“A Shoppers' Paradise”: Gender, Public Space, and the Problem of Legitimacy on Chicago's State Street, 1892–1914

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 11:30 AM
Cornet Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Emily A. Remus, University of Chicago
At the end of the nineteenth century, an alliance of merchants and boosters sought to secure Chicago’s position as a showpiece of American consumer capitalism by transforming the city’s main thoroughfare, State Street, into the finest retail district in the world.  Their vision called for a feminized “shoppers’ paradise” where middle-class women and their money could circulate freely.  As part of this effort, proponents toyed with numerous plans for improving the safety and appeal of the streetscape, including outlawing freight traffic, curtailing panhandling, and constructing an elevated walkway.  However, not all Chicagoans endorsed this feminized vision of State Street.  Indeed, many identified State Street as the central vein of a rationalized business district and cast shoppers as disruptive pleasure-seekers.  Opponents agitated for the regulation of middle-class women’s movement through the Loop and proposed to limit State Street access to those who engaged in “legitimate business.”  Although the traffic in women had long preoccupied reformers, it was now the traffic of women along a public corridor that conjured anxieties about feminine publicity and power.

Many historians have explored the movement of women into consumer venues at the turn of the century.  While this literature has exposed the cultural tensions provoked by laboring women’s turn to public pleasures and investigated efforts to regulate their behavior, middle-class women are often represented as moving seamlessly into public commercial spaces.  By emphasizing place and examining the particular development of State Street, this project reveals that even the incorporation of monied women into public space was fraught.  In so doing, this paper sheds new light on the problem of the woman in public and shows that, much like the working-class dance hall patron, the genteel shopper helped revise social mores and traditional assumptions about who could claim unfettered access to public space.

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