When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store

When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store

Elaine S. Abelson

Language: English

Pages: 320

ISBN: 0195071425

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

This book focuses on middle-class urban women as participants in new forms of consumer culture. Within the special world of the department store, women found themselves challenged to resist the enticements of consumption. Many succumbed, buying both what they needed and what they desired, but also stealing what seemed so readily available. Pitted against these middle-class women were the management, detectives, and clerks of the department stores. Abelson argues that in the interest of concealing this darker side of consumerism, women of the middle class, but not those of the working class, were allowed to shoplift and plead incapacitating illness--kleptomania. The invention of kleptomania by psychiatrists and the adoption of this ideology of feminine weakness by retailers, newspapers, the general public, the accused women themselves, and even the courts reveals the way in which a gender analysis allowed proponents of consumer capitalism to mask its contradictions.

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designed—architecturally and functionally—expressly for retailing. Featuring a white marble exterior (hence the name) and an elaborate, frescoed interior built around a broad circular staircase and a central rotunda capped with a glass dome, the physical aspects of the building were as remarkable as its dry goods." Imported thirteen-foot-high mirrors adorned the walls and were the first such glass seen by the American public; the plate glass "French windows" were also a first and became an

accompanied the "progress in window display." Opposition to the emerging culture surfaced along with the constant popular acclaim. "Envy gnaws at your heart. . . till your mythical free will is down in the dust" and you enter a dry-goods bazaar, one resentful journalist wrote in an Atlantic Monthly article entitled "The Immorality of Shop-Windows."51 Margarete Bohme captured the intensity and complexity of the 74 • When Ladies Go A-Tbieving drive for consumption enacted through a shop window in

"Either the custom of displaying goods promiscuously on table and counters without an adequate amount of help to watch them will have to be modified or the merchandise will have to be kept of of the reach of dishonest fingers in the boxes or in cases."98 Sixty years later, a report by the National Retail Dry-Goods Association, "Controlling Shortages and Improving Protection," demonstrated how little progress had been made; the dialogue still revolved around the critical question of well-designed

of the work force. Management viewed control over the employees as control of what went on in the store; and by fostering a watchfulness among them, managers thought they could curb the material losses that plagued the stores. Fears about the honesty of the sales force became fused with apprehension about dishonest customers. Not only were clerks encouraged to monitor each other as they watched both customers and merchandise, but professional shoppers watched the clerks. The hierarchy of

were described as engineers, four were in insurance, one was an artist, and one a town official in Newton, New Jersey. One man was a conductor on the New Jersey Railroad and another was a superintendent on the Jersey City Railroad. The largest number of the husbands (and the father of one woman) were in a range of businesses: produce merchant, liquor dealer, shoe dealer, contractor's supplies, hardware merchant, grocer, and representative of a large machinery house. There were three lawyers, a

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