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


It must be acknowledged, that as this chapter seems to be written in favour of the women, it also seems to be an officious, thankless benefaction to the wives; for that, as the tradesman’s ladies now manage, they are above the favour, and put no value upon it.  On the contrary, the women, generally speaking, trouble not their heads about it, scorn to be seen in the counting house, much less behind the counter; despise the knowledge of their husbands’ business, and act as if they were ashamed of being tradesmen’s wives, and never intended to be tradesmen’s widows.

If this chosen ignorance of theirs comes some time or other to be their loss, and they find the disadvantage of it too late, they may read their fault in their punishment, and wish too late they had acted the humbler part, and not thought it below them to inform themselves of what it is so much their interest to know.  This pride is, indeed, the great misfortune of tradesmen’s wives; for, as they lived as if they were above being owned for the tradesman’s wife, so, when he dies, they live to be the shame of the tradesman’s widow.  They knew nothing how he got his estate when he was alive, and they know nothing where to find it when he is dead.  This drives them into the hands of lawyers, attorneys, and solicitors, to get in their effects; who, when they have got it, often run away with it, and leave the poor widow in a more disconsolate and perplexed condition than she was in before.

It is true, indeed, that this is the women’s fault in one respect, and too often it is so in many, since the common spirit is, as I observed, so much above the tradesman’s condition; but since it is not so with every body, let me state the case a little for the use of those who still have ther senses about them; and whose pride is not got so much above their reason, as to let them choose to be tradesmen’s beggars, rather than tradesmen’s widows.

When the tradesman dies, it is to be expected that what estate or effects he leaves, is, generally speaking, dispersed about in many hands; his widow, if she is left executrix, has the trouble of getting things together as well as she can; if she is not left executrix, she has not the trouble indeed, but then it is looked upon that she is dishonoured in not having the trust; when she comes to look into her affairs, she is more or less perplexed and embarrassed, as she has not or has acquainted herself, or been made acquainted, with her husband’s affairs in his lifetime.

If she has been one of those gay delicate ladies, that valuing herself upon her being a gentlewoman, and that thought it a step below herself, when she married this mechanic thing called a tradesman, and consequently scorned to come near his shop, or warehouse, and by consequence acquainting herself with any of his affairs, or so much as where his effects lay, which are to be her fortune for the future ­I say, if this has been her case, her folly calls for pity now, as her pride did for contempt before; for as she was foolish in the first, she may be miserable in the last part of it; for now she falls into a sea of trouble, she has the satisfaction of knowing that her husband has died, as the tradesmen call it, well to pass, and that she is left well enough; but she has at the same time the mortification of knowing nothing how to get it in, or in what hands it lies.  The only relief she has is her husband’s books, and she is happy in that, but just in proportion to the care he took in keeping them; even when she finds the names of debtors, she knows not who they are, or where they dwell, who are good, and who are bad; the only remedy she has here, if her husband had ever a servant, or apprentice, who was so near out of his time as to be acquainted with the customers, and with the books, then she is forced to be beholden to him to settle the accounts for her, and endeavour to get in the debts; in return for which she is forced to give him his time and freedom, and let him into the trade, make him master of all the business in the world, and it may be at last, with all her pride, has to take him for a husband; and when her friends upbraid her with it, that she should marry her apprentice boy, when it may be she was old enough to be his mother, her answer is, ’Why, what could I do?  I see I must have been ruined else; I had nothing but what lay abroad in debts, scattered about the world, and nobody but he knew how to get them in.  What could I do?  If I had not done it, I must have been a beggar.’  And so, it may be, she is at last too, if the boy of a husband proves a brute to her, as many do, and as in such unequal matches indeed most such people do.  Thus, that pride which once set her above a kind, diligent, tender husband, and made her scorn to stoop to acquaint herself with his affairs, by which, had she done it, she had been tolerably qualified to get in her debts, dispose of her shop-goods, and bring her estate together ­the same pride sinks her into the necessity of cringing to a scoundrel, and taking her servant to be her master.

