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


Hitherto I have written of tradesmen ruined by lawful and innocent diversions; and, indeed, these are some of the most dangerous pits for a tradesman to fall into, because men are so apt to be insensible of the danger:  a ship may as well be lost in a calm smooth sea, and an easy fair gale of wind, as in a storm, if they have no pilot, or the pilot be ignorant or unwary; and disasters of that nature happen as frequently as any others, and are as fatal.  When rocks are apparent, and the pilot, bold and wilful, runs directly upon them, without fear or wit, we know the fate of the ship ­it must perish, and all that are in it will inevitably be lost; but in a smooth sea, a bold shore, an easy gale, the unseen rocks or shoals are the only dangers, and nothing can hazard them but the skilfulness of the pilot:  and thus it is in trade.  Open debaucheries and extravagances, and a profusion of expense, as well as a general contempt of business, these are open and current roads to a tradesman’s destruction; but a silent going on, in pursuit of innocent pleasures, a smooth and calm, but sure neglect of his shop, and time, and business, will as effectually and as surely ruin the tradesman as the other; and though the means are not so scandalous, the effect is as certain.  But I proceed to the other.

Next to immoderate pleasures, the tradesman ought to be warned against immoderate expense.  This is a terrible article, and more particularly so to the tradesman, as custom has now, as it were on purpose for their undoing, introduced a general habit of, and as it were a general inclination among all sorts of people to, an expensive way of living; to which might be added a kind of necessity of it; for that even with the greatest prudence and frugality a man cannot now support a family with the ordinary expense, which the same family might have been maintained with some few years ago:  there is now (1) a weight of taxes upon almost all the necessaries of life, bread and flesh excepted, as coals, salt, malt, candles, soap, leather, hops, wine, fruit, and all foreign consumptions; (2) a load of pride upon the temper of the nation, which, in spite of taxes and the unusual dearess of every thing, yet prompts people to a profusion in their expenses.

This is not so properly called a tax upon the tradesmen; I think rather, it may be called a plague upon them:  for there is, first, the dearness of every necessary thing to make living expensive; and secondly, an unconquerable aversion to any restraint; so that the poor will be like the rich, and the rich like the great, and the great like the greatest ­and thus the world runs on to a kind of distraction at this time:  where it will end, time must discover.

Now, the tradesman I speak of, if he will thrive, he must resolve to begin as he can go on; and if he does so, in a word, he must resolve to live more under restraint than ever tradesmen of his class used to do; for every necessary thing being, as I have said, grown dearer than before, he must entirely omit all the enjoyment of the unnecessaries which he might have allowed himself before, or perhaps be obliged to an expense beyond the income of his trade:  and in either of these cases he has a great hardship upon him.

When I talk of immoderate expenses, I must be understood not yet to mean the extravagances of wickedness and debaucheries; there are so many sober extravagances, and so many grave sedate ways for a tradesman’s ruin, and they are so much more dangerous than those hair-brained desperate ways of gaming and debauchery, that I think it is the best service I can do the tradesmen to lay before them those sunk rocks (as the seamen call them), those secret dangers in the first place, that they may know how to avoid them; and as for the other common ways, common discretion will supply them with caution for those, and their senses will be their protection.

The dangers to the tradesmen whom I am directing myself to, are from lawful things, and such as before are called innocent; for I am speaking to the sober part of tradesmen, who yet are often ruined and overthrown in trade; and perhaps as many such miscarry, as of the mad and extravagant, particularly because their number far exceeds them.  Expensive living is a kind of slow fever; it is not so open, so threatening and dangerous, as the ordinary distemper which goes by that name, but it preys upon the spirits, and, when its degrees are increased to a height, is as fatal and as sure to kill as the other:  it is a secret enemy, that feeds upon the vitals; and when it has gone its full length, and the languishing tradesman is weakened in his solid part, I mean his stock, then it overwhelms him at once.

Expensive living feeds upon the life and blood of the tradesman, for it eats into the two most essential branches of his trade, namely, his credit and his cash; the first is its triumph, and the last is its food:  nothing goes out to cherish the exorbitance, but the immediate money; expenses seldom go on trust, they are generally supplied and supported with ready money, whatever are not.

