“The Clerking Sisterhood”: Rationalization and the Work Culture of Saleswomen in American Department Stores, 1890–1960*
by Susan Porter Benson
The work of recent historians has made it clear that work culture is an important key to understanding the lives of past generations of workers. By work culture I mean the ideology and practice with which workers stake out a relatively autonomous sphere of action on the job, a realm of informal, customary values and rules which mediates the formal authority structure of the workplace and distances workers from its impact. David Montgomery and Harry Braverman, in particular, have shown us the power and importance of the work culture that united conception and execution in the hands of skilled male workers in the nineteenth century. The tales they tell, however, are those of decline, despite Montgomery’s vivid evocation of workers’ struggles to preserve their traditional control over production. In the end, the effect of scientific management on these workers was decisive: skill was undermined, the work degraded, the control of the informal work group over the work process and the social relations of the workplace inexorably eroded.1
The history of women’s paid labor and of the work culture growing out of it is somewhat different. My research on the work of saleswomen in American department stores from 1890 to 1960 suggests that, at least in this major women’s occupation, the effect of changes in management practice over the twentieth century was, ironically, to increase the level of workers’ skill and thus inadvertently to permit the development of a powerful and enduring work culture. There are critical differences between women’s work and the men’s craft work which are the central concern of Montgomery and Braverman. First, for most women in the paid labor force at the turn of the century, work was so poorly paid and so brutally demanding of mind and body that it would be difficult to conceive of its further degradation. This is as true of women’s white-collar work as of women’s factory work; women were never career clerks like Bartleby the Scrivener or fledgling entrepreneurs like R. H. Macy, but entered office and sales work only as they were becoming proletarianized. In the case of women’s occupations, therefore, the story is not one of unrelieved degradation of the work process. Second, the study of women’s work shows that craft skill was not the only basis of an effective work culture. The informal work group which thrived among saleswomen was grounded in the social relations of the selling floor. It was, in fact, exactly because new management practices in the department store industry altered these social relations only minimally that they failed to undermine the position of the informal work group and the strong influence of work culture over worker behavior.
As defined by the Census Bureau, a department store must sell a wide assortment of home furnishings as well as clothing and related items, but for my purposes this definition is too narrow. I include in the category “department store” those stores which saw themselves as part of the department store industry and which behaved like true department stores in their internal organization and policies. My arguments would therefore apply to specialty stores which carried only apparel, such as Filene’s in Boston, as well as to chains such as Sears, Roebuck, which are outgrowths of mail order houses. Even by the Census Bureau’s limited definition, however, the department store has had since 1929, when figures were first compiled, a larger share of total retail sales than any other detailed classification except grocery stores, auto dealers, and gasoline dealers.
Department stores have historically been major employers of women; since 1900, the job of saleswoman has ranked among the top ten women’s occupations. The proportion of women in the department store workforce seems to have stayed fairly stable at around two-thirds since the early twentieth century. Most of these women have been in selling positions, with clerks making up from just under half to 90 percent of the total store force, depending on the level of extra services provided by the store. The experience of the non-selling workers had far more in common with production workers in manufacturing industries than with clerks, and so I have omitted it here. Saleswomen have not only been important numerically, but have played a central economic role as well. As Braverman notes, a key aspect of management is marketing, or the production of customers; in this process, salespeople are basic production workers, and the only ones who have close and frequent contact with the customers.2
Work culture is constrained but not determined by management practices; the two are constantly in struggle and cannot be understood separately. I focus below on some large continuities in the department store industry’s development, minimizing short-term changes and fluctuations in order to suggest an overall conceptual framework. Probably the single most important factor in understanding large-scale retailing both as an industry and as an employer is the split consciousness of retail managers. On the one hand, they have been businessmen pure and simple, seeking to maximize profits by reducing costs. On the other, they have thought of themselves as purveyors of a service, managers of social institutions which sold not just merchandise but also style, respectability, and urbanity—things not strictly accountable in dollar terms, but which were of course expected to pay off in a general way.
In the early twentieth century, department store managers improved their physical plant, ameliorated basic working conditions, and centralized control in much the same way as the factory managers described by Daniel Nelson in his admirable book Managers and Workers.3 What he calls “the new factory system” appeared in the factory between 1880 and 1920, and about a decade later in the large store. The department store management strategies which emerged during these years would be elaborated and spread more widely in the next thirty years, but not fundamentally changed.
