Read LETTING THE CROWDS BE GOOD - CHAPTER IX of Crowds A Moving-Picture of Democracy, free online book, by Gerald Stanley Lee, on


A man’s success in business to-day turns upon his power of getting people to believe he has something that they want.

Success in business, in the last analysis, turns upon touching the imagination of crowds.  The reason that preachers in this present generation are less successful in getting people to want goodness than business men are in getting them to want motor-cars, hats, and pianolas, is that business men as a class are more close and desperate students of human nature, and have boned down harder to the art of touching the imaginations of crowds.

When one considers what it is that touches a crowd’s imagination and how it does it, one is bound is admit that there is not a city anywhere which has not hundreds of men in it who could do more to touch the imagination of crowds with goodness than any clergyman could.  A man of very great gifts in the pulpit, a man of genius, even an immortal clergyman, could be outwitted in the art of touching the imagination of crowds with goodness by a comparatively ordinary man in any one of several hundred of our modern business occupations.

There is a certain nation I have in mind as I write, which I do not like to call by name, because it is struggling with its faults as the rest of us are with ours.  But I do not think it would be too much to say that this particular nation I have in mind-and I leave the reader to fill in one for himself, has been determined in its national character for hundreds of years, and is being determined to-day-every day, nearly every minute of every day, except when all the people are asleep-by a certain personal habit that the people have.  I am persuaded that this habit of itself alone would have been enough to determine the fate of the nation as a third-rate power, that it would have made it always do things with small pullings and haulings, in short breaths, and hand-to-mouth insights-a little jerk of idealism one day, and a little jerk of materialism the next-a kind of national palavering, and see-sawing and gesturing, and talking excitedly and with little flourishes.  It is a nation that is always shrugging its shoulders, that almost never seems to be capable of doing a thing with fine directness, with long rhythms of purpose or sustained feeling; and all because every man, woman, and child in the country-scores of generations of them for hundreds of years-has been taught that the great spiritual truth or principle at the bottom of correctly and beautifully buying a turnip is to begin by saying that you do not want a turnip at all, that you never eat turnips, and none of your family, and that they never would.  The other man begins by pointing out that he is never going to sell another turnip as long as he lives, if he can help it.  Gradually the facts are allowed to edge in until at last, and when each man has taken off God knows how much from the value of his soul, and spent two shillings’ worth of time on keeping a halfpenny in his pocket, both parties separate courteously, only to carry out the same spiritual truth on a radish perhaps or a spool of thread, or it may be even a house and lot, or a battleship, or a war, or a rumour of a war, with somebody.

The United States, speaking broadly, is not like this.  But it might have been.

In the United States some forty years ago, being a new country, and being a country where everything a man did was in the nature of things, felt to be a first experiment, everybody felt democratic and independent, and as if he were making the laws of the universe just for himself as he went along.

There was a period of ten years or so in which every spool of thread and bit of dress goods-everything that people wore on their bodies or put in their months, and everything that they read, came up and had to be considered as an original first proposition, as if there never had been a spool of thread before, as if each bit of dress goods was, or was capable of being, a new fresh experiment, with an adventurous price on it; and before we knew it a moral nagging and edging and hitching had set in, and was fast becoming in America an American trait, and fixing itself by daily repetition upon the imagination of the people.

The shopping of a country is, on the whole, from a psychologist’s point of view, the most spiritual energy, the most irrevocable, most implacable meter there can ever be of the religion a country really has.

There was no clergyman in America who could have made the slightest impression on this great national list or trend of always getting things for less than they were worth-this rut of never doing as one would be done by.  What was there that could be done with an obstinate, pervasive, unceasing habit of the people like this?

What was there that could be done to touch the imagination of the crowd?

Six thousand women a day were going in and out of A.T.  Stewart’s great store on Broadway at that time.  A.T.  Stewart announced to New York suddenly in huge letters one day, that from that day forward there should be one price for everything sold in his store, and that that price would be paid for it by everybody.

A.T.  Stewart’s store was the largest, most successful, original, and most closely watched store in America.

The six thousand women became one thousand.

