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Shop Girls, High and Low

Maurice Earls writes: A change in shopping culture occurred in the latter decades of the nineteenth century with the arrival of the department store in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, including Dublin. The phenomenon was quickly recognised as an exciting commercial innovation and one with a wider cultural impact. Perhaps the most significant was the imaginative and disruptive challenge posed by the introduction of “a new social actor”, the independent and fashionably dressed shop girl specialising in sales. The arrival of these highly visible and attractive young women was a development which settled thinking on gender and social rank could not quite accommodate and thus the shop girl became a widely pondered phenomenon featuring regularly in the theatre, literature and illustrations of the era.

Shop girls had of course had existed before the advent of the large multi-department shops, and some young women had long been engaged in specialist sales. Traditionally, however, men dominated in high-end and specialist retail with young women typically employed in the provisions trade, which in comparison with the department store was a decidedly unglamorous milieu.

The conditions of the traditional shop girl pretty much resembled those of indentured servitude, a particularly grim form of employment. In Dublin’s grocery shops, young women were ruthlessly exploited both economically and, we may assume, in other ways. Their conditions of employment were a scandal widely acknowledged in the city but, as was the case with many other scandals in late Victorian and Edwardian Dublin, such as slum housing, not much was done about it

In 1880 the Freeman’s Journal published a letter denouncing the conditions of female workers in the provisions trade and asserting that thousands in the city of Dublin were working eighteen-hour days on their feet. Another letter published in a Dublin newspaper forty years later in 1920 noted that shop girls in small provisions shops worked over a hundred  hours a week. The author described this as slavery and called for corporation inspectors to do their jobs and for shop girls to join the ITGWU. It seems things did not much improve with political independence. In December 1930 a young woman who described herself as a shop girl wrote a letter to the Evening Herald above the nom de plume “overworked”. She also described her work conditions as “slavery” and said she was working from 9am to 11pm and that she was one of thousands in this situation. She said she was writing in the hope that some TDs would bring the matter before the Dáil.

How different then were the lives and experiences of the shop girls employed in the new retail emporia? With a sixty-hour week, their hours of duty were shorter, but the more telling difference lay in the nature of the work. The shop girls in the provisions trade were there for manual labour and serving customers who knew exactly what they wanted, as indeed were the male grocer’s assistants. Provisions shops, when advertising for shop girls, regularly stipulated “country girl preferred”. A young woman used to hard work, physically strong and removed from family support networks was particularly suitable for entering what was a condition of radical servitude. There was little new about these unfortunate shop girls, who were in the long tradition of unskilled exploited and overworked rural female servants.


Unlike girls in the provisions trade, the young women from respectable working class and lower middle-class backgrounds who presented as charming and fashionable young ladies in the larger shops were there to convince people to buy merchandise, particularly clothing, footwear, cosmetics and bonnets. Their role was to sell and to do this successfully they had to have a certain flair and an independent spirit, in order to convey to the potential customer that they knew a great deal about what was fashionable, what suited a person and what didn’t. Their job was to look glamorous and fashionable and even to represent the appearance and effect the customer wished to achieve in making a purchase. They typically received commission on sales and developed a capacity to “read” a customer, whether male or female, from the first moment. This encouraged a certain knowingness and even cynicism which, of course, is not uncommon in the world of sales.

Reading a customer’s social and economic status was necessary if, for example, a gentleman was to be sold not only a hat for his wife but a scarf for his sister and perhaps also some small fetching item for his mother-in-law, and all to the limit of his purse. Female customers had also to be accurately appraised if a woman was to be confidently informed what suited her and what the latest fashion was. 

Some women customers, particularly in the early years, found the protocols of the new retail order confusing: these girls were surely servants and should behave as such. Some also found it irritating that their husbands “were taken in by these girls” and flirted with them.

Some also objected to the behaviour and appearance of shop girls outside work. In July 1905 a letter from “A Shop Girl” was published in the Irish Independent in response to a complaint concerning the gaudiness of clothes worn by shop girls when off duty. The tone of the response is one of outrage and flamboyant confidence, as the writer asks if she is “to be stopped wearing what I like during my own time away from business?” “These Summer evenings,” she says, “when I go home, I change into something light ... I know dozens of girls like myself who can get things cheaply to wear and who, like me, are very glad that they can appear at different times in different things ... we dress mainly for comfort and if we look well into the bargain we are pleased. No one can say that the fol de rols and bright petticoats and other things objected to are unsightly. They are cheap and they look well and as long as I can get them I’ll wear them.”

