A TALKATIVE TAILOR
Strange Revelations of the Sartorial Trade.
CAPERS OF SOME CLOTHING CRANKS.
The Painful Self-Denial Which makes Kearny Street Fashionable
Traits of the Tough.
“I should say that a tailor’s life in San Francisco is a hard one,” said a well-known and popular knight of the shears to a Chronicle reporter the other day.
The communicative craftsman was standing in his doorway, whence he could see in all directions gorgeous signs such as “Pickle, the Tailor,” “Sowfine, the Solid Tailor,” “Rosenheim, the Ready Tailor,” “Bosenheim, the Boss Tailor,” etc.
“You see,” said the loquacious but rather disconsolate Sartorian, “what competition there is in our business. The town seems to be populated with tailors, and you will observe that none of them show any of the mawkish delicacy about parading their profession that prevailed when a tailor was supposed to be but a small fractional part of a human being. Instead of regarding themselves as the ninth part of a man, they act as if they considered themselves equal to any twenty-nine ordinary storekeepers. Look at their electric lights and the portraits of themselves that they stick on the walls. It’s a good thing for the originals that most people here can read, or their portraits would make them think that the police had begun to use the dead-walls of the town for the Rogues’ Gallery.
“But the competition among the tailors themselves is not the worst thing in the trade,” said the disgusted knight of the shears. “It’s the cranks who patronize us that shorten a man’s life, and make him lenient toward all murders.
THE EXPERT FIEND.
“Here’s one of them just coming,” whispered the tailor, as a shabby genteel young man with the weird history of cheap lodging written on his lank jaw, sauntered into the store and addressed himself to one of the salesmen.
“That’s what we call the expert fiend,” said the tailor, nodding his head towards the visitor. “Watch how he paws the cloths. He is an assistant bookkeeper in a toothbrush factory at $17 a month, and never wore a fine suit of clothes in his life; but he knows more about cloth than my best salesman, who has spent a lifetime in the business. When he is getting measured he will give the cutter a fill about wanting the suit in a hurry for a reception on Nob Hill, but a dressmaker’s soiree on Natoma street is about his fit. Just hear him talk about what he used to do in the East and the distance this one-horse town is behind New York. He can’t get anything here like in the East. Just watch how the salesman will get to his collar,” said the tailor, as he gleefully jingled several half-dollars in his pocket and proudly eyed his assistant. The latter, after showing the expert enough cloth to dress the whole police force, Captain Kentzel [a famously stout police officer] included, whipped out a piece with a great display of animation.
“Ah! Here you are, sir,” said he, with a triumphant flourish of the goods; “something nobby and durable. The only piece left. Sold the rest of it to the French visitors. Genuine imported goods, and the very latest pattern. Let you have a suit for $45, as it’s the last piece in the house.”
The effect of the salesman’s sudden earnestness was a prompt sale. As the captured expert was led away to the recesses, where the cutter lay in wait for him with his remorseless shears, the proprietor chuckled audibly.
“That piece of goods just sold,” said he, “is about the worst in the house. It went on the vaudoo counter months ago, and I was thinking of sending it to the Orphan Asylum as a Christmas gift. We always keep such goods for the expert fiend, and, at the right moment, yank it out and nail him. It takes a man of some experience to know just when to show the expert the piece of cloth he wants to get rid of, but the competent salesman never slips up.
THE DRY GOODS MEN’S WATCHES.
“No, sir. The expert fiend is our Injun. We scalp him just as we do his first cousin, the dry goods fiend, who thinks because he handles a few domestic lines of goods that he knows all about the trade. His ignorance wouldn’t make so much difference if he was willing to pay like anyone else, but he wants to get the best in the house for little or nothing and a discount, because he is in the trade. He generally winds up by leaving his watch as security and sauntering around for a month or two with a door-key or a chronometer. I have a dozen dry goods men’s watches in my safe now and more on the way. If you say anything in your paper about this business, please state that the dry goods man wants more and pays less and pays it more unwillingly than any man in town, except the lawyer. No, sir; we have no use for dry goods men as customers.”
“You don’t do much a credit business,” said the reporter, “or your collection of watches would not be so large.”