First of all, department stores grew impressively. By 1898, for example, Macy’s had 3,000 employees, making it comparable in size to such manufacturing giants as the Merrimack cotton mills in Lowell, the Waltham Watch Company, and Carnegie Steel’s J. Edgar Thompson Plant, as well as larger than the towns in which 60 percent of Americans then lived. Although most stores were far smaller, the change in scale from the early nineteenth century’s typical small, highly specialized shop to the department store was enormous. Retailers preceded factory managers in coping with the problems of scale; as early as 1905, for instance, department stores had widely adopted a functional structure which major manufacturing firms were only beginning to adopt by the 1920s.4 This four-part functional organization consisting of merchandise, service or store management, publicity, and control or accounting divisions was the rule in department stores until after World War II.
Selling work in the turn-of-the-century department store had much in common with both sweated and machine-tending modes of manufacturing. Elements of the sweatshop in the department store included squalid surroundings, minimal sanitary facilities, unlimited hours, and mandatory unpaid overtime. From another point of view, clerks in most large stores were taught to regard their counters as machines to be tended but not controlled; they were expected to wait passively for customers, politely give them what they asked for, and send the merchandise to the wrapper and the payment to the cashier. Their work was defined negatively: they should not violate store rules or commit blunders of etiquette.
Department store sales work changed not just as part of a general change in business climate and in accepted managerial wisdom, but also as a response to two problems specific to department stores. First was the bad publicity given to department store working conditions by the Consumers’ Leagues after 1890. Department stores were peculiarly vulnerable to public observation of their labor policies. The contrast between the work lives of their employees and the atmosphere of gentility and even luxury which they tried to convey to their customers was telling indeed. Worst of all, the reformers came from the same upper-income strata as the stores’ most valued customers. As one magazine writer put it, “The public resents the worn out, famished type of clerk and its feelings are hurt by seeing women faint behind the counter.”5
The second factor was the lagging productivity of the distribution sector of the economy compared to the production sector. While the output per person-hour in production increased two and a half times between 1899 and 1929, output per person-hour in distribution increased only one and a half times in the same period. Within a given store, the figures were sometimes even more discouraging to managers: for example, at Macy’s the average yearly sales per employee doubled between 1870 and 1938, while the average weekly salary quadrupled.
Department store managers met the challenge of public relations and productivity with the full range of measures used by their counterparts in manufacturing, but with somewhat different results. Nelson has classified the elements of the new factory system into “three interrelated dynamics—the technological, the managerial, and the personnel;” of these, the technological was by far the least important in the department store. Basic urban technology such as electric lighting, elevators, and improved ventilation helped to make the store a cleaner and more pleasant workplace, but did not affect the sales transaction. Well-designed display cases and clothes racks, when substituted for the old practice of storing goods in huge piles, made it easier for the salesperson to show goods to the customer, but left the social interaction of the sale unchanged.
The managerial dynamic in the department store took much the same form as it did in the factory. After the depression of the early 1920s, the merchandise division, traditionally the foremost among the store’s four divisions, found its territory invaded and colonized by the other divisions, in large policy matters as well as in day-to-day operations. The controller, armed with sophisticated new accounting procedures, exerted a degree of financial surveillance over the merchandise division which had earlier been impossible. Second, with the development of advertising and the consumption economy of the twenties, retailers redefined their economic role: it was now “to act as purchasing agent for the consumer, rather than as sales agent for the manufacturer.”6 In this new atmosphere, the merchandising division’s traditional close relationships with manufacturers and wholesalers took a back seat to the judgment of the publicity division and its prophet, the fashion stylist. Third, this new active type of selling demanded salespeople who were more carefully selected and trained, functions which were assigned to newly created personnel departments.
From the perspective of the individual selling departments, these changes meant the diminution of the power of the buyers and floorwalkers, whose jobs changed in much the same way as that of the factory foreman. Buyers had traditionally been prima donnas, running their departments with intuition and high-handedness; the new buyer was hedged in on all sides by financial, style, and personnel requirements imposed by the other three divisions. Similarly the new floorwalker was no longer the suave host to the customer and the tyrannical disciplinarian of the sales force; at best, his job was downgraded, and at worst his tasks were split up among lesser employees. The net effect of these changes in the authority structure of the selling floor was to limit broad discretion on the part of the salesperson’s immediate supervisors; authority moved up the hierarchy.
