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Retail Clerks in Changing Economic Times (c. 1890)

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Apart from that, one cannot deny the fact that in the purely social realm the curse of the fledgling large business operation begins to have an effect even among the ranks of salesmen, however modest the beginnings of the big operations in this line of business may be. Even Georg Hiller, the moderate head of the Association of German Retail Clerks, cannot suppress his complaint that “a great many proprietors treat their clerks with little consideration. They, who once were clerks in training themselves, regard their clerks as subordinate, even though they will rise to the same station sooner or later. They do not pull them closer, but rather push them away; their company, their social approach is not tolerated; the cordial tone that ruled between owner and clerk in the past is hardly ever used any more; the tender consideration vis-à-vis the loyal assistant, involving the opening of friendly relations to the family, is no longer cultivated; unfortunately, every imaginable barrier is erected instead, and the clerk is no longer regarded by the proprietor as his own flesh and blood, as his employee, but merely his laborer. As a matter of course, therefore, the relationships among the ranks of businessmen must loosen, and a certain degree of ill will must take hold.”

Therefore, modern developments by and large may hardly have pushed the dependent segments of the retail businessmen into a worse position than earlier on, but instead rather improved their lot in absolute terms; nevertheless, in comparison to other social strata, the situation of retail clerks may possibly have deteriorated, in fact, not only vis-à-vis a number of their employers, but also in comparison to other working classes; and in this respect, not only in financial terms, but also in terms of social standing. This does not just involve the increasing influx of the unpropertied elements into the trade class, who have no prospects for future independence and accordingly might well lag behind regarding skills and education as well, as the class of retail clerks shares this fate with other employees; but it is instead primarily due to the elementary education spreading to all parts of the population. In the past, the retail clerk used to be a little aristocrat by virtue of his literacy and knowledge of forms; today he has lost part of that prestige. At the same time, the general spread of literacy must have increased considerably the rush to the business class, substantially stiffened competition for positions, and brought the material situation of retail clerks more into line with the workers. Connected to this is the fact that the retail clerk faces new competition from a number of other sources, which forces the position of his class down. [ . . . ]

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