The Friends of a respectable young Woman wish to procure for her a Situation either as Attendant on a Lady or in a Nursery, or as a Shop Girl; she is adequate to any of the above capacities, and is willing to make herself generally useful, being of an humble, quiet and obliging disposition; she is a good needleworker, and can teach children if required; can be highly recommended for the strictest honestly, quietness and attention; has no objection to town or country, or to travel.
On the same respectable footing sat the careers of either a lady’s companion or a shop girl, the latter profession representing a respectable role for an impoverished woman from a good background, or indeed, a working class woman looking to improve her lot in society.
But what were the realties of being a shop girl in the Victorian era? For many, the shop girl was a symbol of exploitation in the period, representative of the industrial age’s rampant consumerism, as she was expected to work long, exhausting hours, facing fines and potential dismal for the smallest of misdemeanours.
And so, using newspapers from our Archive, in this special blog we will explore the daily life of the Victorian and early twentieth century shop girl, the challenges she faced, how she was portrayed in popular culture, and finally how her situation had changed by the 1920s.
The Working Week
There are many pleasant reasons for this selection, which carry great weight, especially with parents of young girls whose one aim in life is to appear ‘genteel.’ It is not a menial occupation. One may appear in it fashionably attired, and with hair arranged after the latest mode. Earrings and a brooch are not objected to, and – more precious than all it is the invariable rule at such places never to address employees by their christian names. In domestic service this is oft-times the bitterest part of the portion a high-spirited young house-maid is made to swallow.
This lure centred on the gentility that the life of shop girl represented; a young shop assistant being addressed as ‘young lady…in public as well as private.’ But this was about the sum of the advantages of being a shop girl, at least in the writer of this article’s opinion, for the ‘shop girl is one of the most hardly-used of the human creatures compelled to labour for bread.’
And one of the reasons why the shop girl was one of the most ‘hardly-used’ workers of the period were the long hours that she was compelled to work, as the West Sussex County Times outlines:
Eight o’clock in the morning is the ordinary hour at which these shops are opened, and they remain open until 9 or 10 at night. Ninety hours between Monday morning and Saturday night of daily work, incessant, were it not for the brief time allowed for meals…
The shop girl was often expected to work a ninety hour week, and for what reward? An 1892 report in the Yorkshire Evening Post details the salary earned and the hours worked by Charlotte Bowser, an 18-year-old who was employed in a draper’s shop in Kirkgate, Leeds:
She was employed at the salary of 4s. 6d per week, and her hours were from 8.45 a.m. to 8 p.m. five days in the week, and 11 p.m. on Saturdays.
Charlotte was taking home the equivalent of approximately £18 a week, for six long days of work. And so, it was little wonder, as the Morning Post writes in January 1849, that the shop girl was often ‘driven to prostitution, as her daily earnings do not average 6d!’
Even a shop girl employed in London’s fashionable West End, in a shop in Bond Street, found her life ‘rather tiresome,’ as reports The Sketch in November 1894. She, however, was in receipt of the princely sum of 25 shillings per week, or £98 today, considerably more than her northern counterpart.
Meanwhile, across the city of London, ‘as far from Bond Street as you can possibly go,’ The Sketch encountered another shop girl, with ‘tired shadows under her eyes.’ She exclaims to her interviewer:
…’tis an awful ‘ard life! We don’t get away til nine at night, and we don’t ‘ave Sat’day afternoons either. Oh, no! We don’t get extra pay for stayin’ late – that’s part of our regular work. Wages vary, y’know. I get ten shillin’s a week, and it’s about all I can do to live on it, for I ‘ave my room to pay for as well as my keep and clothes.
Up for debate at the time was the giving of shop girls a regular afternoon off during the week, a scheme which, as a correspondent to the Shields Daily Gazette in 1882 explains, had been adopted in Hebburn, for:
What pleasure can a girl have in going to work at 9am and working till after that hour at night!
No Sitting Down
And the physical toil of the life of the shop girl was something that came under interrogation during the period, revolving around the ban on sitting down during working hours, which was enacted in many establishments. As the West Sussex County Times explains in 1877:
‘No sitting down’ is the rule inflexible at the shop of the vendor of long cloth and lace, and any young lady detected in the enormous iniquity of evading it while on duty would, in a first instance, be severely reprimanded, and in the second, probably discharged. It is a monstrously cruel rule…
Meanwhile, in December 1887 the Pall Mall Gazette took up the cause of ‘The Poor Girls Behind the Counter,’ the writer’s particular objection being to the ‘monstrously cruel’ no sitting down rule. The article comments how it is a ‘medical fact that much standing is positively injurious to many women,’ and how ‘no one gets used to painful medical disorders resulting from their calling,’ one such disorder being varicose veins.
On this topic, the Pall Mall Gazette went on to detail this anecdote:
‘You should wear elastic socks,’ said a lady customer to an assistant in one of our biggest West-end shops, whose obvious weariness had excited her sympathy; ‘it would help you to bear the standing.’ ‘Why, madam, we all wear those,’ was the reply.
