Read CHAPTER I of The Complete English Tradesman, free online book, by Daniel Defoe, on


The first part of a trader’s beginning is ordinarily when he is very young, I mean, when he goes as an apprentice, and the notions of trade are scarcely got into his head; for boys go apprentices while they are but boys; to talk to them in their first three or four years signifies nothing; they are rather then to be taught submission to families, and subjection to their masters, and dutiful attendance in their shops or warehouses; and this is not our present business.

But after they have entered the fifth or sixth year, they may then be entertained with discourses of another nature; and as they begin then to look forward beyond the time of their servitude, and think of setting up and being for themselves, I think then is the time to put them upon useful preparations for the work, and to instruct them in such things as may qualify them best to enter upon the world, and act for themselves when they are so entered.

The first thing a youth in the latter part of his time is to do, is to endeavour to gain a good judgment in the wares of all kinds that he is likely to deal in ­as, for example, if a draper, the quality of cloths; if a stationer, the quality of papers; if a grocer, the quality of sugars, teas, &c.; and so on with all other trades.  During the first years of a young man’s time, he of course learns to weigh and measure either liquids or solids, to pack up and make bales, trusses, packages, &c., and to do the coarser and laborious part of business; but all that gives him little knowledge in the species and quality of the goods, much less a nice judgment in their value and sorts, which however is one of the principal things that belong to trade.

It is supposed that, by this time, if his master is a man of considerable business, his man is become the eldest apprentice, and is taken from the counter, and from sweeping the warehouse, into the counting-house, where he, among other things, sees the bills of parcels of goods bought, and thereby knows what every thing costs at first hand, what gain is made of them, and if a miscarriage happens, he knows what loss too; by which he is led of course to look into the goodness of the goods, and see the reason of things:  if the goods are not to expectation, and consequently do not answer the price, he sees the reason of that loss, and he looks into the goods, and sees where and how far they are deficient, and in what; this, if he be careful to make his observations, brings him naturally to have a good judgment in the goods.

If a young man neglects this part, and passes over the season for such improvement, he very rarely ever recovers it; for this part has its season, and that more remarkable than in many other cases, and that season lost, never comes again; a judgment in goods taken in early, is never lost, and a judgment taken in late is seldom good.

If the youth slips this occasion, and, not minding what is before him, goes out of his time without obtaining such a skill as this in the goods he is to deal in, he enters into trade without his most useful tools, and must use spectacles before his time.

For want of this knowledge of the goods, he is at a loss in the buying part, and is liable to be cheated and imposed upon in the most notorious manner by the sharp-sighted world, for his want of judgment is a thing that cannot be hid; the merchants or manufacturers of whom he buys, presently discover him; the very boys in the wholesalemen’s warehouses, and in merchant’s warehouses, will play upon him, sell him one thing for another, show him a worse sort when he calls for a better, and, asking a higher price for it, persuade him it is better; and when they have thus bubbled him, they triumph over his ignorance when he is gone, and expose him to the last degree.

Besides, for want of judgment in the goods he is to buy, he often runs a hazard of being cheated to a very great degree, and perhaps some time or other a tradesman may be ruined by it, or at least ruin his reputation.

When I lived abroad, I had once a commission sent me from a merchant in London, to buy a large parcel of brandy:  the goods were something out of my way, having never bought any in that country before.  However, it happened that I had frequently bought and imported brandies in England, and had some judgment in them, so much that I ventured to buy without taking a cooper with me, which was not usual in that place.  The first parcel of brandy I saw was very good, and I bought freely to the value of about L600, and shipped them for England, where they gave very good satisfaction to my employer.  But I could not complete my commission to my mind in that parcel.  Some days after, some merchants, who had seen me buy the other, and thought me a novice in the business, and that I took no cooper to taste the brandy, laid a plot for me, which indeed was such a plot as I was not in the least aware of; and had not the little judgment which I had in the commodity prevented, I had been notoriously abused.  The case was thus: ­They gave me notice by the same person who helped me to the sight of the first brandy, that there was a cellar of extraordinary good brandy at such a place, and invited me to see it.  Accordingly I went in an afternoon, and tasted the brandy, being a large parcel, amounting to about L460.

I liked the goods very well; but the merchant, as they called him, that is to say, the knave appointed to cheat the poor stranger, was cunningly out of the way, so that no bargain was to be made that night.  But as I had said that I liked the brandy, the same person who brought me an account of them, comes to my lodgings to treat with me about the price.  We did not make many words:  I bade him the current price which I had bought for some days before, and after a few struggles for five crowns a-tun more, he came to my price, and his next word was to let me know the gage of the cask; and as I had seen the goods already, he thought there was nothing to do but to make a bargain, and order the goods to be delivered.

But young as I was, I was too old for that too; and told him, I could not tell positively how many I should take, but that I would come in the afternoon, and taste them again, and mark out what I wanted.  He seemed uneasy at that, and pretended he had two merchants waiting to see them, and he could sell them immediately, and I might do him a prejudice if I made him wait and put them off, who perhaps might buy in the mean time.

