Disruptive Shopping: Women, Space, and Capitalism

two women carry packages from a shopping trip

Courtesy Library of Congress 

Emily Remus

In the last five years, online retail sales in the United States have roughly doubled, rising from $200 billion in 2011 to $395 billion in 2016.[1] Online shopping now accounts for almost 10 percent of the retail market, up from just over three percent a decade ago. [2] This growth, according to industry experts, will likely persist as more Americans, notably millennials, come to perceive online shopping as the standard means of acquiring goods. The rise of ecommerce has reshaped labor, commodity flows, and global politics. Yet the shift toward online spending may have its most profound effect in an unexpected area: gender relations. Men now drive as much as 43 percent of online spending, a sharp contrast to long-established, in-person shopping trends.[3] Indeed, throughout the twentieth century when urban department stores and suburban shopping malls dominated the retail landscape, women were the primary customers, accounting for 80-85 percent of retail purchases.[4] In recent years, however, as spending has moved to a digital realm where everything from groceries to gadgets is only a click away, women’s retail dominance has started to decline. Once a definitively female activity undertaken in public, shopping is now increasingly pursued by both sexes from the privacy of home.

What will this shift mean for American women? Clues lie in the past, in the relationship between women’s patterns of consumption and their presence in urban public space. Historians of consumer capitalism have long debated how its development influenced women’s lives and expectations. Some scholars, stressing new possibilities for autonomy, pleasure, and self-expression, have cast the consumer economy as a liberating force.[5] Others have highlighted its “dark underside” and potential to reinforce inequalities of gender, race, and class.[6] This debate may never be resolved. But what is clear is that consumer capitalism profoundly altered women’s relationship to the public sphere, inviting them into spaces and transactions that had once been the domain of men. This shift is most evident at the turn of the twentieth century, as new urban shopping districts, anchored by modern department stores, drew female shoppers into the downtowns of American cities. Probing the effects of this earlier retail transformation illuminates the disruptive potential of modes of shopping in our own time.

Before the late nineteenth century, the central business districts of most American cities were not especially welcoming to unaccompanied women. City centers were overwhelmingly male spaces, dominated by the rhythms of manufacturing, processing, and wholesale trade. Of course, women could be found there, running errands, attending public events, and, to a limited extent, working. But America’s downtowns were primarily spaces that women were expected to move though, not linger in or enjoy. Without a male escort, women were refused service in most restaurants, cafés, and hotels, while saloons and private clubs simply closed their doors to female customers. Moreover, proper etiquette discouraged women from lingering on sidewalks, stopping to look into store windows, handling merchandise, and even carrying packages. Indeed, women were discouraged from pursuing the public practices that sustained a culture of consumption.

The masculine downtown began to open to women in the final decades of the nineteenth century as urban retailers and entrepreneurs founded new institutions that depended on female consumption. The most iconic was the department store. Made possible by mass concentrations of capital and new transportation networks, these retail palaces dwarfed the scale and profits of traditional dry goods houses. “Such a flowering out of a modest trade principle the world had never witnessed up to that time,” wrote novelist Theodore Dreiser of early department stores.[7] Emphasizing service and spectacle, retailers such as Marshall Field’s in Chicago, Macy’s in New York City, and Wannamaker’s in Philadelphia developed new strategies of enticement to kindle customers’ desires and encourage lingering and spending (fig. 1).[8] These customers were primarily women—eight or nine out of every ten. Employees, too, were mostly women, at least below the management level. In an era, then, when most public spaces were dominated by men, the department store emerged as women’s territory. It was, as Edward Filene once observed of his own Boston store, “an Adam-less Eden.”[9]

This is a post card of Interior of Marshall Field & Co., 1905 and shows a hotel lobby and 5 floors
Interior of Marshall Field & Co., 1905. 1905 Postcard, V.O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago, Emily Remus’s Collection.