“I do none. Mine is a second-class business. The tailors of this town are of three orders. The first class is supported by Nob Hill and does a credit trade exclusively. The second class is supported by a business section of the town and does a cash business. The third class is kept up by Tar Flat and does a cash business. It is the style for the young bloods about town to boast how they hang up their tailor, but you can bet even money every time on the tailor not getting left. Of course there are dead beats who get away with almost any one, but whenever a fellow begins to lay around the store and drop in of a morning to ask after his health, the tailor gets into his shell.
THE INSTALLMENT PLAN.
“I will give you the true business how these lords in disguise that you see every afternoon on Kearny street get their good cloths. Getting a new suit is no sudden idea with them. When one of these aristocratic young men wants a suit he comes in and states his case plainly. He is perhaps working in a barber-shop at $7 a week, or more likely doing nothing, and of course his word is very bad. He has no credit at all, in fact. He picks out the cloth for his suit, and pay what he can as a deposit. If the tailor was to go and make the suit, the fellow would never take it unless he got a reduction of about 50 per cent, but the tailor, unless he is very green in the business, insists on a remittance every week until about two-thirds of the price of the suit is paid in dimes and quarters, when he cuts the suit and proceeds to make it. It generally takes about four months to make one of these suits, and when there are only about $5 or $10 due on it the finishing touches are given. About a week before the suit is ready the owner assumes a hauteur that freezes his companions, and announces that he is going to invest in a new suit. He extorts the last installment from some confiding female friend, and next week blooms out in all the glory of the loudest suit in the market and breaks the boys all up. Nobody except the tailor ever knows how much the young man denied himself and how many petty larcenies he had to commit before he could amaze the street with his style. He never does get much style though, for the tailor regards him as his legitimate prey, and shoves on him all the old flash patterns that the expert fiend won’t buy. He gets very nearly as badly treated as the sample fiend, who is a full brother to the expert fiend.
THE SMART SAMPLER.
“The sample fiend, having made up his mind to get a new suit, resolves to get the best of the whole trade, and goes down to the wholesale house and gets a sample of the goods he wants. Then he starts out among the retail stores. He is not the man to be fooled. Oh, no! He strolls in and looks at the goods, prices them all, and when he thinks you are quite unprepared, he shoves the sample under your nose and inquires how much can you make a suit the same as that for. We get to such a customer as that at once. The salesman takes the sample and pretends to look at it thoughtfully for some moments, and then says:
“’Now this is very find goods—very fine. In any other store in town, they would charge you $50 for a suit of that; but as we have a big line of the goods, brought from the East, we can afford to make it for $45.’
“This generally fetches the sample fiend as he pays his money and goes off chuckling to himself over his smartness. Instead of getting ahead of us five dollars, though, he loses three times that much. The prices of suits are graded on the work put into them, and we can make more out of a $45 suit than a $50 we cut from the same piece. When the sample fiend goes out, the salesman quietly marks opposite the price of the suit on the books, ‘undersold $5,’ and the trimmer plans the work accordingly. Fifty cents is saved on the vest. The coat is given to some poor workman, and the pantaloons are cheaply trimmed; so the smart sampler gets his suits so badly strung together that the first breeze that strikes it blows all the buttons off. The sample fiend is generally old enough to know better than to try and beat a San Francisco tailor.
THE FEMALE INVADER.
“He is as much behind the age as the man who brings his wife with him to select a suit. The average tailor would as soon see the Devil coming into his store as a woman, and I never heard of but one salesman who got even with the sex. One day a man and his wife came in and pulled around all the cloth in the store before the woman found anything to please her. When the man stepped up to be measured the salesman whispered to him so that he could be heard all over the store;
“’This is a very embarrassing position for me, sir.’
“’Why so?’ asked the much-married customer.
“’Because,’ said the malicious salesman, ‘I don’t know which of you I’ve to measure for the pants.’
The loquacious tailor paused to exchange greetings with a motherly-looking lady who passed out of the store with a pale-faced young man, possessing all the characteristics of the embryo “tough.’
