Dry Goods Defined

Dry Goods.

Textile fabrics, and related articles of trade; as, cloth, shawls, wraps, ready-made garments, blankets, ribbons, thread, yarn, hosiery, millinery, etc., in distinction from hardware, groceries, etc. In this sense the term is used almost exclusively in the United States, though not, as generally supposed, a term of American origin. The first recorded use of the term “dry goods” to describe textile fabrics collectively, occurred in a report to the English House of Commons in the year 1745, relating to the infamous practice of smuggling, and containing the following passage: “From Yarmouth His Majestie’s officers give account that on the 22d of October, one hundred and twelve horses were laden on the beach with smuggled dry goods by upwards of ninety men, guarded by ten persons with firearms; and on the 20th of the same month forty horses were loaded with dry goods at Hartley by riders well armed.” In both England and Canada at present “mercery” and “drapery” are the terms used to describe dry goods.

Recent government statistics indicate that in the United States there is more money invested in the dry goods business, in its various branches, than in any other industry, the total amount slightly exceeding $20,000,000,000. That coming next in point of money invested, is railroads, with $12,000,000,000. The extraordinary industrial progress of the United States during the past thirty years, or since the Civil War, is the greatest wonder of modern civilization. It is a glorious proof of the unlimited power of human exertion, and of the superiority of American genius. Thirty years ago the United States had but 30,000,000 souls; in 1890 it had above 65,000,000. Then we had only 141 cities, with 5,000,000 inhabitants; the last census showed 443 cities, with 12,000,000 inhabitants. The woolen industry in the year referred to put on the market $80,000,000 worth of goods; in 1890 these figures were increased to $280,000,000. In 1860 we imported 227,000,000 yards of cotton fabrics; in 1890 only about 25,000,000 yards. Moreover, our spinning mills and factories of cotton goods now export annually over 150,000,000 yards of their products. The silk industry thirty years ago employed only 5,000 individuals, to-day it employs 35,000 individuals. The products of the silk factories then a mounted to $6,0000,00. In 1891 they were worth $40,000,000. In 1860 the Union had 22,000,000 sheep, thirty years after it had 40,000,000, while the wool produced increased from 40,000,000 pounds, to 260,000,000 pounds. In these thirty years while the population has only doubled, the industries have, in most cases, increased four-fold, and in a few instances five-fold, while we exported last year three times as much as in 1860. The merchant who peruses this retrospect may well feel proud of the record of his calling, which is absolutely without parallel in the world’s history. The dry goods element is one of the greatest features of our Nation’s commercial life, and has undoubtedly done the largest share toward developing our national and industrial prosperity. The dry goods store is found in every village and hamlet, and is the center of trade and barter in all rural communities. In the larger towns and cities the dry goods interest forms one of the most important departments of business, and greatly helps in sustaining all other branches of trade. The consumptive demand for dry goods increases in ratio corresponding with the increase of population. A business of such magnitude, involving so much capital, and so intimately interwoven with the wants of our modern civilization, requires the best management possible to make it successful. Year by year dry goods stores are growing larger and larger with added lines of merchandise, until it is now possible to procure at the large department stores almost any article in common use by mankind.

The two largest department stores in the world are in Paris and London, the “Bon Marche,” in Paris, and “Whiteley’s,” in London. The story of the Bon Marche, owned by Aristide Boucicaut, is one that blends enterprise and philanthropy, individual genius and cooperative thrift, man’s invention and woman’s perseverance in a way unmatched elsewhere in history. Boucicaut was born in France in 1810. His coming into the world was so unimportant that he never knew his birthday. The boy received no education. Barely able to read and write enough to keep rude accounts, natural energy made him adopt the humble and not cheerful occupation of a peddler. With $25 worth of miscellaneous goods known in France as noveautes novelties we say he took to the road and patiently plodded through hamlet and village until he had made enough money to buy a half interest in a small store in Paris called the “Bon Marche” (cheap market). In 1877 the peddler who had laid aside his pack 40 years previous, died the absolute head of the Bon Marche dry goods establishment, whose capital had became millions, and whose 3,000 employees mourned him as a father. He was most happily married. His wife was of his own disposition frugal, far-sighted, sagacious. She helped all his plans, made their home happy and has carried on the immense business since his death. Boucicaut, seconded by his wife, opened evening schools for their army of clerks. He had clever teachers of various languages, of mathematics, drawing, writing, music, dancing, reading, theatricals. The life of the miserable “calicoes” of Paris prior to his time was as squalid as it was despised. He created for that class, pleasure, dignity, reward, opportunities never before contemplated as even possible. He founded a home for his women and girl employees, and opened a dining-room where both men and women are fed at the expense of the store. Later he opened a boarding house for the men and boys. There is no charge in the restaurant, open to employees only, except for “extras.” There are more than 2,500 men and women living thus, under a form of socialism, that has proved wholly free from danger and rich in blessing. Married employees have their own homes apart from the establishment. All others can find lodging and subsistence under its protection. There is a smoking-room for the men, there are hair-dressing rooms, music-rooms, billiard-rooms, a medical staff and dispensary all free. At sixty years a pension is provided for men or for those at any age who have been with the house twenty years. Women at fifty are retirable on pension, or after fifteen years continuous service. There is free delivery of goods for fifteen miles outside as well as in the city. Goods are always exchanged without question if unsatisfactory for any reason. The success of the establishment is due, first, to excellence in quality of goods; second, to politeness and intelligence in clerks; third, to prudence in spending money on mere show; finally, to affording in each stock variety enough in grade and price to suit alike the poorest and the richest.

Whiteley’s great London shop is a strange mingling of commercial elements. He does not pretend to be a merchant, but announces himself as a “universal provider.” When it is investigated what this means, there will be found a great store stocked with everything to eat, drink and to wear that the human imagination can conceive. He prides himself that no customer can send an order to him for anything in the world that he will furnish him, even to a wife. The character of wages paid, and the general conduct of the business is a marvel, and one of the greatest curiosities of commercial life in the world.


Excerpt from A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods РBy George S. Cole, published in 1892