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Retail Clerks in Changing Economic Times (c. 1890)

This excerpt is taken from a report by Karl Oldenberg, a well-known economics professor who served on the editorial board of the journal Schmollers Jahrbuch, which published the full report in 1892. Oldenberg is best known for his book Germany as an Industrial State (1897), which raised moral and economic concerns regarding the course of economic modernization. Presaging Oldenberg’s later argument, this report addresses the dynamics of the retail trade and the resulting pressures on retail clerks in a period of economic transition. In addition to lacking any legal protection against exploitative shopkeepers, retail clerks faced increasing working hours (up to 18 hours per day) and competition from female clerks, who were thought by their male colleagues to be depressing wages. Oldenberg’s survey also highlights large regional variations in working hours and wages.

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In terms of Sunday observance, the German retail clerk was until now in a position similar to his fellow Austrian sufferer. Until recently, legal restrictions showed only limited effects, for instance, the complete closure in Dresden and Leipzig of retail shops not dealing in regular and luxury foods according to a law implemented in 1870. It was perfectly normal for the retail clerk to have only every other Sunday afternoon off. [ . . . ] The weekly hours also partly exceed the English figures: up to 15, 16, 17, even 18 hours per day were recorded in many cases, which included the lunch break, as in England. However, when the worker was given free board and lodging, the usual situation, the lunch break did not constitute a firm break, but rather a brief interruption necessary for eating. These most prolonged working hours, however, are almost always recorded for the large group of (colonial) groceries, household goods, and tobacco shops. [ . . . ]

Free board and lodging is still offered frequently in smaller businesses, partly to make the most of the workday, partly because the clerk and apprentice are treated virtually as family members. Even today it occasionally happens that the clerks have dinner at the owner’s family table at least on Sundays, while on the weekdays, not least out of consideration for the business, dining together is out of the question. One consequence of this familial situation is the bitterly felt paternal discipline exercised by the company owner, which becomes especially noticeable with respect to the question of “going out.” If he wishes to spend his free evening outside the house, the clerk has to ask for permission from the proprietor or his wife, or at least he has to ask for the front door key. Grocery clerks, in particular, sigh under these fetters, probably because, given the great length of the workday, any evening out clashes sharply with the need to sleep, and on the following day noticeably impairs the alertness demanded by the shop owner. It is presumably already an innovation that one evening a week is designated for going out by contract.

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