This I mention for the caution of those ladies who stoop to marry men of business, and yet despise the business they are maintained by; that marry the tradesman, but scorn the trade.  If madam thinks fit to stoop to the man, she ought never to think herself above owning his employment; and as she may upon occasion of his death be left to value herself upon it, and to have at least her fortune and her children’s to gather up out of it, she ought not to profess herself so unacquainted with it as not to be able to look into it when necessity obliges her.

It is a terrible disaster to any woman to be so far above her own circumstances, that she should not qualify herself to make the best of things that are left her, or to preserve herself from being cheated, and being imposed upon.  In former times, tradesmen’s widows valued themselves upon the shop and trade, or the warehouse and trade, that were left them; and at least, if they did not carry on the trade in their own names, they would keep it up till they put it off to advantage; and often I have known a widow get from L300 to L500 for the good-will, as it is called, of the shop and trade, if she did not think fit to carry on the trade; if she did, the case turned the other way, namely, that if the widow did not put off the shop, the shop would put off the widow; and I may venture to say, that where there is one widow that keeps on the trade now, after a husband’s decease, there were ten, if not twenty, that did it then.

But now the ladies are above it, and disdain it so much, that they choose rather to go without the prospect of a second marriage, in virtue of the trade, than to stoop to the mechanic low step of carrying on a trade; and they have their reward, for they do go without it; and whereas they might in former times match infinitely to their advantage by that method, now they throw themselves away, and the trade too.

But this is not the case which I particularly aim at in this chapter.  If the women will act weakly and foolishly, and throw away the advantages that he puts into their hands, be that to them, and it is their business to take care of that; but I would have them have the opportunity put into their hands, and that they may make the best of it if they please; if they will not, the fault is their own.  But to this end, I say, I would have every tradesman make his wife so much acquainted with his trade, and so much mistress of the managing part of it, that she might be able to carry it on if she pleased, in case of his death; if she does not please, that is another case; or if she will not acquaint herself with it, that also is another case, and she must let it alone; but he should put it into her power, or give her the offer of it.

First, he should do it for her own sake, namely, as before, that she may make her advantage of it, either for disposing herself and the shop together, as is said above, or for the more readily disposing the goods, and getting in the debts, without dishonouring herself, as I have observed, and marrying her ’prentice boy, in order to take care of the effects ­that is to say, ruining herself to prevent her being ruined.

Secondly, he should do it for his children’s sake, if he has any, that if the wife have any knowledge of the business, and has a son to breed up to it, though he be not yet of age to take it up, she may keep the trade for him, and introduce him into it, that so he may take the trouble off her hands, and she may have the satisfaction of preserving the father’s trade for the benefit of his son, though left too young to enter upon it at first.

Thus I have known many a widow that would have thought it otherwise below her, has engaged herself in her husbands’s business, and carried it on, purely to bring her eldest son up to it, and has preserved it for him, and which has been an estate to him, whereas otherwise it must have been lost, and he would have had the world to seek for a new business.

This is a thing which every honest affectionate mother would, or at least should, be so willing to do for a son, that she, I think, who would not, ought not to marry a tradesman at all; but if she would think herself above so important a trust for her own children, she should likewise think herself above having children by a tradesman, and marry somebody whose children she would act the mother for.

But every widow is not so unnatural, and I am willing to suppose the tradesman I am writing to shall be better married, and, therefore, I give over speaking to the woman’s side, and I will suppose the tradesman’s wife not to be above her quality, and willing to be made acquainted with her husband’s affairs, as well as to be helpful to him, if she can, as to be in a condition to be helpful to herself and her family, if she comes to have occasion.  But, then, the difficulty often lies on the other side the question, and the tradesman cares not to lay open his business to, or acquaint his wife with it; and many circumstances of the tradesman draw him into this snare; for I must call it a snare both to him and to her.