Finally, the personnel dynamic led to the gradual centralization and standardization of hiring, training, and employee service functions under the aegis of a single department. Beginning around 1890, department stores undertook extensive employee welfare activities, frequently outdoing factories in providing lavish dining, recreation, and health facilities, elaborate social programs, and even vacation retreats. By the twenties, the welfare departments were being transformed into personnel departments which took over the old programs and combined them with the newest techniques of employee recruiting, testing, and training.
These innovations, whether technological, managerial, or personnel, failed to change fundamentally the basic tasks of the salesperson, as they did the work of most factory employees. In 1960 as in 1910, sales work was made up of the same combination of waiting on customers and attending to stock. In fact, while most manufacturers wanted to dilute skills and to produce a new category of ” semi-skilled” workers, retailers strove to upgrade an unskilled workforce into a skilled one. They sought to inculcate not the skill of the nineteenth-century machinist, or of the hand craftsman, but rather a new twentieth-century form of skill: skill in complex social interaction, skill in manipulating people rather than objects, a skill which would be taught by management rather than one that grew out of the workers’ own grasp of the work process. An insistence on the centrality of selling skill is the dominant theme of retail management literature from the time of World War I to 1960.
The emphasis on selling skill grew partly out of retailers’ ideal of service to the public, and partly out of the resistance of retailing to standardization and control in two major ways. First was the fluctuation of volume in the store’s work pace; the flow of customers varied from department to department, season to season, day to day, hour to hour. Equally unpredictable were customers as individuals: their wants, moods, and personalities varied in infinite combinations and made each transaction a unique situation. Management’s best efforts to standardize conditions on the selling floor availed little, and it remained a highly unpredictable and largely uncontrollable environment in which the salesperson was expected to make the most of every opportunity to sell.
Department store managers resisted the alternatives to skilled selling which other branches of retailing devised; they were never wholly satisfied with allowing customers to be presold by advertising or to sell themselves in self-service departments. These methods were part of the department store arsenal of selling tactics, but only preliminary steps in a strategy of skilled selling. On the one hand, personal selling (as it came to be called) differentiated department stores from their crasser competitors, giving customers a reason to shop at Gimbel’s rather than at J. C. Penney’s; on the other hand, the department store’s high proportion of fixed costs for such expensive services as parcel delivery meant that the payoff for sales efforts to boost the size of each transaction was high. In one department, for example, an 80 percent increase in the size of a sales transaction meant a 600 percent increase in the net profit.
Everything, then, converged on selling skill: the nature of the work, the managers’ image of themselves, and the financial structure of the business. It was, however, difficult to define and transmit this skill. Was selling an art? A science? Was it inborn? Learned? Managers’ definitions of it varied as much as conditions on the selling floor, in large part because of the contradictions surrounding the work of selling in store life.
The first contradiction in fostering selling skill was the contrast of bosses’ high verbal valuation of sales work with their own avoidance of the selling floor and the low social status of the work. The retail literature constantly urged executives to spend more time on the selling floor, teaching by example and proving that management regarded selling with respect, yet department store managers were notorious for fleeing to their offices. Their behavior reflected not only their own sense of store hierarchy but also the generally bad image of sales work. Most saleswomen could console themselves only with their marginal prestige as white-collar workers and some minimal reflected prestige from their association with wealthy customers and luxurious goods, for the physical strains, psychological demands, hours, and pay of their work did not compare very favorably with factory and clerical work. Moreover, sales work had a number of similarities with domestic service, an increasingly unpopular occupation. John Wanamaker’s classic statement that the customer was always right subjected generations of saleswomen to the idea of unquestioning obedience to customers’ whims. Dress codes set uniform-like limits on what saleswomen might wear. And, finally, saleswomen found distasteful the personal services, such as helping customers try on clothes, which they had to perform.
