"They came to the store and realized some of their dreams"
February 10, 2018 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Two words: department stores | While there were plenty of lower-class women moving through city streets in the 19th century... it was rare to see a middle-class housewife strolling the town square alone. Other than women laborers, prostitutes were the only ones walking the pavement, so any bourgeois woman that went outdoors unaccompanied would be seen as a “public woman,” or streetwalker. So how did women eventually break free from their domestic existence?

Department stores weren’t like neighborhood corner shops where you could pick up a sack of flour and a fresh ribbon all in one go. They were fantasy palaces.. They were like enclosed cities where women ruled. It was no longer shocking to see women milling about downtown, uptown, and all around town. They took buses and trains, rode on bicycles, ordered carriages, or came in on foot, mingling with crowds and men. It was now entertaining to be outside, and with it, being invisible became a dying practice.

Rights weren’t given “because it was time”; rather, they were wrestled out of society’s hands. The pushback was never about entering the public sphere because it was men’s; it was about gaining autonomy, which was men’s. In a very real way, the emancipation of women started at the department store lobby.
posted by I_Love_Bananas (26 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Victorian Secret
posted by hal9k at 4:31 PM on February 10, 2018 [24 favorites]

To push against all that, doctors released Darwin-like statements, saying that the more that women tried to leave the house, the more at risk they were for birthing inferior children. In 1905, the senior physician at Bethlem Royal Hospital stated that, “The departure of woman from her natural sphere to an artificial one involves a brain struggle which is deleterious to the virility of the race.” Her nerves would be so shot leaving her “natural” domain that her womb would frazzle.

To be fair, I have some serious brain struggle leaving the house sometimes too.
posted by Query at 4:51 PM on February 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

Yes, but does your womb frazzle?
posted by sexyrobot at 5:05 PM on February 10, 2018 [21 favorites]

Fascinating. I would read an entire book on that thesis. Maybe I'll read Sister Carrie and Captains of Industry again. both of which address the rise of consumerism and emancipation of women as tied together, though very differntly. Sister Carrie is about the freedom a young woman finds by becoming one of the clerks mentioned in the memo. Captains of Industry has as a subtext how advertising was invented to sell things to people (mostly women) through insecurity, but also about the power of the purse.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 5:52 PM on February 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Another big thing department stores provided, Public restrooms for women. You can’t be out and about in the world if you can’t pee.
posted by The Whelk at 6:00 PM on February 10, 2018 [62 favorites]

Per this insight
posted by The Whelk at 6:07 PM on February 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Metafilter: Yes, but does your womb frazzle?
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 7:17 PM on February 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Fascinating. I would read an entire book on that thesis.
I got you fam.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:33 PM on February 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

There's a great line in the 1936 movie Follow the Fleet. Harriet Nelson's character is denied entrance without a male escort to a nightclub called The Paradise, and she says, "I see, a woman can't even get into Paradise without a man."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Reminded me of The Paradise, a TV show that's set in this transition, in an eponymous department store.
posted by freyley at 11:43 PM on February 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Hmmm. This is an interesting article and I'm sure department stores employing women made an enormous difference but the idea that women never went shopping in town for fun prior to department stores and/or the early 1900s is incorrect. There are plenty of contemporary Edwardian and Victorian novels that feature women going into town to socialize and shop. Pride and Prejudice springs to mind. Probably the single thing that led to more centralized shopping was the development of better public transport: trains and trams and paved sidewalks. Also in contrast to the article's assertions there were department stores well prior to the 1900s, Harvey Nicks was started in 1820. By a woman. Harrods was started in the 1840s I think.

I'm seeing more and more of these fairly poorly sourced articles online the past couple years. It's a strange re-writing of history for clicks.
posted by fshgrl at 11:45 PM on February 10, 2018 [44 favorites]

Fshgrl, I was just about to mention Jane Austen! I think there's an element of truth to the article, though: one could hardly spend a day out unless one could find socially-acceptable refreshments and public conveniences, and I don't think upper-or-middle class women could find either before genteel cafés and municipal lavatories came into style. Department stores, being large, might have provided both of these to their customers and thereby offered a new measure of freedom to their female clientele.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:01 AM on February 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

This seems to frame the problem incorrectly to give department stores more credit than they deserve. It seems to offer the idea that the streets could be full of working class women going about their lives, but that was irrelevant to the freedom of the streets until middle class women got department stores? Surely department stores are just another enclosed space, another way of staying off the streets?

