Originally published on Jun 15, 2015
In the period between the Belle Epoque and the Roaring Twenties, middle- and upper-class women in the United States left their parlors for the public square. They organized for the right to vote, ran settlement houses for the poor, pushed for better public education, and fought for the prohibition of alcohol. Less well known was their other new public role in the Progressive Era—as conspicuous consumers.
Using the city of Chicago as her case study, Emily A. Remus, PhD'14, explores how "monied women" disposed of their (husbands' or fathers') income in lavish new department stores, theaters, and hotels. Shopkeepers such as Marshall Field were more than happy to "give the lady what she wants," but others found a woman's presence in public alarming. At stake were competing visions of women's proper place in modern society, and the moral and cultural changes wrought by urban capitalism.
In a recent article in The Journal of American History Remus explored the particularly sensitive subject of ladies who not only lunch, but drink. While it was easy for early twentieth-century reformers to turn a stern eye on working girls who cavorted in dance halls, it was trickier to chastise lady tipplers who "lingered over liqueur at Marshall Field's." A delicate dance between these women and shopkeepers pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women. A lady could legitimately stop for a restorative tonic at a drugstore to recover from shopping, which, in turn, encouraged shopkeepers to design feminine tearooms and refined restaurants with ladies' menus and fancy drinks. Over time this symbiosis "ushered in new forms of urban pleasure and standards of respectability. They also enacted a new female subjectivity, rooted in consumer culture, which affirmed self-indulgence, self-fulfillment, and self-determination."
In June, The Journal of American History selected Remus's article, "Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture," for its Teaching the JAH program. The program attempts to bridge the gap between the latest scholarly research and college teaching by supplying online teaching packages for selected journal articles. Remus's teaching packet includes classroom exercises on "Patent Medicines, Femininity, and Reform," "Public Space and Power," and "The Workingman's Saloon," among others.
Remus wrote the article as a 2014–15 visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, where she also prepared her dissertation for publication. Consumers' Metropolis: How Monied Women Purchased Pleasure and Power in the New Downtown is under contract by Harvard University Press. Amy Dru Stanley directed her dissertation. Kathleen Neils Conzen, James Grossman, Amy Lippert, and Christine Stansell were readers.
Joanne M. Berens, MFA'93, email@example.com