The second major contradiction in skilled selling was between store managers’ belief that they should and must teach it to their workers, and their actual unwillingness or inability to do so. When training became a formal store activity with the establishment of Filene’s training department in 1902, it was negative, remedial, and mechanical, focusing on eliminating errors in paperwork and procedure. Conceptions of training subsequently broadened to include sales techniques, merchandise and fashion information, and general education, but the 1942 lament of a saleswoman was sadly true: “The average salesperson does not respect her job because management too often doesn’t seem to care as long as her book [sales tally] is passable and she doesn’t make too many errors in her transactions.”7
The problem was that selling skill was learned not in the store classroom but rather in experience with merchandise and customers on the selling floor. Managers recognized this, and a Macy’s program to collect and codify salespeople’s “selling secrets” into a booklet entitled “20,000 Years in Macy’s” was typical of their efforts to take over shop-floor knowledge. It should be emphasized that training difficulties were not due to resistance by salespeople; one survey showed them eager for substantive training (in merchandise training and techniques of selling and display) but uninterested in classes on trivia such as personal grooming. Sometimes, salespeople did balk at training, but small wonder when they were required to chant in unison “Personal service means showing interest” when an instructor held up a cutout of “a cheerful smile.”8
The final contradiction in the upgrading of selling grew out of the fact that any but the most perfunctory sales transaction depended for its success on rapport between people of different classes. In most large department stores, the counter was a social as well as a physical barrier. On the selling side were women of the working classes; middle-class women with a choice shunned the low-status and difficult conditions of store work. On the buying side were women of the middle and upper classes; as late as 1950, the department store clientele included twice as high a proportion of upper income people as the population as a whole. One observer sympathetically reported on the resulting tensions:
“It seems,” a salesgirl said to me, “as though all the women who have servants they dare not speak to, or a husband who abuses them, take special delight in asserting their independence when they come to buy from us girls, who must say ‘Yes ma’am’ and Thank you’ in the sweetest possible way.”
Often, within the hearing of sales people, a woman will make to the friend accompanying her some such remark as this: “I wouldn’t buy that if I were you; only the shop girls are wearing them.”
It is common for customers to show, at least by their manner, that they consider the sales people beneath them.9
Managers persistently tried to ease this conflict by giving their employees a veneer of bourgeois culture; most of their efforts were absurd and superficial, such as requiring saleswomen to memorize a few French words and the names of chic Parisian streets, but a few spoke hopefully of remaking saleswomen’s “inner consciousness” with “a cultural background which would enable [them] to talk easily, informedly, about the qualities of [their] merchandise . . . in such a way as to express its esthetic values as well as its use values.”10 Such programs generally backfired; saleswomen bungled (often, I suspect, intentionally) the minutiae, snubbed and therefore offended customers if they took the training too seriously, and for the most part simply continued to judge their customers’ needs and means by their own class values.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A WORK CULTURE
While managers, caught in these contradictions, were unable to control skilled selling behavior, the saleswomen themselves were developing a strong work culture and durable informal work groups. Conditions on the selling floor encouraged worker autonomy. Saleswomen spent only a small part of their time—some estimated as little as one-third—with customers and so had many opportunities to socialize with one another, enhanced by their relative freedom to move about their departments. Moreover, it was difficult to supervise a salesclerk closely. A supervisor who meddled during a sale risked annoying both clerk and customer and thus sabotaging the sale. The saleswomen’s duties while not actually serving customers were often indistinguishable from the activities of the informal work group; a gathering of clerks might be discussing new stock, but then again they might simply be gossiping, and the lines between the two were never clear. Finally, unlike production workers who could only play production off against the bosses, saleswomen could play a complex three-way game, manipulating managers, customers, and merchandise to their own advantage.
Despite wide variations in time, place, and type of store, the basic features of the work culture of selling are clear. Sources discussing highly diverse situations from very different points of view reveal quite similar practices and standards. I do not mean to suggest that all saleswomen everywhere shared an identical work culture, but rather that the situation on the selling floor evoked analogous reactions among workers in different departments. What I am outlining is the range of variation of the work group’s rules and tactics; every department devised its own individual subculture within the parameters of the work culture of selling in general.