This expensive way of living consists in several things, which are all indeed in their degree ruinous to the tradesman; such as

     1.  Expensive house-keeping, or family extravagance.

     2.  Expensive dressing, or the extravagance of fine clothes.

     3.  Expensive company, or keeping company above himself.

     4.  Expensive équipages, making a show and ostentation of
     figure in the world.

I might take them all in bulk, and say, what has a young tradesman to do with these? and yet where is there a tradesman now to be found, who is not more or less guilty?  It is, as I have said, the general vice of the times; the whole nation are more or less in the crime; what with necessity and inclination, where is the man or the family that lives as such families used to live?

In short, good husbandry and frugality is quite out of fashion, and he that goes about to set up for the practice of it, must mortify every thing about him that has the least tincture of frugality; it is the mode to live high, to spend more than we get, to neglect trade, contemn care and concern, and go on without forecast, or without consideration; and, in consequence, it is the mode to go on to extremity, to break, become bankrupt and beggars, and so going off the trading stage, leave it open for others to come after us, and do the same.

To begin with house-keeping.  I have already hinted, that every thing belonging to the family subsistence bears a higher price than usual, I may say, than ever; at the same time I can neither undertake to prove that there is more got by selling, or more ways to get it, I mean to a tradesman, than there was formerly; the consequence then must be, that the tradesmen do not grow rich faster than formerly; at least we may venture to say this of tradesmen and their families, comparing them with former times, namely, that there is not more got, and I am satisfied there is less laid up, than was then; or, if you will have it, that tradesmen get less and spend more than they ever did.  How they should be richer than they were in those times, is very hard to say.

That all things are dearer than formerly to a house-keeper, needs little demonstration; the taxes necessarily infer it from the weight of them, and the many things charged; for, besides the things enumerated above, we find all articles of foreign importation are increased by the high duties laid on them; such as linen, especially fine linen; silk, especially foreign wrought silk:  every thing eatable, drinkable, and wearable, are made heavy to us by high and exorbitant customs and excises, as brandies, tobacco, sugar; deals and timber for building; oil, wine, spice, raw silks, calico, chocolate, coffee, tea; on some of these the duties are more than doubled:  and yet that which is most observable is, that such is the expensive humour of the times, that not a family, no, hardly of the meanest tradesman, but treat their friends with wine, or punch, or fine ale; and have their parlours set off with the tea-table and the chocolate-pot ­treats and liquors all exotic, foreign and new among tradesmen, and terrible articles in their modern expenses; which have nothing to be said for them, either as to the expense of them, or the helps to health which they boast of:  on the contrary, they procure us rheumatic bodies and consumptive purses, and can no way pass with me for necessaries; but being needless, they add to the expense, by sending us to the doctors and apothecaries to cure the breaches which they make in our health, and are themselves the very worst sort of superfluities.

But I come back to necessaries; and even in them, family-expenses are extremely risen, provisions are higher rated ­no provisions that I know of, except only bread, mutton, and fish, but are made dearer than ever ­house-rent, in almost all the cities and towns of note in England, is excessively and extremely dearer, and that in spite of such innumerable buildings as we see almost everywhere raised up, as well in the country as in London, and the parts adjacent.

Add to the rents of houses, the wages of servants.  A tradesman, be he ever so much inclined to good husbandry, cannot always do his kitchen-work himself, suppose him a bachelor, or can his wife, suppose him married, and suppose her to have brought him any portion, be his bedfellow and his cook too.  These maid-servants, then, are to be considered, and are an exceeding tax upon house-keepers; those who were formerly hired at three pounds to four pounds a-year wages, now demand five, six and eight pounds a-year; nor do they double anything upon us but their wages and their pride; for, instead of doing more work for their advance of wages, they do less:  and the ordinary work of families cannot now be performed by the same number of maids, which, in short, is a tax upon the upper sort of tradesmen, and contributes very often to their disasters, by the extravagant keeping three or four maid-servants in a house, nay, sometimes five, where two formerly were thought sufficient.  This very extravagance is such, that talking lately with a man very well experienced in this matter, he told me he had been making his calculations on that very particular, and he found by computation, that the number of servants kept by all sorts of people, tradesmen as well as others, was so much increased, that there are in London, and the towns within ten miles of it, take it every way, above a hundred thousand more maid-servants and footmen, at this time in place, than used to be in the same compass of ground thirty years ago; and that their wages amounted to above forty shillings a-head per annum, more than the wages of the like number of servants did amount to at the same length of time past; the advance to the whole body amounting to no less than two hundred thousand pounds a-year.

