Memo - Sept. 27 & 29 Women as Buyers and Sellers

This week's readings extend an important point that came up in class: men and women did not have identical relationships to the consumer economy and to the world of goods. Although men did increasingly adapt to the new consumption-oriented culture (think about Babbitt), department stores and other institutions of the new consumer order revolved primarily around women, both as laborers and shoppers.

The first reading comes from a study by
Annie McLean, a sociologist who went undercover in the late 1890s to research what life like for the women who worked in department stores--fun? miserable? easy? hard? in what ways?--behind the glamor of the goods. This work has sometimes been called "pink-collar" labor, to distinguish it from (male) blue-collar work, which was supposedly more physically demanding. McLean's findings, however, reveal how physically challenging jobs in the service industry could be as well. (McLean's study, incidentally, anticipates a recent best-selling book called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, who went undercover to find out what working-class women's lives are like today.)

The second reading is a story, "The Trimmed Lamp," from 1906 by the famous short story writer O. Henry, about two young working-class women, one who works in a department store and the other in a laundry. (The one who works in a laundry is described as doing "piece work." This was work for which you were paid by the piece, rather than by the hour.)

The third reading comes from the book Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores (1986), by the historian Susan Porter Benson. It focuses on the idea of "service" and on fashion as conscious, deliberate strategies that retailers used to entice middle- and upper-class women to visit department stores, shop there, and most importantly, make them part of their lives.

Some questions to consider as you read, and afterwards:
  • Would you have wanted to work in a department store, as depicted by these writers? What challenges and what opportunities did working in a department store present? How do these writers differ in their depiction of the life "shop girls"?
  • In McLean's study, what were the best aspects of working in a department store? the worst?
  • What happens at the end of "The Trimmed Lamp"? Why do you think O. Henry ended the story this way?
  • How did department stores reinforce the division between social classes? How did department stores affect the relationship between working-class and middle-class women?
  • In the reading by Susan Porter Benson, what is "service"? Is it a "natural" feature of commerce? What is the relationship between service and the ways social classes were defined, both inside and outside of department stores?
  • Compare these readings with what you know about working in the service industry today. What is similar (or the same)? How have things changed?