The foundation of the informal work group was some degree of departmental solidarity. Departments were not only the administrative and accounting units of the store, but were social units as well. The selling departments of a large store were far more independent from one another than the production departments of factories, and were unlinked by any sequential processes. Moreover, personnel managers staffed departments selectively: young, attractive women were hired for the first-floor departments, motherly types for the children’s clothing departments, glamorous women to sell high-fashion clothing, heavy women to fit their half-size sisters. There was an unofficial hierarchy of departments in the store, and solidarity frequently developed around a given department’s place in it. The custodians of the fine linens regarded their stock, and therefore themselves, as a cut above the rest of the store in elegance; the women in one chaotic bargain basement refused transfers to upstairs departments because they preferred the liveliness and bustle of the basement. The physical and functional differences between departments, therefore, became social barriers as well, contributing to the power of the informal work group by emphasizing the uniqueness of the department.
Social interaction on the selling floor was friendly and supportive. The tendency of saleswomen to “huddle” or “congregate” on the floor was the aspect of their behavior most frequently remarked by managers and customers alike. Bosses constantly complained of high spirits and boisterous sociability in the departments, and did their unsuccessful best to stamp out loud laughing, talking, singing, and horseplay. Saleswomen in the more unified departments shared stockwork and paperwork even when it was assigned to individuals, and reinforced day-to-day contact with parties, both on the job and after hours. They integrated the rituals of women’s culture into their work culture; showers and parties to commemorate engagements, marriages, and births (women in Boston stores who left to be married were sent off with a shower of confetti) are reported in employee newspapers by the score. Not all departments were this close, this intensely friendly, but it is significant that even when managers note that a department is quarrelsome and divided, they almost always marvel that it still unites in self-defense against outside threats.
The practices of the informal work group continually reinforced departmental solidarity. Work culture provided, first of all, an initiation process whereby new members were received, taught the ropes, and kept in line until they showed themselves willing to go along with the group. The initiation was not always a friendly one; new, part-time, and temporary clerks complained long and loud about mistreatment by regulars. Second, work culture supplied a common language with which saleswomen could discuss their world. Clerks had terms for types of selling behavior as well as for varieties of customers. A “crepe-hanger,” for instance, was a salesperson who ruined a sale by talking a customer out of something she had resolved to buy; a saleswoman who called “Oh, Henrietta,” while waiting on a customer was alerting her co-workers to the fact that the customer was a “hen,” or a difficult type. Third, work culture imposed sanctions on those who violated the group rules: penalties included messing up a transgressor’s assigned section of stock, bumping into an offender or banging her shins with drawers, public ridicule and humiliation, and complete ostracism, which sometimes drove people to leave the department. If the informal work group demanded loyalty, it repaid it with protection: it insulated the individual worker from the demands of bosses and customers alike.
Saleswomen had an ingenious variety of tactics for manipulating managers, customers, and merchandise to their own advantage. The first element, management, was well aware that saleswomen’s highjinks were not just a way to blow off steam, but were evidence of an underlying unity. Bosses understood that the selling floor was the turf of the clerks, that it had its own elaborate rules and social system which were distinct from and often in conflict with the store’s formal structure. They tried sporadically to suppress the more disruptive outbursts of the informal work group but in general they treated it with a wary respect and at least partially yielded control of the floor to it. They relied on the “clerking sisterhood” to maintain good order and high morale; they cautioned new workers to tread lightly until they learned the customs of the department; they even tried to co-opt and institutionalize the informal initiation process by designating one saleswoman an official sponsor of new clerks. Saleswomen were astute observers of their superiors, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. A boss who gave offense received the cold shoulder or petty harassment in return; the ultimate penalty was to embarass a buyer or floor manager in front of his or her superiors. A boss deemed worthy of respect could count on the saleswomen’s backing when it counted, particularly against upper management.
Management directives frequently emerged from the crucible of work culture in quite altered form. Saleswomen reorganized cumbersome paperwork routines to fit their own convenience, and sometimes completely thwarted their purposes: in one department, they effectively short-circuited a management scheme for subtracting returned purchases from individuals’ sales totals. Clerks refused to take on extra duties which would eat into their “spare time,” and when they felt threatened by new practices, such as self-service, they fought back by doing sloppy or eccentric stock work on the new displays. Concerted action could bend rules quite sharply: the eight women in one especially well-unified women’s shoe department unilaterally lengthened the lunch hour from 45 minutes to a full hour and compounded the insult by wearing huge hoop earrings forbidden by the store’s dress code. A helpless management acquiesced. The informal work group also covered up for a certain amount of theft of merchandise and materials; managers warned one another worriedly that a department infected with the virus of thievery was a serious threat indeed.