I. The tradesman is foolishly vain of making his wife a gentlewoman, and, forsooth, he will have her sit above in the parlour, and receive visits, and drink tea, and entertain her neighbours, or take a coach and go abroad; but as to the business, she shall not stoop to touch it; he has apprentices and journeymen, and there is no need of it.

II.  Some trades, indeed, are not proper for the women to meddle in, or custom has made it so, that it would be ridiculous for the women to appear in their shops; that is, such as linen and woollen drapers, mercers, booksellers, goldsmiths, and all sorts of dealers by commission, and the like ­custom, I say, has made these trades so effectually shut out the women, that, what with custom, and the women’s generally thinking it below them, we never, or rarely, see any women in those shops or warehouses.

III.  Or if the trade is proper, and the wife willing, the husband declines it, and shuts her out ­and this is the thing I complain of as an unjustice upon the woman.  But our tradesmen, forsooth, think it an undervaluing to them and to their business to have their wives seen in their shops ­that is to say, that, because other trades do not admit them, therefore they will not have their trades or shops thought less masculine or less considerable than others, and they will not have their wives be seen in their shops.

IV.  But there are two sorts of husbands more who decline acquainting their wives with their business; and those are, (1.) Those who are unkind, haughty, and imperious, who will not trust their wives, because they will not make them useful, that they may not value themselves upon it, and make themselves, as it were, equal to their husbands.  A weak, foolish, and absurd suggestion! as if the wife were at all exalted by it, which, indeed, is just the contrary, for the woman is rather humbled and made a servant by it:  or, (2.) The other sort are those who are afraid their wives should be let into the grand secret of all ­namely, to know that they are bankrupt, and undone, and worth nothing.

All these considerations are foolish or fraudulent, and in every one of them the husband is in the wrong ­nay, they all argue very strongly for the wife’s being, in a due degree, let into the knowledge of their business; but the last, indeed, especially that she may be put into a posture to save him from ruin, if it be possible, or to carry on some business without him, if he is forced to fail, and fly; as many have been, when the creditors have encouraged the wife to carry on a trade for the support of her family and children, when he perhaps may never show his head again.

But let the man’s case be what it will, I think he can never call it a hard shift to let his wife into an acquaintance with his business, if she desires it, and is fit for it; and especially in case of mortality, that she may not be left helpless and friendless with her children when her husband is gone, and when, perhaps, her circumstances may require it.

I am not for a man setting his wife at the head of his business, and placing himself under her like a journeyman, like a certain china-seller, not far from the East India House, who, if any customers came into the shop that made a mean, sorry figure, would leave them to her husband to manage and attend them; but if they looked like quality, and people of fashion, would come up to her husband, when he was showing them his goods, putting him by with a ’Hold your tongue, Tom, and let me talk.’  I say, it is not this kind, or part, that I would have the tradesman’s wife let into, but such, and so much, of the trade only as may be proper for her, not ridiculous, in the eye of the world, and may make her assisting and helpful, not governing to him, and, which is the main thing I am at, such as should qualify her to keep up the business for herself and children, if her husband should be taken away, and she be left destitute in the world, as many are.

Thus much, I think, it is hard a wife should not know, and no honest tradesman ought to refuse it; and above all, it is a great pity the wives of tradesmen, who so often are reduced to great inconvenience for want of it, should so far withstand their own felicity, as to refuse to be thus made acquainted with their business, by which weak and foolish pride they expose themselves, as I have observed, to the misfortune of throwing the business away, when they may come to want it, and when the keeping it up might be the restoring of their family, and providing for their children.

