VICTORIAN SHOP ASSISTANTS
The ‘shop assistants’ listed in censuses may often have been apprentices. It is surprising how much of the formal Indenture of Apprenticeship used in the sixteenth century survived in nineteenth century form:
[during the six or seven-year term] the apprentice his masters faithfully shall serve, their lawful commands everywhere gladly do . . . He shall not contract matrimony within said term, nor play at cards or dice tables . . . he shall not haunt taverns or playhouses, nor absent himself from his said Masters service day or night unlawfully. . . [his father] will find the said son during the said term sufficient washing, clothing, medical attendance and other necessities and . . . [the Masters] engage to instruct the said apprentice in the Art of a draper . . . finding unto the said Apprentice sufficient Meat, Drink and Lodging . . .
Men are given one evening a week for courting purposes and two if they go to prayer meetings regularly.
Probably few apprentices served out their time.
Shops needed more and more staff as the middle classes found more ways to spend their money. Most staff lived in rooms above the shop, then as trade boomed and the value of fashionable sites rose, in hostels round the corner [one draper’s shop woman described her life]:
. . . One of eight staff, four men and four women, all living in, except one man. They had use of a basement room next to the kitchen, and a ‘drawing room parlour’ at the top of the house . . . [she] worked from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. ‘I stand behind the counter — we have one counter, men the other. . . . On Sundays we all dine with the master; we go to church, and have to be in for all meals unless we ask leave, but we have [Sunday] evenings to ourselves from 6.30 to 11.’ She was paid £20 a year
. . . More like a mansion for a nobleman than a milliner’s establishment . . . These large houses are not only milliners and dressmakers, but they supply every kind of ladies’ wearing apparel with the exception of shoes. A lady goes to order perhaps her wedding trousseau . . . or her morning and evening dresses. She alights from her carriage, The hall-door is opened by a footman who bows her into what is called the ‘premier magazin’ or first showroom. Then comes a French lady, dressed in a silk dress and a very small lace cap with long streamers of ribbon. These French ladies are styled ‘magazinières’ or show-room women. There are generally five or six of these show-room women. The first show-room is about 130 feet long and 60 feet wide. In every other panel there is a looking glass from the floor to the ceiling, set in a handsome carved gilt frame. The floor is covered with a very expensive carpet. In different parts of the room there are counters of polished ebony, elegantly ornamented with gilding. The lady is then shown an assortment of magnificent silks and velvets. She asks the [magazinière] which is the most becoming by daylight and which by candlelight . . . she selects one or two [dress lengths] . . . as soon as convenient to the lady, the ‘first hand’ goes [to her house] to take her measure . . . a one horse Brougham, with a servant in livery, is brought to the door and the first hand goes in it.
The dress will be finished by the next day, if the customer wants it. [The cost] could be as much as ₤300.
[Dressmakers at] salons producing those elaborate Victorian gowns worked under inhuman pressure. A customer expected her new dress to be delivered the day after she had ordered it, even before the advent of the sewing machine [in 1856]. The pressures on those unfortunate girls finally caused a scandal, when a twenty-year-old girl, Mary Ann Walkey died after being made to work for more than 26 hours without a break. Her death led to the founding of the Association for the Aid an Benefit of Dressmakers and Milliners, to ‘induce’ the principals of dress-making establishments to adopt a twelve-hour day, and to ‘induce ladies to allow sufficient time for the execution of orders’
[from Victorian London by Liza Pickard, 2005, Orion Books, London]