How Department Stores Affected Women During the Gilded Age

Updated on January 4, 2017
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

A transformation of women’s roles in Gilded Age American consumer culture and employment

Although economist Fred A. Russel’s 1931 Article entitled “The Social and Economic Aspects of Chain Stores” concludes that department stores originated as a simple means of efficient distribution of merchandise to consumers, historians, sociologists, and economists, spanning the century following the Gilded Age have determined that department stores provoked and encouraged a transformation of women’s roles in Gilded Age American consumer culture and employment. [1] Using what historian Sandara Vance’s 1991 article entitled “Sam Walton and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.: A Study in Modern Southern Entrepreneurship” concludes was a “practice of franchising developed following the Civil War,” department stores provided women with a means of freedom of both employment and consumption. [2]

Throughout Theresa McBride’s “A Woman’s World: Department Stores and the Evolution of Women’s Employment, 1870-1920,” McBride’s 1978 study placed a heavy emphasis on the role of women as sales clerks in Gilded Age American department stores using a variety of primary sources, including a multitude of employment records and statistics of gendered employment. McBride argues that women were a “crucial element” in the success of department stores of the Gilded Age, providing stores with not only customers, but an affordable workforce as women’s roles moved increasingly from the private sphere to the public sphere during the late Victorian Era. In her analysis, McBride argues her thesis that the “world of women” created by female employment as sales clerks was due to a variety of factors, including the emergence of women into the roles of economic power offered by commerce, the increased affordability of female employees over male employees, and increasing access to public education by women. The “paradise of women” created by department store employment is contended by McBride to have arisen through Gilded Age changes in gender roles and the resulting shift in female participation in commerce. [3]

McBride spent much of her analysis on the working conditions of female department store clerks, using documentation such as employment records, government investigations, personal accounts, and store records to argue that department stores played a paternalistic and controlling role in the lives of female clerks, both during the workday and after working hours. McBride uses analyses of department stores to discuss controlling natures of gender segregated workspaces, long hours, low wages, quickening of work-pace, and store-owned housing relations, and many other aspects of female department store employment. Due to increasing access to education by Gilded Age American women, McBride concludes that the spread of “public education for women provided a pool of workers who were reluctant to work as seamstresses and domestics,” and widely available due to the still narrow employment options for women in latter Victorian America. [4]

Whereas historians such as McBride have argued that it was women who had a role in the success of the department stores through their consumption and affordable employment, those such as Leach have argued the inverse; department stores had a liberating effect on the women it employed and provided an opportunity for consumption too. Throughout W.R. Leach’s 1984 article entitled “Transformations in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890-1925,” Leach provides evidence to support claims that despite previous gender stereotypes of women as dependent domestic figures confined to duties of the home, department stores provided women with a means of independence and access to the public sphere of a “capitalist culture” in America. Relying heavily on monographs, such as Anne Kessler Harris’s “Out to Work: A History of Wage Earning Women in the United States” (1982), and Nick Salvatore’s “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist“ (1982), Leach argues his thesis that despite Gilded Age gender associations of women within the domestic sphere, late nineteenth century department stores provided women with a means of entrance to the public sphere through employment and consumption within the arising American “consumer culture.” [5]

Leach uses Monographs to argue that the capitalistic consumer culture of the Gilded Age in America had a transformational impact on American Women, with an “emancipating impact” on both working women with increasing power within “consumer institutions,” and middle-class women, who served as consumers for increasingly accessible and growing department stores. With a focus on the role of women as consumers instead of McBride’s focus on the role of women as clerks, Leach uses contemporary examples of such publications as Dry Goods Economist, Advertising World, Harpers Bizarre, Madame, Business Women’s Magazine, Woman’s Journal, and a 1905 diary of a female consumer who frequented department stores, to argue that department stores made women’s lives more secular and public, and allowed women the freedom of increasing individualism. The “department store revolution” of Leach’s study, as shown through the evidence of Gilded Age publications, “mass consumer culture presented to women a new definition of gender that carved out a space for individual expression similar to men’s that stood in tension with the older definition passed on to them” by older generations more in keeping with earlier Victorian Era ideals of gender roles. [6]

Economist Dora L. Costa’s 2001 study entitled “The Wage and the Length of the Workday: From the 1890s to 1991,” emphasizes hours legislation, unionization, work intensity, and statistical employment data in an effort to analyze the shifting work hours and wages of female department store employees. Costa concludes that in the 1890s, pay was not determined solely on the basis of hours worked, because often those who were paid the highest wages were those who worked fewer hours than those who were paid the least; often resulting in female employees being hired due to their affordability by employers, who more often than not, paid female employees less than male employees. [7] Sociologist Annie MacLean’s 1899 article entitled “Two Weeks in Department Stores,” uses investigations by the Consumers’ League as well as MacLean’s personal experience as an employee of two department stores during the Gilded Age to emphasize the hard work and low pay of female department store workers. MacLean’s calculations of wages and expenses for department store clerks shows that female store clerks could live independently, providing women with more freedom from separate spheres gender role ideology previously encountered by Victorian Era American women. [8]

As shown through the works of historians, economists, and sociologists spanning the decades following the Gilded Age of American consumer culture, department stores of the Gilded Age offered women a means of economic and personal freedom through the provision of both consumer as well as employment opportunities. While different writers have placed emphasis on different aspects of the impact of department stores on Gilded American women’s’ lives, their differing analyses show the complexities of that relationship. Using a variety of different resources including monographs, primary sources, and personal experiences, researchers on the topic of women in Gilded American department stores concur that the impacts of the rise of department stores during the late nineteenth century played a large role in the lives of working women as well as female consumers.

[1] Fred A. Russel, “The Social and Economic Aspects of Chain Stores.” The American Economic Review. Vol. 21, No.1 (March 1931) 28.

[2] Sandra Vance, “Sam Walton and Walmart Stores, Inc.: A Study in Modern Southern Entrepreneurship” The Journal of Southern History, Vol.58, No.2, (May 1992) 232.

[3] Theresa McBride, “A Woman’s World: Department Stores and the Evolution of Women’s Employment, 1870-1920” French Historical Studies, Vol.10 No.4, (Autumn 1978) 664-669.

[4] Ibid. 666-683

[5] W.R. Leach, “Transformations in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department dtores, 1890-1925” The Journal of American History, Vol.71, No.2, (September 1984) 319-336.

[6] Ibid. 319-342.

[7] Dora L. Costa, “The Wage and the Length of the Work Day, From 1890s to 1991” Journal of Labor Economics, Vol.21, No.1 (March 1931) 156-181.

[8] Annie MacLean, “Two Weeks in Department Stores” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol.4, No.6 (May 1899) 721-741.

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