For, not to compliment tradesmen too much, their wives are not all ladies, nor are their children all born to be gentlemen.  Trade, on the contrary, is subject to contingencies; some begin poor, and end rich; others, and those very many, begin rich, and end poor:  and there are innumerable circumstances which may attend a tradesman’s family, which may make it absolutely necessary to preserve the trade for his children, if possible; the doing which may keep them from misery, and raise them all in the world, and the want of it, on the other hand, sinks and suppresses them.  For example: ­

A tradesman has begun the world about six or seven years; he has, by his industry and good understanding in business, just got into a flourishing trade, by which he clears five or six hundred pounds a-year; and if it should please God to spare his life for twenty years or more, he would certainly be a rich man, and get a good estate; but on a sudden, and in the middle of all his prosperity, he is snatched away by a sudden fit of sickness, and his widow is left in a desolate despairing condition, having five children, and big with another; but the eldest of these is not above six years old, and, though he is a boy, yet he is utterly incapable to be concerned in the business; so the trade which (had his father lived to bring him up in his shop or warehouse) would have been an estate to him, is like to be lost, and perhaps go all away to the eldest apprentice, who, however, wants two years of his time.  Now, what is to be done for this unhappy family?

‘Done!’ says the widow; ’why, I will never let the trade fall so, that should be the making of my son, and in the meantime be the maintenance of all my children.’

‘Why, what can you do, child?’ says her father, or other friends; ’you know nothing of it.  Mr ­ did not acquaint you with his business.’

‘That is true,’ says the widow; ’he did not, because I was a fool, and did not care to look much into it, and that was my fault.  Mr ­ did not press me to it, because he was afraid I might think he intended to put me upon it; but he often used to say, that if he should drop off before his boys were fit to come into the shop, it would be a sad loss to them ­that the trade would make gentlemen of a couple of them, and it would be great pity it should go away from them.’

‘But what does that signify now, child?’ adds the father; ’you see it is so; and how can it be helped?’

‘Why,’ says the widow, ’I used to ask him if he thought I could carry it on for them, if such a thing should happen?’

‘And what answer did he make?’ says the father.

‘He shook his head,’ replied the widow, ’and answered, “Yes, I might, if I had good servants, and if I would look a little into it beforehand."’

‘Why,’ says the father, ‘he talked as if he had foreseen his end.’

‘I think he did foresee it,’ says she, ‘for he was often talking thus.’

‘And why did you not take the hint then,’ says her father, ’and acquaint yourself a little with things, that you might have been prepared for such an unhappy circumstance, whatever might happen?’

‘Why, so I did,’ says the widow, ’and have done for above two years past; he used to show me his letters, and his books, and I know where he bought every thing; and I know a little of goods too, when they are good, and when bad, and the prices; also I know all the country-people he dealt with, and have seen most of them, and talked with them.  Mr ­ used to bring them up to dinner sometimes, and he would prompt my being acquainted with them, and would sometimes talk of his business with them at table, on purpose that I might hear it; and I know a little how to sell, too, for I have stood by him sometimes, and seen the customers and him chaffer with one another.’

‘And did your husband like that you did so?’ says the father.

‘Yes,’ says she, ’he loved to see me do it, and often told me he did so; and told me, that if he were dead, he believed I might carry on the trade as well as he.’

‘But he did not believe so, I doubt,’ says the father.

’I do not know as to that, but I sold goods several times to some customers, when he has been out of the way.’

’And was he pleased with it when he came home?  Did you do it to his mind?’

’Nay, I have served a customer sometimes when he has been in the warehouse, and he would go away to his counting-house on purpose, and say, “I’ll leave you and my wife to make the bargain,” and I have pleased the customer and him too.’

‘Well,’ says the father, ‘do you think you could carry on the trade?’

’I believe I could, if I had but an honest fellow of a journeyman for a year or two to write in the books, and go abroad among customers.’

’Well, you have two apprentices; one of them begins to understand things very much, and seems to be a diligent lad.’

’He comes forward, indeed, and will be very useful, if he does not grow too forward, upon a supposition that I shall want him too much:  but it will be necessary to have a man to be above him for a while.’

‘Well,’ says the father, ‘we will see to get you such a one.’

