Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter V.: OBSERVING AT HAND. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 4
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Chapter V.: OBSERVING AT HAND. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 4 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 4.
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OBSERVING AT HAND.
A tribe of little children had gathered round Mrs. White's windows before Letitia and Thérèse arrived at the shop; the reason of which was that the grocery and drapery goods were disposed in a new style of elegance, in honour of her ladyship. Such tempting candies in the one window; such shining pins, such a rainbow box of cottons, such rolls of ribands, stuffs, calicoes, and flannels in the other! The little things could not be persuaded to move off even when White, who was on the watch, bustled about to make a clear path for the lady. There was plenty of bobbing from the girls, and pulling of forelocks from the boys; plenty of elbowing, and pushing, and signing, when it became necessary for somebody to speak in answer to her kind questions; but there was no inclination to make way. They were even rude enough to crowd about the door and peep in, while she was buying snuff and sugar-candy.
Letitia soon found that if White was shrewd in changing his occupation and profession according to circumstances, his wife was no less shrewd in understanding and conducting her own. It would be a wonder, the lady thought, if between them, they did not prove a match for their co-operative neighbours “I charge you the lowest, ma'am, the lowest, I assure you; and as low as is fair . . . .”
“O, I have no doubt of it, Mrs..... White. I am not going to dispute your prices, I assure you.”
“Indeed, my lady, I don't go by the rules of the folks over the way; and why? Because they talk of charging only the interest of what their stock costs them; while I must have profit too, and that is interest twice over.”
“The other half is what you live on, Mrs. White, instead of consuming part of their stock, you know.”
“True, madam. Double interest is fair profit, as my father used to say; and he, being a schoolmaster, knew the right of such things.”
“And taught them to you, it seems. But you do not mean to say that all profit is double interest. There is your neighbour, the apothecary, he charges at a much higher rate for his medicines.”
“Aye,” said White. “His is a fine conjuring trade. He shakes up three or four things in a bottle, and what was worth twopence is directly charged two shillings.”
“But consider, John, this is not all profit. Think what he paid for his learning, and what time he gives up to his patients. He has to pay himself for all this out of his drugs.”
“Then why not call some of his gains wages at once, and charge his patients for such, instead of pretending to give his time and labour, and charging his medicines ten times dearer than he need?”
“Many wish to be allowed to do this, I understand,” said Letitia. “They dislike the temptation to cram their patients with medicine, in order to repay the expenses of their education; and they wish it to be understood, that when we pay for a blister or a powder, we pay for medical skill and aid, as well as for Spanish flies or bark. In the same way, nobody supposes that great physicians charge guineas for writing five lines of a prescription, or lawyers for reading over a sheet of parchment.”
“There is the risk in their case,” observed White, “as well as the education. For one that gets rich in their profession, there are many that make but little; and this uncertainty ought to have a large reward.”
“If it was not for such uncertainty, my lady, I could sell some of my goods cheaper. But in a place like this, I can never make sure of selling a new article, as I could in a large town; so, when I venture upon any thing new, I must charge it high to make up for my money being locked up, perhaps, and for the damage of the goods from lying by.”
“Like a hackney coachman in a town,” observed Letitia. “Coach fares are complained of, as if a driver had to charge only for driving from one point to another; but besides the interest of the money his coach and horses cost him, and the expense of repairs, he must charge the wages of the many hours and days that he and his horses are idle on the stand.”
“Well now, ma'am, there is one set of people whose gains make me more angry than almost any thing I can mention; and they are the public players and singers, and such like folks.”
White here came round the counter to his wife's side, and kicked, and winked, and coughed, till Nanny and Thérèse were amazed, and Letitia laughed. Nanny went on,
“Lord, John, I know more about that sort of people than you think, from there being a company playing in Mr. Jarvis's barn; and I assure you, ma'am, the satins they pretended to wear were all glazed calico; and the jewels, my lady, were all made of tinfoil. Well; they got, even in a poor place like this, ever so much more than their living could have cost them; and I have heard of some of the better sort,—London actresses, and such,—making more in a night than an apothecary in a whole year. Why now, John, what should you know about it, to object in this way? I tell you . . . .”
