Of course there are two sides to the question. Let us look at the
other. We often hear "shop-girls" spoken of. No such persons exist.
There are girls who work in shops. They make their living that
way. But why turn their occupation into an adjective? Let us be
fair. We do not refer to the girls who live on Fifth Avenue as
Lou and Nancy were chums. They came to the big city to find work
because there was not enough to eat at their homes to go around.
Nancy was nineteen; Lou was twenty. Both were pretty, active,
country girls who had no ambition to go on the stage.
The little cherub that sits up aloft guided them to a cheap and
respectable boarding-house. Both found positions and became
wage-earners. They remained chums. It is at the end of six months
that I would beg you to step forward and be introduced to them.
Meddlesome Reader: My Lady friends, Miss Nancy and Miss Lou.
While you are shaking hands please take notice--cautiously--of
their attire. Yes, cautiously; for they are as quick to resent a
stare as a lady in a box at the horse show is.
Lou is a piece-work ironer in a hand laundry. She is clothed in a
badly-fitting purple dress, and her hat plume is four inches too
long; but her ermine muff and scarf cost $25, and its fellow beasts
will be ticketed in the windows at $7.98 before the season is over.
Her cheeks are pink, and her light blue eyes bright. Contentment
radiates from her.
Nancy you would call a shop-girl--because you have the habit. There
is no type; but a perverse generation is always seeking a type; so
this is what the type should be. She has the high-ratted pompadour,
and the exaggerated straight-front. Her skirt is shoddy, but has the
correct flare. No furs protect her against the bitter spring air,
but she wears her short broadcloth jacket as jauntily as though
it were Persian lamb! On her face and in her eyes, remorseless
type-seeker, is the typical shop-girl expression. It is a look of
silent but contemptuous revolt against cheated womanhood; of sad
prophecy of the vengeance to come. When she laughs her loudest the
look is still there. The same look can be seen in the eyes of Russian
peasants; and those of us left will see it some day on Gabriel's
face when he comes to blow us up. It is a look that should wither
and abash man; but he has been known to smirk at it and offer
flowers--with a string tied to them.
Now lift your hat and come away, while you receive Lou's cheery
"See you again," and the sardonic, sweet smile of Nancy that seems,
somehow, to miss you and go fluttering like a white moth up over the
housetops to the stars.
The two waited on the corner for Dan. Dan was Lou's steady company.
Faithful? Well, he was on hand when Mary would have had to hire a
dozen subpoena servers to find her lamb.
"Ain't you cold, Nance?" said Lou. "Say, what a chump you are for
working in that old store for $8. a week! I made $l8.50 last week.
Of course ironing ain't as swell work as selling lace behind a
counter, but it pays. None of us ironers make less than $10. And I
don't know that it's any less respectful work, either."
"You can have it," said Nancy, with uplifted nose. "I'll take my eight
a week and hall bedroom. I like to be among nice things and swell
people. And look what a chance I've got! Why, one of our glove girls
married a Pittsburg--steel maker, or blacksmith or something--the
other day worth a million dollars. I'll catch a swell myself some
time. I ain't bragging on my looks or anything; but I'll take my
chances where there's big prizes offered. What show would a girl
have in a laundry?"
"Why, that's where I met Dan," said Lou, triumphantly. "He came in
for his Sunday shirt and collars and saw me at the first board,
ironing. We all try to get to work at the first board. Ella Maginnis
was sick that day, and I had her place. He said he noticed my arms
first, how round and white they was. I had my sleeves rolled up.
Some nice fellows come into laundries. You can tell 'em by their
bringing their clothes in suit cases; and turning in the door sharp
"How can you wear a waist like that, Lou?" said Nancy, gazing down
at the offending article with sweet scorn in her heavy-lidded eyes.
"It shows fierce taste."
"This waist?" cried Lou, with wide-eyed indignation. "Why, I paid
$16. for this waist. It's worth twenty-five. A woman left it to be
laundered, and never called for it. The boss sold it to me. It's got
yards and yards of hand embroidery on it. Better talk about that
ugly, plain thing you've got on."