But Eve did not long stay contained within the world of the department store. The success of these giant retailers soon nurtured the growth of other consumer institutions that catered to women. By the 1890s, new restaurants, confectionaries, tearooms, and cafés had emerged to appeal to the desires of weary shoppers. Many of these establishments offered ladies’ menus and ladies’ dining rooms designed to appeal to female tastes and aesthetic sensibilities.[10] Theaters, too, sought to boost their female patronage by expanding their matinee offerings and encouraging women to combine their shopping trips with seeing a show.[11] Even hotels attempted to capitalize on women’s consumption by throwing open their banquet halls and meeting rooms to the many women’s clubs and organizations that flourished during the period.

Not all women, of course, could equally enjoy the expanding realm of urban consumption. Working-class women found their access constrained by their ability to pay.[12] Meanwhile, non-white women faced prejudice that inhibited full participation in commercial life. Such discrimination was most pronounced in the Jim Crow South, but racial minorities also faced differential treatment and outright exclusion in Northern cities where state civil rights laws were supposed to guarantee equal access to public accommodations.[13] To discourage black patronage, for example, Northern restauranteurs often provided deliberately slow or discourteous service; theater owners refused to sell choice seats to black customers; and department stores declined assistance or guided black patrons to their bargain basements.

Despite impediments of race and class, the ranks of women who flooded into America’s central business districts continued to grow. By the early twentieth century, their public presence was unmistakable. Images from the period reveal women thronging the principle shopping thoroughfares of major cities (fig. 2). On downtown streets, these female consumers mixed with other urban inhabitants both in the retail district and beyond. Indeed, simply to get to the local iteration of the “Ladies’ Mile,” a title first appended to New York’s Broadway but later used in other cities, shoppers traversed bustling downtowns. They sometimes travelled by private carriage or automobile, thereby adding additional vehicles to crowded streets. But even many wealthy women often walked or took public transit. As a result, their shopping activities augmented the crush of people on crowded city sidewalks and streetcars. Even after they had arrived in the local retail district, shoppers were hardly isolated within a bounded realm of consumption. On the contrary, in most cities, department stores stood near office buildings, banks, wholesale houses, publishers, and small factories.

As the consumer economy flourished, it drew women into central business districts where they had long been viewed as mere visitors if not outright interlopers. Historians have often taken this transition for granted. Yet there was nothing natural or inevitable about establishing women’s right to occupy urban public space. Indeed, at the turn of the twentieth century, the very presence of women as consumers in city centers aroused profound conflict over the use and meaning of public space, as well as women’s place within it. Many American cities, oriented toward the needs of industrial capitalism, were simply not prepared—physically or culturally—to accept large numbers of unaccompanied female shoppers into their downtowns. Facilitating the consumption of these women, and, in turn, the expansion of consumer capitalism, required transforming both public space and public culture, often in unexpected ways.

Consider the problem of traffic. Even today, as the average urban commuter will tell you, shoppers—strolling in groups, holding packages, peering into store windows—tend to impede circulation on congested sidewalks. This effect was even more conspicuous in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the great department stores were still in their formative years. The luxurious interiors and convenient amenities of these retailers transformed shopping from burden to pleasure and encouraged women to spend more time in central business districts. At the same time, a new emphasis on window design, ushered in by the cheap manufacture of plate glass in the 1890s, further induced women to linger on downtown sidewalks and street corners. Rather than move efficiently to their destinations, shoppers now gathered in front of the elaborate visual spectacles created by experts in the newly professionalized field of window dressing (fig. 3). By the early twentieth century as the ranks of female shoppers continued to grow, their distinctive movements increasingly interfered with traffic patterns that had been established for industrial commerce.