I answered him coldly, I would not hinder him selling them by any means if he could have a better chapman, that I could not come sooner, and that I would not be obliged to take the whole parcel, nor would I buy any of them without tasting them again:  he argued much to have me buy them, seeing, as he said, I had tasted them before, and liked them very well.

‘I did so,’ said I, ’but I love to have my palate confirm one day what it approved the day before.’  ‘Perhaps,’ says he, ’you would have some other person’s judgment of them, and you are welcome to do so, sir, with all my heart; send any body you please:’  but still he urged for a bargain, when the person sent should make his report; and then he had his agents ready, I understood afterwards, to manage the persons I should send.

I answered him frankly, I had no great judgment, but that, such as it was, I ventured to trust to it; I thought I had honest men to deal with, and that I should bring nobody to taste them for me but myself.

This pleased him, and was what he secretly wished; and now, instead of desiring me to come immediately, he told me, that seeing I would not buy without seeing the goods again, and would not go just then, he could not be in the way in the afternoon, and so desired I would defer it till next morning, which I readily agreed to.

In the morning I went, but not so soon as I had appointed; upon which, when I came, he seemed offended, and said I had hindered him ­that he could have sold the whole parcel, &c.  I told him I could not have hindered him, for that I had told him he should not wait for me, but sell them to the first good customer he found.  He told me he had indeed sold two or three casks, but he would not disoblige me so much as to sell the whole parcel before I came.  This I mention, because he made it a kind of a bite upon me, that I should not be alarmed at seeing the casks displaced in the cellar.

When I came to taste the brandy, I began to be surprised.  I saw the very same casks which I had touched with the marking-iron when I was there before, but I did not like the brandy by any means, but did not yet suspect the least foul play.

I went round the whole cellar, and I could not mark above three casks which I durst venture to buy; the rest apparently showed themselves to be mixed, at least I thought so.  I marked out the three casks, and told him my palate had deceived me, that the rest of the brandy was not for my turn.

I saw the man surprised, and turn pale, and at first seemed to be very angry, that I should, as he called it, disparage the goods ­that sure I did not understand brandy, and the like ­and that I should have brought somebody with me that did understand it.  I answered coldly, that if I ventured my money upon my own judgment, the hazard was not to the seller, but to the buyer, and nobody had to do with that; if I did not like his goods, another, whose judgment was better, might like them, and so there was no harm done:  in a word, he would not let me have the three casks I had marked, unless I took more, and I would take no more ­so we parted, but with no satisfaction on his side; and I afterwards came to hear that he had sat up all the night with his coopers, mixing spirits in every cask, whence he drew off a quantity of the right brandy, and corrupted it, concluding, that as I had no judgment to choose by but my own, I could not discover it; and it came out by his quarrelling with the person who brought me to him, for telling him I did not understand the goods, upon which presumption he ventured to spoil the whole parcel.

I give you this story as a just caution to a young tradesman, and to show how necessary it is that a tradesman should have judgment in the goods he buys, and how easily he may be imposed upon and abused, if he offers to buy upon his own judgment, when really it is defective.  I could enlarge this article with many like examples, but I think this may suffice.

The next thing I recommend to an apprentice at the conclusion of his time, is to acquaint himself with his master’s chapmen; I mean of both kinds, as well those he sells to, as those he buys of, and, if he is a factor, with his master’s employers.  But what I aim at now is the chapmen and customers whom his master chiefly sells to.  I need not explain myself not to mean by this the chance customers of a retailer’s shop, for there can be no acquaintance, or very little, made with them; I mean the country shopkeepers, or others, who buy in parcels, and who buy to sell again, or export as merchants.  If the young man comes from his master, and has formed no acquaintance or interest among the customers whom his master dealt with, he has, in short, slipt or lost one of the principal ends and reasons of his being an apprentice, in which he has spent seven years, and perhaps his friends given a considerable sum of money.

For a young man coming out of his time to have his shop or warehouse stocked with goods, and his customers all to seek, will make his beginning infinitely more difficult to him than it would otherwise be; and he not only has new customers to seek, but has their characters to seek also, and knows not who is good and who not, till he buys that knowledge by his experience, and perhaps sometimes pays too dear for it.

It was an odd circumstance of a tradesman in this city a few years ago, who, being out of his time, and going to solicit one of his master’s customers to trade with him, the chapman did not so much as know him, or remember that he had ever heard his name, except as he had heard his master call his apprentice Jacob.  I know some masters diligently watch to prevent their apprentices speaking to their customers, and to keep them from acquainting themselves with the buyers, that when they come out of their times they may not carry the trade away with them.