"This ugly, plain thing," said Nancy, calmly, "was copied from one
that Mrs. Van Alstyne Fisher was wearing. The girls say her bill in
the store last year was $12,000. I made mine, myself. It cost me
$1.50. Ten feet away you couldn't tell it from hers."
"Oh, well," said Lou, good-naturedly, "if you want to starve and put
on airs, go ahead. But I'll take my job and good wages; and after
hours give me something as fancy and attractive to wear as I am able
But just then Dan came--a serious young man with a ready-made necktie,
who had escaped the city's brand of frivolity--an electrician earning
30 dollars per week who looked upon Lou with the sad eyes of Romeo,
and thought her embroidered waist a web in which any fly should
delight to be caught.
"My friend, Mr. Owens--shake hands with Miss Danforth," said Lou.
"I'm mighty glad to know you, Miss Danforth," said Dan, with
outstretched hand. "I've heard Lou speak of you so often."
"Thanks," said Nancy, touching his fingers with the tips of her cool
ones, "I've heard her mention you--a few times."
"Did you get that handshake from Mrs. Van Alstyne Fisher, Nance?"
"If I did, you can feel safe in copying it," said Nancy.
"Oh, I couldn't use it, at all. It's too stylish for me. It's
intended to set off diamond rings, that high shake is. Wait till I
get a few and then I'll try it."
"Learn it first," said Nancy wisely, "and you'll be more likely to
get the rings."
"Now, to settle this argument," said Dan, with his ready, cheerful
smile, "let me make a proposition. As I can't take both of you up
to Tiffany's and do the right thing, what do you say to a little
vaudeville? I've got the rickets. How about looking at stage
diamonds since we can't shake hands with the real sparklers?"
The faithful squire took his place close to the curb; Lou next, a
little peacocky in her bright and pretty clothes; Nancy on the
inside, slender, and soberly clothed as the sparrow, but with the
true Van Alstyne Fisher walk--thus they set out for their evening's
I do not suppose that many look upon a great department store as an
educational institution. But the one in which Nancy worked was
something like that to her. She was surrounded by beautiful things
that breathed of taste and refinement. If you live in an atmosphere
of luxury, luxury is yours whether your money pays for it, or
The people she served were mostly women whose dress, manners, and
position in the social world were quoted as criterions. From them
Nancy began to take toll--the best from each according to her view.
From one she would copy and practice a gesture, from another an
eloquent lifting of an eyebrow, from others, a manner of walking, of
carrying a purse, of smiling, of greeting a friend, of addressing
"inferiors in station." From her best beloved model, Mrs. Van
Alstyne Fisher, she made requisition for that excellent thing, a
soft, low voice as clear as silver and as perfect in articulation
as the notes of a thrush. Suffused in the aura of this high social
refinement and good breeding, it was impossible for her to escape a
deeper effect of it. As good habits are said to be better than good
principles, so, perhaps, good manners are better than good habits.
The teachings of your parents may not keep alive your New England
conscience; but if you sit on a straight-back chair and repeat the
words "prisms and pilgrims" forty times the devil will flee from
you. And when Nancy spoke in the Van Alstyne Fisher tones she felt
the thrill of _noblesse oblige_ to her very bones.
There was another source of learning in the great departmental
school. Whenever you see three or four shop-girls gather in a bunch
and jingle their wire bracelets as an accompaniment to apparently
frivolous conversation, do not think that they are there for the
purpose of criticizing the way Ethel does her back hair. The meeting
may lack the dignity of the deliberative bodies of man; but it
has all the importance of the occasion on which Eve and her first
daughter first put their heads together to make Adam understand his
proper place in the household. It is Woman's Conference for Common
Defense and Exchange of Strategical Theories of Attack and Repulse
upon and against the World, which is a Stage, and Man, its Audience
who Persists in Throwing Bouquets Thereupon. Woman, the most
helpless of the young of any animal--with the fawn's grace but
without its fleetness; with the bird's beauty but without its power
of flight; with the honey-bee's burden of sweetness but without
its--Oh, let's drop that simile--some of us may have been stung.
During this council of war they pass weapons one to another, and
exchange stratagems that each has devised and formulated out of the
tactics of life.
"I says to 'im," says Sadie, "ain't you the fresh thing! Who do you
suppose I am, to be addressing such a remark to me? And what do you
think he says back to me?"
