How to Win Customers (in 1853!)


An illustration of a bookshop from “The Book of Days” (1869).

Snippets 58.  Robert Kemp Philp (1819-1882) wrote a wide variety of handbooks giving advice on different aspects of life.  His work is very valuable from a social history perspective, as it offers insights into 19th Century attitudes, and hardships faced during the century, for example.  One of his most interesting books is The Shopkeeper’s Guide, published in 1853 (Houston and Stoneman, London).  I have selected for this snippet a couple of quotes, for two different reasons.  The first is as much for amusement as anything, with advice on how a shopkeeper should foster a style of accurate pronunciation when speaking to customers, but it is also an indication of how the language has changed over the years, as Philp is clearly suggesting that the letter “r” on the end of words such as “character” should be audible.

Let your appearance be ever so personable; let you be as handsome as Apollo, and as beautiful as Venus, if you be awkward or vulgar in speech, low in your ideas and meagre in knowledge, you will in the eyes of all intelligent men appear little more than a merely animated statue. Learn, therefore, to attain to a correct, if not an elegant pronunciation of your own vernacular tongue. What can be more absurd than to hear some of the inhabitants of London pronounce the following sentence: “A fellow broke the window, and hit Isabella on the elbow as she was playing a sonata on the piano.” They do not pronounce it as written; but thus: “A fellor broke the windor, and hit Isabellar on the elbor, as she was playing a sonartar on the pianor.” Others adopt the contrary plan, and leave out the r as often as they can. There are magistrates of high pretentions to education, who would say, “The conduct of the prisna’ and his general characta’ render it propa’ that he should no longa’ be a memba’ of this community.”

Equally glaring is the taking away of h from places where it is required, and giving it where its absence is desirable. The termination of words ending in ing with a k as somethink, is not less inaccurate or less disagreeable, it is worth while to point out these errors, as many must be disposed to correct them, on being made aware of their existence, for they by no means form a graceful part in a good address.

The second quote is advice that is probably of some value even today, suggesting how small businesses can prevail over larger establishments.

In larger localities, where competition abounds, the small shopkeeper frequently outstrips his more powerful rival, by one element of success which may be added to any stock without cost, but cannot be withheld without loss. That element is civility. It has already been spoken of elsewhere, but must be enforced here, as aiding the little means of the small shopkeeper to a wonderful degree. A kind and obliging manner carries with it an indescribable charm. It must not be a manner which indicates a mean, grovelling, time-serving spirit, but a plain, open, and agreeable demeanour, which seems to desire to oblige lor the pleasure of doing so, and not for the sake of squeezing an extra penny out of a customer’s pocket.

The large shopkeeper frequently grows proud of his position; there are many little civilities which customers like, but which the large shopkeeper may be too busy, or unwilling to pay. He forgets that these civilities are the steps by which he rose, and that the withdrawal of them must lead to his rapid descent. These are the points upon which large traders are often weak, and where the small trader finds them vulnerable. Punctuality, cleanliness, the neat arrangement of the stock, the attractiveness of the window, the absence of all absurd puffing, the early and regular opening of the shop in the morning, and the attention paid to every one entering it, – these are the secrets of the small shopkeeper’s success against the influence of giant capital. They are a series of charms before which even gold itself must yield its potent influence.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, Britain, England, History, Inspiration, Language, Snippets and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How to Win Customers (in 1853!)

  1. I shudder when I hear the English language ruined in this way, by the very people who are supposed to be best at speaking it. One that really gets to me (being Canadian) is having my country referred to as “Canader.”

    Liked by 1 person

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