Fight for retail hours

In the 1850s, retail workers wanted to limit their working hours, just as the stonemasons had done. To do this, they formed the Early Closing Association.

Instead of petitioning the government, going on strike or protesting in the street, members of the Early Closing Association tried to persuade the public and shop owners that shorter hours would be best for everyone. Their success relied on people supporting shorter shopping hours.

The association began by targeting trade workers – who had already won the 8-hour day – through newspaper articles and letters that posed the question: didn't the ‘twelve-hour men' working in shops deserve the same rights as tradesmen? those artisans who enjoy the benefits of the 8 hours movement, and who are in the habit of making their purchases after dark, I would appeal to them and their wives to make their purchases also before six o'clock.

– Rev. J. Dare, 1867

State Library of Victoria, Naked Democracy Exhibition, Keith Murdoch Gallery, 2 June–1 October 2006.

Once men started finishing work earlier, their wives had time to go shopping in the evenings. Women delighted in this rare social event, and would spend hours talking to each other in stores, which had to stay open until they left.

But the masons and their fellow trade workers were unmoved. As a magazine of the time, Table Talk, 8 April 1886, says, the trade workers viewed men who worked in shops as, ‘smooth faced, snub nosed rogues [...] who earn their living by selling ladies' ribbons and laces over their masters' counters...

Tradesmen argued that because shop assistants didn't have to do a tradesman's hard physical labour, they didn't need shorter hours. And on a personal level, tradesmen and their families wanted the shops to stay open as long as possible so they could shop at their convenience.

Consequently, the '8-hour men' weren't very supportive of the Early Closing Association: would be an easier task to catch a wild elephant in a spider's web than it would be to accomplish a work of reform among trading classes here by means of ‘gentle persuasion'.

– Donald McDonald, July 1870

State Library of Victoria, Naked Democracy Exhibition, Keith Murdoch Gallery, 2 June–1 October 2006.

This quote uses an analogy to communicate the difficulties involved in trying to persaude people to shop less so that retail workers could work shorter hours.

The Early Closing Association was a step towards fair conditions for retail workers, but it would be decades before the real results of their efforts would be seen.

Letter to the editor from a shop assistant about the eight hour day issue.
Photograph of tailor's shop.
Portrait photograph of workers at a timber shop.
Letter to the editor about evening shopping hours.