“A Paradise of Fashion”: A. T. Stewart’s Department Store, 1862–1875
“IT IS not ‘the common class of merchants,’ whose goods are displayed on shabby counters, who grind their sewing women by ruinous rates and almost impossible requirements,” proclaimed the feminist journal The Revolution in 1869, “it is rather the merchant whose self-satisfied features and established reputation stamp him a merchant prince among his peers.” Editors Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were referring explicitly to the labor practices of Alexander T. Stewart, the entrepreneur who created the department store that carried his name in nineteenth-century New York City.1
These unsentimental critics pointed to Stewart and his kind as prime examples of the vicious exploitation of industrial capitalism which laid a dual burden on working women. Their situation involved limited job opportunities and low pay created by the sexual division of labor, as well as heightened class conflicts engendered by the enormous disparities in wealth and lifestyle between wage earners and employers.2 Anthony’s radical critique, published in the pages of The Revolution, condemned the low wages paid to the “poor white slave girls” in Stewart’s store as the “crime of a system not of an individual,” a system in which labor, the source of wealth, was stolen from those who had created it.3 On hearing that Stewart had ordered a large picture of the Emancipation of American Slavery from the French artist M. Yvon, The Revolution queried, “Who will one day paint the no less interesting picture of labor emancipated from capital?,” thus equating wage slavery with chattel slavery as labor was appropriated by the capitalist.4 The working millions saw their labor create an “aristocracy of wealth, a high priesthood of Mammon to which Alexander T. Stewart, the proprietor of the ‘largest store in the world’ pre-eminently belongs.”5 The concentration of great wealth in the hands of an elite was repugnant on its own terms and as a danger to democracy.
Stewart’s department store represented new roles and lifestyles of urban Americans in a variety of ways. Its name alone, for some, “had pleasanter and tenderer associations than clung to any other store in the world, for it suggested the influence of women.”6 Lauded as the “most extensive and remarkable temple of business in the world,” superior to the famed “Au bon marché” of Paris and the shops of London’s Bond and Regent streets, it also represented a triumph of merchandising which eased the domestic burdens of New York’s moneyed milieu, its social “upstairs.”7 The costs of these advances were carried by the women who worked at Stewart’s and at other dry goods/department stores, comprising the “downstairs,” whether they were physically located in a basement or an upper-floor workshop. Their low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions were to persist for many years.8
The department store’s position at the nexus of major social and economic changes elicited both praise and blame, and the arguments of today’s historians mirror the contradictions of a century ago. In current literature it is condemned as a “feminized monument to the interests of sentimental womanhood” which institutionalized woman’s role as consumer and her lowly position in the labor force.9 Yet it is also praised as the instrument which “introduced women as a new social force in city life,” as it encouraged a public presence that could civilize the male business district, promote egalitarian behavior, and sustain communal life.10 While the latter view makes claims that are too broad and generally unsupported, and the former is overly negative, these different perspectives evidence the tensions generated by feminist needs to interpret the lives of American urban women during the last hundred years. Department stores, particularly Stewart’s, provide ample material for such an analysis.
By 1865 New York was the largest city in the nation, with a population of nearly 900,000. It was a great commercial city, the major exchange and distribution center for the United States, as most domestic and transatlantic trade flowed through its port and wholesalers. Its retail sector was flourishing and diverse, with every kind of goods available in as many shops. Influential and central economically was the trade in dry goods, the various cloth materials produced by the industrialization of textile manufacture and used for clothing and home furnishings.11 A decade earlier, a writer in Putnam’s Monthly described dry goods as
the great leading business of New York, that which gives employment to the vast fleets of sailing ships and steam vessels that continually crowd its magnificent harbor; which builds the superb hotels that ornament its streets; that creates banks, warehouses, extends its docks, attracts thousands of traders from all corners of the continent, and makes it the great wealthy, elegant and busy metropolis it is.12
Out of the extensive dimensions of the marketing of dry goods emerged the large concern combining wholesale and retail operations grossing millions of dollars annually, a business organization that came to be known as the department store. It was developed in America by Alexander T. Stewart (1801–1876), the acknowledged leader of the trade.13
Stewart was an Irish immigrant who prospered from both the general expansion of trade in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and his own innovative merchandising techniques. He was an importer, manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer, and his business organization prefigured the vertical integration that was to characterize late nineteenth-century industrial corporations. The department store was a product of this structural change and of a unique combination of marketing and management practices: departmental sale of goods, buyer responsibility, and staff groups; fixed prices and payment in cash; small markup and rapid turnover in goods; and diverse merchandise offered for sale under one roof.14 These practices evolved as his firm expanded from a small shop, opened in the early 1820s, to the grand emporium of the post–Civil War era.