The heads, brown, black, flaxen, red, and yellow bob together; the
answer is given; and the parry to the thrust is decided upon, to be
used by each thereafter in passages-at-arms with the common enemy,
Thus Nancy learned the art of defense; and to women successful
defense means victory.
The curriculum of a department store is a wide one. Perhaps no other
college could have fitted her as well for her life's ambition--the
drawing of a matrimonial prize.
Her station in the store was a favored one. The music room was near
enough for her to hear and become familiar with the works of the
best composers--at least to acquire the familiarity that passed for
appreciation in the social world in which she was vaguely trying
to set a tentative and aspiring foot. She absorbed the educating
influence of art wares, of costly and dainty fabrics, of adornments
that are almost culture to women.
The other girls soon became aware of Nancy's ambition. "Here comes
your millionaire, Nancy," they would call to her whenever any man
who looked the role approached her counter. It got to be a habit of
men, who were hanging about while their women folk were shopping, to
stroll over to the handkerchief counter and dawdle over the cambric
squares. Nancy's imitation high-bred air and genuine dainty beauty
was what attracted. Many men thus came to display their graces
before her. Some of them may have been millionaires; others were
certainly no more than their sedulous apes. Nancy learned to
discriminate. There was a window at the end of the handkerchief
counter; and she could see the rows of vehicles waiting for the
shoppers in the street below. She looked and perceived that
automobiles differ as well as do their owners.
Once a fascinating gentleman bought four dozen handkerchiefs, and
wooed her across the counter with a King Cophetua air. When he had
gone one of the girls said:
"What's wrong, Nance, that you didn't warm up to that fellow. He
looks the swell article, all right, to me."
"Him?" said Nancy, with her coolest, sweetest, most impersonal, Van
Alstyne Fisher smile; "not for mine. I saw him drive up outside. A
12 H. P. machine and an Irish chauffeur! And you saw what kind of
handkerchiefs he bought--silk! And he's got dactylis on him. Give me
the real thing or nothing, if you please."
Two of the most "refined" women in the store--a forelady and a
cashier--had a few "swell gentlemen friends" with whom they now and
then dined. Once they included Nancy in an invitation. The dinner
took place in a spectacular cafe whose tables are engaged for New
Year's eve a year in advance. There were two "gentlemen friends"--one
without any hair on his head--high living ungrew it; and we can prove
it--the other a young man whose worth and sophistication he impressed
upon you in two convincing ways--he swore that all the wine was
corked; and he wore diamond cuff buttons. This young man perceived
irresistible excellencies in Nancy. His taste ran to shop-girls; and
here was one that added the voice and manners of his high social
world to the franker charms of her own caste. So, on the following
day, he appeared in the store and made her a serious proposal of
marriage over a box of hem-stitched, grass-bleached Irish linens.
Nancy declined. A brown pompadour ten feet away had been using her
eyes and ears. When the rejected suitor had gone she heaped carboys
of upbraidings and horror upon Nancy's head.
"What a terrible little fool you are! That fellow's a millionaire--he's
a nephew of old Van Skittles himself. And he was talking on the level,
too. Have you gone crazy, Nance?"
"Have I?" said Nancy. "I didn't take him, did I? He isn't a millionaire
so hard that you could notice it, anyhow. His family only allows him
$20,000 a year to spend. The bald-headed fellow was guying him about it
the other night at supper."
The brown pompadour came nearer and narrowed her eyes.
"Say, what do you want?" she inquired, in a voice hoarse for lack of
chewing-gum. "Ain't that enough for you? Do you want to be a Mormon,
and marry Rockefeller and Gladstone Dowie and the King of Spain and
the whole bunch? Ain't $20,000 a year good enough for you?"
Nancy flushed a little under the level gaze of the black, shallow
"It wasn't altogether the money, Carrie," she explained. "His friend
caught him in a rank lie the other night at dinner. It was about
some girl he said he hadn't been to the theater with. Well, I can't
stand a liar. Put everything together--I don't like him; and that
settles it. When I sell out it's not going to be on any bargain day.
I've got to have something that sits up in a chair like a man,
anyhow. Yes, I'm looking out for a catch; but it's got to be able to
do something more than make a noise like a toy bank."
