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The Secret Life of Shop Girls: O. Henry’s Short Story “The Trimmed Lamp”

Department stores not only became a major source of employment for young urban white women beginning in the late 19th century; they also offered a new focus for stories and novels about life in America’s burgeoning cities. Writers as diverse as Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, and O. Henry often used the world of department stores and the shop girls who worked there to create a modern fiction (including a brand new form—the short story) that allowed readers to feel the texture of urban life. In “The Trimmed Lamp” (1906), O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) offered a sentimental and moralistic portrait of the after-hours lives of young New York working women. While Porter’s stories often focused on shop girls’ predicaments (he was considered, in the words of fellow writer Vachel Lindsay, “the little shop girls’ knight”), they were typically bathed in a sentimental glow.

Of course there are two sides to the question. Let us look at the other. We often hear “shop-girls” spoken of. No such persons exist. There are girls who work in shops. They make their living that way. But why turn their occupation into an adjective? Let us be fair. We do not refer to the girls who live on Fifth Avenue as “marriage-girls.”

Lou and Nancy were chums. They came to the big city to find work because there was not enough to eat at their homes to go around. Nancy was nineteen; Lou was twenty. Both were pretty, active, country girls who had ambition to go on the stage.

The little cherub that sits up aloft guided them to a cheap and respectable boarding house. Both found positions and became wage-earners. It is at the end of six months that I would beg you to step forward and be introduced to them. Meddlesome Reader: My Lady friends, Miss Nancy and Miss Lou. While you are shaking hands please take notice—cautiously—of their attire. Yes, cautiously; for they are as quick to resent a stare as a lady in a box at the horse show is.

Lou is a piece-work ironer in a hand laundry. She is clothed in a badly fitting purple dress, and her hat plume is four inches too long; but her ermine muff and scarf cost $25, and its fellow beasts will be ticketed in the windows at $7.98 before the season is over. Her cheeks are pink, and her light blue eyes bright. Contentment radiates from her.

Nancy you would call a shop-girl—because you have the habit. There is no type; but a perverse generation is always seeking a type; so this is what the type should be. She has the high-ratted pompadour, and the exaggerated straight-front. Her skirt is shoddy, but has the correct flare. No furs protect her against the bitter spring air, but she wears her short broadcloth jacket as jauntily as though it were Persian lamb! On her face and in her eyes, remorseless type-seeker, is the typical shop-girl expression. It is a look of silent but contemptuous revolt against cheated womanhood; of sad prophecy of the vengeance to come. When she laughs her loudest the look is still there. The same look can be seen in the eyes of Russian peasants; and those of us left will see it some day on Gabriel’s face when he comes to blow us up. It is a look that should wither and abash man; but he has been known to smirk at it and offer flowers—with a string tied to them.

Now lift your hat and come away, while you receive Lou’s cheery “See you again,” and the sardonic, sweet smile of Nancy that seems, somehow, to miss you and go fluttering like a white moth up over the housetops to the stars.

The two waited on the corner for Dan. Dan was Lou’s steady company. Faithful? Well, he was on hand when Mary would have had to hire a dozen subpoena servers to find her lamb.

“ Ain’t you cold, Nancy?” said Lou. “Say, what a chump you are for working in that old store for $8 a week! I made $18.50 last week. Of course ironing ain’t as swell work as selling lace behind a counter, but it pays. None of us ironers make less than $10. And I don’t know that it’s any less respectful work, either.”

“ You can have it,” said Nancy, with uplifted nose. “I’ll take my eight a week and hall bedroom. I like to be among nice things and swell people. And look what a chance I’ve got! Why, one of our glove girls married a Pittsburg—steel maker, or blacksmith or something—the other day worth a million dollars. I’ll catch a swell myself some time. I ain’t bragging on my looks or anything; but I’ll take my chances where there’s big prizes offered. What show would a girl have in a laundry?”

“ Why, that’s where I met Dan,” said Lou, triumphantly. “He came in for his Sunday shirt and collars and saw me at the first board, ironing. We all try to get to work at the first board. Ella Maginnis was sick that day, and I had her place. He said he noticed my arms first, how round and white they was. I had my sleeves rolled up. Some nice fellows come into laundries. You can tell 'em by their bringing their clothes in suit cases, and turning in the door sharp and sudden.”

“ How can you wear a waist like that, Lou?” said Nancy, gazing down at the offending article with sweet scorn in her heavy-lidded eyes. “It shows fierce taste.”