Stewart also created the concept of an architectural program for department stores, a program that still influences retailing. His first store, the “Marble Palace,” opened in 1846 at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. A four-story Italianate building, it was subsequently enlarged several times to accommodate the growing business.15 Its large display windows and elegant domed interior were calculated to attract the middle-class and upper-class women who were finding more and more time to enjoy shopping. Whereas other stores of the period were deep and narrow, with floor-to-ceiling shelves behind display counters, Stewart introduced one vast selling room. His wares were divided among departments separated only by low storage and sales counters that did not interrupt the vista of alluring goods. The store quickly “created a great sensation in the fashionable circles, by the splendor of its decorations, and by its magnificent stock of dry goods and fancy articles.”16
By 1855, Stewart’s was the “richest dry goods house in the city” and Stewart’s personal wealth was estimated at about two and one-quarter million dollars, a large fortune for the antebellum period.17 As his profits increased from thriving wholesale and retail operations, Stewart decided to build a second store. His chosen site at Broadway and Ninth Street was considered far uptown from the rest of the dry goods trade; yet he was followed within a few years by his competitors. The building was designed by New York architect John Kellum and constructed in two major stages between 1859 and 1868. When completed, it occupied an entire city block, encompassed eight floors from subcellar to attic, and contained acres of sales and manufacturing space beneath its roof.
The store had a cast-iron facade and internal framework. Well aware of the advantages of cast iron, Stewart believed that “the material had in its favor unequalled advantages of lightness, durability, economy, incombustability [sic] and ready renovation.”18 Cast iron’s superior compressive strength supported the large windows necessary for adequately lighting sales and manufacturing in the pre-electric age: Stewart again installed the oversize, imported plate glass windows that were a hallmark of his Marble Palace, the view of goods just beyond the sidewalk drawing customers quickly inside. Graceful and elegant cast-iron columns replaced space-consuming, internal weight-bearing walls, which resulted in spacious, open floors. Stewart was delighted with his $2,750,000 showpiece. The proud entrepreneur compared the white building to “puffs of white clouds, arch upon arch, rising eighty-five feet above the sidewalk.”19
UPSTAIRS: WEALTHY DAME AND WORKING WOMAN
The store was an immense success with the shoppers who flocked to it on the opening day, November 10, 1862, and for years thereafter. The store was a magnet, “the centre of a lively and attractive scene, to be witnessed nowhere else in New York.” Passersby could see
on bright days, the rows of equipages lining the curb, the crowds of gayly dressed ladies entering and leaving the doors, the liveried coachman sitting dignifiedly upon the coachboxes, the button-emblazoned footman waiting by the coach-doors, and the stalwart private officers of the establishment, dressed in neat blue uniforms, pacing in front of the building.20
In the 1860s, fifteen to sixty thousand customers a day passed through the store. Upon entering, they encountered ushers who knew the location of all goods. The shopper might first descend from the street level and pass through a storage room filled with “great brown rolls of oilcloth” into the basement carpet department.21 A reporter from Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, a widely read fashion guide, described “the largest room in the world,” with its great and varied stock:
Carpets of every degree . . . from the cotton and woolen plaids still found upon the floor of the farmer’s cheerful sitting room to the gorgeous velvet medallions, thick sewn with tropical blossoming on which the rich man kneels to pray . . . [and] the soft persian mats that muffle the footfalls of his chamber.22
The great diversity of the carpet selection typified Stewart’s merchandising policy, which offered goods at various price levels in order to attract patrons from all income groups.