Nearly every American city was troubled by the competition of shoppers, commuters, and freight carriers for space on crowded streets in the early twentieth century. Yet the traffic problem was especially acute in Chicago. The Midwestern metropolis had arisen from the ashes of the 1871 fire to experience explosive population and commercial growth. By century’s end, its central business district, hemmed in by water on three sides, was nearly bursting at the seams, and traffic congestion threatened to impede continued economic development (fig. 4). To address the crisis, Chicago’s civic and business leaders explored numerous plans for facilitating the flow of pedestrians and vehicles. The most controversial proposal called for a municipal ordinance that would prohibit shoppers from staying in the Loop, the city’s central business district, after 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when rush hour typically began. According to its supporters, the curfew would deter shoppers, who were cast as frivolous pleasure-seekers, from clogging the streets and public transit when hard-working laborers, managers, and capitalists were attempting to make their ways home. [14]

From a twenty-first century perspective, it seems laughable that anyone interested in the economic well-being of a city would attempt to limit shopping. But just over a century ago, the critical role of women consumers in the urban economy had not been fully established. Two models of metropolitan commerce then competed for dominance—one rooted in the older, predominately masculine realm of production; the other in a burgeoning mixed-sex world of mass consumption. While the former emphasized efficiency, rationality, and the rapid movement of workers and freight, the latter foregrounded pleasure, indulgence, and the activity of women. The conflict between these two commercial visions, exacerbated by the congestion crisis, played out over the bodies of women shoppers—where they could be, and when. Support for the curfew was concentrated among industrialists and wholesale distributors. By contrast, retailers strenuously opposed the measure. They were joined in their opposition by Chicago clubwomen, who recognized in the shopping curfew a restriction on their freedom of movement.

Chicago did not, ultimately, adopt a shopping curfew. But the conflict did help to shape the city’s blueprint for development—the famed Plan of Chicago (1909). Written by architect Daniel Burnham, the Plan was financed and supported by the powerful Commercial Club, which drew capitalists from across the city’s industries. Unlike the proposed curfew, Burnham’s vision took into account “the convenience of both producer and consumer.” Indeed, the Plan resolved the tensions between industrial and consumer capitalism by accommodating the needs of both. It did so primarily by emphasizing spatial differentiation. Industrial freight traffic would be routed around the central business district, leaving the Loop’s streets open to shoppers and commuters. Meanwhile, the comfort and safety of consumers was to be enhanced by providing new pedestrian islands and crosswalks on shopping thoroughfares as well as ensuring that the pavement, lighting, signs, and other street accessories were aesthetically pleasing, arranged according to the “dictates of good taste.” [15] The Burnham Plan thus affirmed the place of women shoppers in the central business district, even as it maintained efficient circulation.

Traffic was merely one of many points of conflict that arose as women consumers, invited by retailers and entrepreneurs, moved into public life in cities such as Chicago. To facilitate their consumption, civic and business leaders altered not only the built environment but also laws governing the use of public space, policing priorities, and state regulation of consumer industries. Standards of etiquette and respectability, too, evolved to accommodate the presence of unaccompanied women in public. For better or worse, these changes worked together to promote the expansion of the consumer economy and solidify women’s place as the nation’s primary “purchasing agents.” By the 1920s, women’s preferences, according to advertising experts such as Christine Frederick, influenced the design, distribution, and sales of the vast majority of consumer goods.[16] Moreover, their behavior became the singular focus of the blossoming fields of marketing and consumer research. Even women’s foot traffic, once considered a nuisance, came to be highly prized and helped determine the value of commercial real estate.[17]

Women’s primacy as consumers remained constant as the retail landscape evolved mid-century. The rise of suburban shopping centers, located on privately owned land often far from public transit, increasingly segmented consumers by race and class. [18] It removed women shoppers from heterogeneous downtown business districts, placing them instead within manicured and carefully regulated private commercial environments. These spaces were constructed to reflect the priorities and desires of women consumers—especially suburban housewives. There were parks and playgrounds to occupy small children, restaurants and cafés for socializing, and banks, post offices, and hair salons to make life more convenient. Even the parking lots accommodated women’s perceived needs by providing oversized spaces for the many female drivers who had only recently learned to operate automobiles.[19] Later in the century, discount retailers, such as Walmart, continued to uphold the female-orientation of consumption by designing their messaging, merchandise selection, and store services to appeal to women, particularly the prized demographic of “soccer moms.”[20]