The most important and effective way in which work culture worked against the interests of the bosses, however, was in restricting output and limiting intradepartmental competition. Each department had a concept of the total sales that constituted a good day’s work. Saleswomen used various tactics to keep their “books” (sales tallies) within acceptable limits: running unusually low books would imperil a worker’s status with management just as extraordinarily high books would put her in the bad graces of her peers. Individual clerks would avoid customers late in the day when their books were running high, or call other clerks to help them. Saleswomen managed to approximate the informal quota with impressive regularity, ironing out the fluctuations in customers’ buying habits in ways the managers had never dreamed of. They adjusted the number of transactions they completed to compensate for the size of the purchases; if they made a few large sales early in the day, they might then retire to do stockwork. During the slow summer season or during inclement weather, they were more aggressive with the smaller volume of customers; at peak seasons, they ignored customers who might put them over their quota.
Department store managers attacked the workers’ stint with a bewildering variety of commission, commission-plus-salary, and quota-bonus payment schemes beginning in the years just before World War I, but monetary incentives to break worker solidarity were no more effective with saleswomen than with skilled craftsmen. The definitive industry study of these plans concluded, not surprisingly, that no pay scheme could increase sales output, but that sales levels were linked to the overall atmosphere of the workplace. Bosses reported similar failure with competitive devices such as sales contests, even when they offered cash prizes, although they occasionally reported successes with group, as opposed to individual, incentive schemes. As universally as managers complained about restriction of output, nowhere did a boss testify to the successful elimination of the practice, even in the most insecure days of the depression.
The strongest epithet in the saleswoman’s vocabulary—“grabber”—applied to those unwary clerks who ran excessively high books. The grabber seized on customers out of turn, sometimes two and three at a time; she shirked stockwork and paperwork; she gave the department a bad name for offensive overselling. The fear of grabbing accounts in large part for the rigors of the departmental initiation process. Ignorant of the amount of the informal quota, and perhaps even of its very existence, outsiders—new, part-time, or temporary clerks—required stern socialization. In some departments, newcomers were effectively prohibited from making any sales at all for the first few days; part-time and temporary clerks were exiled to the dullest corners of the department. The retaliatory power of the informal work group was amply demonstrated in one children’s wear department when the management made the mistake of firing a popular though unproductive saleswoman and immediately replacing her with a new employee. The new clerk, experienced in the ways of saleswomen’s work culture and sensible of the hazards of her position, tried eagerly to learn how the department defined a “good book,” but her co-workers kept the information from her and thus excluded her from the work group.
Customers were the most strainful and least constant factors in saleswomen’s work lives, barraging them with a kaleidoscopic succession of demands, moods, and quirks and constantly coming in for special treatment by the informal work group. While management ingenuously maintained the fiction that all customers could expect equal service, saleswomen picked and chose among their customers and served them with widely varying degrees of interest and efficiency. As one clerk, clearly near the end of her rope, put it, “All customers are crackpots!”; her co-worker, more relaxed but still wary, grimly affirmed, “I like a counter between me and the customer.”11 The customer was not an unambiguous enemy, for under the right conditions she might become the saleswomen’s ally against management, but she was always a potential threat.
A theme that appears in management literature almost as frequently as “huddling” is that saleswomen, even those on commission, used a variety of tactics to avoid waiting on customers. Methods ranged from the subtle (pretending not to notice customers while engaged in stockwork or in conversations with fellow workers) to the blatant (disappearing on sudden errands) to the outright rude (explicit refusals to show merchandise). The work culture allocated customers among saleswomen in ways that included rough rotation as well as reserving certain types of customers for certain clerks; to violate this order was to risk being labeled a grabber. But there was a larger message to management and to the public in this behavior: the saleswoman was taking her clients on her terms and not theirs; while they might have a superior class position, she had the upper hand through her control of the merchandise. Hence, two important subthemes in management’s laments about clerks’ indifference to customers: first, they displayed goods reluctantly and usually only on direct request; second, they often addressed customers with unbecoming familiarity—the term that made bosses especially apoplectic was “dearie.”