Indeed, it is not easy to guess what the expense of wages to servants amounts to in a year, in this nation; and consequently we cannot easily determine what the increase of that expense amounts to in England, but certainly it must rise to many hundred thousand pounds a-year in the whole.

The tradesmen bear their share of this expense, and indeed too great a share, very ordinary tradesmen in London keeping at least two maids, and some more, and some a footman or two besides; for it is an ordinary thing to see the tradesmen and shopkeepers of London keep footmen, as well as the gentlemen:  witness the infinite number of blue liveries, which are so common now that they are called the tradesmen’s liveries; and few gentlemen care to give blue to their servants for that very reason.

In proportion to their servants, the tradesmen now keep their tables, which are also advanced in their proportion of expense to other things:  indeed, the citizen’s and tradesmen’s tables are now the emblems, not of plenty, but of luxury, not of good house-keeping, but of profusion, and that of the highest kind of extravagance; insomuch, that it was the opinion of a gentleman who had been not a traveller only, but a nice observer of such things abroad, that there is at this time more waste of provisions in England than in any other nation in the world, of equal extent of ground; and that England consumes for their whole subsistence more flesh than half Europe besides; that the beggars of London, and within ten miles round it, eat more white bread than the whole kingdom of Scotland, and the like.

But this is an observation only, though I believe it is very just; I am bringing it in here only as an example of the dreadful profusion of this age, and how an extravagant way of expensive living, perfectly negligent of all degrees of frugality or good husbandry, is the reigning vice of the people.  I could enlarge upon it, and very much to the purpose here, but I shall have occasion to speak of it again.

The tradesman, whom I am speaking to by way of direction, will not, I hope, think this the way for him to thrive, or find it for his convenience to fall in with this common height of living presently, in his beginning; if he comes gradually into it after he has gotten something considerable to lay by, I say, if he does it then, it is early enough, and he may be said to be insensibly drawn into it by the necessity of the times; because, forsooth, it is a received notion, ’We must be like other folks:’  I say, if he does fall into it then, when he will pretend he cannot help it, it is better than worse, and if he can afford it, well and good; but to begin thus, to set up at this rate, when he first looks into the world, I can only say this, he that begins in such a manner, it will not be difficult to guess where he will end; for a tradesman’s pride certainly precedes his destruction, and an expensive living goes before his fall.

We are speaking now to a tradesman, who, it is supposed, must live by his business, a young man who sets up a shop, or warehouse, and expects to get money; one that would be a rich tradesman, rather than a poor, fine, gay man; a grave citizen, not a peacock’s feather; for he that sets up for a Sir Fopling Flutter, instead of a complete tradesman, is not to be thought capable of relishing this discourse; neither does this discourse relish him; for such men seem to be among the incurables, and are rather fit for an hospital of fools (so the French call our Bedlam) than to undertake trade, and enter upon business.

Trade is not a ball, where people appear in masque, and act a part to make sport; where they strive to seem what they really are not, and to think themselves best dressed when they are least known:  but it is a plain visible scene of honest life, shown best in its native appearance, without disguise; supported by prudence and frugality; and like strong, stiff, clay land, grows fruitful only by good husbandry, culture, and manuring.

