Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    The profession of street stationer is one of comparative novelty, and cannot be traced so far back as the advent of Rowland Hill with his famous system of penny postage, which has proved such a bonus to the nation, and has already gone far to add another generic designation to the genus homo, who being once described as a cooking animal, may now with nearly equal propriety be styled a "corresponding" one. It was the increase of correspondence, consequent upon the establishment and success of the penny postage, and no other cause, that called the street stationer into existence, and located him with his back to the carriage-way and his feet to the kerb-stone, and set him chanting, in a monotonous voice, "Here you are, ladies and gen'lmen - best Bath note-paper a penny for a ole half quire- hangflups three- halfpence a packet, an' sealin'-vax a penny a stick."
    This out-of-door trader is generally a shabby and rather broken-down specimen of the low-class man-about-town, who has lingered and idled and dawdled and hesitated so long in the choice of a profession, that it is at length too late to make his selection. He has been driven to exertion to satisfy the wants of nature, and being constitutionally averse, as well to the discipline as the toil of regular labour, he has contrived to invest a small capital in a species of property conveniently portable, and thrown himself upon the patronage of the public, to whose epistolary wants he dedicates his compelled energies. This is all very well so far as it goes; and we might congratulate him, and the community he assumes to serve, upon his having at length condescended to get his own living in any lawful way, were it not for the fact, that the species of industry he has adopted is palpably open to the charge of deception and predacity. It happens to be the case that, owing to some cause or other very intimately connected with the subject of popular education, not one in twenty of that class of the London industrials who, when they correspond at all, may be said to correspond from hand to mouth, and who only purchase stationery when they want to write a letter, know how many sheets of paper go to a quire. Of this state of ignorance the street stationer takes a professional advantage, and sells his confiding customers eight sheets instead of twelve, under the denomination of "a ole half quire." As he himself gives eightpence for five quires, to sell at a penny the half quire would yield him a profit less remunerative than he would relish, and one which perhaps he would consider not worth the trouble attending the sale: so he divides his quire, as the Irishman divided his cheese, into three halves, and thus realizes a profit of nearly ninety per cent., three-fourths of which is due to the ignorance of his patrons. His "hangflups," as he calls his envelopes, are subjected to a similar process of expansion, though they are not susceptible, by any species of management, of such a profitable transformation as that effected by bisecting a quire of paper in the mode above described. Of these, however, he makes five quarters to the hundred, which after all pays handsomely for the trouble of the division.
    Unlike other street traders, who carry a portable stock, and wander where they choose at their own sweet will, the stationer of the flag-stones finds it as much to his convenience as to his interest to confine himself to one locality. Stationery, which derives its designation from being sold by persons who occupied stations, in contradistinction to travelling hawkers and pedlars - and which was originally and properly spelled stationary - would appear to be a species of merchandise the sale of which naturally attracts and cultivates a connection; and hence it follows that the longer a man remains in one place, where the public know where to find him, the more he sells, and the more he is likely to sell. This, of course, is one reason why the subject of the present sketch is found in full voice - though not in full quire - from week to week, and from month to month, chanting his delusive notes in the self-same spot. Another reason, and one which must have considerable weight in determining his choice of a position, will be found in the damageable nature of the commodities in which he deals. He cannot afford to be caught in a heavy shower: water would be almost as fatal as ink to the delicate gloss of his note-paper; and his "hangflups," which wear a very livid appearance, and are but sickly to look at, would dissolve into pulp under the pressure of the hydropathic treatment, in the shape of a summer storm. Hence he takes up his stand within a very short distance of some convenient shelter, to which he can repair when a lowering cloud threatens to moisten his merchandise. Whenever you see him harnessed with his little tray, fluttering his pretended halfquire in the faces of the passers-by, and hear him pattering his never-ending strain in their ears, you may be sure that not far off, in some direction or other, there is a dry archway, a covered court, or some roomy shelter, where, in company with the umbrellaless crowd, he can take his stand in less than a minute, should it come on to rain; and where, too, he has an opportunity of prosecuting his commerce among a large party whom the shower has brought into temporary companionship.
    It is but fair to state that some of the members of this fraternity approximate rather nearer than the majority of them do to a just conception of what is due to the purchaser of a half-quire of paper, and give him nine sheets for his penny. This is a step in the right direction; and we are sorry that at present we can report no further improvement, and that even this small instalment of justice is but partially practised. We made the experiment of buying at two or three locations very lately, and in no case obtained more than nine sheets for the price of twelve. Now here is a chance for some enterprising genius, if such a character is to be found among all the street stationers, to stand forth manfully in the cause of honesty, and to earn a character by dispelling the popular hallucination on the subject of a quire of paper, in awarding his customers the right number of sheets for their money. We venture to predict that the first man among them who shall do this will find his account in it, and realize, through "small profits and quick returns," a larger weekly income than he has averaged hitherto by defrauding his patrons to the tune of thirty per cent. We promise him moreover that, clever as it may be thought to trick the multitude, and sweet as stolen waters are, he shall find that the practice of integrity is a policy incomparably more profitable, and the crust purchased by an honest penny infinitely more sweet and wholesome.