"The physiopathic ward for yours!" said the brown pompadour, walking
These high ideas, if not ideals--Nancy continued to cultivate on $8.
per week. She bivouacked on the trail of the great unknown "catch,"
eating her dry bread and tightening her belt day by day. On her
face was the faint, soldierly, sweet, grim smile of the preordained
man-hunter. The store was her forest; and many times she raised her
rifle at game that seemed broad-antlered and big; but always some
deep unerring instinct--perhaps of the huntress, perhaps of the
woman--made her hold her fire and take up the trail again.
Lou flourished in the laundry. Out of her $18.50 per week she paid
$6. for her room and board. The rest went mainly for clothes. Her
opportunities for bettering her taste and manners were few compared
with Nancy's. In the steaming laundry there was nothing but work,
work and her thoughts of the evening pleasures to come. Many costly
and showy fabrics passed under her iron; and it may be that her
growing fondness for dress was thus transmitted to her through the
When the day's work was over Dan awaited her outside, her faithful
shadow in whatever light she stood.
Sometimes he cast an honest and troubled glance at Lou's clothes
that increased in conspicuity rather than in style; but this was no
disloyalty; he deprecated the attention they called to her in the
And Lou was no less faithful to her chum. There was a law that Nancy
should go with them on whatsoever outings they might take. Dan bore
the extra burden heartily and in good cheer. It might be said that
Lou furnished the color, Nancy the tone, and Dan the weight of the
distraction-seeking trio. The escort, in his neat but obviously
ready-made suit, his ready-made tie and unfailing, genial, ready-made
wit never startled or clashed. He was of that good kind that you are
likely to forget while they are present, but remember distinctly
after they are gone.
To Nancy's superior taste the flavor of these ready-made pleasures
was sometimes a little bitter: but she was young; and youth is a
gourmand, when it cannot be a gourmet.
"Dan is always wanting me to marry him right away," Lou told her
once. "But why should I? I'm independent. I can do as I please with
the money I earn; and he never would agree for me to keep on working
afterward. And say, Nance, what do you want to stick to that old
store for, and half starve and half dress yourself? I could get you
a place in the laundry right now if you'd come. It seems to me that
you could afford to be a little less stuck-up if you could make a
good deal more money."
"I don't think I'm stuck-up, Lou," said Nancy, "but I'd rather live
on half rations and stay where I am. I suppose I've got the habit.
It's the chance that I want. I don't expect to be always behind a
counter. I'm learning something new every day. I'm right up against
refined and rich people all the time--even if I do only wait on
them; and I'm not missing any pointers that I see passing around."
"Caught your millionaire yet?" asked Lou with her teasing laugh.
"I haven't selected one yet," answered Nancy. "I've been looking
"Goodness! the idea of picking over 'em! Don't you ever let one get
by you Nance--even if he's a few dollars shy. But of course you're
joking--millionaires don't think about working girls like us."
"It might be better for them if they did," said Nancy, with cool
wisdom. "Some of us could teach them how to take care of their
"If one was to speak to me," laughed Lou, "I know I'd have a
"That's because you don't know any. The only difference between
swells and other people is you have to watch 'em closer. Don't you
think that red silk lining is just a little bit too bright for that
Lou looked at the plain, dull olive jacket of her friend.
"Well, no I don't--but it may seem so beside that faded-looking
thing you've got on."
"This jacket," said Nancy, complacently, "has exactly the cut and
fit of one that Mrs. Van Alstyne Fisher was wearing the other day.
The material cost me $3.98. I suppose hers cost about $100. more."
"Oh, well," said Lou lightly, "it don't strike me as millionaire
bait. Shouldn't wonder if I catch one before you do, anyway."