A tradesman dressed up fine, with his long wig and sword, may go to the ball when he pleases, for he is already dressed up in the habit; like a piece of counterfeit money, he is brass washed over with silver, and no tradesman will take him for current; with money in his hand, indeed, he may go to the merchant’s warehouse and buy any thing, but no body will deal with him without it:  he may write upon his edged hat, as a certain tradesman, after having been once broke and set up again, ’I neither give nor take credit:’  and as others set up in their shops, ’No trust by retail,’ so he may say, ‘No trust by wholesale.’  In short, thus equipped, he is truly a tradesman in masquerade, and must pass for such wherever he is known.  How long it may be before his dress and he may suit, it not hard to guess.

Some will have it that this expensive way of living began among the tradesmen first, that is to say, among the citizens of London; and that their eager resolved pursuit of that empty and meanest kind of pride, called imitation, namely, to look like the gentry, and appear above themselves, drew them into it.  It has indeed been a fatal custom, but it has been too long a city vanity.  If men of quality lived like themselves, men of no quality would strive to live not like themselves:  if those had plenty, these would have profusion; if those had enough, these would have excess; if those had what was good, these would have what was rare and exotic; I mean as to season, and consequently dear.  And this is one of the ways that have worn out so many tradesmen before their time.

This extravagance, wherever it began, had its first rise among those sorts of tradesmen, who, scorning the society of their shops and customers, applied themselves to rambling to courts and plays; kept company above themselves, and spent their hours in such company as lives always above them; this could not but bring great expense along with it, and that expense would not be confined to the bare keeping such company abroad, but soon showed itself in a living like them at home, whether the tradesmen could support it or no.

Keeping high company abroad certainly brings on visitings and high treatings at home; and these are attended with costly furniture, rich clothes, and dainty tables.  How these things agree with a tradesman’s income, it is easy to suggest; and that, in short, these measures have sent so many tradesmen to the Mint and to the Fleet, where I am witness to it that they have still carried on their expensive living till they have come at last to starving and misery; but have been so used to it, they could not abate it, or at least not quite leave it off, though they wanted the money to pay for it.

Nor is the expensive dressing a little tax upon tradesmen, as it is now come up to an excess not formerly known to tradesmen; and though it is true that this particularly respects the ladies (for the tradesmen’s wives now claim that title, as they do by their dress claim the appearance), yet to do justice to them, and not to load the women with the reproach, as if it were wholly theirs, it must be acknowledged the men have their share in dress, as the times go now, though, it is true, not so antic and gay as in former days; but do we not see fine wigs, fine Holland shirts of six to seven shillings an ell, and perhaps laced also, all lately brought down to the level of the apron, and become the common wear of tradesmen ­nay, I may say, of tradesmen’s apprentices ­and that in such a manner as was never known in England before?

If the tradesman is thriving, and can support this and his credit too, that makes the case differ, though even then it cannot be said to be suitable; but for a tradesman to begin thus, is very imprudent, because the expense of this, as I said before, drains the very life-blood of his trade, taking away his ready money only, and making no return, but the worst of return, poverty and reproach; and, in case of miscarriage, infinite scandal and offence.

I am loth to make any part of my writing a satire upon the women; nor, indeed, does the extravagance either of dress or house-keeping, lie all, or always, at the door of the tradesmen’s wives ­the husband is often the prompter of it; at least he does not let his wife into the detail of his circumstances, he does not make her mistress of her own condition, but either flatters her with notions of his wealth, his profits, and his flourishing circumstances, and so the innocent woman spends high and lives great, believing that she is in a condition to afford it, and that her husband approves of it; at least, he does not offer to retrench or restrain her, but lets her go on, and indeed goes on with her, to the ruin of both.

I cannot but mention one thing here (though I purpose to give you one discourse on that subject by itself), namely, the great and indispensable obligation there is upon a tradesman always to acquaint his wife with the truth of his circumstances, and not to let her run on in ignorance, till she falls with him down the precipice of an unavoidable ruin ­a thing no prudent woman would do, and therefore will never take amiss a husband’s plainness in that particular case.  But I reserve this to another place, because I am rather directing my discourse at this time to the tradesman at his beginning, and, as it may be supposed, unmarried.

