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


As there are trading lies which honest men tell, so there are frauds in trade, which tradesmen daily practise, and which, notwithstanding, they think are consistent with their being honest men.

It is certainly true, that few things in nature are simply unlawful and dishonest, but that all crime is made so by the addition and concurrence of circumstances; and of these I am now to speak:  and the first I take notice of, is that of taking and repassing, or putting off, counterfeit or false money.

It must be confessed, that calling in the old money in the time of the late King William was an act particularly glorious to that reign, and in nothing more than this, that it delivered trade from a terrible load, and tradesmen from a vast accumulated weight of daily crime.  There was scarce a shopkeeper that had not a considerable quantity or bag full of false and unpassable money; not an apprentice that kept his master’s cash, but had an annual loss, which they sometimes were unable to support, and sometimes their parents and friends were called upon for the deficiency.

The consequence was, that every raw youth or unskilful body, that was sent to receive money, was put upon by the cunning tradesmen, and all the bad money they had was tendered in payment among the good, that by ignorance or oversight some might possibly be made to pass; and as these took it, so they were not wanting again in all the artifice and sleight of hand they were masters of, to put it off again; so that, in short, people were made bites and cheats to one another in all their business; and if you went but to buy a pair of gloves, or stockings, or any trifle, at a shop, you went with bad money in one hand, and good money in the other, proffering first the bad coin, to get it off, if possible, and then the good, to make up the deficiency, if the other was rejected.

Thus, people were daily upon the catch to cheat and surprise one another, if they could; and, in short, paid no good money for anything, if they could help it.  And how did we triumph, if meeting with some poor raw servant, or ignorant woman, behind a counter, we got off a counterfeit half-crown, or a brass shilling, and brought away their goods (which were worth the said half-crown or shilling, if it had been good) for a half-crown that was perhaps not worth sixpence, or for a shilling not worth a penny:  as if this were not all one with picking the shopkeeper’s pocket, or robbing his house!

The excuse ordinarily given for this practice was this ­namely, that it came to us for good; we took it, and it only went as it came; we did not make it, and the like; as if, because we had been basely cheated by A, we were to be allowed to cheat B; or that because C had robbed our house, that therefore we might go and rob D.

And yet this was constantly practised at that time over the whole nation, and by some of the honestest tradesmen among us, if not by all of them.

When the old money was, as I have said, called in, this cheating trade was put to an end, and the morals of the nation in some measure restored ­for, in short, before that, it was almost impossible for a tradesman to be an honest man; but now we begin to fall into it again, and we see the current coin of the kingdom strangely crowded with counterfeit money again, both gold and silver; and especially we have found a great deal of counterfeit foreign money, as particularly Portugal and Spanish gold, such as moydores and Spanish pistoles, which, when we have the misfortune to be put upon with them, the fraud runs high, and dips deep into our pockets, the first being twenty-seven shillings, and the latter seventeen shillings.  It is true, the latter being payable only by weight, we are not often troubled with them; but the former going all by tale, great quantities of them have been put off among us.  I find, also, there is a great increase of late of counterfeit money of our own coin, especially of shillings, and the quantity increasing, so that, in a few years more, if the wicked artists are not detected, the grievance may be in proportion as great as it was formerly, and perhaps harder to be redressed, because the coin is not likely to be any more called in, as the old smooth money was.

What, then, must be done?  And how must we prevent the mischief to conscience and principle which lay so heavy upon the whole nation before?  The question is short, and the answer would be as short, and to the purpose, if people would but submit to the little loss that would fall upon them at first, by which they would lessen the weight of it as they go on, as it would never increase to such a formidable height as it was at before, nor would it fall so much upon the poor as it did then.

First, I must lay it down as a stated rule or maxim, in the moral part of the question ­that to put off counterfeit base money for good money, knowing it to be counterfeit, is dishonest and knavish.

Nor will it take off from the crime of it, or lessen the dishonesty, to say, ‘I took it for good and current money, and it goes as it comes;’ for, as before, my having been cheated does not authorise me to cheat any other person, so neither was it a just or honest thing in that person who put the bad money upon me, if they knew it to be bad; and if it were not honest in them, how can it be so in me?  If, then, it came by knavery, it should not go by knavery ­that would be, indeed, to say, it goes as it comes, in a literal sense; that is to say, it came by injustice, and I shall make it go so:  but that will not do in matters of right and wrong.

