The wonderment at the enormous sums of money made down town in New York is paralleled by a still greater wonderment over the ease with which those sums are disbursed up town. Paul may plant and Apollos may water, but their domestic partners know how to distribute the increase. Not all of it. There is much said and writ-ten about people in the city “living beyond their means,” and many there are who do, no doubt; but the majority is much too shrewd and far-seeing for that. It spends, and spends recklessly; but not everything is flung into the yearly budget. There is usually the wherewithal for more than one rainy day.
The shopping habit in New York is said to be distinctly feminine. The majority of men hate the selection and buying of articles and usually put it off on their wives or sisters or other female relatives, even to the buying of such personal effects as ties, gloves, shirts, jewelry, and frequently suits of clothing. And the women usually take very kindly to the task. Many of the mid-wealthy class, so to speak, have few domestic duties or troubles; they live in apartments and, to avoid the servant problem, they usually get their breakfasts and luncheons in the restaurant downstairs, and their dinners at the larger places outside. Between meals, time is often plentiful, superabundant, even wearisome to the women flat-dwellers. They do not go down town, and they cannot stay in-doors forever; so, usually, they go out, “just to do a few errands.” This means shopping. There is nothing else for many a poor woman to do.
The tradition obtains in New York that the women shoppers are given to much newspaper reading, with a noting of “special sales” of dry-goods and the like; that they dearly love a bargain counter and go in with a rush to buy unavailable and superfluous articles just because they are cheap; that they are easily lured by nickel-catching devices and are made giddy by a window dressing or a perfervid showcase. Possibly this is masculine ridicule flung out to check the expense account. The casual observer does not pretend to delve into so intricate a problem. He knows merely that there is always a plenty of shoppers in the street, that they are nine out of ten of them wearing petticoats, and that the congestion of petticoats is greatest in the region where special sales and bargain counters are advertised. The conjunction of the crowd with the counter may be accident, but it looks predetermined.
And what a crowd! The residents of the up-town apartment-houses are only a part of it. Rich and fashionable people like to shop, too; and besides, there is a great pro-cession that comes in from the suburbs every morning by ferry, tunnel, and railroad, and makes a straight line, not for Wall Street, but for the shopping district. The many forces usually gather and thicken along upper Sixth Avenue or Broadway between Madison Square and Thirty-Fourth Street, or on Twenty-Third Street, and by noon they fairly seethe. Many are so interested in the game of purchasing that they will not leave a shop for luncheon. They take an elevator and go to the top of the building where, in all the large department stores, there is a thirty-seven or a forty-nine cent luncheon, or its equivalent, to be had, served with expedition and sometimes with courtesy. After luncheon the shopping is continued, or a matinee at the theater is introduced as a side diversion. By five o’clock the out-of-towners, somewhat worn from wrestling with the pave; the mob, and possibly the luncheon, are on the way home; the up-towners are squeezing into surface or elevated cars; and the day’s work is done.
There is a difference in the shopping crowds, dependent upon the places where they are seen. Occasionally along Broadway or Twenty-Third Street one sees a mingling of all the clans, all the circles, all the shopping world; but usually certain classes go to certain sections and not else-where. Time was, and not so long ago at that, when the fashionable gathering place was Tenth Street and Broad-way, with an overflow into Fourteenth Street as far west as Sixth Avenue; but the smart shops have followed the residences, and the people that once went there do so no more. Yet there are shops and shoppers still in Fourteenth Street. It is now the stamping ground, not of the poorest, but of the poorer classes; and in its window fronts are displayed dress-goods, haberdashery, head-gear, furniture, wall-papers, that seem expensive at any price. No doubt the shopkeepers there take great credit to themselves for discerning what the poor and ignorant want, and giving it to them; but it is rather hard upon the poor.
Fourteenth Street is always crowded with shoppers, and as they move by one seems to recognize factory girls, domestics, policemen’s wives, janitors’ daughters, mingling with suburban shoppers, and people of more means from up town. The older people are often dressed shabbily and look dingy in the face and hair; the younger ones are garbed flashily and cheaply, their clothing as pinch-beck as their jewelry. They look well-fed, laugh much, and are not objects of pity, save that they are misguided, and spend their money without substantial return. It is a somewhat awkward, heavy-moving crowd. It has the pace of those who are much upon their feet and moves in a tired way. The quickness of the Twenty-Third Street people people who look as though they never did any work and were in continual need of exercise is absent.
