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doing business for at least twenty-one years. Their peculiar method of operation is to sell their goods without any written contract whatever, upon the purchaser's verbal agreement to pay so much a week. This evidently presupposes that they select only responsible persons as customers, for in case a purchaser refuses to make payment, their goods are lost, as they have no contract. They are quite an honest class of men, and in this peculiar and interesting fashion have carried on their business in a small way for many years, without ever getting into the courts or having any serious difficulty with their customers. In the opinion of the man from whom this information was obtained, a man of high intelligence and intimate acquaintance with the conditions surrounding the traffic, their activity has been an almost unmixed advantage to their patrons. They are a small class of small dealers doing a small business in a primitive way on a basis of greater or less personal acquaintance with their customers.
Turning from this survival of older conditions, we come next upon the great class of instalment peddlers proper, whose number runs into the thousands. They are nearly all Jews, largely from Eastern Europe. They either act as "pullers-in, going about from house to house and bringing people into the shops, or else peddle goods from door to door. A former employee of one of the dealers, thoroughly familiar with the business, says that no decent man is to be found among this class. This is badly over-stated; yet there is no question that these peddlers as a rule stand very low in the intellectual, social and moral scale. They are recruited largely from the lowest ranks of immigrants, they often live herded together under conditions that make decent life impossible, they work from early morning until night, commonly for a mere pittance above board and lodging. Many of them do not speak English at all, and very few possess even a fair education. The only qualification required is a certain ability as a salesmen, together with a good deal of persistence. Under such conditions of early training, education and environment, it is not strange that the worst business qualities, rather than the better, develop in the peddlers, and one who understands the situation will be slow in blaming them for conditions of which they are a product no less than a cause. The impression one receives from contact with the bad dealers, who are but peddlers one degree advanced, is likewise one rather of defective moral development than of deliberate wickedness.
This brings us, then, to the third class of peddlers so-called, who are dealers in all but the name. They have no shops, but
buy goods from the larger dealers or the wholesalers, selling in their own name on instalments. This class is a natural outgrowth from the preceding one and differs from it only in possessing more experience and business ability. After working un der a boss for some time and seeing all the profits going into his till, the peddler, if a man of any ambition and ability, naturally enough desires to obtain a share in them by setting up in business for himself, a thing easy enough to do under the remarkable credit conditions prevailing on the East Side. Commonly they do not succeed in keeping their heads above water for more than a year or two. The number of these small peddler dealers is very large, and if to their number we add the custom peddlers and the dealers strictly so-called, we arrive at the actual number of dealers as reaching into the thousands.*
So much by way of general description of the peddlers. The larger dealers are simply those picked out by a process of natural selection, whether by reason of greater experience, shrewdness, rascality, or any of the thousand and one qualities that contribute to business success. Practically every dealer has been at some time a peddler, and has worked his way up. A majority of the dealers are honest, hard-working men, while some few of them are pre-eminent rascals. It is these rascals who have brought the whole business into disrepute. No more extended description of the dealers is necessary than the fact that they are the stronger of the peddler class already described. Το study their rise is to study one phase of the process by which the alien becomes a more or less worthy citizen of the republic.
It is evident from what has been said that one may enter the instalment business as a peddler without capital and gradually work his way up. Accordingly it will be found that the amount of money invested is small in proportion to the business done. The peddler dealer's office is under his hat, or at best in his living apartment, and the business of even the largest dealers, except for the seventy-five or more who handle principally furniture, is carried on in little shops or offices whose size and display of goods would never suggest the volume of traffic that is transacted in them. They are simply centers from which the peddlers go out in the morning and to which they return at night, with their unsold goods, their collections and their contracts. The shop on Clinton Street which is probably the greatest instalment center on the whole East Side is a little place, perhaps not above fifteen feet by forty, with no furniture except a long counter, a desk or two, and a safe. On one side there are a few rolls of linoleum and other like articles, on the other, shelves filled with table covers, curtains and similar goods; and here and there a considerable number of fancy clocks, phonographs and vases are to be seen. And that is about all. The most prominent of the “fake” jewelry dealers contents himself with a good-sized office, nicely fitted up, but with no place to display goods. So much, then, for the character of the dealers, their relations to one another, their general method of doing business and their material equipment.
* For additional facts concerning the peddler dealers see page 43 of Appendix.
Having considered the high-grade business and the lowgrade business we are now prepared to examine intelligently the “fake” business and its great abuses. The "fake” business is said to have begun about seven years ago. The number of these “fake” dealers is comparatively small. The worst of them are not more than a dozen in number, and I question if there are altogether fifty men to whom the term can fairly be applied. But "fake" methods are employed by other than “fake” dealers. They have corrupted the whole low-grade business to a greater or less extent, and the two kinds of business are almost inextricably interwoven. The genuine “ fake” business has for its purpose the obtaining of cash on an instalment contract.
The main articles in which this business is done are watches and jewelry, ornamental wares, like vases and fancy clocks, photographs and other things equally useless to the purchasers. Nine-tenths of the cases of unfairness have to do with jewelry. The Legal Aid Society reports ninety per cent. of its instalment cases as concerned with jewelry. Mr. A. J. Kenyon, who has had wide experience, says he has met but one other than a jewelry case. Keiley & Haviland, attorneys, who led the last fight against the dealers, give similar testimony. The significance of all this lies in the fact that the purpose of a large part of these sales is absolutely fraudulent, and jewelry lends itself with special readiness to such fraudulent purposes.
