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


It is a modern custom, and wholly unknown to our ancestors, who yet understood trade, in proportion to the trade they carried on, as well as we do, to have tradesmen lay out two-thirds of their fortune in fitting up their shops.

By fitting up, I do not mean furnishing their shops with wares and goods to sell ­for in that they came up to us in every particular, and perhaps went beyond us too ­but in painting and gilding, fine shelves, shutters, boxes, glass-doors, sashes, and the like, in which, they tell us now, it is a small matter to lay out two or three hundred pounds, nay, five hundred pounds, to fit up a pastry-cook’s, or a toy-shop.

The first inference to be drawn from this must necessarily be, that this age must have more fools than the last:  for certainly fools only are most taken with shows and outsides.

It is true, that a fine show of goods will bring customers; and it is not a new custom, but a very old one, that a new shop, very well furnished, goes a great way to bringing a trade; for the proverb was, and still is, very true, that every body has a penny for a new shop; but that a fine show of shelves and glass-windows should bring customers, that was never made a rule in trade till now.

And yet, even now, I should not except so much against it, if it were not carried on to such an excess, as is too much for a middling tradesman to bear the expense of.  In this, therefore, it is made not a grievance only, but really scandalous to trade; for now, a young beginner has such a tax upon him before he begins, that he must sink perhaps a third part, nay, a half part, of his stock, in painting and gilding, wainscoting and glazing, before he begins to trade, nay, before he can open his shop.  As they say of building a watermill, two-thirds of the expense lies under the water; and when the poor tradesman comes to furnish his shop, and lay in his stock of goods, he finds a great hole made in his cash to the workmen, and his show of goods, on which the life of his trade depends, is fain to be lessened to make up his show of boards, and glass to lay them in.

Nor is this heavy article to be abated upon any account; for if he does not make a good show, he comes abroad like a mean ordinary fellow, and nobody of fashion comes to his shop; the customers are drawn away by the pictures and painted shelves, though, when they come there, they are not half so well filled as in other places, with goods fit for a trade; and how, indeed, should it be otherwise? the joiners and painters, glaziers and carvers, must have all ready money; the weavers and merchants may give credit; their goods are of so much less moment to the shopkeeper, that they must trust; but the more important show must be finished first, and paid first; and when that has made a deep hole in the tradesman’s stock, then the remainder may be spared to furnish the shop with goods, and the merchant must trust for the rest.

It will hardly be believed in ages to come, when our posterity shall be grown wiser by our loss, and, as I may truly say, at our expense, that a pastry-cook’s shop, which twenty pounds would effectually furnish at a time, with all needful things for sale, nay, except on an extraordinary show, as on twelfth-day at night for cakes, or upon some great feast, twenty pounds can hardly be laid out at one time in goods for sale, yet that fitting up one of these shops should cost upwards of L300 in the year 1710 ­let the year be recorded ­the fitting up to consist of the following particulars: ­

1.  Sash windows, all of looking-glass plates, 12 inches by 16 inches in measure.

2.  All the walls of the shop lined up with galley-tiles, and the back shop with galley-tiles in panels, finely painted in forest-work and figures.

3.  Two large pier looking-glasses and one chimney glass in the shop, and one very large pier-glass seven feet high in the back shop.

4.  Two large branches of candlesticks, one in the shop, and one in the back room.

5.  Three great glass lanterns in the shop, and eight small ones.

6.  Twenty-five sconces against the wall, with a large pair of silver standing candlesticks in the back room, value L25.

7.  Six fine large silver salvers to serve sweetmeats.

8.  Twelve large high stands of rings, whereof three silver, to place small dishes for tarts, jellies, &c., at a feast.

9.  Painting the ceiling, and gilding the lanterns, the sashes, and the carved work, L55.

These, with some odd things to set forth the shop, and make a show, besides small plate, and besides china basins and cups, amounted to, as I am well informed, above L300.

Add to this the more necessary part, which was: ­

1.  Building two ovens, about L25.

2.  Twenty pounds in stock for pies, cheese-cakes, &c.

So that, in short, here was a trade which might be carried on for about L30 or L40 stock, required L300 expenses to fit up the shop, and make a show to invite customers.