The sidewalks on lower Sixth Avenue have similar looking groups and processions. They keep threading in and out of small shops and cheap stores, hoping in each new place to get what they want for less money than has just been asked them. In the end perhaps they have worn out more in shoe leather than they have saved on gloves or hat.
As you move up Sixth Avenue the shoppers begin to look more prosperous, more alert, and more sure of what they want. They are largely suburbanites; and the woman who has come down from Tarrytown, or in from Plainfield, has the campaign of the day all planned before-hand, and the courage to drive it through to a finish. She and her cohorts have little fear of cabs and cars and policemen. They charge across the street in phalanxes, choke up the sidewalks, squeeze through revolving doors, pack the elevators, besiege the counters, fill up the restaurants. All kinds and conditions of women are here some stout, some thin, some lively, some severe, some handsome, some commonplace. All the colors of the rainbow flutter and stream from them at times. Many of them wear grays or dull browns or greens, but occasionally some bird of paradise floats by to lend a flash of high color to the scene. Up and down and across the streets the long lines come and go. Occasionally they get caught at the foot of an elevated station and whirl about in an eddy, or get choked in the door of a department store; but they unwind and quickly move on again a perspiring, excited, somewhat violent throng that frequently forgets its manners and its dignity in remembering its immediate mission.
The shoppers on Twenty-Third Street are merely a right-angle pipe connection of the band on Sixth Avenue; and yet as soon as one mingles with the people on this cross street he recognizes quite a different element. That everyone hurries in New York is a commonplace, but this newer element seems to make haste with more ease and carriage. It is still a very miscellaneous throng, having its sharp contrasts of wealth and poverty, charm and repulsiveness, happiness and misery; and its constituent members in their actions are not unlike the shoppers on Sixth Avenue. They hang in clusters before the show-windows, gather like aggregations of ants about some new-found wonder, then disintegrate, move on, drop in some notion store, gather once more about a counter, separate and move on again. It is, however, an orderly, self-contained crowd,. wears good clothes, does not care to have them soiled or torn in a crush, and has the idea that there is something “common” about bargain-counter scrambles. Possibly it has more money in its purse than the crowd on Sixth Avenue, and that makes all the difference in the world in one’s point of view. Besides, it is closely connected with Fifth Avenue the pipe line extending through from both avenues, and being supplied from both ends.
Fifth Avenue, of course, furnishes shops and shoppers of the more fashionable kind. The stores, with a few exceptions, are not large department affairs, but they are large enough to cause surprise when it is considered that each place handles perhaps only one kind of goods. The great jewelry stores, the silverware establishments, the china and glass concerns, are examples to the point. It is what is called a “better kind of retail trade” that is met with here. It is the place where rare rugs, furniture, tapestries, .pictures, bric-a-brac, books, laces, silks, hats, flowers, are bought; where fashionable tailoring and millinery are carried on; but where the smaller and cheaper articles such as cottons, ginghams, notions, ribbons, are usually not in stock. Nothing cheap is sold on Fifth Avenue. There are no bargain counters, no forty-nine-cent ruling prices; and people do not go there without a plethoric purse. Everything costs half as much again as it could be bought for around the corner a statement that finds constant assertion and denial, and leads up to endless argument from individual experience. The statement usually meets with acquiescence, however, except from those who perhaps seek to justify their own extravagance.
And there are hosts of the extravagant in this shopping district. They usually have accounts at the various places, and have things “charged”; so that the day of reckoning is not the day of sinning. They buy what they want, and oftentimes much that they do not want and cannot use; but they seem not to be worried by errors of judgment. Things are sent back, or “changed,” or more often perhaps packed off to the closets or garrets upstairs. The recklessness and the wastefulness of the shoppers on Fifth Avenue are promoting causes of the high prices that prevail there. The shoppers also have much to do with setting the pace for the flashy, garish populace of the city. The pinch-beck of the Bowery or Harlem is but the imitation of Fifth Avenue glitter.
