"If I am going to explain our way of shopping to you," said my
companion, as we walked along the street, "you must explain your way
to me. I have never been able to understand it from all I have read on
the subject. For example, when you had such a vast number of shops,
each with its different assortment, how could a lady ever settle upon
any purchase till she had visited all the shops? for, until she had,
she could not know what there was to choose from."
"It was as you suppose; that was the only way she could know," I
"Father calls me an indefatigable shopper, but I should soon be a very
fatigued one if I had to do as they did," was Edith's laughing
"The loss of time in going from shop to shop was indeed a waste which
the busy bitterly complained of," I said; "but as for the ladies of
the idle class, though they complained also, I think the system was
really a godsend by furnishing a device to kill time."
"But say there were a thousand shops in a city, hundreds, perhaps, of
the same sort, how could even the idlest find time to make their
"They really could not visit all, of course," I replied. "Those who
did a great deal of buying, learned in time where they might expect to
find what they wanted. This class had made a science of the
specialties of the shops, and bought at advantage, always getting the
most and best for the least money. It required, however, long
experience to acquire this knowledge. Those who were too busy, or
bought too little to gain it, took their chances and were generally
unfortunate, getting the least and worst for the most money. It was
the merest chance if persons not experienced in shopping received the
value of their money."
"But why did you put up with such a shockingly inconvenient
arrangement when you saw its faults so plainly?" Edith asked me.
"It was like all our social arrangements," I replied. "You can see
their faults scarcely more plainly than we did, but we saw no remedy
"Here we are at the store of our ward," said Edith, as we turned in at
the great portal of one of the magnificent public buildings I had
observed in my morning walk. There was nothing in the exterior aspect
of the edifice to suggest a store to a representative of the
nineteenth century. There was no display of goods in the great
windows, or any device to advertise wares, or attract custom. Nor was
there any sort of sign or legend on the front of the building to
indicate the character of the business carried on there; but instead,
above the portal, standing out from the front of the building, a
majestic life-size group of statuary, the central figure of which was
a female ideal of Plenty, with her cornucopia. Judging from the
composition of the throng passing in and out, about the same
proportion of the sexes among shoppers obtained as in the nineteenth
century. As we entered, Edith said that there was one of these great
distributing establishments in each ward of the city, so that no
residence was more than five or ten minutes' walk from one of them. It
was the first interior of a twentieth-century public building that I
had ever beheld, and the spectacle naturally impressed me deeply. I
was in a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows
on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet
above. Beneath it, in the centre of the hall, a magnificent fountain
played, cooling the atmosphere to a delicious freshness with its
spray. The walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints, calculated
to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior.
Around the fountain was a space occupied with chairs and sofas, on
which many persons were seated conversing. Legends on the walls all
about the hall indicated to what classes of commodities the counters
below were devoted. Edith directed her steps towards one of these,
where samples of muslin of a bewildering variety were displayed, and
proceeded to inspect them.
"Where is the clerk?" I asked, for there was no one behind the
counter, and no one seemed coming to attend to the customer.
"I have no need of the clerk yet," said Edith; "I have not made my
"It was the principal business of clerks to help people to make their
selections in my day," I replied.
"What! To tell people what they wanted?"
"Yes; and oftener to induce them to buy what they didn't want."
"But did not ladies find that very impertinent?" Edith asked,
wonderingly. "What concern could it possibly be to the clerks whether
people bought or not?"
"It was their sole concern," I answered. "They were hired for the
purpose of getting rid of the goods, and were expected to do their
utmost, short of the use of force, to compass that end."
"Ah, yes! How stupid I am to forget!" said Edith. "The storekeeper and
his clerks depended for their livelihood on selling the goods in your
day. Of course that is all different now. The goods are the nation's.
They are here for those who want them, and it is the business of the
clerks to wait on people and take their orders; but it is not the
interest of the clerk or the nation to dispose of a yard or a pound of
anything to anybody who does not want it." She smiled as she added,
"How exceedingly odd it must have seemed to have clerks trying to
induce one to take what one did not want, or was doubtful about!"
"But even a twentieth-century clerk might make himself useful in
giving you information about the goods, though he did not tease you to
buy them," I suggested.
"No," said Edith, "that is not the business of the clerk. These
printed cards, for which the government authorities are responsible,
give us all the information we can possibly need."
I saw then that there was fastened to each sample a card containing in
succinct form a complete statement of the make and materials of the
goods and all its qualities, as well as price, leaving absolutely no
point to hang a question on.
"The clerk has, then, nothing to say about the goods he sells?" I
"Nothing at all. It is not necessary that he should know or profess to
know anything about them. Courtesy and accuracy in taking orders are
all that are required of him."
"What a prodigious amount of lying that simple arrangement saves!" I
"Do you mean that all the clerks misrepresented their goods in your
day?" Edith asked.
"God forbid that I should say so!" I replied, "for there were many who
did not, and they were entitled to especial credit, for when one's
livelihood and that of his wife and babies depended on the amount of
goods he could dispose of, the temptation to deceive the customer--or
let him deceive himself--was wellnigh overwhelming. But, Miss Leete, I
am distracting you from your task with my talk."