There were certainly establishments that wouldn’t serve or even admit accompanied women, until fairly recently. But the separate existence of department stores was not an answer to that problem. The surprised Philadelphians still wouldn’t get into the Manhattan restaurant unaccompanied.

I get a bit tired of the way someone will always argue that virtually anything is or was actually feminist somehow.
posted by Segundus at 12:16 AM on February 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

re: Austen, there's also the fact that the Victorians were actually a fair bit stricter than their Georgian forebears, right? The really rigid 'angel of the house' thing wasn't really prevalent yet in Austen's day, but by the end of the century it had been in place for several generations.
posted by nonasuch at 7:06 AM on February 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

There has definitely been a lot of serious scholarship about the importance of department stores, but I agree that she overstates her case. She recognizes that working-class women were always on the street, but she doesn't really think about what it means that these were spaces specifically for middle-class, urban women. She's also just not right that there weren't other public spaces where women could go unchaperoned. In the early 19th century, women were welcome in the audiences and increasingly featured as speakers at lyceums, for instance, which were adult-education places where men and women went to see lectures and debates about edifying topics. (This passed for fun in the 19th century. Men had a lot more opportunities to do things that were probably more fun but were off-limits to respectable women.)

What was significant about department stores was that they defined a new public role for middle-class urban women: that of being a consumer. This was in some ways an expansion of middle-class women's roles into the economic sphere, but it also reinforced a really clear dichotomy between middle-class men's roles as economic producers and middle-class women's roles as consumers. And it also reinforced the wall between working-class women, who had to earn money and who had limited opportunities to buy stuff, and middle-class women, who marked out their families' status by being tasteful consumers.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:09 AM on February 11, 2018 [16 favorites]

Re Jane Austen - she died in 1817. This seems to be concerned with later Victorian times.

Coincidentally, my wife has been reading Charles Petrie's The Victorians, in which he notes that the period was a serious aberration for women from both previous times and later times. Enough to say that a rising economy allowed women of the upper middle class to effectively do nothing. This as opposed to earlier times when marriage was as much a working partner operation with four hands needed on deck.

That's his take anyway, I'm only getting it second hand and no doubt not doing him justice, but for those interested, it is probably worth a look.

This passed for fun in the 19th century

posted by BWA at 7:42 AM on February 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

This whole article makes me deeply uncomfortable. On one hand I want to go shopping. On the other, I want to smash the patriarchy. And maybe pee on other people's things.
posted by loquacious at 8:21 AM on February 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

Came in to recommend The Ladies' Paradise - so glad to see someone beat me to it.
posted by Mchelly at 8:31 AM on February 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would read an entire book on that thesis.

For some scholarly stuff, there's Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class.

I agree with others that the thesis in this piece is over-pushed and oversimplified and has a narrowed lens. Also, importantly, it underplays the role of food and restaurants in the growth of the department store. As others noted above, women had always gone shopping/marketing, even middle-class women. But they didn't stay out long because they couldn't get meals. Unaccompanied women were simply unwelcome in taverns and restaurants, and even hotels -which had to provide something for female travelers - had "ladies' dining rooms" separate from their restaurants.

Until about the 1890s, restaurants were very much a men's domain, outside of occasions/balls and a very few acceptable few society spots like Delmonico's. Men went to them, often to do business, and often with prostitutes. Middle-class women were presumed to have a home and reasons stay there, having no need to eat with relative strangers like business associates. Middle-class women usually didn't go to them at all. And they were not supposed to drink beer or spirits, so they weren't welcome in saloons (which were often the only spots to get a hot meal midday). Once restaurant culture started developing in a manner that included women at the end of the 19th century, they still didn't go alone because of the lingering association between restaurants and sex work.

Department stores had restaurants, and served luncheon and tea. So as a middle-class woman, you could go out shopping and still pause to refresh yourself with a meal at the middle of the day (not to mention bathrooms as the Whelk significantly noted) and then keep going, which just encouraged women to make more of a day of being out of the house. Before that you just plain would have to go to a private home, yours or a friend's, to get a bite, effectively ending your big time out. Laura Shapiro's great Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century goes into this a bit. Without the starting condition of the sex segregation of restaurants and saloons, I don't think the department store would have hit its great epoch or played the same role in middle-class women's lives in the same way at all.
posted by Miko at 12:04 PM on February 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