The laws of our country, also, are directly against the practice; the law condemns the coin as illegal ­that is to say, it is not current money, or, as the lawyers style it, it is not lawful money of England.  Now, every bargain or agreement in trade, is in the common and just acceptation, and the language of trade, made for such a price or rate, in the current money of England; and though you may not express it in words at length, it is so understood, as much as if it were set down in writing.  If I cheapen any thing at a shop, suppose it the least toy or trifle, I ask them, ‘What must you have for it?’ The shopkeeper answers ­so much; suppose it were a shilling, what is the English but this ­one shilling of lawful money of England?  And I agree to give that shilling; but instead of it give them a counterfeit piece of lead or tin, washed over, to make it look like a shilling.  Do I pay them what I bargained for?  Do I give them one shilling of lawful money of England?  Do I not put a cheat upon them, and act against justice and mutual agreement?

To say I took this for the lawful money of England, will not add at all, except it be to the fraud; for my being deceived does not at all make it be lawful money:  so that, in a word, there can be nothing in that part but increasing the criminal part, and adding one knave more to the number of knaves which the nation was encumbered with before.

The case to me is very clear, namely, that neither by law, justice, nor conscience, can the tradesman put off his bad money after he has taken it, if he once knows it to be false and counterfeit money.  That it is against the law is evident, because it is not good and lawful money of England; it cannot be honest, because you do not pay in the coin you agreed for, or perform the bargain you made, or pay in the coin expected of you; and it is not just, because you do not give a valuable consideration for the goods you buy, but really take a tradesman’s goods away, and return dross and dirt to him in the room of it.

The medium I have to propose in the room of this, is, that every man who takes a counterfeit piece of money, and knows it to be such, should immediately destroy it ­that is to say, destroy it as money, cut it in pieces; or, as I have seen some honest tradesmen do, nail it up against a post, so that it should go no farther.  It is true, this is sinking so much upon himself, and supporting the credit of the current coin at his own expense, and he loses the whole piece, and this tradesmen are loth to do:  but my answer is very clear, that thus they ought to do, and that sundry public reasons, and several public benefits, would follow to the public, in some of which he might have his share of benefit hereafter, and if he had not, yet he ought to do it.

First, by doing thus, he puts a stop to the fraud ­that piece of money is no more made the instrument to deceive others, which otherwise it might do; and though it is true that the loss is only to the last man, that is to say, in the ordinary currency of the money, yet the breach upon conscience and principle is to every owner through whose hands that piece of money has fraudulently passed, that is to say, who have passed it away for good, knowing it to be counterfeit; so that it is a piece of good service to the public to take away the occasion and instrument of so much knavery and deceit.

Secondly, he prevents a worse fraud, which is, the buying and selling such counterfeit money.  This was a very wicked, but open trade, in former days, and may in time come to be so again:  fellows went about the streets, crying ’Brass money, broken or whole;’ that is to say, they would give good money for bad.  It was at first pretended that they were obliged to cut it in pieces, and if you insisted upon it, they would cut it in pieces before your face; but they as often got it without that ceremony, and so made what wicked shifts they could to get it off again, and many times did put it off for current money, after they had bought it for a trifle.

Thirdly, by this fraud, perhaps, the same piece of money might, several years after, come into your hands again, after you had sold it for a trifle, and so you might lose by the same shilling two or three times over, and the like of other people; but if men were obliged to demolish all the counterfeit money they take, and let it go no farther, they they would be sure the fraud could go no farther, nor would the quantity be ever great at a time; for whatever quantity the false coiners should at any time make, it would gradually lessen and sink away, and not a mass of false and counterfeit coin appear together, as was formerly the case, and which lost the nation a vast sum of money to call in.

It has been the opinion of some, that a penalty should be inflicted upon those who offered any counterfeit money in payment; but besides that, there is already a statute against uttering false money, knowing it to be such.  If any other or farther law should be made, either to enforce the statute, or to have new penalties added, they would still fall into the same difficulties as in the act.

1.  That innocent men would suffer, seeing many tradesmen may take a piece of counterfeit money in tale with other money, and really and bona fide not know it, and so may offer it again as innocently as they at first took it ignorantly; and to bring such into trouble for every false shilling which they might offer to pay away without knowing it, would be to make the law be merely vexatious and tormenting to those against whom it was not intended, and at the same time not to meddle with the subtle crafty offender whom it was intended to punish, and who is really guilty.

2.  Such an act would be difficultly executed, because it would still be difficult to know who did knowingly utter false money, and who did not; which is the difficulty, indeed, in the present law ­so that, upon the whole, such a law would no way answer the end, nor effectually discover the offender, much less suppress the practice.  But I am not upon projects and schemes ­it is not the business of this undertaking.

