Last week, I posted about pre-1950s consumerism and the advent of shopping. This was, I’m sure, a fun post for all involved, so I’m writing a follow-up, and we’re going to talk about class.
I learned about turn of the century consumer culture from these two books: When Ladies Go A-Thieving and Cheap Amusements. Both books explore the leisure activities of urban women in the late 19th and early 20th century, however, they attack the topic from two different viewpoints, that of the middle class housewife and that of the working class woman.
When pre-made material goods became more and more prominent in the household, middle class women spent less and less time working to create things within the home. Thus, shopping for these items became their job. Shopping centers and department stores tailored themselves toward these female consumers — in an overwhelming way. Brightly-colored advertisements and products crowded the cramped aisles and display tables. Salespeople constantly accosted shoppers, encouraging them to try this or to buy that. The atmosphere became one of hyperactivity designed to help shoppers lose control of their ability to discern a want from a need. Maybe they even had an elephant in the store.
Of course, this environment created a new wealth of social problems, namely shoplifting, and When Ladies Go A-Thieving tells this story. Stealing and shoplifting were not new things, but for the upper and middle class housewife, they were. Women would, in between a series of regular purchases, lift random items. Perhaps a perfume bottle, perhaps clothing, perhaps an umbrella — anything small enough to be hidden was fair game. Instead of convicting these women of theft, all too often they got away without any charges or charges that were dropped so quickly they must have been on fire. Store managers valued the repeat business of the women enough to let little items go, and the threat of a woman losing her respectability left managers much more lenient with these shoplifters. Especially since enough of them had the money to pay for their light-fingered grabs, this type of criminal deviance was medicalized, and kleptomania was born.
Kleptomania became the chief defense for thieving ladies, and its causes were much like those of hysteria (another “female mental health problem”). Women in stores were constitutionally unable to withstand the pressure of advertising, thus they would temporarily lose their sanity and steal. But kleptomania was a distinctly middle and upper class disease. Working class women were too busy being awesome to bother with shoplifting.
In Cheap Amusements, the world of the working girl in New York City expands from the 27-hours-a-day sweatshop work that we generally tend to envision into a fast-paced and vibrant world of fun activities stuffed into the evening hours of the day. The styles and consumer pushing that middle class women stole, working class women put on layaway. They spent most of their time working, but in the time that was free, many working women began exploring different ways of having fun.
A popular choice was going out to Coney Island or Central park, which could be done with the whole family. Or women might go out on dates with young men. They might go dancing or to the movies with their friends. Fashion in these settings was important. Some working class women would stave off hunger by going out with men frequently, thus they could save their money for clothing. Food was less important than fashion. This was more difficult for women who were still living with their parents, because they were expected to give their pay envelopes to the family.
Of course, within the world of the working class woman, there were both natively born women and immigrants. The working class held many different ethnic groups, and some of these groups deviated from the working class norm. Irish immigrants (whose women were much more likely to be employed than their men) gravitated to the domestic work so often rejected by other working women. Italian families kept their daughters under close watch; they were often not allowed to be out at night or to go out of the home by themselves. Arranged marriages happened regularly among Italians and other groups still rooted firmly in the “old country.”
Community events like weddings or dances gave young women and men the chance to interact socially. Dancing in particular became a hugely popular form of socializing for the working class. As the decades surrounding the turn of the century progressed, dances became closer in contact and more risque.
Middle and upper class women labeled these working class dancers as loose and sexually promiscuous. But perhaps if they had been able to join them and release some of their shopping tensions, they wouldn’t have lifted so many trivial things from the stores.