But what could be expected of the newly arrived daughters and wives (yes, sons) of commerce who have to keep down the paternal income by “doing things socially” 1 They carry it off with quite an air, they swagger and pre-tend and make good feints at aristocratic bearing; but ever and anon some infamy of taste crops out to suggest they are still not very sure of their position. It takes several generations to establish gentility in the blood, and even then bad breeding and lack of education will come to the surface in the shape of a hat or the cut of a dress, as in the use of, a fork or a phrase. But, all told, the commercial set of New York is not so bad. Considering its opportunities it handles itself with more aplomb than the corresponding classes in London, Berlin, or Paris. Doubtless the people of the older business centers were once the same in degree if different in kind. Carpaccio’s characters from the Venetian life of the fifteenth century, as Paolo Veronese’s of the sixteenth century, look like models of good taste to-day, but in their time they must have been regarded as splendidly barbaric.
In its varied and multifold functions society in New York shows as well perhaps in shopping as in anything else. The very manner in which the women step out of their carriages, give directions to the footmen, and drift across the sidewalk into a shop entrance, has an air of distinction about it. The general impression is that the air is something courtly or princely, but in real life princesses and duchesses are often heavy and awkward in their exits and entrances, somewhat dowdyish in their clothing, and would be mistaken for very common folk by the mob. The American woman has very little in common with them. She is more graceful, more spirited, and far more ornate. She is dressed and sometimes overdressed especially when she goes shopping. Her garments are of the best and most costly materials. That is the fault with them; they are too good for the street and the shop. They fit her exactly, perfectly, precisely. That again is an objectionable feature. They fit too well and give the impression that they were meant for the stage rather than the street. If we cling to the old idea that garments are somewhat like a picture-frame and should not be noticed, that if conspicuously good or conspicuously bad they are objectionable, then the American woman has decidedly too much garmenting. But she does not think so; and (to bury precedent for a moment) she certainly carries her clothes as no other woman ever did, carries them as though born to them and for them. And how she walks! What a bearing she has! No wonder that the strangers who come here are forever falling in love with the American girl. She is something of a fetich, to be sure; but there is some excuse for the worship. She is far from being a wooden idol.
All the shop people in New York are proficient in the art of making their windows interesting to the people passing in the street. There are professional men known as “window dressers” who are said to earn unusual sums through their skill in displaying articles to the best ad-vantage in shop windows. Very attractive are some of these windows, not only in their arrangement, but also in the quality of the articles shown. In Europe. things of fineness and value are hidden in the secret places of the shop and brought out only by special request, but in America they are often openly displayed. This does not mean jewels and goldsmith’s work alone, but rare rugs, rich silks, fine porcelains, Japanese embroideries, works of art. It is not an unusual thing to see a twenty-thousand-dollar picture displayed in the window of a Fifth Avenue gallery, upon a background of valuable tapestry; and the window of a. china shop may show Chinese porcelains that are worth many times their weight in gold.
On the inside of a New York store one is astonished by the stock carried. Whatever kind of stock it may be, it is almost always large in quantity and in variety. Floor after floor is filled to overflowing with silks, rugs, fine linens, woolens; with tons upon tons of bronzes, silver-ware, china; with uncountable boxes of hats, shoes, gloves, fans; with tens of thousands of books, engravings, etchings, photographs. The furniture stores seem capable of supplying beds and chairs and chests of drawers for all creation; there are enough articles de Paris in the shops on or about Twenty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue to cover half the drawing-room tables in New York; and in the huge dry-goods stores along Broadway and in the side streets between Union and Madison squares, there are “dress goods” sufficient in quantity to clothe half the women and children in the land. The bulk of goods carried by the New York retail merchants is something enormous.
