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The Perils of Pearl Street

The Perils of Pearl Street

-- by Asa Greene (1834)

Chapter 1
Containing a slight survey of the ground

Of all the various professions, occupations, or employments of life, none perhaps afford greater vicissitudes than that of the merchant. None exhibit greater changes of fortune; none lead through more trials and difficulties; none expose their votaries to severe hazards of shipwreck, both in money and reputation. To-day they are floating with gentle gales on the tide of prosperity; tomorrow they are driven by fierce winds on the rocks of adversity. To-day all is sunshine and hope; to-morrow all is clouds and despondency.

The wheel of fortune is constantly moving, some are making, and some are breaking. The merchant knows little to-day of what he shall be on the morrow; and his drafts on futurity, in spite of present appearances, are very likely to be dishonored. Whatever indebtedness the present may acknowledge, the future will coldly say, I owe him nothing.

It would astonish those who are not in the secrets of trade, to know what troubles, what embarrassments those suffer who are fairly in for it. Those, who are out of the melee, look upon those who are in, and envy their condition. They see them busy running to and fro; buying and selling goods and merchandize; handling notes and bills of exchange; and counting and fingering cash.

They fancy that all is fair within, as it seems without. They have no conception of the daily miseries of trade. They have no idea of the vexatious shifts the merchant is driven to. They have never been used to the exercise of shinning; they have never been compelled to fly the kite; they have never been forced to beat the drum; they have never had occasion for the services of Peter Funk.

Ah! Sigh these lookers on, as they behold the merchant up to the eyes in business, how rich this man must be growing! He sells a world of goods – he employs a store full of clerks – he piles the boxes mountain high before his door – he takes a prodigious heap of paper – he has oceans of business in the bank – he is continually handling the cash – he must certainly be making money like dust.

Alas! What a mistake! The poor man, who sighs at what seems to him the happy fortune of the merchant does not know that the world of goods are not all paid for; that the store full clerks are not all profitably employed; that the mountain piles of boxes are not always filled with merchandize; that the prodigious heap of paper is not always signed by responsible men; that the oceans of business in the bank, is no better than so much borrowing and paying; and that a man may be continually handling the cash, without a sixpence ever sticking to his fingers.

Of those who engage in mercantile pursuits, it is estimated, that not more than three in every hundred retire with absolute wealth; while nine out of ever ten become bankrupt. Some of these fail once, some twice, some, some thrice, and even more. Like adventurers in love, or in a lottery, one failure does not discourage them. They try again, and again – hoping that, though fortune may frown upon them unkindly to-day, she will smile propitiously to-morrow.

The causes of the numerous failures in mercantile pursuits, may be chiefly classed under three heads; first, unavoidable losses; second, imprudent management; third, extravagant expenditures. Of these causes, the second class is perhaps the most common; though the third is by far too frequent and too fatal. The young merchant is no sooner started in business, than he fancies himself making money; and, relying on this fancy, he is apt to launch into a sea of extravagance, which would swallow up a much larger income than his; and the inevitable consequence is, that he is soon involved in ruin.

Having myself for several years been engaged in mercantile pursuits; having passed through various chances of fortune during those years; having felt much and seen more of the miseries and vexations of trade; having witnessed many rare and curious scenes, connected in one way or other with my own pursuits; having come in contact with some very remarkable characters in the way of business; in a word, being pretty well experienced in the vicissitudes of trade, and pretty well versed in the affairs of Pearl Street for the last ten, or a dozen years – and having also, some knowledge of matters and things in Wall street; I propose, in the following pages , to give a sketch of my own personal history during those years; together with such other notices of men and things – such anecdotes, and such reflections, as are naturally connected with, or suggested by, my own history.

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