Cookie banner

This site uses cookies. Select "Block all non-essential cookies" to only allow cookies necessary to display content and enable core site features. Select "Accept all cookies" to also personalize your experience on the site with ads and partner content tailored to your interests, and to allow us to measure the effectiveness of our service.

To learn more, review our Cookie Policy, Privacy Notice and Terms of Use.

clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
The Herald Square Macy’s in 1907.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Filed under:

Department Stores Are Basically the Reason Women Were Allowed in Public

A woman alone in public was taboo, and then came Macy’s.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

She was dumped on her butt at the door. Rebecca Israel walked into the red marble dining room of Café Boulevard, a restaurant in the Lower East Side’s Jewish theater pocket, hoping to try some of the paprika chicken that a New York guide recommended. Instead, she was politely but firmly tossed out onto the street. The year was 1900, and unescorted women weren’t allowed into the domain of men — or as we like to call it today, “the public” — and certainly not in a place where said men could huddle together, talk business, and hobnob over cigars and brandy.

In 1899, two Philadelphians visited Manhattan for a weekend trip, where they learned the hard way that a woman wasn’t allowed to dine in a restaurant past 6 without a man’s reservation at the door. Stubborn, they plucked a random messenger boy from the street and had him join them at their table. Then there was the mother-daughter duo who came into a restaurant to get out of the pouring rain, but before they had a chance to shake out their skirts, the owner had them by the elbows and was kicking them out, muttering about indecency.

What did all these women have in common? They were barging into men’s territory, which happened to be, well, anywhere outside. The world was split into two spheres during the Victorian era, and those boundaries were ironclad and “naturally ordained”: men owned city centers, women owned drawing rooms, and with it came a power imbalance that was thought of as necessary to keep social order tidy.

While there were plenty of lower-class women moving through city streets in the 19th century — from scullery maids to launderers getting to and from work, black and white women alike — it was rare to see a middle-class housewife strolling the town square alone. Other than women laborers, prostitutes were the only ones walking the pavement, so any bourgeois woman that went outdoors unaccompanied would be seen as a “public woman,” or streetwalker. Even Virginia Woolf described walking down Piccadilly alone as walking in a “dressing gown carrying a bath sponge.”

So how did women eventually break free from their domestic existence? Two words: department stores. The emancipation of women started at the makeup counter, and shopping was basically the reason they were let outside. Receipts were a woman’s keys to the city.

Before Macy’s came along, women were already slowly edging their way outside, but it wasn’t a very alluring idea. Not only was it flat-out illegal for them to enter many spaces unchaperoned, but when they did go shopping at the standalone boutiques or dry goods stores, it wasn’t exactly a fun affair. Rather than hitching a parasol to their wrist and ambling from shop to shop, they handed a black-suited man their list, and he silently bundled their items into brown paper before sending them straight home.

Because of that, women didn’t dawdle. The streets were seen as something they moved through as trespassers, and not somewhere they lingered. Across late-19th-century etiquette books, experts had one common tip for those who just had to go into town: Be invisible. No flashy clothes, no looking anywhere but straight, and no stopping until you were back indoors. If men bumped into women they knew, they were told to walk briskly beside them rather than stopping to chat.

But that all changed with department stores. And with it came the scandal of women becoming full public actors; ones who demanded agency, a voice, and a seat at the table.

Department stores weren’t like neighborhood corner shops where you could pick up a sack of flour and a fresh ribbon all in one go. They were fantasy palaces. They had domed roofs, marbled rooms, parquet floors with Eastern carpets, furniture draped in brocade and tufted with leather. Orchestras played in the restaurants, dress pageants were held in the foyers, and concerts spun out in tea rooms. They were like enclosed cities where women ruled.

Macy’s restaurant in New York City could seat 2,500 women at once. Harrods of Knightsbridge, which labeled itself as “the most social rendez-vous for members of Society” in London, had 6,000 employees and 80 different departments. Selfridges in London was even bigger, and it branded itself as a social meeting place, where women were asked to come window shop and mingle without any pressure to buy. Ads in the newspaper cheerfully invited people to leave their homes and pile into trolleys to “spend the day at Selfridges.”

A fashion plate of Harrods in 1909.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Not only did these palaces get women outside the house, but they also employed them. Crisp-bloused, young white women made up the majority of the staff, mainly because the men in three-piece suits no longer fit into how women shopped. Many shoppers came in for no other reason than for the fun of being tempted — they wanted to play and dream, and needed someone who understood the language. Because of that, these stores became, in the words of Boston department store owner Edward Filene, an “Adam-less Eden.”

In 1910, Hampton’s Magazine perfectly described the female takeover:

Buying and selling, serving and being served — women. On every floor, in every aisle, at every counter, women...At every cashier’s desk, and the wrappers’ desks, running back and forth with parcels and change, short-skirted women. Filling the aisles, passing and repassing, a constantly arriving and departing throng of shoppers, women. Simply a moving, seeking, hurrying mass of femininity, in the midst of which an occasional man shopper, man clerk, and man supervisor, looks lost and out of place.

