The Dude in the Dress Goods Department: 1880s

dress goods clerk


Do you think you can sell dress goods and ribbons?” inquired Mr. Nathan Waltrous, senior member of the retail firm of Waltrous and McGill of Houston, Texas. The party addressed was a florid young man with a florid nose, florid moustache and florid hair. He was, in short, quite a Florida youth, and his name was Theopolis Duggan.

“I reckon so,” he replied.

“Can you be suave?”


“Can you support a becoming address in the presence of ladies—politeness, suavity. you know? “

“Oh, yes,” answered Duggan. “in the last place I worked the boys all said I was the suaviest man in the troupe, and a rustler among customers.”

“What business was it?”

“Pumps—wooden and iron pumps and hydraulic rams.”

“Quite a different line from dress goods and ribbons.”

“Well, yes, but l ain’t afeard to tackle ’em.”

Mr. Waltrous gave him a trial. The boys in the store labelled him “Pumps” from the first moment of his initiation into the dress goods and ribbon department. The second day a petite brunette inquired for some “chicken down” nun’s veiling. Pumps commenced to sweat.

“What color is it?” he blurted out.

The girl only rewarded him with a stony stare. Pumps rushed off after a new stock of information and inquired:

“Is this a provision store or a butcher shop?”

“Why?” asked a one hundred and fifteen pound salesman.

“Because there’s a gal there by the show case who wants some chicken down.”

The one hundred and fifteen pounds of pure and unadulterated suavity waited on her.

“Show me some elephant’s breath cashmere,” said an elderly lady in gold bowed spectacles. Pumps dropped a roll of paper cambric, and again started down the road after some more information.

“What’s elephant’s breath?” he gasped. “Hanged if I ain’t thinkin’ l’ve struck a menagerie.”

“It is a shade of woolen goods,” murmured another salesman, moving up towards the elderly lady and selling her a large bill.

“Bet your boots l’ll catch on,” said Pumps swaggering before the glass where ladies try on bonnets and hats.

Another young lady interviewed Pumps in the afternoon and said: “You know soutache on grey velvet is considered very chic.”

“It is just the chickiest thing agoin,” observed Pumps.

The young lady looked grieved.

“Show me some giraffe colored cashmere,” she said quietly.

“Another animal wanted,’ muttered Pumps breathlessly, as he reached the other end of the store. He, of course lost the sale.

“Show me some crinolettes,” demanded a spare woman with a cast in her eye. Pumps was nonplussed.

“If I was you I wouldn’t get a crinolette,” he ventured.

“You wouldn’t! ” sneered the lady.

” No, not at this season of the year. I’d get a pair of striped stockings and a poke bonnet.”

The lady walked out.

“What did she want?” inquired Mr. Waltrous, who had kept his eagle eye on the proceedings,

” She was hankering after a crinolette,” said Pumps, “and I don’t think we have them in stock.”

“These are crinolettes,” said Mr. Waltrous sternly, and pointing to a pile of garments.

“Them! Why I took them for base ball masks,” said Pumps.

“You will have to do better than this,” remarked Mr. Waltrous, impressively.

“There is a woman up at the front end who wants some Apollonaris. Hadn’t I better go out and get her a glass of seltzer?”

Some more condensed suavity waited on the lady and sold her a polonaise, a moliere waistcoat, an ostrich feather fan and ten yards of plum-colored velveteen. Pumps was paralyzed.

“You fellows have got the thing down midlin’ fine,” he said, pulling his vermillion moustache before the mirror.

“Evidently you have considerable to learn in this business,” said the head salesman to Pumps.

“All I ask is a fair show for my money,” returned Pumps, dejectedly.

“What would you do if a lady were to inquire for an imported jersey?”

“What are you giving us?” whined Pumps. “This is no stock yard or dairy farm.”

“That, my dear friend,” said the head salesman, ” is a short jacket introduced into this country by Mrs. Langtry. What if she should inquire for a tournure?”

“ Me-oh–I’d– “

“That will do,” shouted Mr. Waltrous, bobbing up from behind a bale of sheeting ; “you can just tournure back on this establishment, and hunt work in a lumber yard.”—Texas Siftings 

New American Speaker and Reader, 1901

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One understands why the “dude” mistook crinolettes for base-ball masks:

Chicken down” was “the newest shade of yellow” in 1885. “It has a green tinge, and is particularly unbecoming to blondes.” Godey’s Magazine, 1885

“Elephant’s breath” was a shade of grey with a hint of purple.

The Moliere waistcoat was a long, square-bottomed vest or faux-vest, usually with jeweled or enamelled buttons.

A polonaise (or Apollonaris as pronounced by “Pumps,”) is a gown with a draped skirt, looped up to reveal a decorative underskirt. It was a very popular 18th-century style (1770-1780) and was revived in the 1870s-1880s, starting with the “Dolly Varden” costume.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.






One thought on “The Dude in the Dress Goods Department: 1880s

  1. Pingback: Sixteen-button Bouffants: A Chat with the Fashion Gazette Editor: 1888 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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