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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1788
- The New London Magazine, 1785