Sharpers, Shopkeepers, and the Georgian Era

Georgian Shoppers, Sharpers

Georgian Shoppers, Courtesy of British Museum

Francis Grose defined a sharper in his eighteenth century dictionary as, “A cheat, one that lives by his wits.” In fact, a sharper was a common term applied in the eighteenth century to describe a thief who used trickery to obtain possessions from their rightful owner. Many ordinary Georgians saw sharpers as romantic figures and lauded them for their free-wheeling lifestyles. Shopkeepers, however, did not view sharpers in such a positive light. Shopkeepers were often the targets of the sharpers’ attacks, and to ensure eighteenth century shopkeeper’s were aware of the tactics and ruses a sharper used, one magazine published a list of cautions hoping to prevent shopkeepers from being tricked or robbed.

Here is that list in its entirety (and almost verbatim):

  1. Never place many different articles on the counter at one time; nor turn your back on the customers, but let some other person put the different articles up, while you are intent upon the business before you.
  2. It is in general to be suspected, if a person pulls out a handkerchief, lays it down, and takes it up often, that some ill is intended.
  3. The shopkeeper, on seeing such methods as this made use of, should remove the handkerchief from off the goods; which will make the sharper suspect his design is seen through.
  4. It is common at haberdashers and other shops, which deal in small articles, that for every article which is wanted to be paid for, the tradesman applies to his till for change; his eyes being fixed thereon, then is the time something … at hand on the counter is moved.
  5. It is very easy to discover a thief or a sharper from an honest person; for the sharper asks for fifty things, none of which will do; tosses them backwards and forwards, shuffles what can conveniently be done aside, and moves off with the prize, promising to come again.
  6. Watch-makers and silver-smiths are imposed on principally thus: in a morning or evening the sharper, well-dressed, as a sea-officer, will go to their shops, look at watches, buckles, rings, etc. When a variety of these are laid on the counter, if opportunity offers, the handkerchief is made use of; should this fail, then the goods are ordered to a tavern, coffee-house, or private house; then the [delivery] person is instantly sent back for something omitted, [when] … the prize is secured … the sharper moves off another way. Though this is an old and stale trick, it is amazing how successful the practitioners … are.
  7. Watch-makers should be extremely careful of strangers in their shops. As many watches are always lying on the work-board, and others hanging up, they should never have their eyes off the person: the handkerchief is … made use of to great advantage; if the watch is hung up, the handkerchief [dampens any] … rattling … and screens it intirely from the sight of the owner.
  8. There is something in the very aspect of a cheat and sharper, which may easily [be] discover[ed]. He continually has his eyes fixed on the shopkeeper, or person he has to deal with; yet … his body [is] always in motion, whether standing or sitting. The eye of a thief continually follows the person he intends to deal upon.

References:

  • Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1788
  • The New London Magazine, 1785

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