“I can tell you that is true,” said Letitia; “and I can tell you the reason. Besides the uncertainty, which is much greater in those professions than in any other, there is a kind of discredit belonging to them; so that it requires a very strong inducement to tempt people of great talent to engage in them. When the time comes,—and I expect it will come,—for public singers and actors to be treated with proper respect, the best of them will not be paid extravagantly, and the inferior ones will not be half starved, as they are now. There will be no disgrace, and less uncertainty; and payment will therefore be more equal.”
“Then perhaps scavengers will be paid no more than plough-boys; for really, it seems to me wrong that there should be any reproach against scavengers on account of their occupation. You ladyship will excuse my mentioning them before you.”
“To be sure, Mrs. White, since we both think them a respectable class, in as far as they are useful. But they are paid high, as much on account of the disagreeableness of their business as its being ill thought of. Plumbers, and gilders, and miners, and distillers are paid more than shepherds and gardeners, because their business is less healthy and agreeable than those which are carried on in the open air, and in perfect safety.”
“Well, ma'am, I suppose it is all fair and even in the end; but it seems very much like chance; for people do not stop to consider the pleasantness, or the easiness, or the constancy, or the certainty of the business of the person they are paying, or the trust they put in him. They think of no such things when they go to the play, or buy early strawberries.”
“True; there are no such nice distinctions on all occasions; nor are they necessary; but yet there is no chance in the matter. When a duke fees l, his physician, and his duchess pays her jeweller's bill, the nobleman does not calculate the expense at which his physician acquired his profession, and the long time he waited for practice; nor does the lady think of the costly stock of her tradesman, and the delicate nature of his workmanship; and yet, these are the circumstances which determine the recompense of each. If it was as easy to be a physician as a ploughboy, there would be as many physicians as ploughboys; and if a diamond necklace required no more capital and skill than a bunch of asparagus, there would be as many jewellers as greengrocers; and then physicians and jewellers would be paid no more than ploughmen and green-grocers.”
“But, my lady, we do not want so many physicians as ploughmen.”
“True: and it is therefore a very happy thing that fewer can be the one than the other. If we leave the rewards of labour to take their natural course, we shall find that there always turns up a larger quantity of the sort we want most, and a lesser quantity of the sort we want least. In profits, I suppose, Mrs. White, you find less variety than in wages. It is of wages, you know, that we have been talking since we began about the apothecary.”
“Why, my lady, there is a disagreeable and an agreeable way of making profits of stock; and there is, I am sure, much more risk in some cases than others.”
“Yes; but there is no consideration of the easiness or the difficulty of selling things, or of the trust put in the seller, as there is in the manufacture of the thing sold. A smuggler, or any other kind of speculator, may make more one month, and lose more the next, than the regular trader pretends to calculate; but, I fancy, if we were able to see into the affairs of all the people in this village, or in any town, we should find less difference in what people make from an equal amount of stock, than from an equal quantity of labour. Your rule, of double interest being fair profit, shows this.”
“Certainly, my lady; or there would not be steady sellers of so many kinds of stock. People would choose the most profitable; which they might do more easily in selling goods than making them. My husband shifts his labour, as I believe he told you, from one employment to another;—(well for him that he can!) And I should shift my little capital from one kind of goods to another, if there was any real and lasting difference in the profits they would bring. But I don't find that crockery would bring higher profits than grocery, and so I go on being a grocer; and the butcher down the street finds he makes as much of his joints as I of my stuffs, one time with another; and if he did not, I suppose his wife would turn draper.—We all find means to live; though I am sorry to say our profits are lower than they were; and if all my good father said be true, they will be lower still ten years hence.”
“Is that the sexton?” inquired Letitia, seeing an old man pass with a large key in his hand. It was, and John White must be going to see if all was right in his lordship's pew, as the sexton was evidently about to open the church. Letitia paid for her purchases and followed, as one of her objects was to see the church as well as the sexton. Several neighbours popped into Nanny's shop before she had cleared her counter, to hear what the lady could have been saying and doing all this while. Nanny looked rather grand and mysterious, chiefly observing upon the comfort of having got somebody into the neighbourhood that one might speak to with some chance of being understood. She was a lady of sense and learning ....
“Though she did not go to school to your father, Nanny.”
“If she did not, she went to school to somebody that taught her to respect what my father taught me, neighbour; and so far, there are some folks that might take a lesson from her.”
On this, the wink went round, and the neighbours dropped off, leaving Nanny to muse on what fancy could have possessed her husband to tread on her toes and twitch her gown when she spoke of the strolling players.