Of course, such a volume of stock means a vast trade, and argues the existence of a rigid system of doing business. This is perhaps better exemplified in the department stores than elsewhere stores so large that some of them cover a whole city square or block, and mount skyward in a dozen or fifteen stories. The system of such a store. means the command and discipline of several thousand employees. The messengers, clerks, floor-walkers, cash boys, cashiers, make a small army in themselves. Each one has his duty to perform, reports and is amenable to his superior officer, and takes orders without questioning. The two thousand employees of a Sixth Avenue store are possibly assigned to the selling of twenty thousand different articles. Almost anything can be bought there a sealskin sack, a set of furniture, an automobile, a spool of cotton, a canary bird, or a litter of guinea pigs. All commerce is its province. It is the distributing agent of anything found, grown, or manufactured, and it seeks to satisfy all human wants (including afternoon tea), without leaving the premises. No wonder that womankind finds it an attractive place. It is a merger of international exposition and social reception, where you not only see the sights, but meet your friends. And occasionally there is an escape from the place without having purchased anything.
The system of cash and change and charge in these stores is expeditious, bewildering to those who do not understand it; and also at times maddening to those who do understand it. The system is unalterable, procrustean, and always manages to stretch you on the rack rather than the management. You have to “do business” in their way, and the fact that you are the party of the second part in the contract the one that makes the contract possible by paying the consideration does not have any weight with them. The exasperating feature of it is that the store managers are not unlike railway and hotel men in that they seem to regard their “system” of rules as equivalent to state statutes. They ignore the inalienable right of the party of the second part to make conflicting rules of his own, if it so please him. However, the systems of the department stores are usually accurate in their workings, and are as fair to all parties, perhaps, as could be expected. It must be remembered that they have to deal with people by the thousands fifty or a hundred thousand in a single day and how their different accounts with their consequent “deliveries” and “returns” are kept requires some imagination to grasp.
In addition to all this selling over the counter there is a very important “mail department” in these stores, through which goods are retailed over the whole of the United States, Canada, Alaska, Mexico, South America, and Europe. Catalogues, and sometimes large magazines, with descriptions and price lists, are sent everywhere. From these the country people in Michigan or Missouri make selections and order by numbers. The cash is sent by draft or money order; and the goods are forwarded by mail. Almost every kind of merchandise is sent through the mails hats, shoes, cooking utensils, piece goods, any-thing that is not bulky like furniture or breakable like bottled liquors. In the aggregate this trade through the mails is very large. It is impossible to compute the volume of it. The retail trade of New York is something quite beyond figures.
At the Christmas holidays trade increases a hundred fold. The stocks of the stores are swollen to the point where goods seem to be pushing out the windows and doors, the clerical and messenger force is nearly doubled, and the crowd of buyers is trebled and quadrupled. The streets are inundated with people, the stores are flooded, the counters and cases are like islands in a sea. Buyer and seller, cash boy and floor-man, shoplifter and detective, are whirled about like driftwood. To an aboriginal it would look like humanity gone mad, but there is some method in it. Eventually everyone gets what is wanted, gets a seat or a strap in a car, gets home to tell the tale at the dinner table. And once more the good-nature of the crowd prevails above any little misunderstanding of the moment. It is something of a marvel that so many people of so many different minds and wants can still meet, adjust their differences or agreements, and then go their ways in peace.
One asks himself, again, who they all are, what they all mean, or what the part they have in this scheme of things entire. What is the object of this energy displayed, this time given, this money spent? Perhaps it is not al-ways revealed on the surface, but there usually is some object in it other than idle amusement or personal vanity. The knick-knacks that a woman may pick up in a shop, the new rugs or rolls of wall-paper or cheap etchings that she may take home, may be nothing of importance in themselves; but, somehow, she instinctively feels that they will make the house look more comfortable or cheerful or refined, and thus add to the pleasure of the family. It is the same with a great many of the hundreds of thou-sands. They are, unconsciously perhaps, striving to make someone happier, to give an uplift to the home, to make life more worth the living. And in the aggregate of the mass, in the combined aspirations of the throng, what sequence must be forthcoming? Surely a broader outlook, a nobler living; and, ultimately, a higher civilization. No doubt some of the energy employed is wasted, completely dissipated and lost; but much of it redounds to our good, makes for righteousness, and possibly finds us each to-morrow farther than to-day along the pathway of the better life.