Next to the expensive dressing, I place the expensive keeping company, as one thing fatal to a tradesman, and which, if he would be a complete tradesman, he should avoid with the utmost diligence.  It is an agreeable thing to be seen in good company; for a man to see himself courted and valued, and his company desired by men of fashion and distinction, is very pleasing to any young tradesman, and it is really a snare which a young tradesman, if he be a man of sense, can very hardly resist.  There is in itself indeed nothing that can be objected against, or is not very agreeable to the nature of man, and that not to his vicious part merely, but even to his best faculties; for who would not value himself upon being, as above, rendered acceptable to men both in station and figure above themselves? and it is really a piece of excellent advice which a learned man gave to his son, always to keep company with men above himself, not with men below himself.

But take me now to be talking, as I really am, not to the man merely, but to his circumstances, if he were a man of fortune, and had the view of great things before him, it would hold good; but if he is a young tradesman, such as I am now speaking of, who is newly entered into business, and must depend upon his said business for his subsistence and support, and hopes to raise himself by it ­I say, if I am talking to such a one, I must say to him, that keeping company as above, with men superior to himself in knowledge, in figure, and estate, is not his business; for, first, as such conversation must necessarily take up a great deal of his time, so it ordinarily must occasion a great expense of money, and both destructive of his prosperity; nay, sometimes the first may be as fatal to him as the last, and it is oftentimes true in that sense of trade, that while by keeping company he is drawn out of his business, his absence from his shop or warehouse is the most fatal to him; and while he spends one crown in the tavern, he spends forty crowns’ worth of his time; and with this difference, too, which renders it the worse to the tradesman, namely, that the money may be recovered, and gotten up again, but the time cannot.  For example ­

1.  Perhaps in that very juncture a person comes to his warehouse.  Suppose the tradesman to be a warehouse-keeper, who trades by commission, and this person, being a clothier in the country, comes to offer him his business, the commission of which might have been worth to him thirty to forty or fifty pounds per annum; but finding him abroad, or rather, not finding him at home and in his business, goes to another, and fixes with him at once.  I once knew a dealer lose such an occasion as this, for an afternoon’s pleasure, he being gone a-fishing into Hackney-marsh.  This loss can never be restored, this expense of time was a fatal expense of money; and no tradesman will deny but they find many such things as this happen in the course of trade, either to themselves or others.

2.  Another tradesman is invited to dinner by his great friend; for I am now speaking chiefly upon the subject of keeping high company, and what the tradesman sometimes suffers by it; it is true, that there he finds a most noble entertainment, the person of quality, and that professes a friendship for him, treats him with infinite respect, is fond of him, makes him welcome as a prince ­for I am speaking of the acquaintance as really valuable and good in itself ­but then, see it in its consequences.  The tradesman on this occasion misses his ’Change, that is, omits going to the Exchange for that one day only, and not being found there, a merchant with whom he was in treaty for a large parcel of foreign goods, which would have been to his advantage to have bought, sells them to another more diligent man in the same way; and when he comes home, he finds, to his great mortification, that he has lost a bargain that would have been worth a hundred pounds buying; and now being in want of the goods, he is forced to entreat his neighbour who bought them to part with some of them at a considerable advance of price, and esteem it a favour too.  Who now paid dearest for the visit to a person of figure? ­the gentleman, who perhaps spent twenty shillings extraordinary to give him a handsome dinner, or the tradesman who lost a bargain worth a hundred pounds buying to go to eat it?

3.  Another tradesman goes to ’Change in the ordinary course of his business, intending to speak with some of the merchants, his customers, as is usual, and get orders for goods, or perhaps an appointment to come to his warehouse to buy; but a snare of the like kind falls in his way, and a couple of friends, who perhaps have little or no business, at least with him, lay hold of him, and they agree to go off Change to the tavern together.  By complying with this invitation, he omits speaking to some of those merchants, as above, who, though he knew nothing of their minds, yet it had been his business to have shown himself to them, and have put himself in the way of their call; but omitting this, he goes and drinks a bottle of wine, as above, and though he stays but an hour, or, as we say, but a little while, yet unluckily, in that interim, the merchant, not seeing him on the Exchange, calls at his warehouse as he goes from the Exchange, but not finding him there either, he goes to another warehouse, and gives his orders to the value of L300 or L400, to a more diligent neighbour of the same business; by which he (the warehouse-keeper) not only loses the profit of selling that parcel, or serving that order, but the merchant is shown the way to his neighbour’s warehouse, who, being more diligent than himself, fails not to cultivate his interest, obliges him with selling low, even to little or no gain, for the first parcel; and so the unhappy tradesman loses not his selling that parcel only, but loses the very customer, which was, as it were, his peculiar property before.

