainly not for more arduous work, for often the labour is distributed to the advantage of the men. So it must be their sex only that is paid for.
    Excepting as regards the "screws" paid to the chief hands, the payment of London shop assistants does not compare at all favourably with that made in provincial towns for the same work and shorter hours.


    Regarding the hours of labour, West End houses, in a number of instances, set a capital example, which, sad to say, is only copied in a very slight degree by the East End and North East business places.
    The more considerate tradesmen open at 8 o'clock to 8.30 a.m., and close at 7.30 p.m., and cease business on one day in the week not later than 2 o'clock. But, unfortunately, the fourteen and fifteen hour day is much more frequent. Saturday, more often than not, in crowded neighbourhoods, spells sixteen and seventeen hours of incessant rush and worry.
    Although it is strictly illegal, and certainly unjust, most business houses have a system of "fines." Money is extorted from the unlucky assistants for doing those things which they ought not to have done—that is, from their employer's point of view—and leaving undone those things which the same person thought they ought to have done. And so marvellously smart are the representatives of some firms in detecting "finable" faults in their employés that often the fines "deducted" from their salaries surpass in value the amount they have managed to make in "spiffs" in a corresponding period. The fines are very petty, but the way they are made to run up is certainly most appalling to the poor assistant, who depends in a large measure upon the "spiffs" he or she is enabled to make during the month.
    Cane-seated chairs behind the counter, wherever tried, have not secured much appreciation from the assistants, tired and exhausted though they get towards the close of the day. But the latest invention, the automatic slipping seat, which springs out of the way as the assistant rises from it, has met with unusually strong favour, and many of the better establishments are having them fitted in each department. And they certainly are a great boon to the aching limbs that are so terribly in need of some slight support.


    Perhaps one of the greatest evils of the present mode of competition is the precarious nature it gives to the shop assistant's work. At the and of the season, any worker in a large business house may be called upon to resign, no further service being required from him for some months, not until the next busy season, in fact.
    It has become a system, perhaps as pernicious and deadly a one as can well be conceived, to work young assistants for all their worth during the season. Then at the end, turn them adrift at a moment's notice, thoroughly tired out, body and soul, with the long hours and constant driving and hurry of their sadly overworked lives. Made to work to the last possible stretch of human endurance, then dismissed with a suave, "We have arrived at the conclusion that your services will not be required after this week, Miss So-and-So."
    Most firms request their assistants to resign, so that they may the more easily secure other situations. But in "slack" seasons suitable cribs are as difficult to find as are mignonette seeds in sand.