And so the newspaper went on to demand ‘many more seats, and much greater liberty using them,’ to aid the girls behind the counter. But for many, as our shop girl in a not so fashionable part of London explained to The Sketch in 1894, this was just not a viable possibility in her line of work:
Work’s ‘ard, too, and keeps us flyin’ about all day. There’s no sittin’ down for us. Folks would think business is bad if they walked in and found us doin’ that.
Fines and ‘Petty Tyrannies’
So the shop girl had to contend with long hours of standing, but she also had to battle with the ‘petty tyrannies of fines,’ as described in the Mid-Lothian Journal, in a 1898 look at ‘The Daily Life of a Shop Girl.’
Meanwhile, the 1887 article for the Pall Mall Gazette took a deeper look at the fine system, where a shop girl, for example, might be docked sixpence for turning up late in the morning. One shop girl employed at Whiteley’s told the reporter:
Well, yes, the fines are a nuisance, but you see it all depends on the manager. Some are real nasty, and if they don’t like a girl just stick on the fines to spite her. No; in this department the manager is fair enough, but lots of them bully the girls no end. We are quite in their power, you see.
Indeed, many employers had a reputation for being ‘tyrannical, even to cruelty,’ exploiting and abusing the employees that were firmly in their power.
Sometimes, these cases even ended up in court. Remember Charlotte Bowser, the shop girl from Leeds? Details of her employment had appeared in the Yorkshire Evening Post in February 1892 because she had taken her employer, Myles Coupland Hitchen, to court, accusing him of ‘false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.’ Charlotte had accused Hitchen of an elaborate scheme, whereby he had framed her for the theft of a half a crown. At the time of going to press, the case had yet to be resolved.
Another complaint of the shop girl were the customers she had to serve. And for all the shop girl’s gentility, it was their well-bred customers that could be particularly trying.
In a nod to how shop girls could come from the most respectable of classes, and even from the ranks of aristocracy, the North Wales Chronicle in March 1889 reported how ‘Two nieces of a peeress are serving in a fashionable shop in Wigmore-Street.’ Careful not to conflate ‘The shop girls of the East’ with those of the West, for ‘in this latter district they are usually well-fed and well-lodged,’ with many of them being ‘drawn from all ranks of society,’ but ‘half-pay colonels’ daughters [being] plentiful,’ the gossip piece points out how:
Of course, the most serious objection against the life of a shop girl is the unceasing nature of her work and the necessity of wearing a pleasant fresh smile when she wishes pertinacious customers at Jericho. They have a very hard time of it during the sale.
Meanwhile, our ‘very superior young woman’ working at the Bond Street shop admits to The Sketch that her ‘customers are rather trying.’ However, she had observed that ‘the higher they are in social scale the more considerate they become.’
But her equivalent working across the city was much less delicate in her summation of working with her customers:
…if folks are hard to please, or make me fetch everything in the shop without buyin’ tuppenceworth, I do feel cross enough to claw them. It’s enough to put a saint out of temper sometimes, but I try not to show it more than I can help.
And it was Christmas time that really pushed her over the edge:
Just before Christmas it’s something hawful. I feel as though I could screech, or go ravin’ mad, before the days are ‘alf over, for we sell cheap, and that brings a crush. Often I don’t believe I could be bothered takin’ the trouble to live, if it wasn’t that I’m engaged to be married.
Thankfully, she had a way out of her hard life due to her impending marriage to Jim, who was set to take her to Margate, ‘if it costs him all he’s got.’
Shop girls also faced restrictions on what they had to wear. The Pall Mall Gazette in 1887 describes how:
…in certain shops the female assistants are all doomed to a uniform size in waists, varying from eighteen to twenty inches! Tall girls and stout girls, all must conform to a measure six inches at least below the natural size. Much standing ruins the health of many women; tight-lacing ruins that of many more…
The way a shop girl looked reflected upon the reputation of the shop in which she worked, as the Bond Street shop assistant described to The Sketch in 1894:
Our managers require us to be well dressed, in black satin, though you can see by glancing at others that it isn’t a uniform. And no ladies of inferior appearance or manner are ever employed, for that would make a bad impression on our customers, who expect to find everything of the highest class in this establishment.
But the kicker here is that these nice black satin gowns remained in the shop, the shop girls putting them on when they arrived at work, ‘never wearing them home.’ It was all about the illusion; the shop girls must appear to be ladies, they must appear to be genteel, but the reality, perhaps, was far from this, a carefully crafted illusion of prosperity and manners.
The people who knew the lives of the shop-men and the shop girls knew that many of them would then have been glad to have had the wages of the dustman or of the average domestic servant.
Meanwhile, some commentators at the time saw uniforms as part and parcel of the ‘suppression of individuality’ which the life of the shop girl entailed, as put forward in the Mid-Lothian Journal. This suppressing of individuality, it thought, could lead to a girl becoming ‘an automaton.’
The Living-In Question
This question of individuality came strongly into play when discussing living-in. Living-in was where a shop girl would stay at the shop, if a small establishment in a room perhaps above it, or if at a large one, dormitories would be provided for staff members.