A customer whose only sin was to appear in the department when saleswomen were not prepared to greet her met with indifference, but far worse awaited the customer who committed a more active offense against the “clerking sisterhood.” If a customer appeared to a saleswoman’s practiced eye to be a looker, she might be harassed or treated rudely; if she asked for something that was out of stock, she might be told scathingly that no one wanted those anymore; if she was too slow in making up her mind, she might find a number of clerks ganging up on her to force a choice. Saleswomen discussed the worst customers loudly within earshot of other customers, an unsubtle warning to those who might dare to cross them.
Customers could be allies, however. A saleswoman who took a liking to a customer and sincerely tried to please her might be genuinely upset if she failed. In order to smooth rough transactions, saleswomen had a number of tactics with which they could secure the good will of the customer, often causing store management extra trouble and expense in the process. Clerks could suggest the delivery of small parcels to close a sale quickly, or suggest that a tediously undecided customer send home a selection of merchandise to reflect on at leisure. Dry goods clerks generously overmeasured yardage while their pleased customers looked on. To quiet customers’ doubts, saleswomen would make wild guarantees or outrightly misrepresent merchandise; they also encouraged customers to place costly special orders instead of trying to talk them into something in stock.
Saleswomen often built up clienteles of frequent customers, keeping files of their addresses and purchases with their employer’s encouragement. On the one hand, close clerk-customer relations could encourage extra purchases, but on the other saleswomen gave their clientele special treatment that was contrary to managers’ interests—for example, they withheld items from display until markdowns could be taken on them, and then alerted favorite customers. Moreover, it was not uncommon for saleswomen to concentrate so exclusively on “their” customers that they completely ignored new or unknown customers.
Just as saleswomen would not wait on all customers equally, so they would not sell all goods with equal energy. Saleswomen developed legendary instincts for good sellers; as one retailer put it, they could “spot a lemon quicker than a Mediterranean fruit fly.”12 It was an unwritten rule that buyers should heed their judgments, a rule which saleswomen enforced ruthlessly. In one toy department saleswomen refused to sell stuffed toys that they had pronounced too low in quality, labeling them “drug-store Easter bunnies.”13 Frequently, saleswomen took a real proprietary interest in their merchandise, occupying themselves with stockwork and displays to the practical exclusion of selling. They eagerly showed fresh and interesting goods, consigning older or worn items to bottom drawers where they awaited profit-eating markdowns. Managers were sometimes able to introduce new items only with great difficulty. Domestics saleswomen were so impressed with the virtues of all-wool and Irish linen goods that they strongly resisted the introduction of synthetic fibers after World War II; buyers reported that clerks undid the advertising efforts of stores and manufacturers with their “silent scorn” for the new materials.14
Investigators who were dismayed at this lack of interest with which saleswomen presented goods and the noncommital or even inaccurate answers which they gave to questions were even more appalled when they discovered that these same saleswomen were extremely knowledgeable about their wares. One notably silent saleswoman, for example, was so intrigued to know more about her stock that she eavesdropped on a manufacturer’s representative. There was no doubt that the training in merchandise information was conveying the message to the clerk; the problem was in convincing her to pass it on to the customer. In general, clerks persisted in selling what they themselves preferred, if they made special efforts to sell anything at all. A woman who tried to buy service-weight stockings from a clerk enamored with sheer silk hose would be treated insultingly; a customer contemplating a purchase, such as expensive silverware, which a saleswoman considered extravagant would be strongly discouraged.
Saleswomen not only policed the merchandise offered by the department, but also keenly observed the selling skill displayed by co-workers. A sociologist doing field work in a women’s dress department observed the saleswomen “Playing Customer.” They watched in total absorption as two among them acted out a sale, recreating familiar types from both sides of the counter. The skits were social glue, shared rituals in which the saleswomen reemphasized their group solidarity against the perennial threat of the customer. They also constituted an oral tradition, passing along and elaborating the wisdom learned on the selling floor. Finally, they reinforced the department pecking order by the ways in which different members were caricatured. Other departments had other forms of selling drama; frequently, saleswomen would demonstrate their selling skills to their coworkers by lavishing attention on “lookers” on slow days.
