Story Of London

The Street Stationery-Sellers I

London has always been a noisy place. Amongst the cacophony of sound in the Victorian streets was the chanting of the “Patterers”, either moving or stationary. In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew devoted an entire chapter to an investigation of the artistry, lives and habits of these Londoners. In the next of our extracts we meet the sellers of stationery – papers and envelopes mostly but also letters written for those who cannot themselves write.

Of this body of street-traders there are two descriptions, the itinerant and the “pitching.” There are some also who unite the two qualities, so far as that they move a short distance, perhaps 200 yards, along a thoroughfare, but preserve the same locality.Of the itinerant again, there are some who, on an evening, and more especially a Saturday evening, take a stand in a street-market, and pursue their regular “rounds” the other portions of the day.The itinerant trader carries a tray, and in no few cases, as respects the “display” of his wares, emulates the tradesman’s zeal in ” dressing” a window temptingly. The tray most in use is painted, or mahogany, with “ledges,” front and sides; or, as one man described it, “an upright four-inch bordering, to keep things in their places.” The back of the tray, which rests against the bearer’s breast, is about twelve inches high. Narrow pink tapes are generally attached to the “ledges” and back, within which are “slipped” the articles for sale. At the bottom of the tray are often divisions, in which are deposited steel pens, wafers, wax, pencils, pen-holders, and, as one stationer expressed it, “packable things that you can’t get much show out of.” One man who rather plumed himself on being a thorough master of his trade, said to me:”It’s a grand point to display, sir. Now, just take it in this way. Suppose you yourself, sir, lived in my round. Werry good. You hear me cry as I’m a approaching your door, and suppose you was a customer, you says to yourself: ‘Here’s Penny-a-quire,’ as I’m called oft enough. And I’ll soon be with you, and I gives a extra emphasis at a customer’s door. Werry good, you buys the note. As you buys the note, you gives a look over my tray, and then you says, ‘O, I want some steel pens, and is your ink good?’ and you buys some. But for the ‘display,’ you’d have sent to the shopkeeper’s, and I should have lost custom, ’cause it wouldn’t have struck you.”
[ I may here observe that I have rarely heard tradesmen dealing in the same wares as street-sellers, described by those street-sellers by any other term than that of “shopkeepers.”]The articles more regularly sold by the street-sellers of stationery are note-paper, letter paper, envelopes, steel pens, pen-holders, sealing-wax, wafers, black-lead pencils, ink in stone bottles, memorandum-books, almanacks, and valentines. Occasionally, they sell India rubber, slate-pencil, slates, copy-books, storybooks, and arithmetical tables.The stationery is purchased, for the most part, in Budge-row and Drury-lane. The half-quires (sold at 1d.) contain, generally, 10 sheets; if the paper, however, be of superior quality, only 8 sheets. In the paper-warehouses it is known as “outsides,” with no more than 10 sheets to the half quire, the price varying from 4s. to 6s. the ream (20 quires); or, if bought by weight, from 7d. to 9d. the pound. The envelopes are sold (wholesale) at from 6d. to 15d. the dozen; the higher-priced being adhesive, and with impressions – now, generally, the Crystal Palace – on the place of the seal. The commoner are retailed in the streets at 12, and the better at 6, a penny. Sometimes “a job-lot,” soiled, is picked up by the street-stationer at 4d. a pound. The sealing, a pound, retailed at ½d. each; the “flat” wax, however, is 1s. 4d. per lb., containing from 30 to 36 sticks, retailed at 1d. each. Wafers (at the same swag shops) are 3d. or 4d. the lb. – in small boxes, 9d. the gross; ink, 4½d. or 5d. the dozen bottles; pencils, 7d. to 8s. a gross; and steel pens from 4d. (waste) to 3s. a gross; but the street-stationers do not go beyond 2s. the gross, which is for magnum bonums.OF THE EXPERIENCE OF A STREETSTATIONER.A middle-aged man gave me the following account. He had pursued the trade for upwards of twelve years. He was a stout, cosey-looking man, wearing a loose great coat. The back of his tray rested against his double-breasted waistcoat; the pattern of which had become rather indistinct, but which was buttoned tightly up to his chin, as if to atone for the looseness of his coat. The corner of his mouth, toward his left ear, was slightiy drawn down, for he seemed in “crying” to pitch his voice (so that it could be heard a street off) out of the corner of his only partially-opened mouth.”Middlin’, sir,” he said, “times is middlin’ with me; they might be better, but then they might be worse. I can manage to live. The times is changed since I was first in the business. There wasn’t no ‘velops (envelopes) then, and no note-paper -least I had none; but I made as good or a better living than I do now; a better indeed. When the penny-postage came in – I don’t mind the year, but I hadn’t been long in the trade [it was in 1840] – I cried some of the postage ‘velops. They was big, figured things at first, with elephants and such like on them, and I called them at prime cost, if anything was bought with ’em. The very first time, a p’liceman says,
‘You mustn’t sell them covers. What authority have you to do it?’
