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Rise of the Clerks

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Darlington Bros. grocery store in West Chester, circa 1890.Asking nicely gets you nowhere. That’s why we have unions and big government.

Which brings us to sales clerks and their crummy hours—nights, weekends, holidays. In retail, it comes with the territory—and it used to be worse.

In 1888, the average U.S. retail employee earned $10 per week for 86 hours of work while receiving no holidays, no sick pay, no pensions and no insurance. Stores commonly opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 10 p.m. There were no shifts. Clerks worked 14 hours a day, six days a week.

In 1886, West Chester clerks led by James McCabe, Howard Wilson and George Taylor tried asking employers to voluntarily reduce daily hours to 12—8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Despite some temporary successes, the international “early closing movement” failed here as it did everywhere else.

“We would do more work, have lighter hearts and be better generally by closing at 8 than at 9 or 10 o’clock,” one clerk told the Daily Local News. Shorter hours would allow clerks to attend religious and cultural events, advance themselves through study, participate in democracy and—not insignificantly—go courting.

The flaw? The movement was voluntary. No laws regulated retail hours. Store owners were free to participate, or not. Many employers were willing to cooperate, but on the condition that all other stores close, too. But there always seemed to be one who refused. Then, it was late hours again for everyone. “Ultimately, early closing highlighted the impracticability of [the voluntary] approach,” wrote Australian historians Michael Quinlan, Margaret Gardner and Peter Akers in a study of the movement there.

Work hours became an issue during the Industrial Revolution, when manufacturing moved from homes—where workers labored alone and set their own hours—to factories staffed by employees who all began and ended work at the same time. Most factories followed the precedent set by farmers—“to begin as soon in the morning and work as late at night as they could see,” wrote Henry Graham Ashmead, author of 1884’s History of Delaware County. “It was only as it progressed, and the numbers engaged therein increased, and the necessity of all being employed at one time for the general good, that it became monotonous.”

In Britain, factory hours were first restricted in 1847, with a 10-hour limit for women and children. (Men’s hours weren’t restricted until 1874.) About the same time, labor organizers began agitating the issue in Philadelphia, Manayunk and Delaware County, where Nether Providence mill workers were the core of the movement.

At a December 1847 meeting at Hinkson’s Corner, workers resolved that long hours were “particularly injurious to children employed in factories, depriving them in a majority of cases from ever acquiring the rudiments of a common education” and to women by “depriving them of the opportunity of acquiring the necessary knowledge of domestic duties to enable them to fill their stations in well-regulated households.”
 

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Newspapers also lent support. “Let those who oppose it just drop into a factory and work among the dirt and grease for 14 hours each day for a twelvemonth,” said the Delaware County Republican, “and tell us at the expiration of that time their opinion of the matter.”

Bowing to a public groundswell, the legislature limited cotton, wool, flax, paper and glass factory workers to 10 hours per day in 1848. Mill interests called it socialism, and restrictions on child labor, in particular, were widely ignored.

As demands for shorter working hours rose, respect for the traditional day of rest—the Sabbath—ebbed. In the early 19th century, Pennsylvania was a place where young boys could be imprisoned for playing ball in the street on Sunday.

But modern life seemed increasingly at war with devout sensitivities. The state found itself crisscrossed with canals and railroads which operated on Sundays. And workers who’d been confined in factories Monday-Saturday disliked being similarly restricted on Sunday.

Retail clerks were harder to organize than factory workers. So, early-closing efforts lagged behind the factory movement by several years. In the 1850s, the movement was still novel enough that Charles Dickens could safely satirize it in his 1853 Frauds on the Fairies, a satirical version of the Cinderella story that mocked political correctness.

Describing the efforts of Cinderella’s fairy godmother to equip her with a coach and six that would take her to the ball but not abuse its workers, Dickens wrote, she looked “behind a watering pot for six lizards, which she changed into six footmen, each with a petition in his hand ready to present to the prince, signed by 50,000 persons, in favor of the early-closing movement.”