Ascending to the main or street floor, the customer could admire the complex organization of personnel and merchandise which Stewart had perfected. The range of goods was extraordinary, and journalists were awed by the plenty and by the “wonders achieved by industry and capital” in bringing together the “treasures of the world.”23 As one of them noted, “customers could be supplied with a paper of pins [or] a Tapestry Carpet,” and all the accessories for a complete wardrobe, “from the neat valenciennes collar at two dollars and fifty cents to the Brussels point shawls at one hundred or one thousand dollars.”24 Journalists lyrically cataloged the multitude of fabrics on display:
Hosiery of every make and description; linens from Belfast and Carrick-fergus; muslins, bleached and unbleached, from the mill-dams of New-England; silks from the looms of Italy and from China . . . satins and ribbons, Persian and Cashmere shawls running as high as . . . ten thousand dollars apiece; laces like the fabled gossamer of an angel’s wings.25
Stewart relied on his international buyers to channel the most beautiful, the most exotic, and the best quality cloth from abroad, and trusted his American agents to negotiate the best deals on special orders for durable materials from American mills.
It was frequently claimed that the range of goods and prices made it possible for “the wealthy dame in quest of rich silks and velvet, and the poor working woman in want of a cheap calico dress [to meet] on a common level,” with each served individually with no distinctions as to social rank.26 In the same way that journalists of the period delighted in reporting on the democratic mixture of classes in the great public spaces of Central Park, so they provided evidence of such juxtapositions in Stewart’s store. A writer from Hearth and Home observed the Italian actress
Ristori leaning her magnificent body across the counter. . . . She was negotiating for a robe that would cost over two thousand dollars. Her dense luminous eyes gleamed as she handled the gauze-like texture of lace. . . . At the other side of the great classical tragideen [sic] sat a poor German woman who was purchasing a couple of yards of white muslin.27
Less-affluent women were believed to find satisfaction in the remnant counter, used by Stewart to move slow items.28 While it was true that these sales practices, as well as the fixed prices, would physically lessen the social distance that normally separated women of different classes by bringing them into one shared space, the actual impact on behavior and attitudes is debatable. The apparent democracy of the selling floor was superficial, and for many shoppers proximity to conspicuous wealth could only intensify disparity between want and plenty. The middle-class editors of Godey’s counseled their poorer readers to resist the temptation to anger; rather, it was argued, they should accept their status and not envy the expenditures of wealthier women at Stewart’s:
Let us be content, my sisters, with our neat muslins, our simple marinoes, and admire Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones in their simple moirés and cashmeres. Let us repress the bitter slander of “extravagance” and “wordliness” when we speak of them. It is not extravagance for them, but proper expenditure of ample means.29
Implicit in such remarks was the role of purchasing—one of the dynamic forces of capitalism—to create demand for goods, encourage production, and generate jobs.