"Not at all. I have made my selections." With that she touched a
button, and in a moment a clerk appeared. He took down her order on a
tablet with a pencil which made two copies, of which he gave one to
her, and enclosing the counterpart in a small receptacle, dropped it
into a transmitting tube.
"The duplicate of the order," said Edith as she turned away from the
counter, after the clerk had punched the value of her purchase out of
the credit card she gave him, "is given to the purchaser, so that any
mistakes in filling it can be easily traced and rectified."
"You were very quick about your selections," I said. "May I ask how
you knew that you might not have found something to suit you better in
some of the other stores? But probably you are required to buy in your
"Oh, no," she replied. "We buy where we please, though naturally most
often near home. But I should have gained nothing by visiting other
stores. The assortment in all is exactly the same, representing as it
does in each case samples of all the varieties produced or imported by
the United States. That is why one can decide quickly, and never need
visit two stores."
"And is this merely a sample store? I see no clerks cutting off goods
or marking bundles."
"All our stores are sample stores, except as to a few classes of
articles. The goods, with these exceptions, are all at the great
central warehouse of the city, to which they are shipped directly from
the producers. We order from the sample and the printed statement of
texture, make, and qualities. The orders are sent to the warehouse,
and the goods distributed from there."
"That must be a tremendous saving of handling," I said. "By our
system, the manufacturer sold to the wholesaler, the wholesaler to the
retailer, and the retailer to the consumer, and the goods had to be
handled each time. You avoid one handling of the goods, and eliminate
the retailer altogether, with his big profit and the army of clerks it
goes to support. Why, Miss Leete, this store is merely the order
department of a wholesale house, with no more than a wholesaler's
complement of clerks. Under our system of handling the goods,
persuading the customer to buy them, cutting them off, and packing
them, ten clerks would not do what one does here. The saving must be
"I suppose so," said Edith, "but of course we have never known any
other way. But, Mr. West, you must not fail to ask father to take you
to the central warehouse some day, where they receive the orders from
the different sample houses all over the city and parcel out and send
the goods to their destinations. He took me there not long ago, and
it was a wonderful sight. The system is certainly perfect; for
example, over yonder in that sort of cage is the dispatching clerk.
The orders, as they are taken by the different departments in the
store, are sent by transmitters to him. His assistants sort them and
enclose each class in a carrier-box by itself. The dispatching clerk
has a dozen pneumatic transmitters before him answering to the general
classes of goods, each communicating with the corresponding department
at the warehouse. He drops the box of orders into the tube it calls
for, and in a few moments later it drops on the proper desk in the
warehouse, together with all the orders of the same sort from the
other sample stores. The orders are read off, recorded, and sent to be
filled, like lightning. The filling I thought the most interesting
part. Bales of cloth are placed on spindles and turned by machinery,
and the cutter, who also has a machine, works right through one bale
after another till exhausted, when another man takes his place; and it
is the same with those who fill the orders in any other staple. The
packages are then delivered by larger tubes to the city districts, and
thence distributed to the houses. You may understand how quickly it is
all done when I tell you that my order will probably be at home sooner
than I could have carried it from here."
"How do you manage in the thinly settled rural districts?" I asked.
"The system is the same," Edith explained; "the village sample shops
are connected by transmitters with the central county warehouse, which
may be twenty miles away. The transmission is so swift, though, that
the time lost on the way is trifling. But, to save expense, in many
counties one set of tubes connect several villages with the warehouse,
and then there is time lost waiting for one another. Sometimes it is
two or three hours before goods ordered are received. It was so where
I was staying last summer, and I found it quite inconvenient".2
"There must be many other respects also, no doubt, in which the
country stores are inferior to the city stores," I suggested.
"No," Edith answered, "they are otherwise precisely as good. The
sample shop of the smallest village, just like this one, gives you
your choice of all the varieties of goods the nation has, for the
county warehouse draws on the same source as the city warehouse."
As we walked home I commented on the great variety in the size and
cost of the houses. "How is it," I asked, "that this difference is
consistent with the fact that all citizens have the same income?"
"Because," Edith explained, "although the income is the same, personal
taste determines how the individual shall spend it. Some like fine
horses; others, like myself, prefer pretty clothes; and still others
want an elaborate table. The rents which the nation receives for these
houses vary, according to size, elegance, and location, so that
everybody can find something to suit. The larger houses are usually
occupied by large families, in which there are several to contribute
to the rent; while small families, like ours, find smaller houses more
convenient and economical. It is a matter of taste and convenience
wholly. I have read that in old times people often kept up
establishments and did other things which they could not afford for
ostentation, to make people think them richer than they were. Was it
really so, Mr. West?"
"I shall have to admit that it was," I replied.
"Well, you see, it could not be so nowadays; for everybody's income is
known, and it is known that what is spent one way must be saved
2 I am informed since the above is in type that this lack
of perfection in the distributing service of some of the country
districts is to be remedied, and that soon every village will have its
own set of tubes.