In short, they got her a man to assist to keep the books, go to Exchange, and do the business abroad, and the widow carried on the business with great application and success, till her eldest son grew up, and was first taken into the shop as an apprentice to his mother; the eldest apprentice served her faithfully, and was her journeyman four years after his time was out; then she took him in partner to one-fourth of the trade, and when her son came of age, she gave the apprentice one of her daughters, and enlarged his share to a third, gave her own son another third, and kept a third for herself to support the family.

Thus the whole trade was preserved, and the son and son-in-law grew rich in it, and the widow, who grew as skilful in the business as her husband was before her, advanced the fortunes of all the rest of her children very considerably.

This was an example of the husband’s making the wife (but a little) acquainted with his business; and if this had not been the case, the trade had been lost, and the family left just to divide what the father left; which, as they were seven of them, mother and all, would not have been considerable enough to have raised them above just the degree of having bread to eat, and none to spare.

I hardly need give any examples where tradesmen die, leaving nourishing businesses, and good trades, but leaving their wives ignorant and destitute, neither understanding their business, nor knowing how to learn, having been too proud to stoop to it when they had husbands, and not courage or heart to do it when they have none.  The town is so full of such as these, that this book can scarce fall into the hands of any readers but who will be able to name them among their own acquaintance.

These indolent, lofty ladies have generally the mortification to see their husbands’ trades catched up by apprentices or journeymen in the shop, or by other shopkeepers in the neighbourhood, and of the same business, that might have enriched them, and descended to their children; to see their bread carried away by strangers, and other families flourishing on the spoils of their fortunes.

And this brings me to speak of those ladies, who, though they do, perhaps, for want of better offers, stoop to wed a trade, as we call it, and take up with a mechanic; yet all the while they are the tradesmen’s wives, they endeavour to preserve the distinction of their fancied character; carry themselves as if they thought they were still above their station, and that, though they were unhappily yoked with a tradesman, they would still keep up the dignity of their birth, and be called gentlewomen; and in order to this, would behave like such all the way, whatever rank they were levelled with by the misfortune of their circumstances.

This is a very unhappy, and, indeed, a most unseasonable kind of pride; and if I might presume to add a word here by way of caution to such ladies, it should be to consider, before they marry tradesmen, the great disadvantages they lay themselves under, in submitting to be a tradesman’s wife, but not putting themselves in a condition to take the benefit, as well as the inconvenience of it; for while they are above the circumstances of the tradesman’s wife, they are deprived of all the remedy against the miseries of a tradesman’s widow; and if the man dies, and leaves them little or nothing but the trade to carry on and maintain them, they, being unacquainted with that, are undone.

A lady that stoops to marry a tradesman, should consider the usage of England among the gentry and persons of distinction, where the case is thus:  if a lady, who has a title of honour, suppose it be a countess, or if she were a duchess, it is all one ­if, I say, she stoop to marry a private gentleman, she ceases to rank for the future as a countess, or duchess, but must be content to be, for the time to come, what her husband can entitle her to, and no other; and, excepting the courtesy of the people calling her my Lady Duchess, or the Countess, she is no more than plain Mrs such a one, meaning the name of her husband, and no other.

Thus, if a baronet’s widow marry a tradesman in London, she is no more my lady, but plain Mrs ­, the draper’s wife, &c.  The application of the thing is thus:  if the lady think fit to marry a mechanic, say a glover, or a cutler, or whatever it is, she should remember she is a glover’s wife from that time, and no more; and to keep up her dignity, when fortune has levelled her circumstances, is but a piece of unseasonable pageantry, and will do her no service at all.  The thing she is to inquire is, what she must do if Mr ­, the glover, or cutler, should die? whether she can carry on the trade afterwards, or whether she can live without it?  If she find she cannot live without it, it is her prudence to consider in time, and so to acquaint herself with the trade, that she may be able to do it when she comes to it.

