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


As plainness, and a free unconstrained way of speaking, is the beauty and excellence of speech, so an easy free concise way of writing is the best style for a tradesman.  He that affects a rumbling and bombast style, and fills his letters with long harangues, compliments, and flourishes, should turn poet instead of tradesman, and set up for a wit, not a shopkeeper.  Hark how such a young tradesman writes, out of the country, to his wholesale-man in London, upon his first setting up.

’SIR ­The destinies having so appointed it, and my dark stars concurring, that I, who by nature was framed for better things, should be put out to a trade, and the gods having been so propitious to me in the time of my servitude, that at length the days are expired, and I am launched forth into the great ocean of business, I thought fit to acquaint you, that last month I received my fortune, which, by my father’s will, had been my due two years past, at which time I arrived to man’s estate, and became major, whereupon I have taken a house in one of the principal streets of the town of ­, where I am entered upon my business, and hereby let you know that I shall have occasion for the goods hereafter mentioned, which you may send to me by the carrier.’

This fine flourish, and which, no doubt, the young fellow dressed up with much application, and thought was very well done, put his correspondent in London into a fit of laughter, and instead of sending him the goods he wrote for, put him either first upon writing down into the country to inquire after his character, and whether he was worth dealing with, or else it obtained to be filed up among such letters as deserved no answer.

The same tradesman in London received by the post another letter, from a young shopkeeper in the country, to the purpose following: ­

’Being obliged, Sir, by my late master’s decease, to enter immediately upon his business, and consequently open my shop without coming up to London to furnish myself with such goods as at present I want, I have here sent you a small order, as underwritten.  I hope you will think yourself obliged to use me well, and particularly that the goods may be good of the sorts, though I cannot be at London to look them out myself.  I have enclosed a bill of exchange for L75, on Messrs A.B. and Company, payable to you, or your order, at one-and-twenty days’ sight; be pleased to get it accepted, and if the goods amount to more than that sum, I shall, when I have your bill of parcels, send you the remainder.  I repeat my desire, that you will send me the goods well sorted, and well chosen, and as cheap as possible, that I may be encouraged to a further correspondence.  I am, your humble servant,


This was writing like a man that understood what he was doing; and his correspondent in London would presently say ­’This young man writes like a man of business; pray let us take care to use him well, for in all probability he will be a very good chapman.’

The sum of the matter is this:  a tradesman’s letters should be plain, concise, and to the purpose; no quaint expressions, no book-phrases, no flourishes, and yet they must be full and sufficient to express what he means, so as not to be doubtful, much less unintelligible.  I can by no means approve of studied abbreviations, and leaving out the needful copulatives of speech in trading letters; they are to an extreme affected; no beauty to the style, but, on the contrary, a deformity of the grossest nature.  They are affected to the last degree, and with this aggravation, that it is an affectation of the grossest nature; for, in a word, it is affecting to be thought a man of more than ordinary sense by writing extraordinary nonsense; and affecting to be a man of business, by giving orders and expressing your meaning in terms which a man of business may not think himself bound by.  For example, a tradesman at Hull writes to his correspondent at London the following letter: ­

’SIR, yours received, have at present little to reply.  Last post you had bills of loading, with invoice of what had loaden for your account in Hamburgh factor bound for said port.  What have farther orders for, shall be dispatched with expedition.  Markets slacken much on this side; cannot sell the iron for more than 37s.  Wish had your orders if shall part with it at that rate.  No ships since the 11th.  London fleet may be in the roads before the late storm, so hope they are safe:  if have not insured, please omit the same till hear farther; the weather proving good, hope the danger is over.

My last transmitted three bills exchange, import L315; please signify if are come to hand, and accepted, and give credit in account current to your humble servant.’

I pretend to say there is nothing in all this letter, though appearing to have the face of a considerable dealer, but what may be taken any way, pro or con.  The Hamburgh factor may be a ship, or a horse ­be bound to Hamburgh or London.  What shall be dispatched may be one thing, or any thing, or every thing, in a former letter.  No ships since the 11th, may be no ships come in, or no ships gone out.  The London fleet being in the roads, it may be the London fleet from Hull to London, or from London to Hull, both being often at sea together.  The roads may be Yarmouth roads, or Grimsby, or, indeed, any where.

By such a way of writing, no orders can be binding to him that gives them, or to him they are given to.  A merchant writes to his factor at Lisbon: ­

’Please to send, per first ship, 150 chests best Seville, and 200 pipes best Lisbon white.  May value yourself per exchange L1250 sterling, for the account of above orders.  Suppose you can send the sloop to Seville for the ordered chests, &c.  I am.’

Here is the order to send a cargo, with a please to send; so the factor may let it alone if he does not please. The order is 150 chests Seville; it is supposed he means oranges, but it may be 150 chests orange-trees as well, or chests of oil, or any thing.  Lisbon white, may be wine or any thing else, though it is supposed to be wine.  He may draw L1250, but he may refuse to accept it if he pleases, for any thing such an order as that obliges him.

On the contrary, orders ought to be plain and explicit; and he ought to have assured him, that on his drawing on him, his bills should be honoured ­that is, accepted and paid.