“ This waist?” cried Lou, with wide-eyed indignation. "Why, I paid $16 for this waist. It’s worth twenty-five. A woman left it to be laundered, and never called for it. The boss sold it to me. It’s got yards and yards of hand embroidery on it. Better talk about that ugly, plain thing you’ve got on.

“ This ugly, plain thing,” said Nancy, calmly, “was copied from one that Mrs. Van Alstyne Fisher was wearing. The girls say her bill in the store last year was $12,000. I made mine, myself. It cost me $1.50. Ten feet away you couldn’t tell it from hers.”

“ Oh, well,” said Lou, good-naturedly, “if you want to starve and put on airs, go ahead. But I’ll take my job and good wages; and after hours give me something as fancy and attractive to wear as I am able to buy.”

But just then Dan came—a serious young man with a ready-made necktie, who had escaped the city’s brand of frivolity—an electrician earning $30 per week who looked upon Lou with the sad eyes of Romeo, and thought her embroidered waist a web in which any fly should delight to be caught.

“ My friend, Mr. Owens—shake hands with Miss Danforth,” said Lou.

“ I’m mighty glad to know you, Miss Danforth,” said Dan, with outstretched hand. “I’ve heard Lou speak of you often.”

“ Thanks,” said Nancy, touching his fingers with the tips of her cool ones, “I’ve heard her mention you—a few times.”

Lou giggled.

“ Did you get that handshake from Mrs. Van Alstyne Fisher, Nance?” she asked.

“ If I did, you can feel safe in copying it,” said Nancy.

“ Oh, I couldn’t use it at all. It’s too stylish for me. It’s intended to set off diamond rings, that high shake is. Wait till I get a few and then I’ll try it.”

“ Learn it first,” said Nancy wisely, “and you’ll be more likely to get the rings.”

“ Now, to settle this argument,” said Dan, with his ready, cheerful smile, “Let me make a proposition. As I can’t take both of you up to Tiffany’s and do the right thing, what do you say to a little vaudeville? I’ve got the tickets. How about looking at stage diamonds since we can’t shake hands with the real sparklers?”

The faithful squire took his place close to the curb; Lou next, a little peacocky in her bright and pretty clothes; Nancy on the inside, slender, and soberly clothed as the sparrow, but with the true Van Alstyne Fisher walk—thus they set out for their evening’s moderate diversion.

I do not suppose that many look upon a great department store as an educational institution. But the one in which Nancy worked was something like that to her. She was surrounded by beautiful things that breathed of taste and refinement. If you live in an atmosphere of luxury, luxury is yours whether your money pays for it, or another’s.

The people she served were mostly women whose dress, manners, and position in the social world were quoted as criterions. From them Nancy began to take

toll—the best from each according to her view.

From one she would copy and practice a gesture, from another an eloquent lifting of an eyebrow, from others, a manner of walking, of carrying a purse, of smiling, of greeting a friend, of addressing “inferiors in station.” From her best beloved model, Mrs. Van Alstyne Fisher, she made requisition for that excellent thing, a soft, low voice as clear as silver and as perfect in articulation as the notes of a thrush. Suffused in the aura of this high social refinement and good breeding, it was impossible for her to escape a deeper effect of it. As good habits are said to be better than good principles, so, perhaps, good manners are better than good habits. The teachings of your parents may not keep alive your New England conscience; but if you sit on a straight-back chair and repeat the words “prisms and pilgrims” forty times the devil will flee from you. And when Nancy spoke in the Van Alstyne Fisher tones she felt the thrill of noblesse oblige to her very bones.

There was another source of learning in the great departmental school. Whenever you see three or four shop-girls gather in a bunch and jingle their wire bracelets as an accompaniment to apparently frivolous conversation, do not think that they are there for the purpose of criticizing the way Ethel does her back hair. The meeting may lack the dignity of the deliberative bodies of man; but it has all the importance of the occasion on which Eve and her first daughter first put their heads together to make Adam understand his proper place in the household. It is Woman’s Conference for Common Defense and Exchange of Strategical Theories of Attack and Repulse upon and against the World, which is a Stage, and Man, its Audience who Persists in Throwing Bouquets Thereupon. Woman, the most helpless of the young of any animal—with the fawn’s grace but without its fleetness; with the bird’s beauty but without its power of flight; with the honey-bee’s burden of sweetness but without its—Oh, let’s drop that simile—some of us may have been stung.

During this council of war they pass weapons one to another, and exchange stratagems that each has devised and formulated out of the tactics of life.

“ I says to 'im,” says Sadie, “ain’t you the fresh thing! Who do you suppose I am, to be addressing such a remark to me? And what do you think he says back to me?”

