Well who’d have thought it? Not me anyway. I just wrote the stories as stories. However, at a recent author event where the reminiscences came thick and fast from the audience, it was pointed out that ‘Our Best Attention,’ my novel set in a department store in the 1970s, was social history.
The book described a setting, a staff group and customers that are now, sadly, long gone. The loss of the whole ethos of service to customers and care for and about staff seems to have disappeared almost without trace in our modern world of minimum wage, zero hours contracts and, of course the internet.
Specific aspects of the book were pointed out to me. For example, the legion of ladies left without potential husbands after the first world war: no families, children or grandchildren for them. So sad. Miss McPherson in the chapter, “The Bequest,” is really a tribute to these often very kindly women. The concept of “Model Gowns,” the unquestioning ubiquity of a “Furs” department, and the employment of war disabled staff have all disappeared. No one starts their “wedding china” off any more with the hope of adding to it throughout a long married life. Can staff members simply arrange for a family member to be employed these days? Mrs Da Costa could in “The Square Peg” and Mr Soames did in “Operation Limelight”. Even the language has changed: no one is asked to “Come forward Miss Glover” as in “Storm in the Teacups” or even to always refer to each other so formally as always to use surnames.
Life for staff in department stores of the past was very different from now. At the time of the 1892 fire in Jenners store in Edinburgh, Scotland (one of the stores which were the inspiration for the setting of ‘Our Best Attention’ my bestselling novel), 120 staff lived on the premises. On the third and fourth floors were the bedrooms for lady assistants along with Reading and Drawing Rooms. The young men had rooms on the fifth and sixth floors with a spacious Reading Room and a splendid Smoking Room en suite. There was a manager for this accommodation who occupied a suite of apartments on the third floor. As time moved on, and space was required for expansion of the business, any staff requiring accommodation were moved to a spacious hostel purchased by the company until only a handful remained and other accommodation was found for them.
As late as the 1930s there were clear standards for staff to maintain. Dress was a matter for female staff to provide for themselves but this had to adhere to a set style and hem length. Male staff were issued with a box of 12 starched collars: six to last the week and six to be sent to the laundry. They were expected to work long hours-almost a 12 hour day in some cases but there was fun too.
Despite the hard work, staff could join a wide variety of leisure activities. There was a golf club, a tennis club and a dramatic club. Shakespearean plays were performed in the gardens of Charles Jenners’ house at Duddingston.
It’s hard to imagine the all-encompassing nature of employment in such a department store in these days of self service and automatic checkout systems and, of course, internet shopping. For staff in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, our modern way of shopping life would have been every bit as unimaginable!
(Information from ‘Jenners: A Short History 1838-1988 and from ladies attending author events)
One of the most popular chapters in the book “Our Best Attention” is set in the Tea Room of a large department store and concerns the nefarious activities of a group of Edinburgh ladies. People are always asking about the ‘Tea Room Ladies’ and whether they will reappear in book 2. Well, the short answer is that, yes, they most certainly will. This is due partly to my enjoying writing about this particular set of ladies, and partly because I love Tea Rooms! I always have.
At a recent author event, a former employee of a certain large department store brought me in all sorts of memorabilia. This included information about the restaurants and tea rooms there. Well it was a goldmine for me!
An 1895 advertisement for the “Luncheon and Tea Rooms,” a novel feature of Edinburgh life, described them as having, “everything served in first class style at moderate prices.” The elegant mezzanine floor with a gallery was treated in Alhambra style and decorated in cream and gold. A Writing Room, “fitted with every requisite for Ladies,” was immediately beside the Luncheon and Tea room and beside that a cloakroom where, “ladies may leave their wraps or have parcels addressed to them from other shops in town.”
All was clearly well for the ladies of Edinburgh. However, things weren’t too bad for the staff either. One irresistible fact I discovered was that staff could opt to have meals included as part of their pay. “Those who did ate lavishly and without restriction. A man was employed solely to carve the joints which were served to the staff. This was his only task and was a full time occupation.”
A happy staff then to provide the advertised, “refined service of the dainty and varied meals.”