‘Why, the authority to earn a dinner,’ says I; but it was no go. Another peeler came up and said I wasn’t to cry them again, or he’d have me up; and so that spec. came to nothing. I sell to ladies and gentlemen, and to servant-maids, and mechanics, and their wives; and indeed all sorts of people. Some fine ladies, that call me to the door on the sly, do behave very shabby. Why, there was one who wanted five half-quire of note for 4d., and I told her I couldn’t afford it, and so she said
‘that she knew the world, and never gave nobody the price they first asked.’
‘If that’s it, ma’am,’ says I, ‘people that knows your plan can ‘commodate you.’
That knowing card of a lady, sir, as she reckons herself, had as much velvet to her body – such a gown! as would pay my tailor’s bills for twenty year. But I don’t employ a fashionable tailor, and can patch a bit myself, as I was two years with a saddler, and was set to work to make girths and horse-clothes. My master died, and all went wrong, and I had to turn out, without nobody to help me, – for I had no parents living; but I was a strong young fellow of sixteen.
I first tried to sell a few pairs of girths, and a roller or two, to livery-stable keepers, and horse dealers, and job-masters. But I was next to starving. They wouldn’t look at anything but what was good, and the stuff was too high, and the profit too little – for I couldn’t get regular prices, in course – and so I dropped it.
There’s no men in the world so particular about good things as them as is about vallyable horses. I’ve often thought if rich people cared half as much about poor men’s togs, that was working or them for next to nothing, as they cared for their horse-clothes, it would be a better world. I was dead beat at last; but I went down to Epsom and sold a few race-cards. I’d borrowed 1s. of a groom to start with, and he wouldn’t take it back when I offered it; and that wax is bought at general warehouses, known as “swag shops” (of which I may speak hereafter), at 8d. the pound, there being 48 round sticks in, was my beginning in the paper trade. I felt queer at first, and queerer when I wasn’t among horses, as at the races like – but one get’s reconciled to anything, ‘cept, to a man like me, a low lodging-house. A stable’s a palace to it. I got into stationery at last, and it’s respectable.
“I’ve heard people say how well they could read and write, and it was no good to them. It has been, and is still, a few pence to me; though I can only read and write middlin’. I write notes and letters for some as buys paper of me. Never anything in the beggin’ way never. It wouldn’t do to have my name mixed up that way. I’ve often got extra pennies for directing and doing up valentines in nice ‘velops. Why, I spoke to a servant girl the other day; she was at the door, and says I, ‘Any nice paper to-day, to answer your young man’s last love letter, or to write home and ask your mother’s consent to your being wed next Monday week?’