But a general act, obliging all tradesmen to suppress counterfeit money, by refusing to put it off again, after they knew it to be counterfeit, and a general consent of tradesmen to do so; this would be the best way to put a stop to the practice, the morality of which is so justly called in question, and the ill consequences of which to trade are so very well known; nor will any thing but a universal consent of tradesmen, in the honest suppressing of counterfeit money, ever bring it to pass.  In the meantime, as to the dishonesty of the practice, however popular it is grown at this time, I think it is out of question; it can have nothing but custom to plead for it, which is so far from an argument, that I think the plea is criminal in itself, and really adds to its being a grievance, and calls loudly for a speedy redress.

Another trading fraud, which, among many others of the like nature, I think worth speaking of, is the various arts made use of by tradesmen to set off their goods to the eye of the ignorant buyer.

I bring this in here, because I really think it is something of kin to putting off counterfeit money; every false gloss put upon our woollen manufactures, by hot-pressing, folding, dressing, tucking, packing, bleaching, &c, what are they but washing over a brass shilling to make it pass for sterling?  Every false light, every artificial side-window, sky-light, and trunk-light we see made to show the fine Hollands, lawns, cambrics, &c. to advantage, and to deceive the buyer ­what is it but a counterfeit coin to cheat the tradesman’s customers? ­an ignis fatuus to impose upon fools and ignorant people, and make their goods look finer than they are?

But where in trade is there any business entirely free from these frauds? and how shall we speak of them, when we see them so universally made use of?  Either they are honest, or they are not.  If they are not, why do we, I say, universally make use of them? ­if they are honest, why so much art and so much application to manage them, and to make goods appear fairer and finer to the eye than they really are? ­which, in its own nature, is evidently a design to cheat, and that in itself is criminal, and can be no other.

And yet there is much to be said for setting goods out to the best advantage too; for in some goods, if they are not well dressed, well pressed, and packed, the goods are not really shown in a true light; many of our woollen manufactures, if brought to market rough and undressed, like a piece of cloth not carried to the fulling or thicking mill, it does not show itself to a just advantage, nay, it does not show what it really is; and therefore such works as may be proper for so far setting it forth to the eye may be necessary.  For example: 

The cloths, stuffs, serges, druggets, &c, which are brought to market in the west and northern parts of England, and in Norfolk, as they are bought without the dressing and making up, it may be said of them that they are brought to market unfinished, and they are bought there again by the wholesale dealers, or cloth-workers, tuckers, and merchants, and they carry them to their warehouses and workhouses, and there they go through divers operations again, and are finished for the market; nor, indeed, are they fit to be shown till they are so; the stuffs are in the grease, the cloth is in the oil, they are rough and foul, and are not dressed, and consequently not finished; and as our buyers do not understand them till they are so dressed, it is no proper finishing the goods to bring them to market before ­they are not, indeed, properly said to be made till that part is done.

Therefore I cannot call all those setting-out of goods to be knavish and false; but when the goods, like a false shilling, are to be set out with fraud and false colours, and made smooth and shining to delude the eye, there, where they are so, it is really a fraud; and though in some cases it extremely differs, yet that does not excuse the rest by any means.

The packers and hot-pressers, tuckers, and cloth-workers, are very necessary people in their trades, and their business is to set goods off to the best advantage; but it may be said, too, that their true and proper business is to make the goods show what really they are, and nothing else.  It is true, as above, that in the original dress, as a piece of cloth or drugget, or stuff, comes out of the hand of the maker, it does not show itself as it really is, nor what it should and ought to show:  thus far these people are properly called finishers of the manufactures, and their work is not lawful only, but it is a doing justice to the manufacture.

But if, by the exubérances of their art, they set the goods in a false light, give them a false gloss, a finer and smoother surface than really they have:  this is like a painted jade, who puts on a false colour upon her tawny skin to deceive and delude her customers, and make her seem the beauty which she has no just claim to the name of.

So far as art is thus used to show these goods to be what they really are not, and deceive the buyer, so far it is a trading fraud, which is an unjustifiable practice in business, and which, like coining of counterfeit money, is making goods to pass for what they really are not; and is done for the advantage of the person who puts them off, and to the loss of the buyer, who is cheated and deceived by the fraud.

The making false lights, sky-lights, trunks, and other contrivances, to make goods look to be what they are not, and to deceive the eye of the buyer, these are all so many brass shillings washed over, in order to deceive the person who is to take them, and cheat him of his money; and so far these false lights are really criminal, they are cheats in trade, and made to deceive the world; to make deformity look like beauty, and to varnish over deficiencies; to make goods which are ordinary in themselves appear fine; to make things which are ill made look well; in a word, they are cheats in themselves, but being legitimated by custom, are become a general practice; the honestest tradesmen have them, and make use of them; the buyer knows of it, and suffers himself to be so imposed upon; and, in a word, if it be a cheat, as no doubt it is, they tell us that yet it is a universal cheat, and nobody trades without it; so custom and usage make it lawful, and there is little to be said but this, Si populus vult decepi, decipiatur ­if the people will be cheated, let them be cheated, or they shall be cheated.