This recognition of selling skill suggests that the informal work group could tolerate a certain limited amount of amiable competition as long as it did not threaten the relationship of the whole group to managers and customers. Clerks could compete over favored customers, preferred selling locations, or rights to certain kinds of merchandise. Sometimes, these competitive aspects could erupt into outright conflict; more often, however, it appears that the relative flexibility of the selling floor allowed individuals to stake out special roles which were then tacitly recognized by the group. Hierarchies of age, experience, ethnicity, and skills played some part in assigning these roles, but there was ample room for simple personal inclination. In one department, the turf was elaborately allocated by the informal work group, despite bosses’ persistent efforts to change the arrangement; the group functioned peacefully because everyone knew her place and kept to it. The clerking sisterhood was not invariably one big happy family, although it often was; but whatever the internal discord, it was clearly saleswomen’s work culture and not managers’ conceptions of selling skill which determined their conduct.
The outline of the development of the work of American department store saleswomen from 1890 to 1960 suggests some factors which we should bear in mind in studying the history of women’s work. We must, first of all, rethink our definitions of skill. Whether in store, office, or factory, most women’s work has been regarded as unskilled, but we should find new ways to conceptualize work which reflect its real nature and are not bound by traditional male-oriented notions of skill. Second, we should be alert to the fact that a linear degradation of work was not the invariable fate of the woman worker. It is critical to understand the impact of the whole process of rationalization: the limits of the application of scientific management, its differential effects on men and women, and the importance of other types of management reform, particularly personnel work and human relations. In many occupations, the impact of a more wholesome work environment may have been greater than that of Taylorism, and in some occupations managers actually sought, at least for a time, to upgrade employees’ skills. Finally, we must investigate the ways in which work culture and the informal work group limited management’s freedom of action and provided a measure of workplace autonomy for workers. The work culture of women workers is particularly ill-understood, but sales work provides an example of an enduring work group in the face of rapid turnover, a high incidence of part-time and temporary work, and women’s supposed primary identification with home and family rather than with paid work. The prospects for the future are mixed; innovations in data processing and the pressure of discount-store competition may well have undermined the conditions favoring the work culture of saleswomen, and increasing numbers of workers are seeking the formal protections of a union in addition to those of the informal work group, but the practices which I have described here are hardly a thing of the past.
*Reprinted from Vol. 12, No. 2 (March–April 1978).
I wish to thank Edward Benson, Ann Bookman, Roslyn Feldberg, Maurine Greenwald, Barbara Melosh, and Susan Reverby for helpful and supportive criticisms on earlier versions of this paper.
The phrase, “the clerking sisterhood” comes from Zelie Leigh, “Shopping Round,” Atlantic Monthly 138 (Aug. 1926): 205.
1. David Montgomery, “Workers’ Control of Machine Production in the 19th Century,” Labor History 17, no. 4 (Fall 1976): 485–509; Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1974).
2. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, pp. 265–266.
3. Daniel Nelson, Managers and Workers: Origins of the New Factory System in the United States, 1880–1920 (Madison, 1975).
4. See Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge, 1962).
5. Anne O’Hagan, “Behind the Scenes in the Big Stores,” Munsey’s Magazine 22 (Jan. 1900): 535.
6. Beatrice Judelle, “The Changing Customer, 1910–1916,” Stores 42, no. 10 (Nov. 1960): 14.
7. “A Saleswoman Speaks to Management,” Bulletin of the National Retail Dry Goods Association 24, no. 12 (Dec. 1942): 18.
8. “How Bloomingdale’s Trains for Better Customer Service,” Stores 46, no. 11 (Dec. 1964): 24–25.
9. W. H. Leffingwell, “Sizing Up Customers From Behind the Counter,” The American Magazine 94 (July 1922): 150.
10. “Expose Employees to Knowledge,” Department Store Economist 1, no. 14 (Aug. 10, 1938): 35.
11. George F. F. Lombard, Executive Policies and Employee Satisfactions: A Study of a Small Department in a Large Metropolitan Store, D.C.S. thesis, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, 1941, pp. 348, 355.
12. Lawrence Bitner of Filene’s, quoted in C. E. Eerkes, “The Employee—A Preferred Customer,” in Joint Management Proceedings, National Retail Dry Goods Association (New York, 1934), p. 78.
13. Mildred Farquhar, “An Analysis of a Toy Department in a Department Store,” M.A. thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 1933, p. 14.
14. “Training for Better Sales,” Stores 35, no. 9 (Sept. 1953): 28.