For the first decade of my life, I lived in the country, and I remember the magic of going to the big city and the department store. Often that would be the only place we went, I suspect my parents were a little afraid of getting lost if we ventured out, and also those marble covered restrooms were nice to be near.
I wonder if the thing about women and restaurants is an American thing? I seem to remember lots of literature where ladies have lunch or tea at restaurants in London, Paris or Berlin or Copenhagen, and my great-great grandmother was a food-writer who lived in several places, in London and on the Continent. She and my great-great grandfather went over land to India on their honeymoon. While she probably never had dinner in public without a male escort, I can't really imagine she didn't go out for lunch and tea with her friends.
posted by mumimor at 1:36 PM on February 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Working women would necessarily have sanitary facilities at or near their place of work - although the facilities may have been far below what we would consider satisfactory. I presume most working women would have eaten at work, either bringing food from home, having it delivered (it was far more common for stores to have their own couriers back then), or at a works canteen, if the facility were large enough. So we're really talking about a subset of women, those with enough variety in their lives to need to make arrangements on the fly. And even then, we're mostly talking about women in cultures patterned after Western European behaviour.

The works canteen is IMO a useful comparative model: factories had canteens because on the one hand it was less disruptive than (e.g.) allowing private vendors into the plant or having workers troop off to the pub; on the other hand the economies of scale let them provide food more cheaply than a worker could otherwise purchase it. Similarly, a large department store would find that supplying food in their own café is less "disruptive" to the shopping experience, and the shopper would find it cheaper (in time and money) than returning home for a meal.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:04 PM on February 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

The article is definitely talking about a subset of women - but then a lot of received wisdom about women in the Victorian era is confined to a subset of women, such as the idea that women didn't work for money. My ancestors were solidly working-class and virtually all my female ancestors and female relatives had jobs during the Victorian era - hawkers, agricultural labourers, shop managers, bakers, servants, laundresses, errand girls, silk weavers, that's just a few off the top of my head, and most of them worked outside the home.

And in London at least during the Victorian era, many working-class people, particularly the ones who were very poor, seem to have eaten mainly from fast food being sold by street vendors - pies, oysters, jellied eels, fried fish, sandwiches, baked potatoes, muffins, coffee and cake. Most poor people were crowded into houses with very limited or no cooking facilities, let alone food storage facilities, so they ate on the fly. I can't imagine working-class women were invisible on the streets at all.
posted by andraste at 3:27 PM on February 11, 2018 [8 favorites]

Tea-rooms are one of those things that seem like they must have been around forever but were also part of the very same wave of a world of gradual liberalization for middle-class women that began after the US Civil War/in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. They aren't much older than the full-scale department stores - just a little. When tea first came around, it was confined to coffeehouses, which were for men. Tea-rooms, for "ladies," didn't come about until the 1860s, when tea-taking became a sideline within the temperance movement. They were daytime only and were indeed acceptable places of refreshment for women, and often nestled within shopping districts. In fact the first chain of tea-rooms were launched by a bread company, and the lore is that one of the female managers ("Manageress") had begun the practice of serving tea to women who dropped in for bread, capturing a new market. Tearooms really took off in a big way in the 1870s-80s, not before, but they're distinct from restaurants in clientele, time of day, and menu.

One other note about class: when talking about the Victorian "middle" class it's really important to note that by no means does "middle" mean the middle third of people. The term at the time meant the merchant class, professionals - people who were neither laborers nor aristocrats. There were relatively few of them, equivalent to the top 10%-15% of income earners of the day, separate only from the 1% who were the likes of railroad owners and inheritors of real estate, but also distinct from the 85% who were working class or impoverished. IT's true that whatever they did came to stand in for "Victorian" everything, but that's largely because of the biases of collecting, remembering, and representing history. Of course working women ate and went about all day. They were just imagined to be a very, very different kind of person from a middle-class woman, and ones whose honor required a lot less protecting and fencing off.
posted by Miko at 6:04 PM on February 11, 2018 [7 favorites]

Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project is about the huge culturally transformative influence of enclosed shopping.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:45 AM on February 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

For the first decade of my life, I lived in the country, and I remember the magic of going to the big city and the department store.

Some of my earliest memories are of coming into town and going to Rothschild’s. We’d ride the escalator up and down and try on wigs!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:52 PM on February 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Of course working women ate and went about all day. They were just imagined to be a very, very different kind of person from a middle-class woman, and ones whose honor required a lot less protecting and fencing off.

Right. Those very rigid restrictions on what upper/middle class women could be seen to do weren't about being a woman, they were about being a lady. My working-class great-granny shrieked around London eating chips on the street with her mates when she wasn't destroying her lungs and her hearing in a factory. I imagine she was part of what ladies were supposed to need protecting from.
posted by BlueNorther at 6:18 PM on February 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

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