These larger establishments represented an opportunity to provide better pastoral care and support for workers, as the West Sussex County Times details in 1877:
It is generally understood that at the most important establishments, where, perhaps, two or three hundred young people of either sex are employed, every possible attention is paid to their domestic comfort and moral welfare – that baths and books and all manner of healthful entertainment are provided for them after business hours, which close early in the evening and allow a half-holyday on Saturday.
The Mid-Lothian Journal in 1898 describes the ‘good breakfast, a better dinner…and [a] supper not to be despised,’ at such establishments, like the department stores of London. A ‘newsroom’ was provided for employees at one such store, alongside a ‘soirée at Christmas,’ and a ‘day in the country in August.’
But there were critics of this system, which was appearing rather outmoded by the time the new century roared around, and the First World War had ended. Stuart Martin, writing for The Globe in April 1920, describes the loss of liberty to which those who lived in were subject:
That big one is simply that the shopman or shop girl who is living in loses his or her grip on life. He or she has no vote, he or she cannot choose his or her food or clothes. Neither he nor she can get married…The ‘living-in’ system is merely a system which wastes men and women who might be reputable fathers and mothers, and good ones at that. So long as a man or woman ‘lives in’ he or she is a slave to commerce – without a vote, without a home, without a voice for his or her food, without a wife or husband.
Martin was responding to a strike at Mr. Lewis’s store on Oxford Street, or what we know now as John Lewis, regarding living-in conditions. Times had changed, and the lot of the shop girl was changing with it.
On Stage and Screen
And even the arts weighed in on the living-in question. In 1909 the Oxford Music Hall put on an Augustus M. Moore piece entitled ‘The Price of a Girl.’ The plot of this play, which ‘curiously illustrated’ the living-in question, was described in the Music Hall and Theatre Review:
…the heroine, being purposely locked out by the manageress of a large millinery establishment, is nearly induced to spend the night in the villain’s flat. Virtue, however, is allowed to triumph over vice, and the maiden returns ere long to her father, a clergyman, sorely oppressed by the demands from the villain for money owing.
This was ‘melodrama of the deepest dye,’ but reflected the living-in question’s hold on society, and how managers of such establishments were often seen as unnecessarily cruel, and in some cases, tyrannical.
…behind the scenes of a great London drapery emporium, and show you life and conditions as they are. It will show the temptations to which a girl, carving out her own career in the great city is exposed. Its action all takes place on scenes with which you’re familiar. It will take the country by storm.
Again, the shop girl is fodder for temptation, a symbol of innocent youth, primed for the corruption of the city. But also, this film represented a fascinating step into realism, being part of a ‘new series of Motograph Film Plays, which will deal with real life conditions.’
Then in 1916 came the release of ‘Shop Girls,’ as detailed in the Arbroath Herald and Advertiser for the Montrose Burghs. This took as its theme the ‘hard life and suffering of shop assistants,’ and the film’s star, Florence Turner, actually ‘lived the life of Shop Girl to study the lives of her companions,’ an early example, perhaps, of method acting, which earned her the plaudit of being ‘amongst the world’s greatest actresses.’
‘Shop Girls,’ says the advertisement in the Arbroath Herald, ‘throbs with life,’ and demonstrates how ‘Shop Girls also are women,’ which was ‘something to think about’ indeed.
Life Beyond the Counter
So the hardships of the life of the shop girl were now so engrained in society that they had become fodder for films and plays in the early twentieth century, with her plight outlined too across newspaper pages of the Victorian era. But what was to be done?
The Pall Mall Gazette in 1887 had an idea, to boycott shops where shop girls suffered from ill-treatment:
…if ladies would strictly refrain from dealing with firms where the employees are ill-treated the said firms would soon mend their ways.
But for the Mid-Lothian Journal, the problems faced by the shop girl were endemic, and symptomatic of the curse of consumerism, the ‘sin of the system alone.’ It lambasted such measures as a weekly half-holiday, unlocked dormitories and the abolition as fines as a drop in the ocean, literally, the ‘sopping up of the ocean with a sponge.’ Things would only change for the better, if shop girls could work shorter hours.
And by 1920, Stuart Martin for The Globe believed that things had changed, writing passionately how:
The days are gone when a man can ‘run his business,’ as Mr. Lewis says he shall, as he will. No man can do that any more. It may be his own business, but he will be forced to have respect for the beliefs of others. You cannot buy human blood any more in this old world. We have had a war. It has taught us things. That’s why.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, there were signs that things were beginning to slowly change for the better. In 1923 Margaret Bondfield was elected to the Presidency of the Trade Union Congress, a ‘personal triumph for a remarkable woman,’ as reported the Leeds Mercury. Bondfield had started her career at fourteen as a shop girl, becoming secretary of the Shop Assistants’s Union, and in 1921 she became secretary of the Women’s Section of the National Union of General Workers. With her new appointment, the former shop girl presided ‘over delegates representing more than 5,000,000 workers,’ and in 1929 she was to make history, becoming Britain’s first woman cabinet minister as Minister for Labour.
There was life beyond the counter now, with Margaret Bondfield leading the march.
Find out more about the life of the shop girl, life in Victorian and twentieth century Britain, and beyond, by exploring the pages of our newspapers here.