To hinder an apprentice from an acquaintance with the dealers of both sorts, is somewhat like Laban’s usage of Jacob, namely, keeping back the beloved Rachel, whom he served his seven years’ time for, and putting him off with a blear-eyed Leah in her stead; it is, indeed, a kind of robbing him, taking from him the advantage which he served his time for, and sending him into the world like a man out of a ship set on shore among savages, who, instead of feeding him, are indeed more ready to eat him up and devour him.

An apprentice who has served out his time faithfully and diligently, ought to claim it as a debt to his indentures, that his master should let him into an open acquaintance with his customers; he does not else perform his promise to teach him the art and mystery of his trade; he does not make him master of his business, or enable him as he ought to set up in the world; for, as buying is indeed the first, so selling is the last end of trade, and the faithful apprentice ought to be fully made acquainted with them both.

Next to being acquainted with his master’s customers and chapmen, the apprentice, when his time is near expiring, ought to acquaint himself with the books, that is to say, to see and learn his master’s method of book-keeping, that he may follow it, if the method is good, and may learn a better method in time, if it is not.

The tradesman should not be at a loss how to keep his books, when he is to begin his trade; that would be to put him to school when he is just come from school; his apprenticeship is, and ought in justice to be, a school to him, where he ought to learn every thing that should qualify him for his business, at least every thing that his master can teach him; and if he finds his master either backward or unwilling to teach him, he should complain in time to his own friends, that they may some how or other supply the defect.

A tradesman’s books are his repeating clock, which upon all occasions are to tell him how he goes on, and how things stand with him in the world:  there he will know when it is time to go on, or when it is time to give over; and upon his regular keeping, and fully acquainting himself with his books, depends at least the comfort of his trade, if not the very trade itself.  If they are not duly posted, and if every thing is not carefully entered in them, the debtor’s accounts kept even, the cash constantly balanced, and the credits all stated, the tradesman is like a ship at sea, steered without a helm; he is all in confusion, and knows not what he does, or where he is; he may be a rich man, or a bankrupt ­for, in a word, he can give no account of himself to himself, much less to any body else.

His books being so essential to his trade, he that comes out of his time without a perfect knowledge of the method of book-keeping, like a bride undrest, is not fit to be married; he knows not what to do, or what step to take; he may indeed have served his time, but he has not learned his trade, nor is he fit to set up; and be the fault in himself for not learning, or in his master for not teaching him, he ought not to set up till he has gotten some skilful person to put him in a way to do it, and make him fully to understand it.

It is true, there is not a great deal of difficulty in keeping a tradesman’s books, especially if he be a retailer only; but yet, even in the meanest trades, they ought to know how to keep books.  But the advice is directed to those who are above the retailer, as well as to them; if the book-keeping be small, it is the sooner learned, and the apprentice is the more to blame if he neglects it.  Besides, the objection is much more trifling than the advice.  The tradesman cannot carry on any considerable trade without books; and he must, during his apprenticeship, prepare himself for business by acquainting himself with every thing needful for his going on with his trade, among which that of book-keeping is absolutely necessary.

The last article, and in itself essential to a young tradesman, is to know how to buy; if his master is kind and generous, he will consider the justice of this part, and let him into the secret of it of his own free will, and that before his time is fully expired; but if that should not happen, as often it does not, let the apprentice know, that it is one of the most needful things to him that can belong to his apprenticeship, and that he ought not to let his time run over his head, without getting as much insight into it as possible; that therefore he ought to lose no opportunity to get into it, even whether his master approves of it or no; for as it is a debt due to him from his master to instruct him in it, it is highly just he should use all proper means to come at it.

Indeed, the affair in this age between masters and their apprentices, stands in a different view from what the same thing was a few years past; the state of our apprenticeship is not a state of servitude now, and hardly of subjection, and their behaviour is accordingly more like gentlemen than tradesmen; more like companions to their masters, than like servants.  On the other hand, the masters seem to have made over their authority to their apprentices for a sum of money, the money taken now with apprentices being most exorbitantly great, compared to what it was in former times.

Now, though this does not at all exempt the servant or apprentice from taking care of himself, and to qualify himself for business while he is an apprentice, yet it is evident that it is no furtherance to apprentices; the liberties they take towards the conclusion of their time, are so much employed to worse purposes, that apprentices do not come out of their times better finished for business and trade than they did formerly, but much the worse:  and though it is not the proper business and design of this work to enlarge on the injustice done both to master and servant by this change of custom, yet to bring it to my present purpose, it carries this force with it, namely, that the advice to apprentices to endeavour to finish themselves for business during the time of the indenture, is so much the more needful and seasonable.

Nor is this advice for the service of the master, but of the apprentice; for if the apprentice neglects this advice, if he omits to qualify himself for business as above, if he neither will acquaint himself with the customers, nor the books, nor with the buying part, nor gain judgment in the wares he is to deal in, the loss is his own, not his master’s ­and, indeed, he may be said to have served not himself, but his master ­and both his money and his seven years are all thrown away.