In the present day, the retail landscape continues to evolve—even evaporate—as consumer transactions move to the virtual world of the internet. Online shopping has brought many benefits, not least unprecedented flexibility and convenience. Its relative anonymity also assists those likely to encounter discrimination in person, notably women of color.[21] Yet the rise of ecommerce is gradually diminishing the dominance that American women have maintained in the consumer marketplace for more than a century now. That dominance may not have granted them any additional autonomy or power. But it did open up new spaces to women and help to normalize their presence in public. It also made capitalists attentive to women’s preferences and expectations as consumers. The success of ecommerce holds the potential to weaken women’s access to public space as well as their influence in the market. As consumption moves to the private domains of Amazon, Netflix, and GrubHub, the few public spaces designed for women may disappear. Further, financially-strapped cities may feel even less incentive to make streets and public transit safe and comfortable for female occupants. Poor women especially stand to lose if consumer spaces shutter while the costs of computing keep online shopping out of reach. In short, the digital revolution—which has expanded our world in innumerable ways—may nevertheless narrow the pursuits of women.


EMILY REMUS is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on American consumer capitalism, urban space, and gender. Her book, Consumers’ Metropolis: How Monied Women Purchased Pleasure and Power in the New Downtown, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.


This essay draws on ideas from my forthcoming book Consumers’ Metropolis: How Monied Women Purchased Pleasure and Power in the New Downtown (under contract with Harvard University Press).

[1]“Online and Mobile Shopping US, September 2016,” Mintel Reports Database, Sept. 2016.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, “Quarterly Retail E-Commerce Sales, 4th Quarter 2006,” ; U.S. Census Bureau, “Quarterly Retail E-Commerce Sales, 4th Quarter 2016”.

[3] Cooper Smith, “The 2015 E-Commerce Demographics Report: How Gender, Age, Education, and Income Impact Online Shopping and Buying Behavior,” BI Intelligence, Sept. 10, 2015.

[4]William R. Leach, “Transformations in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890-1925,” Journal of American History, 71 (Sept., 1984), 333; Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940 (1987), 76; Lizabeth Cohen, “From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America,” American Historical Review 101 (Oct. 1996), 1072; Alison Isenberg, Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It (2004), 78.

[5] For classic examples, see especially Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986); Leach, “Transformations in a Culture of Consumption;” Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side 1890-1925 (1985); Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage-Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 (1988); Tera Hunter, To ‘joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (1997); Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (1999).

[6] Elaine Abelson, When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store (1989), 5. See also, for example, Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890–1940 (1986); Ruth Schwartz Cohen, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1983).

[7] Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900), 17.

[8] William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (1993).

[9] Benson, Counter Cultures, 76.

[10] Emily A. Remus, “Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space in Fin-de-Siècle Chicago,” Journal of American History (Dec. 2014), 757–61.

[11] Richard Butsch, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750-1990 (2000), 66–79; Marlis Schweitzer, When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture (2009), 4–5, 35–50.

[12] See, for example, Peiss, Cheap Amusements; Enstad, Ladies of Labor; Benson, Counter Cultures.

[13]Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (1998); Robert Weems, Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century (1998); Ted Ownby, American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, & Culture, 1830-1998 (1999); Mia Bay, “Traveling Black/Buying Black: Retail and Roadside Accommodations during the Segregation Era,” in Race and Retail, eds. Mia Bay and Ann Fabian (2015).

[14] Remus, Consumers’ Metropolis.

[15] Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, The Plan of Chicago (1909), 68, 83.

[16] Christine Frederick, Selling Mrs. Consumer (1929).

[17] Isenberg, Downtown America, 78–123.

[18] On the segmentation of consumption in the post-war era, see especially Lizabeth Cohen, Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003); Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight (2004); Victoria Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (2012).

[19] Cohen, Consumers’ Republic, 278.

[20] Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (2009); Tracey Deutsch, Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century (2010).

[21] See, for example, Scott Morton, Fiona, Florian Zettelmeyer, and Jorge Silva-Risso. “Consumer Information and Discrimination: Does the Internet Affect the Pricing of New Cars to Woman and Minorities?” Quantitative Marketing and Economics (2003).