The purchases of expensive, lush materials, of the dazzling and delicate “silks of the Indies,” were often quite substantial. Leslie’s Weekly suggested in 1865 that during a typical morning at a high-class emporium such as Stewart’s or Lord and Taylor, “a lady could not expect to get anything to wear short of . . . a bill of two or three thousand dollars.”30 The amount of fabric needed by a dressmaker to create current fashions was stupendous compared to modern dress. The graceful looking, though awkward, hoop skirt of the 1860s was supported on a steel cage which might measure five and one-half to six yards of material at the hem. For an extremely elegant evening dress with several overskirts, each with fancy trim, some 1100 yards of tulle would be used!31 Complicated wardrobes decreed by reigning fashion contained prescribed costumes for every conceivable occasion, from watching a horse race or playing croquet, to breakfasting and dining. And every article of clothing had its comparable variations. At Stewart’s, for example, one could purchase kid gloves, silk gloves, chamois gloves, riding and walking gloves, and fur gloves, imported from all over Europe.32
The American woman’s devotion to fashion sustained the dry-goods trade. Demand for fabric and accessories was constantly stimulated as fashions changed, requiring that high-class dressmakers follow European styles closely. They were guided by the plates, patterns, and advice found in such magazines as Godey’s (founded 1830), Madame Demorest’s Quarterly Mirror of Fashions (founded 1860), and Harper’s Bazaar (founded 1867).33 As the Nation suggested in a biographical portrait, Stewart was the great innovator in the marketing of dry goods, a trade whose “pre-eminence and attractiveness . . . in this country is due mainly to the great purchasing power and varied requirements of American women.”34 Stewart’s success was attributable to his brilliant analysis of the relevant social and economic trends which reflected a rising standard of living as well as the powerful forces of the cult of domesticity which assigned separate spheres of activity and interest to men and women. Stewart was, according to the Nation,
the first shopkeeper who perceived the position which the two sexes on this continent were destined to occupy with regard to dress. Fifty years ago his keen insight into dry goods taught him that in the bright future which was opening for the race in America, the money devoted to dress would be mainly devoted to the clothes of women; that toil and labor hitherto so selfishly imposed upon them, would now be mainly assumed by men whose monotonous and ill-dressed lives would be made happy by the spectacle of the gorgeous dresses and bonnets and trimmings displayed by their wives and daughters.35
The enormous market for fashionable merchandise was to some degree a reflection of the prescribed female role as ornament in a masculine world. One writer of the period observed that the only worth of the “modern fashionable wife” was as a “figure piece for the house.”36 Upper-class women in the mid-nineteenth century already exhibited what Thorstein Veblen later described as “conspicuous consumption.”37 Such women were “walking frames” for the display of possessions, who did “little but don and doff dry goods.” In the nation’s large cities, most notably in New York, they had ample opportunity to display themselves, “not tamely at home, but in the streets, in horse-cars, omnibuses, excursion boats, railroad trains, and hotel corridors,” and in the many theaters, concert halls, and promenades.38
Household goods, clothing, and special services were located on the second floor of Stewart’s. Patrons reached the upper level in three “beautifully upholstered” elevators or by climbing two flights of stairs in the older section of the store. From this vantage shoppers could admire the frescoed walls and ceilings, the splendid gilt gas chandeliers, and the dramatic skylit rotunda rising up the full height of the building. Similar features were soon emulated in department-store architecture around the nation. The second floor contained retail departments for housekeeping goods, including upholstery, blankets, table linens, and all curtain materials, from the simplest gingham to “cloth of gold” at fifty dollars a yard. Some ready-made men’s clothing was available also, and an abundance of women’s outer garments: furs, shawls, and myriad others, “from the street wrap to the delicate cloth or cashmere opera cloaks, snowy white, crimson-lined, and gaily tasselled that hang in the convenient wardrobes with sliding doors [lining] the walls.”39
Nearby were washrooms and “saloons” or parlors for the female customers.40 These were another Stewart innovation which made hours of chatting, browsing, and shopping amid the vast displays of merchandise comfortable for customers who came from uptown residential neighborhoods or commuted in from nearby suburbs. There were few other socially acceptable public places or spaces in the city where respectable women could congregate. Tea rooms, church gatherings, and the department store were about the only such places until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Then libraries and museums would provide cultural centers for the fashionable. For women who felt a pietistic or social sense of noblesse oblige, the club movement and philanthropic organizations provided additional respectable meeting places. Under their sponsorship, activities were undertaken which would eventually modify the spatial segregation of the female domestic world and the male sphere of business and politics.41 In this sense, for middle-class women at least, the department store did indeed encourage a public presence. The “downstairs,” or working areas of the department store, presented quite a different picture.
DOWNSTAIRS: CASH BOYS AND SEWING WOMEN
The dry goods were examined and purchased at Stewart’s at low counters where some five hundred male clerks presented, measured, and cut them, and handed the customer’s payment over to a cash boy. He whisked the money to one of several cashier’s desks enclosed behind a white iron filigree screen to have the purchase checked and to receive change. The cashier’s cage was the heart of the cash system which Stewart had introduced at the Marble Palace, eliminating the credit system that had prevailed until then.42 Cash boys could aspire, if they were quick and good looking, to the better-paying position of sales clerk.