Then two thousand.  Some of them had found that they finished their shopping sooner; the better class of women, those whose time was worth the most, and whose custom was the largest, gradually found they did not want to shop anywhere else.  The two thousand became three thousand, four thousand, six thousand, ten thousand, twelve thousand.

Other department stores wanted the twelve thousand to come to them.  They announced the one price.

Hardware stores did it.  Groceries announced one price.  Then everybody.

Not all the clergymen in America, preaching every Sunday for months, could have done very much in the way of seriously touching the imagination of the crowd on the moral unworthiness, the intellectual degradation, the national danger of picking out the one thing that nearly all the people all do, and had to do, all day, every day, and making that thing mean, incompetent, and small.  No one had thought out what it would lead to, and how monstrous and absurd it was and would always be to have a nation have all its people taking every little thing all day, every day, that they were buying, or that they were selling-taking a spool of thread, for instance-and packing it, or packing their action with it, as full of adulterated motives and of fresh and original ways of not doing as they would be done by as they could think up-a little innocent spool of thread-wreaking all their sins and kinds of sins on it, breaking every one of the ten commandments on it as an offering....

It was A.T.  Stewart, a very ordinary-looking, practical man in a plain, everyday business, who arrested the attention of a nation and changed the habit of thought and trend of mind of a great people, and made them a candid, direct people, a people that went with great sunny prairies and high mountains, a yea and nay people, straightforward, and free from palavering forever.  A.T.  Stewart was accustomed, in his own personal dealings from day to day, to cut people short when they tried to heckle with him.  He liked to take things for granted, drive through to the point, and go on to the next one.  This might have ended, of course, in a kind of cul de sac of being a merely personal trait in a clean-cut, manful, straightforward American gentleman; and if Stewart had been a snob or a Puritan, or had felt superior, or if he had thought other people-the great crowds of them who flocked through his store-could never expect to be as good as he was, nothing would ever have come of it.

It is not likely that he was conscious of the long train of spiritual results he had set in motion; of the way he had taken the habit of mind, the daily, hourly psychology of a great people, and had wrought it through with his own spirit; or of the way he had saved up, and set where it could be used, everyday religion in America, and had freed the business genius of a nation for its most characteristic and most effective self-expression.

He merely was conscious that he could not endure palavering in doing business himself, and that he would not submit to being obliged to endure it, and he believed millions of people in America were as clean-cut and straightforward as he was.

And the millions of people stood by him.

Perhaps A.T.  Stewart touched the imagination of the crowd because he had let the crowd touch his and had seen what crowds, in spite of appearances, were really like.

The enterprise of touching the imagination of the crowd with goodness, which is being conducted every day on an enormous scale around us, has to be carried on, like all huge enterprises, by men who are in a large degree unconscious of it.  There are few department stores in England or America that would expect to be called pious, but if one is deeply and obstinately interested in the Golden Rule, and in getting crowds of people to believe in it at a time, it is impossible not to think what sweeps of opportunity department stores would have with it-with the Golden Rule.  With thousands of people flowing in and out all the week, and with hundreds of clerks to attend to it, eight hours a day, there would hardly seem to be any limit to what such a store could do in making the Golden Rule a direct, a pointed and personal thing, a thing that could not be evaded and could not be forgotten by thousands of people.  The same people all going in and out of department stores, vast congregations of them, eight hours a day, which ministers can only get at in small lots, three hundred or so, twenty minutes a week, and can only get at with words even then-all of them being convinced in terms they understand, and in terms they keenly feel, convinced in hats that they will see over and over again, convinced in velvets that they are going to put on and off for years, in laces, in waistcoats, shoes, in dining-room chairs, convinced in the very underclothes next to their skins, the clothes they sleep in all night, in the very plates on which they eat, while all the time they keep remembering, or being reminded, just how the things were bought, and just what was claimed for them and what was not claimed for them, and thinking how the claims came true or how they did not.

I just saw lying on the table as I came through the hall a moment ago a hat which (out of all the long rows of hats I can see faintly reaching across the years) will always be to me a memorable hat.  I am free to say that, after all the ladies it has been taken off to, my great memory of that hat is now and always will be, as long as I live, the department store at which I bought it, and the things the department store, before I got through with it, managed to make the hat say.