I come next to the setting out their goods to the buyer by the help of their tongue; and here I must confess our shop rhetoric is a strange kind of speech; it is to be understood in a manner by itself; it is to be taken, not in a latitude only, but in such a latitude as indeed requires as many flourishes to excuse it, as it contains flourishes in itself.

The end of it, indeed, is corrupt, and it is also made up of a corrupt composition; it is composed of a mass of rattling flattery to the buyer, and that filled with hypocrisy, compliment, self-praises, falsehood, and, in short, a complication of wickedness; it is a corrupt means to a vicious end:  and I cannot see any thing in it but what a wise man laughs at, a good man abhors, and any man of honesty avoids as much as possible.

The shopkeeper ought, indeed, to have a good tongue, but he should not make a common prostitute of his tongue, and employ it to the wicked purpose of abusing and imposing upon all that come to deal with him.  There is a modest liberty, which trading licence, like the poetic licence, allows to all the tradesmen of every kind:  but tradesmen ought no more to lie behind the counter, than the parsons ought to talk treason in the pulpit.

Let them confine themselves to truth, and say what they will.  But it cannot be done; a talking rattling mercer, or draper, or milliner, behind his counter, would be worth nothing if he should confine himself to that mean silly thing called truth ­they must lie; it is in support of their business, and some think they cannot live without it; but I deny that part, and recommend it, I mean to the tradesmen I am speaking of, to consider what a scandal it is upon trade, to pretend to say that a tradesman cannot live without lying, the contrary to which may be made appear in almost every article.

On the other hand, I must do justice to the tradesmen, and must say, that much of it is owing to the buyers ­they begin the work, and give the occasion.  It was the saying of a very good shopman once upon this occasion, ’That their customers would not be pleased without lying; and why,’ said he, ’did Solomon reprove the buyer? ­he said nothing to the shopkeeper ­“It is naught, it is naught,” says the buyer; “but when he goes away, then he boasteth” (Prov. x.) The buyer telling us,’ adds he, ’that every thing is worse than it is, forces us, in justifying its true value, to tell them it is better than it is.’

It must be confessed, this verbose way of trading is most ridiculous, as well as offensive, both in buyer and seller; and as it adds nothing to the goodness or value of the goods, so, I am sure, it adds nothing to the honesty or good morals of the tradesman, on one side or other, but multiplies trading-lies on every side, and brings a just reproach on the integrity of the dealer, whether he be the buyer or seller.

It was a kind of a step to the cure of this vice in trade, for such it is, that there was an old office erected in the city of London, for searching and viewing all the goods which were sold in bulk, and could not be searched into by the buyer ­this was called garbling; and the garbler having viewed the goods, and caused all damaged or unsound goods to be taken out, set his seal upon the case or bags which held the rest, and then they were vouched to be marketable, so that when the merchant and the shopkeeper met to deal, there was no room for any words about the goodness of the wares; there was the garbler’s seal to vouch that they were marketable and good, and if they were otherwise, the garbler was answerable.

This respected some particular sorts of goods only, and chiefly spices and drugs, and dye-stuffs, and the like.  It were well if some other method than that of a rattling tongue could be found out, to ascertain the goodness and value of goods between the shopkeeper and the retail buyer, that such a flux of falsehoods and untruths might be avoided, as we see every day made use of to run up and run down every thing that is bought or sold, and that without any effect too; for, take it one time with another, all the shopkeeper’s lying does not make the buyer like the goods at all the better, nor does the buyer’s lying make the shopkeeper sell the cheaper.

It would be worth while to consider a little the language that passes between the tradesman and his customer over the counter, and put it into plain homespun English, as the meaning of it really imports.  We would not take that usage if it were put into plain words ­it would set all the shopkeepers and their customers together by the ears, and we should have fighting and quarrelling, instead of bowing and curtseying, in every shop.  Let us hark a little, and hear how it would sound between them.  A lady comes into a mercer’s shop to buy some silks, or to the laceman’s to buy silver laces, or the like; and when she pitches upon a piece which she likes, she begins thus: 

Lady. ­I like that colour and that figure well enough, but I don’t like the silk ­there is no substance in it.

Mer. ­Indeed, Madam, your ladyship lies ­it is a very substantial silk.

Lady.-No, no! you lie indeed, Sir; it is good for nothing; it will do no service.