Not too long after, department store doors couldn’t keep the women closed up behind doors, and they started spilling out into the streets.

By the 1890s, cafes, tea rooms, and confectionaries wanted to catch the business of box-laden shoppers and whipped together ladies’ menus and dining rooms. Hotels opened their doors to suburban day-trippers, and suffragettes took over banquet halls, noshing on finger sandwiches and talking riot strategies. Pretty window displays and clever ads that needed careful study had women lingering on street corners. In fact, Selfridges’ displays became so popular that they were listed in London guide books, right up there with Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Soon after, it was no longer shocking to see women milling about downtown, uptown, and all around town. They took buses and trains, rode on bicycles, ordered carriages, or came in on foot, mingling with crowds and men. It was now entertaining to be outside, and with it, being invisible became a dying practice.

In the 1901 Book of Manners, Mrs. Kingsland complained, “The old rule, ‘Dress so as to pass unobserved,’ seems to have changed to ‘Dress so as to challenge admiration or attention.’”

But while many women were enjoying this new mobility in public life, not all of them were invited to be actors. Working-class women couldn’t go where they couldn’t afford, and women of color faced prejudice thanks to the racism that ran deep on either side of the Atlantic. In the US, being a sales girl was a white-collar job, meaning it wasn’t open to African-American applicants — it took until the 1940s for the first full-time black clerk to be hired. Mixed-race girls who passed for white would sometimes find their way onto sales floors, but once their backgrounds were discovered they would be shown the door, no matter how many years they had worked there. One such case happened in DC in 1905, when a woman named Miss Jones was found out to be mixed by the other salesgirls, who quickly told their customers in a rush to get her fired. Wave after wave of white women came down to protest, forcing her to be let go that same day. “They threatened to boycott me, and make things so hot for me that I was forced to dismiss Miss Jones in self-defense,” the proprietor told the paper.

Black women were allowed to work in the back rooms, cafeteria kitchens, and elevators, but even then there were instances when they were let go en masse to make room for white women workers. In 1919, for example, 58 black employees were fired in one go because the department store felt that the legal wage was “too much money to pay colored women and girls, and if they must pay it they prefer to pay it to white women and girls.”

As far as shopping in the departments, it depended which state you were in. In metropolises like New York City and Washington, DC, black patrons shopped at the same counters and ate at the same tea rooms. There were wealthy, educated black families in those ZIP codes — doctors, businessmen and women, and real estate agents — and they looked for the finer things just like their white neighbors. But when you got to places like Baltimore, African Americans weren’t allowed to shop in department stores unless they were wearing their maid’s uniform and had a list written in their employer’s hand. Black women didn’t find their freedom in shopping like white women did — for white women, the hurdle was that public space was earmarked for men; but for black women, the public was also synonymous with “white.”

At the same time, there was a smear campaign underway to boot white women back indoors. Conservatives swore up and down that shopping ladies were immoral, but all of this was to hide the real worry: With women invading city centers, there was now a conflict over the meaning of public space, and women’s place within it.

Where once smelling salts were needed when a middle-class woman wandered into town square alone, by the turn of the century Broadway was nicknamed “Ladies’ Mile.” Where previously women were told to hide behind their front doors from the slimy gaze of men, they now were shooting off responses like Helena Swanwick, who said, “I became incoherent with rage at a society which shut up the girls instead of the men.” When before women didn’t have a right to the family’s checking book, by 1915 90 percent of spending in the US was controlled by women.

To push against all that, doctors released Darwin-like statements, saying that the more that women tried to leave the house, the more at risk they were for birthing inferior children. In 1905, the senior physician at Bethlem Royal Hospital stated that, “The departure of woman from her natural sphere to an artificial one involves a brain struggle which is deleterious to the virility of the race.” Her nerves would be so shot leaving her “natural” domain that her womb would frazzle.

Photo: Sion Touhig/Getty Images

If that didn’t get people worried, then there was also the opinion that shopping was turning women into degenerates. In an 1868 article written by E. Lynn Linton, she outlined exactly what happened when her fellow women ventured outside of their parlor rooms: “It leads to slang, bold talk and general fastness; to the love of pleasure and indifference to duty; to the desire of money before either love or happiness; in a word, to the worst forms of luxury and selfishness.” Scathing. Leaving your role would lead to sin and corruption — or, at least, society painted it that way to scare women into never budging.

But it didn’t scare them. They kept going. Visiting department stores opened them up to the opportunity of independence and fantasy, finance and unsupervised social encounters, which led to a chance to meet new people and share different ideas. It helped women grow outside of their tightly defined boxes. Gordon Selfridge, who opened the London-based department store Selfridges in 1909, was quoted as saying, “I came along just when women wanted to step out on their own. They came to the store and realized some of their dreams.”

There was nothing inevitable about white women establishing the right to have a place within public space. Rights weren’t given “because it was time”; rather, they were wrestled out of society’s hands. The pushback was never about entering the public sphere because it was men’s; it was about gaining autonomy, which was men’s. In a very real way, the emancipation of women started at the department store lobby.

Farewell From Racked

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Essays

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Funny Stuff