All these things, and many more such, are the consequences of a tradesman’s absence from his business; and I therefore say, the expense of time on such light occasions as these, is one of the worst sorts of extravagance, and the most fatal to the tradesman, because really he knows not what he loses.

Above all things, the tradesman should take care not to be absent in the season of business, as I have mentioned above; for the warehouse-keeper to be absent from ’Change, which is his market, or from his warehouse, at the times when the merchants generally go about to buy, he had better be absent all the rest of the day.

I know nothing is more frequent, than for the tradesman, when company invites, or an excursion from business presses, to say, ’Well, come, I have nothing to do; there is no business to hinder, there is nothing neglected, I have no letters to write;’ and the like; and away he goes to take the air for the afternoon, or to sit and enjoy himself with a friend ­all of them things innocent and lawful in themselves; but here is the crisis of a tradesman’s prosperity.  In that very moment business presents, a valuable customer comes to buy, an unexpected bargain offers to be sold; another calls to pay money; and the like:  nay, I would almost say, but that I am loth to concern the devil in more evils than he is guilty of ­that the devil frequently draws a man out of his business when something extraordinary is just at hand for his advantage.

But not, as I have said, to charge the devil with what he is not guilty of, the tradesman is generally his own tempter; his head runs off from his business by a secret indolence; company, and the pleasure of being well received among gentlemen, is a cursed snare to a young tradesman, and carries him away from his business, for the mere vanity of being caressed and complimented by men who mean no ill, and perhaps know not the mischief they do to the man they show respect to; and this the young tradesman cannot resist, and that is in time his undoing.

The tradesman’s pleasure should be in his business, his companions should be his books; and if he has a family, he makes his excursions up stairs, and no farther; when he is there, a bell or a call brings him down; and while he is in his parlour, his shop or his warehouse never misses him; his customers never go away unserved, his letters never come in and are unanswered.  None of my cautions aim at restraining a tradesman from diverting himself, as we call it, with his fireside, or keeping company with his wife and children:  there are so few tradesmen ruin themselves that way, and so few ill consequences happen upon an uxorious temper, that I will not so much as rank it with the rest; nor can it be justly called one of the occasions of a tradesman’s disasters; on the contrary, it is too often that the want of a due complacency there, the want of taking delight there, estranges the man from not his parlour only, but his warehouse and shop, and every part of business that ought to engross both his mind and his time.  That tradesman who does not delight in his family, will never long delight in his business; for, as one great end of an honest tradesman’s diligence is the support of his family, and the providing for the comfortable subsistence of his wife and children, so the very sight of, and above all, his tender and affectionate care for his wife and children, is the spur of his diligence; that is, it puts an edge upon his mind, and makes him hunt the world for business, as hounds hunt the woods for their game.  When he is dispirited, or discouraged by crosses and disappointments, and ready to lie down and despair, the very sight of his family rouses him again, and he flies to his business with a new vigour; ’I must follow my business,’ says he, ’or we must all starve, my poor children must perish;’ in a word, he that is not animated to diligence by the very sight and thought of his wife and children being brought to misery and distress, is a kind of a deaf adder that no music will charm, or a Turkish mute that no pity can move:  in a word, he is a creature not to be called human, a wretch hardened against all the passions and affections that nature has furnished to other animals; and as there is no rhetoric of use to such a kind of man as that, so I am not talking to such a one, he must go among the incurables; for, where nature cannot work, what can argument assist?