Mer. ­Pray, Madam, feel how heavy it is; you will find it is a lie; the very weight of it may satisfy you that you lie, indeed, Madam.

Lady. ­Come, come, show me a better piece; I am sure you have better.

Mer. ­Indeed, Madam, your ladyship lies; I may show you more pieces, but I cannot show you a better; there is not a better piece of silk of that sort in London, Madam.

Lady. ­Let me see that piece of crimson there.

Mer. ­Here it is, Madam.

Lady. ­No, that won’t do neither; it is not a good colour.

Mer. ­Indeed, Madam, you lie; it is as fine a colour as can be dyed.

Lady. ­Oh fy! you lie, indeed, Sir; why, it is not in grain.

Mer. ­Your ladyship lies, upon my word, Madam; it is in grain, indeed, and as fine as can be dyed.

I might make this dialogue much longer, but here is enough to set the mercer and the lady both in a flame, and to set the shop in an uproar, if it were but spoken out in plain language, as above; and yet what is all the shop-dialect less or more than this?  The meaning is plain ­it is nothing but you lie, and you lie ­downright Billingsgate, wrapped up in silk and satin, and delivered dressed finely up in better clothes than perhaps it might come dressed in between a carman and a porter.

How ridiculous is all the tongue-padding flutter between Miss Tawdry, the sempstress, and Tattle, my lady’s woman, at the change-shop, when the latter comes to buy any trifle! and how many lies, indeed, creep into every part of trade, especially of retail trade, from the meanest to the uppermost part of business! ­till, in short, it is grown so scandalous, that I much wonder the shopkeepers themselves do not leave it off, for the mere shame of its simplicity and uselessness.

But habits once got into use are very rarely abated, however ridiculous they are; and the age is come to such a degree of obstinate folly, that nothing is too ridiculous for them, if they please but to make a custom of it.

I am not for making my discourse a satire upon the shopkeepers, or upon their customers:  if I were, I could give a long detail of the arts and tricks made use of behind the counter to wheedle and persuade the buyer, and manage the selling part among shopkeepers, and how easily and dexterously they draw in their customers; but this is rather work for a ballad and a song:  my business is to tell the complete tradesman how to act a wiser part, to talk to his customers like a man of sense and business, and not like a mountebank and his merry-andrew; to let him see that there is a way of managing behind a counter, that, let the customer be what or how it will, man or woman, impertinent or not impertinent ­for sometimes, I must say, the men customers are every jot as impertinent as the women; but, I say, let them be what they will, and how they will, let them make as many words as they will, and urge the shopkeeper how they will, he may behave himself so as to avoid all those impertinences, falsehoods, follish and wicked excursions which I complain of, if he pleases.

It by no means follows, that because the buyer is foolish, the seller must be so too; that because the buyer has a never-ceasing tongue, the seller must rattle as fast as she; that because she tells a hundred lies to run down his goods, he must tell another hundred to run them up; and that because she belies the goods one way, he must do the same the other way.

There is a happy medium in these things.  The shopkeeper, far from being rude to his customers on one hand, or sullen and silent on the other, may speak handsomely and modestly, of his goods; what they deserve, and no other; may with truth, and good manners too, set forth his goods as they ought to be set forth; and neither be wanting to the commodity he sells, nor run out into a ridiculous extravagance of words, which have neither truth of fact nor honesty of design in them.

Nor is this middle way of management at all less likely to succeed, if the customers have any share of sense in them, or the goods he shows any merit to recommend them; and I must say, I believe this grave middle way of discoursing to a customer, is generally more effectual, and more to the purpose, and more to the reputation of the shopkeeper, than a storm of words, and a mouthful of common, shop-language, which makes a noise, but has little in it to plead, except to here and there a fool that can no otherwise be prevailed with.

It would be a terrible satire upon the ladies, to say that they will not be pleased or engaged either with good wares or good pennyworths, with reasonable good language, or good manners, but they must have the addition of long harangues, simple, fawning, and flattering language, and a flux of false and foolish words, to set off the goods, and wheedle them in to lay out their money; and that without these they are not to be pleased.

But let the tradesman try the honest part, and stand by that, keeping a stock of fashionable and valuable goods in his shop to show, and I dare say he will run no venture, nor need he fear customers; if any thing calls for the help of noise, and rattling words, it must be mean and sorry, unfashionable, and ordinary goods, together with weak and silly buyers; and let the buyers that chance to read this remember, that whenever they find the shopkeeper begins his noise, and makes his fine speeches, they ought to suppose he (the shopkeeper) has trash to bring out, and believes he has fools to show it to.