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Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space in Fin-de-Siècle Chicago

In the nineteenth century, women were largely excluded from public drinking establishments, but this changed in the late 1800s with the rise of urban consumerism. As more women ventured into city centers for leisure and shopping, entrepreneurs capitalized on this trend by establishing dining spaces tailored to female customers, allowing respectable women to indulge in food, drink, and even alcohol in elegant tearooms and cafés.


This Teaching the JAH segment was created by Emily Remus.

In American cities today, at practically any moment, one can easily find women enjoying alcohol in public. But in the nineteenth century, respectable women rarely dined, let alone imbibed spirits, outside of private homes and private clubs. Ladies were denied entry to most saloons and, unless accompanied by a man, refused service in most restaurants. Drinking in public was a male privilege, and women mainly confined their alcohol consumption to the private realm.

This gender divide in drinking began to erode in the late nineteenth century, as the expansion of the urban consumer economy drew more women into the city center to purchase pleasure. Capitalizing on this growing female market, retailers and entrepreneurs in cities such as Chicago established commercial dining spaces that catered to the monied ladies who flocked to downtown department stores, theaters, grand hotels, and other new consumer institutions. By century’s end, respectable women could be found satisfying their appetites for food and drink–even alcohol–in elegant new tearooms, ladies’ cafès, restaurants, and confectionaries.

Yet as they moved into the urban public sphere tippling ladies aroused profound opposition among religious and civic leaders. What inspired these objections? More was at stake than temperance values. By claiming a right to enjoy intoxicating drinks in public, monied women violated gender norms and notions of respectability. Sipping cocktails and aperitifs in fashionable commercial spaces, they enacted a new female subjectivity–unconnected to women’s domestic roles as wives or mothers–that affirmed self-indulgence and the fulfillment of sensuous desires. The lady tippler’s pursuit of pleasure helped establish a moral climate that supported women’s consumption and, in turn, sustained the rise of American consumer capitalism.