I know this affectation of style is accounted very grand, looks modish, and has a kind of majestic greatness in it; but the best merchants in the world are come off from it, and now choose to write plain and intelligibly:  much less should country tradesmen, citizens, and shopkeepers, whose business is plainness and mere trade, make use of it.

I have mentioned this in the beginning of this work, because, indeed, it is the beginning of a tradesman’s business.  When a tradesman takes an apprentice, the first thing he does for him, after he takes him from behind his counter, after he lets him into his counting-house and his books, and after trusting him with his more private business ­I say, the first thing is to let him write letters to his dealers, and correspond with his friends; and this he does in his master’s name, subscribing his letters thus: ­

     I am, for my master, A.B. and Company, your
     humble servant, C.D. 
And beginning thus: ­Sir,

     I am ordered by my master A.B. to advise you that ­

Or thus: ­

     Sir, By my master’s order, I am to signify to you that

Orders for goods ought to be very explicit and particular, that the dealer may not mistake, especially if it be orders from a tradesman to a manufacturer to make goods, or to buy goods, either of such a quality, or to such a pattern; in which, if the goods are made to the colours, and of a marketable goodness, and within the time limited, the person ordering them cannot refuse to receive them, and make himself debtor to the maker.  On the contrary, if the goods are not of a marketable goodness, or not to the patterns, or are not sent within the time, the maker ought not to expect they should be received.  For example ­

The tradesman, or warehouseman, or what else we may call him, writes to his correspondent at Devizes, in Wiltshire, thus: ­

’Sir ­The goods you sent me last week are not at all for my purpose, being of a sort which I am at present full of:  however, if you are willing they should lie here, I will take all opportunities to sell them for your account; otherwise, on your first orders, they shall be delivered to whoever you shall direct:  and as you had no orders from me for such sorts of goods, you cannot take this ill.  But I have here enclosed sent you five patterns as under, marked 1 to 5; if you think fit to make me fifty pieces of druggets of the same weight and goodness with the fifty pieces, No.  A.B., which I had from you last October, and mixed as exactly as you can to the enclosed patterns, ten to each pattern, and can have the same to be delivered here any time in February next, I shall take them at the same price which I gave you for the last; and one month after the delivery you may draw upon me for the money, which shall be paid to your content.  Your friend and servant.

P.S.  Let me have your return per next post, intimating that you can or cannot answer this order, that I may govern myself accordingly. To Mr H.G., clothier, Devizes.’

The clothier, accordingly, gives him an answer the next post, as follows: ­

’Sir ­I have the favour of yours of the 22d past, with your order for fifty fine druggets, to be made of the like weight and goodness with the two packs, No.  A.B., which I made for you and sent last October, as also the five patterns enclosed, marked 1 to 5, for my direction in the mixture.  I give you this trouble, according to your order, to let you know I have already put the said fifty pieces in hand; and as I am always willing to serve you to the best of my power, and am thankful for your favours, you may depend upon them within the time, that is to say, some time in February next, and that they shall be of the like fineness and substance with the other, and as near to the patterns as possible.  But in regard our poor are very craving, and money at this time very scarce, I beg you will give me leave (twenty or thirty pieces of them being finished and delivered to you at any time before the remainder), to draw fifty pounds on you for present occasion; for which I shall think myself greatly obliged, and shall give you any security you please that the rest shall follow within the time.

As to the pack of goods in your hands, which were sent up without your order, I am content they remain in your hands for sale on my account, and desire you will sell them as soon as you can, for my best advantage.  I am,’ &c.

Here is a harmony of business, and every thing exact; the order is given plain and express; the clothier answers directly to every point; here can be no defect in the correspondence; the diligent clothier applies immediately to the work, sorts and dyes his wool, mixes his colours to the patterns, puts the wool to the spinners, sends his yarn to the weavers, has the pieces brought home, then has them to the thicking or fulling-mill, dresses them in his own workhouse, and sends them up punctually by the time; perhaps by the middle of the month.  Having sent up twenty pieces five weeks before, the warehouse-keeper, to oblige him, pays his bill of L50, and a month after the rest are sent in, he draws for the rest of the money, and his bills are punctually paid.  The consequence of this exact writing and answering is this ­

The warehouse-keeper having the order from his merchant, is furnished in time, and obliges his customer; then says he to his servant, ’Well, this H.G. of Devizes is a clever workman, understands his business, and may be depended on:  I see if I have an order to give that requires any exactness and honest usage, he is my man; he understands orders when they are sent, goes to work immediately, and answers them punctually.’

Again, the clothier at Devizes says to his head man, or perhaps his son, ’This Mr H. is a very good employer, and is worth obliging; his orders are so plain and so direct, that a man cannot mistake, and if the goods are made honestly and to his time, there’s one’s money; bills are cheerfully accepted, and punctually paid; I’ll never disappoint him; whoever goes without goods, he shall not.’

On the contrary, when orders are darkly given, they are doubtfully observed; and when the goods come to town, the merchant dislikes them, the warehouseman shuffles them back upon the clothier, to lie for his account, pretending they are not made to his order; the clothier is discouraged, and for want of his money discredited, and all their correspondence is confusion, and ends in loss both of money and credit.