I might give something of a like example of extravagance in fitting up a cutler’s shop, Anglice a toyman, which are now come up to such a ridiculous expense, as is hardly to be thought of without the utmost contempt:  let any one stop at the Temple, or at Paul’s corner, or in many other places.

As to the shops of the more considerable trades, they all bear a proportion of the humour of the times, but do not call for so loud a remark.  Leaving, therefore, the just reflection which such things call for, let me bring it home to the young tradesman, to whom I am directing this discourse, and to whom I am desirous to give solid and useful hints for his instruction, I would recommend it to him to avoid all such needless expenses, and rather endeavour to furnish his shop with goods, than to paint and gild it over, to make it fine and gay; let it invite customers rather by the well-filled presses and shelves, and the great choice of rich and fashionable goods, that one customer being well-served may bring another; and let him study to bring his shop into reputation for good choice of wares, and good attendance on his customers; and this shall bring a throng to him much better, and of much better people, than those that go in merely for a gay shop.

Let the shop be decent and handsome, spacious as the place will allow, and let something like the face of a master be always to be seen in it; and, if possible, be always busy, and doing something in it, that may look like being employed:  this takes as much with the wiser observers of such things, as any other appearance can do.

I have heard of a young apothecary, who setting up in a part of the town, where he had not much acquaintance, and fearing much whether he should get into business, hired a man acquainted with such business, and made him be every morning between five and six, and often late in the evenings, working very hard at the great mortar; pounding and beating, though he had nothing to do with it, but beating some very needless thing, that all his neighbours might hear it, and find that he was in full employ, being at work early and late, and that consequently he must be a man of vast business, and have a great practice:  and the thing was well laid, and took accordingly; for the neighbours, believing he had business, brought business to him; and the reputation of having a trade, made a trade for him.

The observation is just:  a show may bring some people to a shop, but it is the fame of business that brings business; and nothing raises the fame of a shop like its being a shop of good trade already; then people go to it, because they think other people go to it, and because they think there is good choice of goods; their gilding and painting may go a little way, but it is the having a shop well filled with goods, having good choice to sell, and selling reasonable ­these are the things that bring a trade, and a trade thus brought will stand by you and last; for fame of trade brings trade anywhere.

It is a sign of the barrenness of the people’s fancy, when they are so easily taken with shows and outsides of things.  Never was such painting and gilding, such sashings and looking-glasses among the shopkeepers, as there is now; and yet trade flourished more in former times by a gread deal that it does now, if we may believe the report of very honest and understanding men.  The reason, I think, cannot be to the credit of the present age, nor it it to the discredit of the former; for they carried on their trade with less gaiety, and with less expense, than we do now.

My advice to a young tradesman is to keep the safe middle between these extremes; something the times must be humoured in, because fashion and custom must be followed; but let him consider the depth of his stock, and not lay out half his estate upon fitting up his shop, and then leave but the other half to furnish it; it is much better to have a full shop, than a fine shop; and a hundred pounds in goods will make a much better show than a hundred pounds’ worth of painting and carved work; it is good to make a show, but not to be all show.

It is true, that painting and adorning a shop seems to intimate, that the tradesman has a large stock to begin with, or else they suggest he would not make such a show; hence the young shopkeepers are willing to make a great show, and beautify, and paint, and gild, and carve, because they would be thought to have a great stock to begin with; but let me tell you, the reputation of having a great stock is ill purchased, when half your stock is laid out to make the world believe it; that is, in short, reducing yourself to a small stock to have the world believe you have a great one; in which you do no less than barter the real stock for the imaginary, and give away your stock to keep the name of it only.

I take this indeed to be a French humour, or a spice of it turned English; and, indeed, we are famous for this, that when we do mimic the French, we generally do it to our hurt, and over-do the French themselves.