I had been in the store the day before and selected, in broad daylight, with a big mirror staring me out of countenance, a hat which was a quarter of a size too large.  To clinch the matter, I had ordered four ventilating holes to be punched in it, and had it sent to my rooms to be my hat-implacably my hat as I supposed, for better for worse, for richer for poorer-always.  The next morning, after standing before a mirror and trying hopefully for a few minutes to see if I could not look more intelligent in the hat, I returned to the store firmly.  I had made up my mind that I would keep from looking the way that that hat made me look, at any cost.  The store was not responsible according to the letter either for the hat or for the way I looked in it.  I had deliberately chosen it, looked at myself in cold blood in it, had those dreadful, irremovable, eternal air-holes dug into it.  I would buy a new one.  I jumped into a cab, and a moment after I arrived I found myself before the clerk from whom I had bought it, with a new one on my head, and was just reaching into my pocket for my purse when, to my astonishment, I heard, or seemed to hear, the great Department Store Itself, in the gentle accents of a young man with a yellow moustache, saying:  “I’m sorry”-all seven storys of it gathering itself up softly, apparently, and saying “I’m sorry!” The young man explained that he was afraid the hat was wrong the day before, and thought he ought to have told me so, that the store would not want me to pay for the mistake.

I came home a changed man.  I had been hit by the Golden Rule before in department stores, but always rather subtly-never with such a broad, beautiful flourish!  I made some faint acknowledgment, I have forgotten what, and rushed out of the store.

But I have never gone past the store since, on a ’bus, or in a taxi, or sliding through the walkers on the street, but I have looked up to it-to its big, quiet windows, its broad, honest pillars fronting a world.

I take off my hat to it.

But it gave me more than a hat.

I think what a thousand department stores, stationed in a thousand places on this old planet, could do in touching the imagination of the world-every day, day by day, cityfuls at a time.

I had found a department store that had absolutely identified itself with my interests, that could act about a hat the way a wife would-a department store that looked forward to a permanent relation with me-a great live machine that could be glad and sorry-that really took me in, knew how I felt about things, cared how I looked as I walked down the street.  Sometimes I think of the poor, wounded, useless thing I took back to them, those pitiless holes punched in it-just where no one else would ever have had them.  I am human.  I always feel about the store, that great marble and glass Face, when I go by it now as if, in spite of all the difficulties, it wanted me-to be beautiful!  I at least feel and know that the people who were the brain, the daily moving consciousness behind the face-wanted me to be a becoming customer to them.  They did not want to see me coming in, if it could possibly be helped, in that hat any more!

I have told this little history of a gray hat, not because it is in any way extraordinary, but because it is not.  The same thing, or something quite like it, expressing the same spirit, might have happened in any one of the best hundred department stores in the world.

Most people can remember a time, only a very little while ago, when clerks in our huge department stores or selling machines were not expected to be people who would think of things like this to do, or who would know how, or who would think to consider them good business if they did.

The department store that based its success on selecting clerks of a high order of human insight, that paid higher wages to its clerks for their power of being believed in, for their personal qualities and their shrewdness in helping people and a gift for discovering mutual interests with everybody and for founding permanent human relations with the public, had not been thought of a little while ago.

All that had been thought of was the appearance of these things.  It was an employer’s business, speaking generally, to get all he could out of his clerks and have them get as little as possible out of him.  It was their business in their turn to get as much money out of the public as they could get, and to give the public as little in return as they dared.

The type of employer who liked to do business in this way, and who believed in it, crowed over the world nearly everywhere as the Practical Man.  And for the time being certainly it has to be admitted that he seemed the most successful.  Naturally there came to be a general impression among the people that only certain lower orders of life and character could be employed, or could stand being employed, in the great department stores.

I used often to go into -’s.  Everybody remembers it.  I went in, as a rule, in a helpless, waiting, married way, and as a mere attache of the truly wise and good.  All I ever did or was expected to do was to stand by and look wise and discriminating a minute about dress goods, when spoken to.  I used to put in my time looking behind the counters-all those busy, pale, yellow-lighted people in little holes or stalls trying to be human and natural in that long, low, indoor street of theirs, crowds of women staring by them and picking at things.  Always that moving sidewalk of questions-that dull, eager stream of consciousness sweeping by.  No sunlight-just the crowds of covetousness and shrewdness.  I used to wonder about the clerks, many of them, and what they would be like at home or under an apple tree or each with a bit of blue sky to go with them.  They used to seem in those days, as I looked, mostly poor, underground creatures living in a sort of Subway of Things in a hateful, hard, little world of clothes, each with his little study or trick or knack of appearances, standing there and selling people their good looks day after day at so much a yard.

