How women in turn-of-the-century Chicago used their consumer power to challenge male domination of public spaces and stake their own claim to downtown.
Popular culture assumes that women are born to shop and that cities welcome their trade. But for a long time America’s downtowns were hardly welcoming to women. Emily Remus turns to Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century to chronicle a largely unheralded revolution in women’s rights that took place not at the ballot box but in the streets and stores of the business district.
After the city’s Great Fire, Chicago’s downtown rose like a phoenix to become a center of urban capitalism. Moneyed women explored the newly built department stores, theaters, and restaurants that invited their patronage and encouraged them to indulge their fancies. Yet their presence and purchasing power were not universally appreciated. City officials, clergymen, and influential industrialists condemned these women’s conspicuous new habits as they took their place on crowded streets in a business district once dominated by men.
A Shoppers’ Paradise reveals crucial points of conflict as consuming women accessed the city center: the nature of urban commerce, the place of women, the morality of consumer pleasure. The social, economic, and legal clashes that ensued, and their outcome, reshaped the downtown environment for everyone and established women’s new rights to consumption, mobility, and freedom.
As suburban shopping malls and more recently e-commerce eclipse commercial downtowns, the department stores and theaters that once anchored them are disappearing. Remus’s wonderful book has much to teach us about the past, present, and future of downtown. Not only did rising consumption reshape the built environment of central cities in the late nineteenth century, but so too did battles over who belonged—or did not—in this new public space. As the metropolitan landscape shifts again today, Remus’s fascinating insights into the past remind us that much more is at stake than simply where we shop.
A Shoppers’ Paradise creatively reframes our understanding of consumer culture. Through a series of brilliantly executed case studies of women in commercial public spaces in Chicago, Emily Remus highlights the interaction of pleasure, power, and danger. Drawing on forgotten conflicts over hats, hoop skirts, drinking, and other subjects, Remus highlights the political nature of debates about the right to consume. With special attention to legal cases, this book brings to life a rich and original archive. There is no book on consumer culture quite like this delightful and erudite study.
A Shoppers’ Paradise is an original and convincing contribution to our understanding of gender and public space in American cities. Remus argues that elite and middle-class women’s use of the public downtown landscape of theaters, cafes, shops, and the street as sites of consumption and pleasure over time transformed common awareness about the purpose of the downtown and women’s rights to the city as citizens.
Helps to demonstrate how women participated in the transformation of Chicago’s culture simply by establishing their presence in public spaces.
An engrossing and interdisciplinary study…Remus makes a compelling argument about affluent women’s impact on public space and vividly describes how they were central to the development of a thriving culture of consumption. With perceptive attention to the physical world(s) of moneyed women, the book adds to the literature not only on Chicago and urban history, but gender, the built environment, and material culture.
- 304 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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