HAPPILY each year sees many more firms following the example set by one of the greatest and best known drapery establishments, in providing libraries and various amusements for their assistants after business hours.
    Some of the largest West End drapers not only place books, billiard and bagatelle tables at the disposal of their employés, but subscribe to any little societies, dramatic, musical, athletic, etc., which may be formed amongst the assistants.
    In such houses the assistants are released immediately that business is finished for the night, and are allowed at once to have a little supper and a wash before going out, in summer and during the fine weather, or joining their little social societies in the winter.
    Unfortunately the fees for these little societies prove a terrible drain upon the assistants' very far from bulky purses. There are so many affairs which each one is in honour bound to subscribe to—library, one shilling per quarter ; doctor, the same. Then they are allowed medical attendance free in case of illness. Two shillings a quarter entitles them to both attendance and medicine. Then each of their societies demands the inevitable shilling from every member. The total required quarterly from each slenderly-lined pocket appears formidable to say the least of it.
    It is not often that strangers are admitted to these debating or literary evenings, or to the capital concerts; but when they are, the same conclusion is generally arrived at—that is, that there is no end of talent for speaking, acting, reciting, singing, etc:., in most of those who so patiently pursue their laborious, disease-inviting lives behind the counters of our great frontal shops. Good as the little social evenings are, one cannot help thinking how vastly better they would be were the assistants given shorter hours for work and longer hours for recreation and enjoyment of life.
    Of course, the assistants in most middle, and nearly all lower-class shops, do not have a tithe of the social life of those in the best houses and as employés of the most considerate firms. Oftentimes, long after the business has been closed to customers for the evening, the young men and women are kept pegging away, re-arranging stock, dusting, sweeping, dressing windows, etc., until a very minimum of time is left for them to get a breath of air other than that which they have been breathing all day.
    Such ill-managed businesses go far in spreading the dread scourge consumption amongst those employed in them. Behind the private door of these places there is no chance of happy musical or dramatic reunions, for the assistants, after business hours, are tired out, body and soul, and only something of the most exciting description serves to rouse their interest.
    When leaving the house after business in large and well-managed firms, each assistant has to leave his or her name and some address, either of home or a friend, with the porter stationed at the door of exit for the purpose.
    Such a plan was first adopted on account of the numberless disappearances of young folks that used to occur. The time of leaving and returning is also chronicled. Should assistants desire to remain out all night, if they can give a satisfactory  reason for wishing to do so, the shop-walker gives out "dockets," which they present to the door porter, who allows them to go, after taking names and addresses, and putting down in his never-failing book the name of the shop-walker who may have signed the "dockets." It has become the rule of late, to give one half-holiday a week, either on a Wednesday, Thursday, or Saturday. On such days as the early closing takes place, the assistants are allowed to stay out until 12 o'clock. Every other night they must be in by either 10.30 or  11 o'clock. After that its a case of locked out or heavily fined, sometimes followed by being  "swopped," i.e., dismissed at a moment's notice.
    The sleeping accommodation varies in different houses. Sometimes there are dormitories of but meagre size, with six or eight beds in each one, two people being apportioned to each bed. In other places the assistants have a bed each, and often different bedrooms, if they desire to sleep by themselves. Sitting-rooms vary in exactly the same degree. There are some few houses in London where the assistants have as many as half-a-dozen sitting-rooms for the men and women, or, as they usually got called, the "fellows" and "girls." But usually there are only two provided for the assistants - one for each sex.
    In many of the most prosperous houses, a bad system obtains of allowing the housekeeper so much, or rather so little, per head to board and lodge the employés. The woman is often ground down to the lowest penny, and she in her turn "takes it out" of the assistants by giving them nearly the roughest fare that call be reckoned under the standard "decent."
    The general hour for breakfast is at 7.30 to 8.30. Usually the meal consists of thick bread and butter, known and abhorred amongst assistants under the name of "door-steps," and tea. The best places allow lunch—bread and butter or cheese — at 11 o'clock : those having it are given ten minutes out of business for the purpose. Dinner is partaken of in detachments, the first party commencing at 1 o'clock; each is allowed half-an-hour in first-class houses, twenty minutes, and sometimes less, in inferior business establishments.
    The average West End business tea is composed of  "doorsteps" and tea. Cake is a luxury only reserved for Sundays and Wednesdays, or on week-day. Supper-time arrives with the inevitable "doorstep," or bread and cheese. Each one is allowed ale or cocoa, whichever he likes. The week-day upon which the cake appears for tea witnesses the most extraordinary scenes at the unusually well-supplied tables. "One person, one piece of cake," is the rule. But each one desires to secure more than his or her share, and as the huge dishes are handed round, a system of "grabbing" goes on. At such times, frock-coated, high-collared, fashionably attired men and silk-gowned young ladies may be seen making "long arms" after the fast disappearing pile of the "curranty one," all individually and collectively forgetting their usual dignity in their efforts to secure the coveted luxury. Of course, in nearly all business places, the assistants are allowed self-obtained articles of food.
    For instance, if Mr. Anstruther returning from his holidays brings back a supply of homemade jam, he is welcome to put it upon the general dining-table and pass it to his particular friends amongst the assistants : the shopwalkers and buyer will help themselves uninvited, as a right incidental to their position in the house.
    Or again, say Miss Collyholt has been away, and had cake baked specially for her edification. On going one more to the dull routine of the commercial life, she will be graciously permitted to supply the shopwalkers, the buyers and her chums with the toothsome morsel so long as it lasts.
    Or for a little extra tip, the cook will even have rashers of bacon, herrings, haddocks, eggs, etc., cooked and sent to table ; that is, providing the assistants buy such edibles in the first instance. First-class drapery establishments are like Heaven in one way at least, or any way their owners desire them to be, inasmuch as there's no " marrying nor giving in marriage''  allowed in them. The knowledge of the engagement between any two assistants in the same business is the signal for "swopping" them immediately.
    The so-called "reason" for this somewhat arbitrary rule is because, let us say,  a buyer of silks and a head dressmaker may get engaged, marry, and settle down in the near neighbourhood, and so take away trade from their former employee: or the leading millinery hand may marry the head of the fancy ribbon, lace, and feather department, and each being first in their particular branch may also serve to wean away much business, should they settle anywhere near.
    Naturally this is not reason given by the firms when asked the why and wherefore of their tyrannical measure. There is a muttered something to the effect that engagements between the young people unfits them for business, causes rivalry and jealousy amongst the others, and so on, and so on.
    In no other respect is a business house, or anything appertaining to it, in the least suggestive of Heaven, excepting in this one of "no marrying allowed at this establishment."
    In the dining-room during meals the men sit one side and the girls the other; that is what is known as  "Herefordshire fashion;" it not being considered seemly to mix the sexes.
The Woman's Signal, 1895

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