“There,” said the tailor, “is a specimen of a customer we often have. That young man is the son of respectable parents, and his mother has a fond hope that some day he may go to the Legislature or own the biggest coal yard in the Tenth ward. The salesman has his work cut out for him to please the pair. The mother would like to dress the lad in broadcloth, like a divinity student, but nothing but the toughest of tough suits will suit him. Twenty-five-inch spring-bottom pants is the height of his ambition, and he has to get them or the suit will never be paid for. If we were to follow the old woman’s instructions the lad would steal off to some hoodlum store, and get rigged out in the highest style of Tar Flat—skin-tight pants, double-breasted, low-cut vest and sack coat with gold-shot buttons and three-inch braid. The salesman has to make the old lady believe that the boy will be dressed for a funeral, but the lad has to be convinced that he will be the envy of Tar Flat in his new suit. Of course it is business for us to respect his wishes, and when he gets into his new clothes every policeman in town will shadow him.”
THE HOODLUM TRADE.
“Have the second-class stores much of the hoodlum trade?” asked the reporter.
“No, the hoodlum trade is almost confined to the hoodoo stores, where the salesman is a big tough, dressed in the height of the hoodlum fashion. The salesman spends his evenings in the social headquarters of Tar Flat drumming up trade for his establishment. When a suit is finished the news is sent all over Tar Flat and the natives assemble as soon as possible at the tailor store. No hoodlum ever does anything so reckless as to fit on a new suit without the moral assistance of at least six companions. If the new garments have the proper depth of braid and the regulation “spring” the owner is allowed to accept them, and all hands adjourn to the nearest beer saloon, where the tailor does the honors. The hoodlum tailor periodically gives a prize dance, at which the tough salesman acts as floor manager and the cappers of the establishment as the reception committee. The hoodlum tailor finds it hard work to keep his customers, for everything depends on how he stands with the leaders of the gang. Any insult to a prominent tough, such as the reduction of the spring of his pants or the depth of the braid of his coat, is likely to cost the tailor his entire trade. In former years the hoodlum trade was done by one shop, but latterly, owing to the rivalry between Tar Flat and North Beach and the Mission, the trade is divided. It keeps constantly shifting. The true tough never estimates the cost of a suit in dollars. His basis of valuation is a five-cent glass of beer, and when he figures on a garment he judges of the amount of pleasure it will cost him. I once had a customer of that kind who came in and selected a $45 suit and would have paid a deposit if one of his crowd had not figured up how many five-cent beers it would cost him. When the astonished tough was informed that the suit would deprive him of 900 glasses of beer, besides what the barkeeper might stand, he was paralyzed, and went off reflecting sadly on the vanity of dress.”
There is one thing to be said in favor of the tough, and that is that he knows what he wants and is willing to pay for it. In this respect he differs greatly from the doctors and the lawyers, who can discount even the dry good man in shuffling away from their bills. In the long run, though, the tailor gets ahead of them.”
It would seem to me,” said the reporter, “that the tailor gets ahead of most people.”
“Not always,” said the confiding knight of the shears. “The tailor has his honest instincts like any one else, and I can give you this pointer: When an unassuming citizen comes into tailor store and says ‘I want a suit and am willing to pay so much for it,’ he generally gets the worth of his money, as things go. He always proves a great deal better than the smartie who comes in for the express purpose of showing us how little we know about our business, and how much he can teach us.”
San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 18 December 1881: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is always a pleasure to hear from a trade “insider,” who can do the dialect. This “confiding knight of the shears,” in an interview richly laden with the vernacular, opens a window into a hitherto mysterious world.
For example, most of Mrs Daffodil’s readers will have an idea of what a hoodlum is. An 1897 dictionary of slang adds the interesting information that
In San Francisco hoodlums, are a class of young fools, corresponding in some degree to the English ‘Arries. The hoodlums, walk the streets arm in arm, upsetting everything in their passage “just for the sake of a lark.”
Spring-bottom pants are wide-bottomed trousers cut on the pattern seen in the tailor’s diagram above. One young man recollected: “I remember one spell in Silverton that we were having our trousers cut with so much spring on the bottom that only the end of our toes were exposed.”
There are subtleties of class-linked location—Nob Hill, Kearny Street, and Natoma Street—implied by context, but now mostly lost to all but the most assiduous historians. Tar Flat, on the other hand, was, as it sounds, a refuge for the “tough.”
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.