When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store

When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store

When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store

When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store

Synopsis

This book focuses on middle-class urban women as participants in new forms of consumer culture. Within the special world of the department store, women found themselves challenged to resist the enticements of consumption. Many succumbed, buying both what they needed and what they desired, but also stealing what seemed so readily available. Pitted against these middle-class women were the management, detectives, and clerks of the department stores. Abelson argues that in the interest of concealing this darker side of consumerism, women of the middle class, but not those of the working class, were allowed to shoplift and plead incapacitating illness--kleptomania. The invention of kleptomania by psychiatrists and the adoption of this ideology of feminine weakness by retailers, newspapers, the general public, the accused women themselves, and even the courts reveals the way in which a gender analysis allowed proponents of consumer capitalism to mask its contradictions.

Excerpt

On December 10, 1898, the New York Times reported the arrest of two women in Siegel-Cooper, a large Sixth Avenue department store. Mrs. Sarah Raymond, wife of the manager of a safe deposit company, was charged by store detective George Bernard with stealing a bottle of perfume valued at one dollar. Mrs. Laura Swift, wife of a minister, was charged with stealing an umbrella and several other small articles valued at seven dollars. Mrs. Swift, Bernard testified, had hidden the umbrella in the folds of her skirt "when one of the clerks was not looking." Described by the Times reporter as "well-dressed," of "unblemished reputation," "dutiful wife and mother," the two women were each arraigned and released by the court when Siegel-Cooper dropped the complaints. Only two of many similar incidents that Christmas season, the Sarah Raymond and Laura Swift episodes encapsulate the drama of ladies who went a-thieving in the late nineteenth century. Solidly middle class, if not necessarily well-to-do, and obviously respectable, these women entered the great dry-goods bazaars to shop and became enmeshed in a consumer world of seemingly unlimited dimensions. That they became shoplifters demonstrates the difficulties faced both by middle-class women and by Victorian society in the face of fundamental cultural and economic change.

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