The French nation are eminent for making a fine outside, when perhaps within they want necessaries; and, indeed, a gay shop and a mean stock is something like the Frenchman with his laced ruffles, without a shirt.  I cannot but think a well-furnished shop with a moderate outside is much better to a tradesman, than a fine shop and few goods; I am sure it will be much more to his satisfaction, when he casts up his year’s account, for his fine shop will weigh but sorrily in his account of profit and loss; it is all a dead article; it is sunk out of his first money, before he makes a shilling profit, and may be some years a-recovering, as trade may go with him.

It is true that all these notions of mine in trade are founded upon the principle of frugality and good husbandry; and this is a principle so disagreeable to the times, and so contrary to the general practice, that we shall find very few people to whom it is agreeable.  But let me tell my young tradesmen, that if they must banish frugality and good husbandry, they must at the same time banish all expectation of growing rich by their trade.  It is a maxim in commerce, that money gets money, and they that will not frugally lay up their gain, in order to increase their gain, must not expect to gain as they might otherwise do; frugality may be out of fashion among the gentry, but if it comes to be so among tradesmen, we shall soon see that wealthy tradesmen will be hard to find; for they who will not save as well as gain, must expect to go out of trade as lean as they began.

Some people tell us indeed in many cases, especially in trade, that putting a good face upon things goes as far as the real merit of the things themselves; and that a fine, painted, gilded shop, among the rest, has a great influence upon the people, draws customers, and brings trade; and they run a great length in this discourse by satirising on the blindness and folly of mankind, and how the world are to be taken in their own way; and seeing they are to be deluded and imposed upon in such an innocent way, they ought to be so far deluded and imposed upon, alluding to the old proverbial saying, ’Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur;’ that it is no fraud, no crime, and can neither be against conscience, nor prudence; for if they are pleased with a show, why should they not have it? and the like.

This way of talking is indeed plausible; and were the fact true, there might be more in it than I think there is.  But I do not grant that the world is thus to be deluded; and that the people do follow this rule in general ­I mean, go always to a fine shop to lay out their money.  Perhaps, in some cases, it may be so, where the women, and the weakest of the sex too, are chiefly concerned; or where the fops and fools of the age resort; and as to those few, they that are willing to be so imposed upon, let them have it.

But I do not see, that even this extends any farther than to a few toy-shops, and pastry-cooks; and the customers of both these are not of credit sufficient, I think, to weigh in this case:  we may as well argue for the fine habits at a puppet-show and a rope-dancing, because they draw the mob about them; but I cannot think, after you go but one degree above these, the thing is of any weight, much less does it bring credit to the tradesman, whatever it may do to the shop.

The credit of a tradesman respects two sorts of people, first, the merchants, or wholesale men, or makers, who sell him his goods, or the customers, who come to his shop to buy.

The first of these are so far from valuing him upon the gay appearance of his shop, that they are often the first that take an offence at it, and suspect his credit upon that account:  their opinion upon a tradesman, and his credit with them, is raised quite another way, namely, by his current pay, diligent attendance, and honest figure; the gay shop does not help him at all there, but rather the contrary.

As to the latter, though some customers may at first be drawn by the gay appearance and fine gilding and painting of a shop, yet it is the well sorting a shop with goods, and the selling good pennyworths, that will bring trade, especially after the shop has been open some time:  this, and this only, establishes the man and the credit of the shop.

To conclude:  the credit raised by the fine show of things is also of a different kind from the substantial reputation of a tradesman; it is rather the credit of the shop, than of the man; and, in a word, it is no more or less than a net spread to catch fools; it is a bait to allure and deceive, and the tradesman generally intends it so.  He intends that the customers shall pay for the gilding and painting his shop, and it is the use he really makes of it, namely, that his shop looking like something eminent, he may sell dearer than his neighbours:  who, and what kind of fools can so be drawn in, it is easy to describe, but satire is none of our business here.

On the contrary, the customers, who are the substantial dependence of a tradesman’s shop, are such as are gained and preserved by good usage, good pennyworths, good wares, and good choice; and a shop that has the reputation of these four, like good wine that needs no bush, needs no painting and gilding, no carved works and ornaments; it requires only a diligent master and a faithful servant, and it will never want a trade.