I do confess, there is nothing more ridiculous than the double pride of the ladies of this age, with respect to marrying what they call below their birth.  Some ladies of good families, though but of mean fortune, are so stiff upon the point of honour, that they refuse to marry tradesmen, nay, even merchants, though vastly above them in wealth and fortune, only because they are tradesmen, or, as they are pleased to call them, though improperly, mechanics; and though perhaps they have not above L500 or L1000 to their portion, scorn the man for his rank, who does but turn round, and has his choice of wives, perhaps, with two, or three, or four thousand pounds, before their faces.

The gentlemen of quality, we see, act upon quite another foot, and, I may say, with much more judgment, seeing nothing is more frequent than when any noble family are loaded with titles and honour rather than fortune, they come down into the city, and choose wives among the merchants’ and tradesmen’s daughters to raise their families; and I am mistaken, if at this time we have not several duchesses, countesses, and ladies of rank, who are the daughters of citizens and tradesmen, as the Duchess of Bedford, of A ­e, of Wharton, and others; the Countess of Exeter, of Onslow, and many more, too many to name, where it is thought no dishonour at all for those persons to have matched into rich families, though not ennobled; and we have seen many trading families lay the foundation of nobility by their wealth and opulence ­as Mr Child, for example, afterwards Sir Josiah Child, whose posterity by his two daughters are now Dukes of Beaufort and of Bedford, and his grandson Lord Viscount Castlemain, and yet he himself began a tradesman, and in circumstances very mean.

But this stiffness of the ladies, in refusing to marry tradesmen, though it is weak in itself, is not near so weak as the folly of those who first do stoop to marry thus, and yet think to maintain the dignity of their birth in spite of the meanness of their fortune, and so, carrying themselves above that station in which Providence has placed them, disable themselves from receiving the benefit which their condition offers them, upon any subsequent changes of their life.

This extraordinary stiffness, I have known, has brought many a well-bred gentlewoman to misery and the utmost distress, whereas, had they been able to have stooped to the subsequent circumstances of life, which Providence also thought fit to make their lot, they might have lived comfortably and plentifully all their days.

It is certainly every lady’s prudence to bring her spirit down to her condition; and if she thinks fit, or it is any how her lot to marry a tradesman, which many ladies of good families have found it for their advantage to do ­I say, if it be her lot, she should take care she does not make that a curse to her, which would be her blessing, by despising her own condition, and putting herself into a posture not to enjoy it.

In all this, I am to be understood to mean that unhappy temper, which I find so much among the tradesman’s wives at this time, of being above taking any notice of their husband’s affairs, as if nothing were before them but a constant settled state of prosperity, and it were impossible for them to taste any other fortune; whereas, that very hour they embark with a tradesman, they ought to remember that they are entering a state of life full of accidents and hazards, and that innumerable families, in as good circumstances as theirs, fall every day into disasters and misfortunes, and that a tradesman’s condition is liable to more casualties than any other life whatever.

How many widows of tradesmen, nay, and wives of broken and ruined tradesmen, do we daily see recover themselves and their shattered families, when the man has been either snatched away by death, or demolished by misfortunes, and has been forced to fly to the East or West Indies, and forsake his family in search of bread?

Women, when once they give themselves leave to stoop to their own circumstances, and think fit to rouse up themselves to their own relief, are not so helpless and shiftless creatures as some would make them appear in the world; and we see whole families in trade frequently recovered by their industry:  but, then, they are such women as can stoop to it, and can lay aside the particular pride of their first years; and who, without looking back to what they have been, can be content to look into what Providence has brought them to be, and what they must infallibly be, if they do not vigorously apply to the affairs which offer, and fall into the business which their husbands leave them the introduction to, and do not level their minds to their condition.  It may, indeed, be hard to do this at first, but necessity is a spur to industry, and will make things easy where they seem difficult; and this necessity will humble the minds of those whom nothing else could make to stoop; and where it does not, it is a defect of the understanding, as well as of prudence, and must reflect upon the senses as well as the morals of the person.