To-day, in a hundred cities one can go into department shops where one would get, standing and looking on idly, totally different impressions.  There are hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have made being a clerk a new thing in the world.  The public has already had its imagination touched by them, and is beginning to deal with clerks, as a class, on a different level.

This has been brought to pass because the employer has been thought of, or has thought of himself, who engages and pays for in clerks the highest qualities in human nature that he can get.  He picks out and puts in power, and persuades to be clerks, people who would have felt superior to it in days gone by-men and women who habitually depend for their efficiency in showing and selling goods upon their more generous emotions and insights, their imaginations about other people.  They gather in their new customers, and keep up their long lists of old and regular customers, through shrewd visions of service to people, and through a technical gift for making the Golden Rule work.

When one looks at it practically, and from the point of view of all the consequences, a bargain is the most spiritual, conclusive, most self-revealing experience that people can have together.  Every bargain is a cross-section in three tenses of a man.  A bargain tells everything about people-who they are, and what they are like.  It also tells what they are going to be like unless they take pains; and it tells what they are not going to be like too sometimes, and why.

The man who comes nearest in modern life to being a Pope, is the man who determines in what spirit and by what method the people under him shall conduct his bargains and deal with his customers. -, at the head of his department store, has a parish behind his counters of twenty-five hundred men and women.  He is in the business of determining their religion, the way they make their religion work, eight hours a day, six days a week.  He seems to me to be engaged in the most ceaseless, most penetrating, most powerful, and most spiritual activity of the world.  He is really getting at the imaginations of people with his idea of goodness.  If he does not work his way through to a man’s imagination one minute or one day, he does the next.  If he cannot open up a man’s imagination with one line of goods, he does it with another.  If he cannot make him see things, and do as he would be done by, with one kind of customer, another is moved in front of him presently, and another, and another-the man’s inner substance is being attacked and changed nearly every minute every day.  There is nothing he can do, or keep from doing, in which his employer’s idea of goodness does not surround, besiege, or pursue him.  Every officer of the staff, every customer who slips softly up to the counter in front of him makes him think of the Golden Rule in a new way or in some shading of a new way-confronts him with the will, with the expectation, with the religion of his employer.

In -’s store (where I looked in a moment yesterday) one thousand of the two thousand five hundred clerks are men.  If I were a minister wondering nearly every day how to work in for my religion a fair chance at men, I should often look wistfully from over the edge of my pulpit, I imagine, to the head of -’s department store, sitting at that quiet, calm, empty looking desk of his in his little office at the top of his big building in - Street, with nothing but those little six or seven buttons he softly puts his thumbs on connecting him with a thousand men.

And he does not even need the buttons.  Every man knows and feels, personally and intimately, what the man at the desk is asking him to do with a particular customer who stands before him at the moment.  As soon as the customer is there, the man at the desk practically is there too.  His religion works by wireless, and goes automatically, and as from a huge stored-up reservoir, to all that happens in the place.  He makes regularly with his idea of goodness anywhere from twenty to sixty pastoral calls (with every sale they make) on a thousand men a day.  He is not dependent, as the ordinary minister often is, on their dying, or on their babies, or on their wives, for a chance to get at men with his religion.

If I wanted to take a spiritual census of modern civilization and get at the actual scientific facts, what we would have to call, probably the foot-tons of religion in the world to-day, I would not look for them in the year-books of the churches, I would get them by going about in the great department stores, by moving among the men and women in them day after day, and standing by and looking on invisibly.  Like a shadow or a light I would watch them registering their goodness daily, hourly, on their counters, over their counters, measuring out their souls before God in dress goods, shoes, boas, hats, silk, and bread and butter!

This may not be true of the Orient, but it is true, and getting to be more true every day, of Europe and America.