As for quality and price, they bear no relation to each other. Almost all the jewelry handled is eight and ten carats fine, though it is all marked fourteen, contrary to the laws of New York. Eight-carat watches, being heavier and more finely engraved than fourteen, sell better to the ignorant Italians who are the chief purchasers. A watch movement costing $2.75 and a case costing $18 sell for $60 to $65. Lockets worth $2.50 bring $11 and $12. Of two rings exactly alike, one cost $6 and the other eighteen cents. . The latter was not bought of an instalment dealer. Illustrations might be multiplied. It is sometimes rashly stated that the first payment in all these cases covers the whole value of the goods. This is. rarely true. But on fancy articles, phonographs and the like, a buyer is more than lucky if he gets off with paying a half more than his purchase is worth, and he is extremely likely to pay several times the just price. In several kinds of jewelry I have yet to find a case in which the agreed price was not from three to five times the true value of the article. This makes no account, of course, of the sale of absolutely worthless things, like the rings mentioned above.
Now picture a set of conscienceless agents sent out with this class of goods to make sales upon almost any terms of payment under a contract that gives the dealer everything, and the results may be imagined. Add the consideration that one part of the purpose of such sales is to furnish material for law-suits, and that, with this in view, the agents are instructed to sell especially to the Italians, as being ignorant of their rights under the law and easily frightened. A further reason for such orders is the passionate fondness of the Italians for jewelry, making them ready buyers. Moreover, their irresponsibility in financial affairs, and their inveterate tendency to pawn their property render them, strange as it may seem, especially desirable prey for the “fakir.” It must be remembered that we are now speaking only of the pure
“fake” business, along with which every dealer carries on more or less of legitimate business. The peddler is instructed to make the first payment as large as possible, but, if obliged, to come down to nothing and get the business anyway-and he does it
To give many specific instances of the agents' methods would swell this report to a volume. Therefore we must content ourselves mainly with more general description. Sales are made largely to women while their husbands are away at work. The agent edges his way in, often an unwelcome visitor, and begins displaying his wares. The woman, in spite of herself, is interested. She learns that this trinket may be had for fifty cents, and as for the twenty-five cents a week, that is a very small sum, and its payment is distant enough to be no occasion for present worry. In a moment she has tried on the bauble, and before she knows what has happened, she has made a mark on a paper whose purport she does not understand, the peddler
has put down her husband's name and is gone, leaving her with her trinket and a debt that is quite as likely as not to land her husband in jail before he is done with it.
A couple of individual cases will perhaps serve to bring out more clearly the outrages of the dealers, and the helplessness of the purchasers. The following is the experience of Gregorio Della Pia, as told by himself in an affidavit:
About December, 1901, I purchased a watch and chain from Isaac Stromberg, an instalment dealer, who then had a place of business at 288 Madison street, Borough of Manhattan, city of New York. I agreed to pay the sum of $55 for these goods, $5 to be paid on delivery and the balance in instalments of $1 a week. When the goods were delivered I paid the $5 down. The collector did not call to collect the weekly instalments, although I was ready and willing to pay the same. I heard nothing further from Stromberg or his collector until the morning of March 3, 1902, at 2 o'clock, when three men entered my house. They pounded on the door and made great noise. The men threatened to smash down the door if it was not opened at once. My wife was greatly frightened by the noise and conduct of the men, and became ill from the effects of the fright.
Jumping out of bed, I ran down stairs, and going into the kitchen I found Stromberg and two other men. The door leading into the kitchen was forced, and they had got in that way.
As soon as I saw the men I said in surprise, “What do you want here?"
Then one of them showed some kind of a badge he had on his coat, and said: “You are under arrest-you must go to jail.”
He didn't tell me what I was arrested about, nor show me any papers nor authority. Then Stromberg spoke up and said: “You've got to pay $67.50; $50 for what you owe on a watch and chain and $17.50 for court expenses. you don't pay you go to jail." He then declared that he had a judgment against me.
I was terrified at their sudden entrance, and thought that the man with a badge was an officer. Then my wife was sick and begged me to pay.
Instantly Stromberg and one of the other men grabbed me and went with me to the bedroom. My money was in a pillow, where I put it to keep it safe, and, opening that, I took out the $67.50, which Stromberg took and gave me a receipt for. Then the whole party went away.
I was never served with a summons or process of any kind from the day I purchased the goods until the morning the three men called at my house to place me under arrest. I had absolutely no knowledge that the plaintiff, Stromberg, had sued me and obtained judgment against me until said day. I was always ready and willing to pay the instalments agreed upon in the contract, but the collector or agent never called for same. No" demand was ever made on me under an execution against my property. I owed Stromberg $50 on the contract.
Joe Romano, an Italian bootblack, employed at 928 Eighth avenue, was the victim in this second case. The scene described took place in Ludlow Street Jail. The account is reprinted verbatim from the “New York Tribune” of April 13, 1902.
As "Joe" related the history of his trouble in broken English,