Down to Business: Life in a Department Store in 1900
In 1900 Lurana Sheldon wrote For Gold or Soul: The Story of a Great Department Store.” In it she told the fictional story of young Faith Marvin, who is forced by impoverished circumstances to beg for a job at the very department store that put her bookseller father out of business. I think you’ll get a kick out of this glimpse of Faith’s first day working in the ribbon section of this large department store:
“When Faith Marvin reached the employees’ entrance of Denton, Day & Co.’s department store the next morning at half-past seven, she was shown into a room that was a sort of cloak-room, lunch-room and lavatory combined, in the basement of the building.
The place was poorly lighted and badly ventilated, and there were fully two hundred women and girls crowding and jostling each other while they hung up their wraps and put on false sleeves and black aprons.
For a while the din was confusing, but Faith soon began to see and hear distinctly.
She was amazed and then horrified at the snatches of conversation she heard. Even a little cash girl used language that was almost profanity, and others made remarks of a most heartless nature.
Here and there Faith saw a face that looked different from the rest. They were mostly pale, pinched faces, bearing deep lines of care, but they all looked stolid, hardened and indifferent.
“I suppose it’s the hard work and worry,” whispered Faith, involuntarily. Just then she felt some one tapping her smartly on the shoulder.
She turned quickly and confronted a woman about her own height, who had the sharpest pair of eyes that Faith ever remembered seeing.
“Is this Faith Marvin?”
The woman spoke softly, but her voice was cold and metallic.
“It is,” answered Faith. “I was told to come this morning. Can you give me any information as to where I am to go? I see the others are all hurrying upstairs, but there is no one to direct me.”
The woman had not taken her eyes from Faith’s face while the young girl was talking. She seemed to be scanning her features with more than ordinary curiosity.
“Where do you live?”
The question was asked by the woman in a business-like manner, but as Faith hesitated before answering the sharp eyes twinkled a little.
“Am I obliged to give my address?” asked Faith very slowly.
“Certainly—it’s the rule of the house.”
The woman frowned as she answered.
Faith gave her address in a faltering voice. She had hoped to be able to keep that a secret.
The woman wrote down the address on a piece of paper.
“A mother and father?” was the next brief question.
Faith’s face was scarlet now, but she answered promptly.
“A mother, yes; but my father is dead. He was Douglass Marvin. He owned a bookstore in this block. When Denton, Day & Co. opened their book department my father was ruined.”
The woman looked at her enviously as she asked the next question.
“How did you happen to come to this store to look for work? Don’t you resent the injury that was done to your father?”
In a second Faith Marvin’s eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, no!” she cried hastily. “I bear no resentment! I know it is always the weak who must suffer! I came here because I was desperately in need of work. My mother’s health is failing and we are penniless.”
“Well, it’s lucky you’re so forgiving,” said the woman with a peculiar stare; “but come, you must report to Miss Fairbanks, the buyer in the ribbon department! She’s on the first floor. I’ll take you to her.”
Miss Fairbanks looked Faith over almost as sharply as the other woman had done.
She was short-handed that morning, so there was no time for preliminaries.
“Ever work in a store before?” was her first business-like question.
“No, madam,” said Faith timidly; “I have had no experience at all, but I am sure I shall learn quickly if you will be so kind as to teach me.”
She was beginning to tremble a little for fear the woman would not try her.
“Oh, I guess you’ll do if you are not too stuck up,” said the buyer carelessly. “Girls who have never worked in a store always think they know it all, and that sort of thing doesn’t go, not in my department!”
She led Faith up to one of the gates at the ribbon counter and showed her how to crawl up to the packer’s desk above the shelves, where the stock was kept.
“Now, when one of the saleswomen hands you up a check and some ribbon you must measure the ribbon carefully to see that the firm is not being cheated,” she explained in a shrill voice, “and if one of the girls makes a mistake report it to me immediately.”
Faith was up by this time and trying to accommodate herself to the awkward position, while she listened intently to all the buyer’s instructions.
The packer’s desk was so low that it cramped her limbs even in sitting, and Faith soon saw that she was older and larger than any other girl in that position on the floor.
This fact alone made her feel awkward and uncomfortable, and when she saw one of the clerks looking up at her and tittering she blushed and nearly cried through sheer embarrassment. To add to her nervousness she soon noticed that two men, who were standing in one of the aisles, were watching her every movement for some reason or other. She was thankful when the checks and goods began to come up. It was a relief to keep her eyes on the different packages.
Faith had never had much experience in doing up parcels, but she managed very nicely after her hands stopped trembling.
Long before noon she was aching in every muscle. The dust that rose from the floor was irritating her throat and the store was so hot that her head was aching.
She looked down at the clerks, who had been on their feet steadily since eight o’clock, and began to understand the callousness of their expressions. A great throb of pity for them, rather than for herself, dimmed her eyes for an instant so that she could not see her packages.
During that first few hours Faith could not help noticing how often Number 89 sent up goods to be wrapped. There were double as many sales to her credit as to any of the others at the counter, and at a leisure moment she leaned over and looked down at her.
Just as she did so Number 89 was seized with a fit of coughing. It was over in a minute, but was extremely severe while it lasted.
In spite of herself Faith could not resist glancing at her often, and once when she caught her eye she smiled at her pleasantly.
The effect was magical.
Number 89 soon handed up a check and three yards of ribbon, and as their hands met over the goods she caught and squeezed the “packer’s” little finger.
“I’m sorry you have such a cough!”
Faith whispered the words quickly.
Number 89 was about to reply when Miss Fairbanks, the buyer, passed the counter.
“No loitering, Miss Jennings! Don’t you see there are customers waiting? Forward at once! And you, packer, attend to business! I see you have goods in your hands. Wrap them up this minute!””
Check back for occasional updates on Faith’s adventures!