This draws attention to another interesting point. Generally, shop girls could not afford the clothes they sold and yet they were interested in fashion. They had the street savvy to find cheap clothes which looked well and if anyone thought these “young ladies” should revert to the cheap and drab wear of their class after work they were going to be disappointed. The working week was sixty hours and the day ended at 7pm. This meant that it would be at least 8pm before they would be in a position to socialise. In summer this presumably allowed for promenading in the colourful clothes the letter-writer mentions. In winter there was less opportunity for promenading and alternative outlets were sought. There are accounts of shop girls in London frequenting the cheaper cafés, including those likely to decorate their walls with pictures of young women in tights. No doubt the practice extended to Dublin and was clearly more fun than sitting at home.

As one might expect, men found the young women of the new shops erotically exciting and struggled to discover what rules governed interaction with them. There was something new and puzzlingly ambiguous about these new “social actors” who rapidly entered public consciousness in a way that was inconceivable for their sisters in the provisions trade. In 1926, for example, Mr Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, took time off from dealing with issues around the general strike to refer critically to the way some women addressed shop girls. He also compared his work with that of a shop girl, saying the only difference was that the shop girl provided people with what they wanted whereas he had to refuse people what they wanted.

If society in general struggled to understand the sexual status of shop girls, the young women in question, who had struggled to achieve the status of “young lady”, were in no doubt. They fiercely protested their respectability, which was crucial not only to their personal interests but also to the commercial interests of their employers. This they did while enjoying their youth, the pleasures of the city and keeping an eye out for a suitable husband.

In February 1906, shop girls in London objected to the line “What is the point of being virtuous in a shop?” in a play then showing. The management said they would put on a special matinee performance of the play which all shop girls could attend free of charge and after which there would be a discussion to decide whether the line should be removed. A decade later a different play, The Shop Girl, ran for two years in London and had a lengthy run in Dublin. It included songs such as “Her golden hair was hanging down her back”. One of the play’s popular themes featured foolish men spending money entertaining shop girls, who happily allowed them to make idiots of themselves. In one song the chorus of shop girls delightedly sing that they are supplied with fizz while the poor wife at home drinks cheap claret. “We’re all good girls, hungry, thirsty little girls / It’s fizz for us, but cheap claret for the wife.”

Like their London sisters, Dublin shop girls were quick to pounce on any suggestion that their morals might be in any way suspect. When it was reported in the Freeman’s Journal that shop girls had acted as decoys when Eamon de Valera escaped from Pentonville prison it was felt that a disparaging tone had been adopted by the writer, a Mr O’Kelly. A shop girl responded angrily in a letter, pointing out that while shop girls supported the national cause they were entirely respectable:

I would have him understand that we Irish shop girls are not nor never have been decoys for either soldiers sailors or even Sinn Feiners, and furthermore while prepared to make any sacrifice for the release of Mr de Valera or the good of Ireland, there is many an Irish business girl who would not stoop to flirt with an English soldier. Another thing I would like very much to know if Mr O’Kelly would enlighten us, what mark of distinction there is between a business girl and a university graduate.

The erotic aura around the modern shop girl carried with it some danger for those engaged in the work. The sales skills, sales cynicism and general experience of dealing with people presumably gave a certain, but limited, advantage in dealing with predatory males. There were cases reported in the London newspapers of suicides amongst shop girls and, in at least one case, of a death as a result of a back-street abortion. Savvy and experience could not offer complete protection against the ancient risks of romance and pregnancy. 

Not all interactions were negative. Many shop girls married well above their social station. Some married millionaires and others became film actresses. Many others, we can assume, married well and more again well enough. Being visible and approachable and having been chosen in the first place for good looks and good figures all assisted in the matter of selecting and being selected.

 The glamour of the shop girl’s world should not be overstated. The hours were long, and sitting was frowned upon. Floorwalkers spied on the shop girls and, if their sales were poor, they were fired without notice. Wages were as low as five shillings a week.

Young women in department stores were almost certainly victims of sexual harassment within the shops. In November 1930 there was a strike of shop girls at a leading store. Miss Nora O’Brien had been fired following dubious allegations of wrong-doing which followed her repulsing the unwanted attentions of a manager. Her fellow shop girls went on strike and Miss O’Brien brought her case to the courts, where it was dismissed by Judge Wyse Power.

Sixty hours a week was tough going and while flamboyance and confidence were in evidence there was also in Dublin no doubt the pale, familiar, delicate, tired faces of the city’s saleswomen, with their polished hair and glazed complexions trapped behind the plate-glass and brightly lit counters of large department stores which Henry James had observed in Boston in 1883.

14/6/2019