The heads, brown, black, flaxen, red, and yellow bob together; the answer is given; and the parry to the thrust is decided upon, to be used by each thereafter in passages-at-arms with the common enemy, man.

Thus Nancy learned the art of defense; and to women successful defense means victory.

The curriculum of a department store is a wide one. Perhaps no other college could have fitted her as well for her life’s ambition—the drawing of a matrimonial prize.

Her station in the store was a favored one. The music room was near enough for her to hear and become familiar with the works of the best composers—at least to acquire the familiarity that passed for appreciation in the social world in which she was vaguely trying to set a tentative and aspiring foot. She absorbed the educating influence of art wares, of costly and dainty fabrics, of adornments that are almost culture to women.

The other girls soon became aware of Nancy’s ambition. “Here comes your millionaire, Nancy,” they would call to her whenever any man who looked the role approached her counter. It got to be a habit of men, who were hanging about while their women folk were shopping, to stroll over to the handkerchief counter and dawdle over the cambric squares. Nancy’s imitation high-bred air and genuine dainty beauty, was what attracted. Many men thus came to display their graces before her. Some them may have been millionaires; others were certainly no more than their sedulous apes. Nancy learned to discriminate. There was a window at the end of the handkerchief counter; and she could see the rows of vehicles waiting for the shoppers in the street below. She looked, and perceived that automobiles differ as well as do their owners.

Once a fascinating gentleman bought four dozen handkerchiefs, and wooed her across the counter with a King Cophetua air. When he had gone one of the girls said:

“ What’s wrong, Nance, that you didn’t warm up to that fellow? He looks the swell article, all right, to me.”

“ Him?” said Nancy, with her coolest, sweetest, most impersonal, Van Alstyne Fisher smile; “not for mine. I saw him drive up outside. A 12 H. P. machine and an Irish chauffeur! And you saw what kind of handkerchiefs he bought—silk! And he’s got dactylis on him. Give me the real thing or nothing, if you please.”

Two of the most “refined” women in the store—a forelady and a cashier—had a few “swell gentlemen friends” with whom they now and then dined. Once they included Nancy in an invitation. The dinner took place in a spectacular cafe whose tables are engaged for New Year’s eve a year in advance. There were two “gentlemen friends”—one without any hair on his head—high living ungrew it; and we can prove it—the other a young man whose worth and sophistication he impressed upon you in two convincing ways—he swore that all the wine was corked; and he wore diamond cuff buttons. This young man perceived irresistible excellencies in Nancy. His taste ran to shop-girls; and here was one that added the voice and manners of his high social world to the franker charms of her own caste. So, on the following day, he appeared in the store and made her a serious proposal of marriage over a box of hem-stitched, grass-bleached Irish linens. Nancy declined. A brown pompadour ten feet away had been using her eyes and ears. When the rejected suitor had gone she heaped carboys of upbraidings and horror upon Nancy’s head.

“ What a terrible little fool you are! That fellow’s a millionaire—he’s a nephew of old Van Skittles himself. And he was talking on the level, too. Have you gone crazy, Nance?”

“ Have I?” said Nancy. “I didn’t take him, did I? He isn’t a millionaire so hard that you could notice it, anyhow. His family only allows him $20,000 a year to spend. The bald-headed fellow was guying him about it the other night at supper.”

The brown pompadour came nearer and narrowed her eyes.

“ Say, what do you want?” she inquired, in a voice hoarse for lack of chewing-gum. “Ain’t that enough for you? Do you want to be a Mormon, and marry Rockefeller and Gladstone Dowie and the King of Spain and the whole bunch? Ain’t $20,000 a year good enough for you?”

Nancy flushed a little under the level gaze of the black, shallow eyes.

“ It wasn’t altogether the money, Carrie,” she explained. “His friend caught him in a rank lie the other night at dinner. It was about some girl he said he hadn’t been to the theater with. Well, I can’t stand a liar. Put everything together—I don’t like him; and that settles it. When I sell out it’s not going to be on any bargain day. I’ve got to have something that sits up in a chair like a man, anyhow. Yes, I’m looking out for a catch; but it’s got to be able to do something more than make a noise like a toy bank.”

“ The physiopathic ward for yours!” said the brown pompadour, walking away.

These high ideas, if not ideals—Nancy continued to cultivate on $8 per week. She bivouacked on the trail of the great unknown “catch,” eating her dry bread and tightening her belt day by day. On her face was the faint, soldierly, sweet, grim smile of the preordained man-hunter. The store was her forest; and many times she raised her rifle at game that seemed broad-antlered and big; but always some deep unerring instinct—perhaps of the huntress, perhaps of the woman—made her hold her fire and take up the trail again.