On the East Coast, the movement peaked in the 1880s. (Sacramento, Calif., clerks didn’t organize for this purpose until 1891.) In 1883, The Banker’s Magazine reported that it was common to find towns in which 90 percent of businesses were closed on Saturday afternoons. “The tradesman,” explained the magazine, “wishes to have an opportunity for recreation and amusement, which the hours of his business prohibit him enjoying on the ordinary days of the week.”

Baseball historian Jeffrey Keitel credited the early-closing movement for spiking attendance at late-19th-century games. In June 1886, Philadelphia dry-goods retailer Darlington, Runk & Co. challenged competitors to join its plan to close at 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and at 1 p.m. on Saturday during the summer. “In no city should this movement meet with a more hearty response than in Philadelphia, where so large a proportion of the employees in our large dry-goods establishments are females, who justly earn, by their conscientious devotion to their employers’ interest, every consideration,” wrote a store representative to Arthur’s Home Magazine. “If half a dozen of our dry-goods merchants will unite on this question, the work is accomplished.”

The early-closing movement appeared in West Chester in October 1886, when the Daily Local News reported that 80 of 84 store owners approached had signed a petition in favor of closing at 8 p.m. Opponents insisted that they depended on business from farmers who could not get into town and finish their shopping by that hour.
 

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Proponents, reported the Local, “argue that nine cases out of every 10, the farmer and his family retire before 8 o’clock and by 8:30 are fast asleep in a feather bed, with plenty of good warm blankets and quilts to cover them, while the clerk and the storekeeper plod on in their weary way, wasting coal oil or gas or electricity, dozing now and then, waiting for the farmer.”

An unnamed West Chester grocer, meanwhile, called early closing a no-brainer. Customers would get used to it, he said, and retailers would discover they had lost no business. “It’s just like delivering orders,” said the grocer. “A year ago, I made up my mind that I would deliver no orders after 6 o’clock. My customers were a little nettled at the time, but soon got over it.”

Meanwhile, other county towns were going along. Phoenixville pharmacists agreed in January 1887 to close part of Sundays so the staff could attend church. In Coatesville, the Local reported jokingly about the man who rushed into the business district after 6 p.m. and found himself unable to buy a watermelon.

In West Chester, McCabe, Wilson and Taylor headed a nine-man committee tasked with bringing recalcitrant retailers aboard. Who were those clerks? Such people don’t leave many historical tracks.

McCabe may have been the James J. McCabe who, in 1913, committed suicide in Fairmount Park. The Daily Local News reported that McCabe had been a clerk for Darlington Bros. grocery store of West Chester, a hotel clerk, a shipyard worker and, briefly, a Philadelphia police officer. According to the newspaper, McCabe was unemployed and despondent.

A Howard Wilson died in West Chester in 1948 at the age of 90. His obituary described Wilson as a retired carpenter who had been employed by the Sharples Separator Works. There was no other mention of Taylor at the Chester County Historical Society.

Through the first week of November, the committee met, and met again. Then, on Nov. 3, it threw in the towel. “I guess we won’t succeed,” one clerk told the Local. “There are too many kickers. Coatesville is a better and more modern place than this. I guess I’ll move up there.”

In the end, it wasn’t a complete failure. Grocers Frank Darlington and A.M. Eachus announced they would close at 8 p.m., regardless of what other stores did. Most, however, went back to their late hours.

The issue ebbed and flowed for decades. In 1907, progressive grocer Howard E. Simmons of Downingtown—where early-closing agreements had repeatedly collapsed—wrote vociferous letters to the editor endorsing the idea. “If I were one the clerks,” he said, “I would move for a union and positively would refuse to work more than 10 hours per day.”

Unions were next. The Retail Clerks National Protective Union fought for decades for shorter working hours despite the stain left on the movement by the 1886 Haymarket bombing at a Chicago rally. Washington ended the argument in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Those hold-out retailers should’ve listened when they were asked nicely.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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