Segment from Counter Culture

Problem Shoppers

Historian Elaine Abelson tells the hosts about the rise of the department store, shoplifters and the invention of a new disorder: kleptomania.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
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NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Picture this, Macy’s, or any department store for that matter, at Christmas time. There’s the tinsel, the shining windows, maybe even a line of children waiting their turn to visit with Santa Claus. Well, in the 1890s, gleam and glitz were on display all year round in these establishments. Department stores then were only a few decades old. But in that span of time, men like Marshall Field and RH Macy had transformed their businesses into commercial palaces. They were opulent and plush with goods likely to appeal to their target customers.

ELAINE ABELSON: It’s mostly about women. The stores are for and about women.

BRIAN: This is Elaine Abelson, a historian at the New School in New York. She says this focus on women shaped the way the stores were laid out. Women’s sections dominated. On the other hand, men’s sections were and still are today hidden in basements or tucked off on the sides. And that’s not all.

ELAINE ABELSON: They have restaurants. They have writing rooms. They have travel agencies. They have beautiful ladies restrooms. They want to have people come and stay if they can.

ED: Now not all women would have been welcomed in these stores. They were interested in women from the middle and especially the upper classes. But if you were a woman who fit that profile, you would have been treated to a sensuous experience, unlike anything available to shoppers before.

ELAINE ABELSON: You are smelling perfume in the air. They keep the atomizer going, as they said. You are going to see a plethora of silks. They’re encouraged to touch, to feel, to smell.

BRIAN: Now, this overtly tactile experience was definitely good for business. But it didn’t take long before it started having a not so welcome effect.

ELAINE ABELSON: The first major case of shoplifting that I ran across was in Macy’s in the 1870s. And a very well known woman was picked up just around now, the Christmas season, for taking some sort of trinket. And what happens was the woman gets off and the sales clerks who identified her as a thief are roundly castigated for impugning the reputation of someone who was in the store doing exactly what she was supposed to be doing, which was shopping.

BRIAN: But shoplifting did not go away. To the contrary, says Abelson, it became something of an epidemic. Within a few years department stores were taking active measures to keep their goods from walking.

ELAINE ABELSON: The way they start putting goods behind glass and they have a detective force that comes into play in the stores and they have the clerks watching. They’re always telling them how not to turn their back on customers and don’t do this and don’t do that. This becomes a problem. And how are they going to understand this, which they really can’t understand?

ED: What so puzzled these store owners was why women who could clearly afford to pay for these items were choosing to steal them instead. Fortunately for them, the experts had an answer. And that’s that these women were suffering from a medical condition known as kleptomania. It was a condition, these experts announced, that the quote “weaker” sex was especially prone to.

Basically doctors believed that because women could not control their menstrual cycles, they were subjected to fits of mania. The catchall term for this disorder was pelvic disease. And one manifestation was kleptomania.

BRIAN: Locating the problem of shoplifting in the physiology of its perpetrators just seems ludicrous today. But is it possible that the department stores themselves deserve some of the blame for the epidemic of shoplifting? I put that question to Abelson.

Is this a lot like the gambling industry discovering that if you promote gambling among tens of millions of people, some of those people are going to develop a problem? By promoting and pushing women and insisting that this is what women should be doing, there will be a certain number of women that simply can’t control their impulses in the shopping rage?

ELAINE ABELSON: Well, I think the stores in a way have unleashed something that they weren’t actually prepared for. It becomes a catch-22 in many ways, that they are sort of ensnared in their own merchandising efforts. I mean, the stores really become this focus of a world for women.

They are supposed to go into the shops. They are supposed to buy things. kleptomania absolutely becomes an excuse. Merchants didn’t want to prosecute these women. These were their customer base.

BRIAN: It’s very hard to explain why women who didn’t need to steal chose to do so. But when you think about it, need itself is a slippery concept, because not only did these women not need to be stealing, they also probably didn’t really need the very things that they were stealing. And when you think about it that way, the whole consumer transaction begins to take on a sort of optional quality. Owning stuff is nice, but the true thrill is in the haunt, the get, or to put it bluntly, the steal. It’s acquiring the stuff that’s the real fun.

ED: Today on the show, we’re considering this profound truth about shopping in a historical light. How did shopping come to be such a popular pastime in America? And how was the experience of shopping changed along the way?