Lou flourished in the laundry. Out of her $18.50 per week she paid $6 for her room and board. The rest went mainly for clothes. Her opportunities for bettering her taste and manners were few compared with Nancy’s. In the steaming laundry there was nothing but work, work and her thoughts of the evening pleasures to come. Many costly and showy fabrics passed under her iron; and it may be that her growing fondness for dress was thus transmitted to her through the conducting metal.

When the day’s work was over Dan awaited her outside, her faithful shadow in whatever light she stood.

Sometimes he cast an honest and troubled glance at Lou’s clothes that increased in conspicuity rather than in style; but this was no disloyalty; he deprecated the attention they called to her in the streets.

And Lou was no less faithful to her chum. There was a law that Nancy should go with them on whatsoever outings they might take. Dan bore the extra burden heartily and in good cheer. It might be said that Lou furnished the color, Nancy the tone, and Dan the weight of the distraction-seeking trio. The escort, in his neat but obviously ready-made suit, his ready-made tie and unfailing, genial, ready-made wit never startled or clashed. He was of that good kind that you are likely to forget while they are present, but remember distinctly after they are gone.

To Nancy’s superior taste the flavor of these ready-made pleasures was sometimes a little bitter; but she was young; and youth is a gourmand, when it cannot be a gourmet.

“ Dan is always wanting me to marry him right away,” Lou told her once. “But why should I. I’m independent. I can do as I please with the money I earn; and he never would agree for me to keep on working afterward. And say, Nance, what do you want to stick to that old store for, and half starve and half dress yourself? I could get you a place in the laundry right now if you’d come. It seems to me that you could afford to be a little less stuck-up if you could make a good deal more money.”

“ I don’t think I’m stuck-up, Lou,” said Nancy, “but I’d rather live on half rations and stay where I am. I suppose I’ve got the habit. It’s the chance I want. I don’t expect to be always behind a counter. I’m learning something new every day. I’m right up against refined and rich people all the time—even if I do only wait on them; and I’m not missing any pointers that I see passing around.”

“ Caught your millionaire yet?” asked Lou with her teasing laugh.

“ I haven’t selected one yet,” answered Nancy. “I’ve been looking them over.”

“ Goodness! The idea of picking over 'em! Don’t you ever let one get by you Nance even if he’s a few dollars shy. But of course you’re joking—millionaires don’t think about working girls like us.”

“ It might be better for them if they did,” said Nancy, with cool wisdom. “Some of us could teach them how to take care of their money.”

“ If one was to speak to me,” laughed Lou, “I know I’d have a duck-fit.”

“ That’s because you don’t know any. The only difference between swells and other people is you have to watch 'em closer. Don’t you think that red silk lining is just a little bit too bright for that coat, Lou?”

Lou looked at the plain, dull olive jacket of her friend.

“ Well, no I don’t—but it may seem so beside that faded-looking thing you’ve got on.”

“ This jacket,” said Nancy, complacently, “has exactly the cut and fit of one that Mrs. Van Alstyne Fisher was wearing the other day. The material cost me $3.98. I suppose hers cost about $100 or more.”

“ Oh, well,” said Lou lightly, “it don’t strike me as millionaire bait. Shouldn’t wonder if I catch one before you do, anyway.”

Truly it would have taken a philosopher to decide upon the values of the theories held by the two friends. Lou, lacking that certain pride and fastidiousness that keeps stores and desks filled with girls working for the barest living, thumped away gaily with her iron in the noisy and stifling laundry. Her wages supported her even beyond the point of comfort; so that her dress profited until sometimes she cast a sidelong glance of impatience at the neat but inelegant apparel of Dan—Dan the constant, the immutable, the undeviating.

As for Nancy, her case was one of tens of thousands. Silks and jewels and laces and ornaments and the perfume and music of the fine world of good-breeding and taste—these were made for woman; they are her equitable portion. Let her keep near them if they are a part of life to her, and if she will. She is no traitor to herself, as Esau was; for she keeps her birthrigh

Source: O. Henry, “The Trimmed Lamp,” The Trimmed Lamp and Other Stories of the Four Million (New York, 1906, 1915), 3–21.

See Also:Gertie Refuses a Suitor: Edna Ferber's "The Frog and the Puddle"
Effie Bauer Turns Down Gabie Marks: Edna Ferber's "One of the Old Girls"