Christmas is just around the corner and the shopping rush has begun. Unfortunately, these days, we can’t get out and shop like we’re used to. It got me thinking about the difference in our shopping habits now versus the good old days and I was surprised to learned that shopping women’s liberation.
It all began when thousands of women showed up at the opening of John Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia. The year was 1876. It was an amazing event. The store was filled with gaslights, furs and gloves and fabrics and a gigantic pipe organ supplied the music.
The women enjoyed being catered to as they walked around discussing their purchases with each other and marveling at the beauty of the store and the products being offered. I'm not sure if they realized it then, but that event began a new kind of freedom for women. Sounds odd but the department store became a new opportunity for middle and upper class women to move around outside the home without the protection of men. It provided a platform for empowerment and the rising emancipation movement.
During those times, women were expected to keep the home, cook the meals, raise the kids while the men were responsible for bringing home the bacon. A “respectable” woman was expected to stay at home and not venture out unless they were chaperoned. In fact, many stores and restaurants were closed to them.
Industrialization changed all that. It brought a variety of consumer goods, and mass-produced clothing into stores. More products equal the need for more buyers and prosperous woman became the target. Women were now allowed to have a safe place to shop and learn about all the new products that were being offered. The stores were large, clean and very appealing. They were staffed with women to insure there would be no harm to their reputations, prices were fixed so there was no haggling and shopping was made fun.
Retailers realized that the more extraordinary they made the stores the more women would linger, mingle and shop. It became a social meeting place where women had a chance to meet new people and share different ideas. Some stores added a post office, a beauty parlor, library and tea room. Shopping was women’s first taste of real freedom.It became a way for women to get out of the house and suddenly it was respectable for women to go out on the street. Places that were once closed to women were now opening their doors to them. Single women were able to get work and move away from their parent’s home and with all this new-found freedom came financial independence.
Today, the department stores that helped give women their freedom and power are slowly dying out being replaced by online shopping. However, nothing will beat the nostalgic feeling of walking into Macy’s, Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue during the holiday season, looking at the stunning holiday window displays, the beautiful decorations, and experiencing the hustle and bustle of people shopping for gifts. Department stores evoke a yearning for a simpler time and a sense of belonging which until now I’ve always taken for granted but feels more important to me than ever.
Be present, be playful, be divine