Truly it would have taken a philosopher to decide upon the values
of the theories held by the two friends. Lou, lacking that certain
pride and fastidiousness that keeps stores and desks filled with
girls working for the barest living, thumped away gaily with her
iron in the noisy and stifling laundry. Her wages supported her
even beyond the point of comfort; so that her dress profited until
sometimes she cast a sidelong glance of impatience at the neat but
inelegant apparel of Dan--Dan the constant, the immutable, the
As for Nancy, her case was one of tens of thousands. Silk and jewels
and laces and ornaments and the perfume and music of the fine world
of good-breeding and taste--these were made for woman; they are her
equitable portion. Let her keep near them if they are a part of life
to her, and if she will. She is no traitor to herself, as Esau was;
for she keeps he birthright and the pottage she earns is often very
In this atmosphere Nancy belonged; and she throve in it and ate her
frugal meals and schemed over her cheap dresses with a determined
and contented mind. She already knew woman; and she was studying
man, the animal, both as to his habits and eligibility. Some day she
would bring down the game that she wanted; but she promised herself
it would be what seemed to her the biggest and the best, and nothing
Thus she kept her lamp trimmed and burning to receive the bridegroom
when he should come.
But, another lesson she learned, perhaps unconsciously. Her standard
of values began to shift and change. Sometimes the dollar-mark grew
blurred in her mind's eye, and shaped itself into letters that
spelled such words as "truth" and "honor" and now and then just
"kindness." Let us make a likeness of one who hunts the moose or elk
in some mighty wood. He sees a little dell, mossy and embowered,
where a rill trickles, babbling to him of rest and comfort. At these
times the spear of Nimrod himself grows blunt.
So, Nancy wondered sometimes if Persian lamb was always quoted at
its market value by the hearts that it covered.
One Thursday evening Nancy left the store and turned across Sixth
Avenue westward to the laundry. She was expected to go with Lou and
Dan to a musical comedy.
Dan was just coming out of the laundry when she arrived. There was a
queer, strained look on his face.
"I thought I would drop around to see if they had heard from her,"
"Heard from who?" asked Nancy. "Isn't Lou there?"
"I thought you knew," said Dan. "She hasn't been here or at the
house where she lived since Monday. She moved all her things from
there. She told one of the girls in the laundry she might be going
"Hasn't anybody seen her anywhere?" asked Nancy.
Dan looked at her with his jaws set grimly, and a steely gleam in
his steady gray eyes.
"They told me in the laundry," he said, harshly, "that they saw her
pass yesterday--in an automobile. With one of the millionaires, I
suppose, that you and Lou were forever busying your brains about."
For the first time Nancy quailed before a man. She laid her hand
that trembled slightly on Dan's sleeve.
"You've no right to say such a thing to me, Dan--as if I had anything
to do with it!"
"I didn't mean it that way," said Dan, softening. He fumbled in his
"I've got the tickets for the show to-night," he said, with a
gallant show of lightness. "If you--"
Nancy admired pluck whenever she saw it.
"I'll go with you, Dan," she said.
Three months went by before Nancy saw Lou again.
At twilight one evening the shop-girl was hurrying home along the
border of a little quiet park. She heard her name called, and wheeled
about in time to catch Lou rushing into her arms.
After the first embrace they drew their heads back as serpents do,
ready to attack or to charm, with a thousand questions trembling on
their swift tongues. And then Nancy noticed that prosperity had
descended upon Lou, manifesting itself in costly furs, flashing
gems, and creations of the tailors' art.
"You little fool!" cried Lou, loudly and affectionately. "I see you
are still working in that store, and as shabby as ever. And how
about that big catch you were going to make--nothing doing yet, I
And then Lou looked, and saw that something better than prosperity
had descended upon Nancy--something that shone brighter than gems
in her eyes and redder than a rose in her cheeks, and that danced
like electricity anxious to be loosed from the tip of her tongue.
"Yes, I'm still in the store," said Nancy, "but I'm going to leave it
next week. I've made my catch--the biggest catch in the world. You
won't mind now Lou, will you?--I'm going to be married to Dan--to
Dan!--he's my Dan now--why, Lou!"
Around the corner of the park strolled one of those new-crop,
smooth-faced young policemen that are making the force more
endurable--at least to the eye. He saw a woman with an expensive fur
coat, and diamond-ringed hands crouching down against the iron fence
of the park sobbing turbulently, while a slender, plainly-dressed
working girl leaned close, trying to console her. But the Gibsonian
cop, being of the new order, passed on, pretending not to notice,
for he was wise enough to know that these matters are beyond help so
far as the power he represents is concerned, though he rap the
pavement with his nightstick till the sound goes up to the