It is especially true of America.  In the things which we borrow in America, we are far behind the rest of the world.  It is to the things that we create, that we must look alone, for our larger destiny, and our world-service.

Naturally, in so far as civilization is a race of borrowing, nations like England and France and Germany a few hundred miles apart from one another, set the pace for a nation that is three thousand miles away from where it can borrow, like the United States.  It is a far cry from the land of the Greeks with their still sunny temples and dreams, and from England with its quiet-singing churches, to New York with its practical sky-scraping hewing prayer!

New York-scooping its will out of the very heavens!

New York-the World’s last, most stern, perhaps most manful prayer of all-half-asking and half-grasping out of the hand of God!

Here is America’s religion!  Half afraid at first, half glad, slowly, solemnly triumphant, as on the edge of an abyss, I have seen America’s religion!  I have seen my brother Americans hewing it out-day by day, night by night, have I seen them-in these huge steel sub-cellars of the sky!

I have accepted the challenge.

If it is not a religion, then it shall be to us a religion to make it a religion.

The Metropolitan Tower with its big clock dial, with its three stories of telling what time it is, and its great bell singing hymns above the dizzy flocks of the skyscrapers, is the soul of New York, to me.

If one could see a soul-if one could see the soul of New York, it would look more like the Metropolitan Tower than anything else.

It seems to be trying to speak away up there in the whiteness and the light, the very soul of the young resistless iron-hearted city.

I write as an American.  To me there is something about it as I come up the harbour that fills my heart with a big ringing, as if all the world were ringing, ringing once more-ringing all over again-up in this white tower of ours in its new bit of blue sky!  I glory in England with it, in Greece, in Bethlehem.  It is as an outpost on Space and Time, for all of us gathering up all history in it softly-once more and pointing it to God!

It is the last, the youngest-minded, the most buoyant tower-the mighty Child among the steeples of the world.  The lonely towers of Cologne stretching with that grave and empty nave against the sky, out of that old and faded region of religion, far away, tremulously send greetings to it-to this white tower in the west-to where it goes up with its crowds of people in it, with business and with daily living and hoping and dying in it, and strikes heaven!

It may be perhaps only the American blood in me.  Perhaps it is raw and new to be so happy.  I do not know.  I only know that to me the Metropolitan Tower is saying something that has been never quite said before-something that has been given in some special sense to us as a trust from the world.  It is to me the steeple of democracy-of our democracy, England’s democracy-the world’s democracy.  The hollow domes of Sts.  Peter and Paul, and all the rest with their vague, airy other-worldliness, all soaring and tugging like so many balloons of religion and goodness, trying to get away from this world-are not to me so splendid, so magnificently wilful as the Metropolitan Tower-as the souls of these modern, heaven-striking men, taking the world itself, at last, its streets of stone, of steel, its very tunnels and lifting them up as blind offerings, as unbounded instincts, as prayers, as songs to heaven!

I worship my country, my people, my city when I hear the big bell in it and when I look up to where the tower is in that still place like a sea-look up to where that little white country belfry sits in the light, in the dark above the vast and roaring city!

To me, the Metropolitan Tower, sweeping up its prayer out of the streets the way it does, and doing it, too, right beside that little safe, tucked-in, trim, Sunday religion of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, lifts itself up as one of the mighty signs and portents of our time.  Have I not heard the bell tolling to the people in the midst of business and singing great hymns?  A great city lifts itself and prays in it-prays while it sings and clangs so absent-looking below.

I like to go out before going to sleep and take a look at it-one more look before I sleep, upon the tower, strong, unyielding, alive, sinewy, imperturbable, lifting up within itself the steel and soul of the world.  I am content to go to sleep.

It is a kind of steeple of the business of this world.  I would rather have said that business needed a steeple before until I saw the Metropolitan Tower and heard it singing above the streets.  But I had always wanted (without knowing it), in a modern office building, a great solemn bell to remind us what the common day was.  I like to hear it striking a common hour and what can be done in it.  I stop in the street to listen-to listen while that great hive of people tolls-tolls not the reveries of monks above the roofs of the skyscrapers, but the religion of business-of the real and daily things, the seriousness of the mighty street and the faces of the men and the women.