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Retail Clerks in Changing Economic Times (c. 1890)

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In larger businesses, the retail clerk usually finds accommodation at his own expense; there would simply not be enough space to house the majority of the clerks. Only the really huge department stores, such the Parisian Louvre, can sometimes consider providing mass accommodation for their employees. [ . . . ] In Frankfurt a.M. one can find annual wages of 700 marks, elsewhere as low as 600 marks without free room and board; at groceries in Hamburg 180 marks with free board and lodging; in Bautzen groceries 120 marks; in a Bautzen retail store 360 marks, including free room and board. The annual value of free room and board is estimated at an average of 600 to 720 marks. In small Posen retail stores selling manufactured goods the usual pay is 720 marks without free board and lodging; in Hamburg, groceries offering 600 marks with free room and board already represent the most favorable scenario according to the details provided by local Retail Clerks’ Association; in Stettin this figure is the absolute maximum in the entire retail trade, while, in Bautzen, groceries at 240 to 360 marks, including free room and board, constitute the average, but up to 1,200 marks is possible. [ . . . ] Among the stratum of somewhat older “young grocers” described here, it was unavoidable that a seriously desperate situation was in the making. [ . . . ] In Munich married clerks receive 1,200 to 2,000 marks; in Breslau 1,200 to 2,400 marks; in Hanover 1,800 to 2,400 marks; in Königsberg 1,800-3,000, but in some instances also below 1,200 marks; in Stettin an average of 1,800 but also 1,200 and less; in Bautzen the pay is as low as 900, but ranges on average between 1,800 and 2,000 marks. In Frankfurt a. M. 2,400 marks for older clerks is quite a high wage. If these assessments, even in the minimum amounts, are considerably higher than those wages reported earlier, this is largely a result of the good custom of raising wages according to increasing seniority; the fact that they do not always suffice to make a living is reported often enough. [ . . . ]

When we summarize the way in which the fledgling transition to larger businesses has made its effect felt on the situation of retail clerks until now, our pessimistic bias is only confirmed to a very small extent. After all, the most common evil, namely, excessive working hours, seems more to derive from the nature of the retail trade, in general, and to depend on the specific workday of the customers, as determined by the locality, than to constitute a strategy of the smaller stores to compete with the larger operations; instead, competition with the larger, more well-to-do businesses actually seems quite conducive to prompting even the smaller proprietors to be more generous toward their clerks, so that they are able, for instance, to push through demands for better meals. To the extent that clerks in smaller retail stores are in a less favorable position, this will frequently correspond to lower performance as well. On the other hand, in the larger operations themselves workdays are shorter, Sunday observance is better, and meal provisions are of a higher quality than in the smaller ones, as far as reporting in this regard warrants such conclusions. The general big-city and big-industry development of the economy may certainly have impaired the housing situation of retail clerks in rapidly growing cities, although retail clerks’ accommodations in small cities are really not much better. At the same time, though, these developments have raised their standard of living and, due to the earlier end of other workers’ day, have shortened many a retail clerk’s workday. Only one segment of older retail clerks, who are in a bad financial situation, constitute victims of large business, and even in their case personal incompetence is a contributing factor.

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