That’s the way to get them to listen, sir. Well, I finds that she can’t write, and so I offers to do it for a pint of beer, and she to pay for paper of course. And then there was so many orders what to say. Her love to no end of aunts, and all sorts of messages and inquiries about all sorts of things; and when I’d heard enough to fill a long ‘letter’ sheet, she calls me back and says, ‘I’m afraid I’ve forgot uncle Thomas.’ I makes it all short enough in the letter, sir. ‘My kind love to all inquiring friends,’ takes in all uncle Thomases. I writes them when I gets a bite of dinner. Sometimes I posts them, if I’m paid beforehand; at other times I leaves them next time I pass the door. There’s no mystery made about it. If a missus says, ‘What’s that?’ I’ve heard a girl answer, ‘It’s a letter I’ve got written home, ma’am. I haven’t time myself,’ or ‘I’m no scholar, ma’am.’
But that’s only where I’m known. I don’t write one a week the year round – perhaps forty in a year. I charge 1d. or 2d., or if it’s a very poor body, and no gammon about it, nothing. Well, then, I think I never wrote a love-letter. Women does that one for another, I think, when the young housemaid can’t write as well as she can talk. I jokes some as I knows, and says I writes all sorts of letters but love-letters, and for them, you see, says I, there’s wanted the best gilt edge, and a fancy ‘velop, and a Dictionary. I take more for note and ‘velops than anything else, but far the most for note. Some has a sheet folded and fitted into a ‘velop when they buys, as they can’t fit it so well theirselves, they say. Perhaps I make 2s. a day, take it all round. Some days I may make as much as 3s. 6d.; at others, ‘specially wet days, not 1s. But I call mine a tidy round, and better than an average. I’ve only myself, and pays 1s. 9d. a week for a tidy room, with a few of my own sticks in it. I buy sometimes in Budge-row, and sometimes in Drury-lane. Very seldom at a swag-shop ( Birmingham house), for I don’t like them.
“Well, now, I’ve heard, sir, that poor men like me ain’t to be allowed to sell anything in the Park at the Great Exhibition. How’s that, sir?” I told him I could give no information on the subject.
“It’s likely enough to be true,” he resumed; “the nobs ‘ll want to keep it all to theirselves. I read Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on a Sunday, and what murders and robberies there is now! What will there be when the Great Exhibition opens! for rogues is worst in a crowd, and they say they’ll be plenty come to London from all arts and parts? Never mind; if I can see anything better to do in a fair way at the Exhibition, I’ll cut the streets.
“Perhaps my earnings is half from working people and half from private houses; that’s about it. But working people’s easiest satisfied.”I have given this man’s statement more fully than I should have thought necessary, that I might include his account of letter-writing. The letter-writer was at one period a regular street-labourer in London, as he is now in some continental cities – Naples, for instance. The vocation in London seems in some respects to have fallen into the hands of the street-stationer, but the majority of letters written for the uneducated – and their letter-receiving or answering is seldom arduous – is done, I believe, by those who are rather vaguely but emphatically described as -“friends.”I am told that there are 120 street-stationers in London, a small majority of whom may be itinerant, but chiefly on regular rounds. On a Sunday morning, in such places as the Brill, are two or three men, but not regularly, who sell stationery only on Sunday mornings. Taking the number, however, at 120, I am assured that their average profits may be taken at 8s. weekly, each stationer. On note-paper of the best sort the profit is sometimes only 50 per cent.; but, take the trade altogether, we may calculate it at cent. per cent. (on some things it is higher); and we find £4,992 yearly expended in street stationery.Links to the other articles in the series.The London Street PatterersIntroduction
The Origins of Patterers
The Morals of Patterers
The Patterers’ Street Literature
Long Song-Sellers
The Running Patterer
The Death and Fire Hunters
The Second Edition
The Standing Patterers: I
Pattering Religious and Political Dialogues
Of Cocks
Of Strawing
The sham of Indecent Street Trade
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part I
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part II
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part III
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part IV
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part V
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part VI
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part VII
The Street Card Sellers I
The Street Card Sellers II
The Street Card Sellers III
The Street Card Sellers IV