Sales positions in dry goods stores had been urged for women since the 1830s; it was considered wasteful for men to hold such jobs when they could be doing more “significant” work. The following comment from a New York Daily Tribune article of 1845 offered a typical opinion:
It is a shame that fine, hearty lads, who might clear their fifty acres each of western forest in a short time, and have a house, a farm, a wife, and boys about them in the course of ten years, should be holed up in hot salesrooms, handing down tapes and ribbons and cramping their genius over chintzes and delaines.43
Despite the prevalence of such sentiments, women did not begin to enter sales positions until the mid-1860s and then only in small numbers and due to the labor shortages caused by the Civil War. Women were most likely to find work in the dry goods trade as seamstresses and dressmakers; only 5 percent of New York’s 86,000 working women in 1870 were employed as “clerks, salesmen, and accountants” in the city’s retail stores.44
Working women were all but invisible to the customers. Out of sight but adjacent to the carpet salesroom was an area where floor coverings were assembled for individual orders, whether a modest row house, a large hotel, or a passenger ship. Women worked on the floor, matching cut pieces of carpet which were then laid out on forty-foot-long tables to be sewn by steam-powered machines operated by men. As uncomfortable as kneeling for many hours a day was for the women, at least mechanized cutters and sewing machines relieved them of some of the most unpleasant aspects of such work, which still prevailed in old-fashioned establishments, where hands blistered from struggling with the stiff carpet fabric.45 The carpet department exemplified Stewart’s shrewd investment in the most advanced technology, as well as his commitment to the inequities of the prevailing labor system. Throughout his stores, the better-paying and more skilled jobs were reserved for men; women earned lower wages, often on the exploitative piecework system, and had little chance for advancement.
The remaining floors of the building symbolized this same order of spatial segregation, dividing the consuming women from the producing women. On these upper levels, hidden from public view, worked most of the store’s thousand seamstresses, dressmakers, and laundresses. In their workshops, many of the items sold on the lower floors were manufactured, and the requests of the wholesale and special-order trade were filled. Animal hair was unpacked and prepared for the manufacture of mattresses, and household furnishings “from blankets to kitchen towels” by the “hundreds of dozens” were hemmed and packed for delivery in wicker crates in a “light and cheerful saloon . . . full of work tables and busy groups.”46 The sewing women made “walking dresses, mantillas, underskirts . . . millinery . . . robes . . . and material of every description that can be mentioned in the house-furnishings or dry goods line.”47 Like many other dry goods establishments, Stewart’s produced ready-made children’s and women’s clothing—relatively new apparel lines—as well as lower grade men’s ready-made clothes.48
Stewart’s workrooms were considered among the finest in the city—spacious, adequately ventilated, and well lighted. Located on the fourth and fifth floors, the sewing rooms looked out over the rooftops of the surrounding area and the busy street below. At the long rows of tables where the hand-sewing women sat facing one another, each had ample space for her workbasket and tools. The pleasant surroundings at Stewart’s contrasted with the foul air and dark spaces of other workshops, where sewing women in “myriads of marble palaces” fought “poverty with the point of a needle,” and were not even permitted to look out of their windows.49 Stewart’s also provided a dining room, where tea and coffee could be prepared to accompany the lunches the women brought for their half-hour meal break.50
In spite of Stewart’s relatively generous amenities, however, the women employed to sew there suffered from the difficult labor conditions created by changes in the clothing industry and labor market. The cumulative impact of these changes, which dated from the late eighteenth century, were realized in a glut of unorganized and semiskilled women workers drawn from the increasing ranks of immigrants and, with the inflation and tragedy of the Civil War, from the ranks of native-born women too. The result was the familiar pattern: the depression of wages as too many women entered the job market in the previously male-dominated sewing trade. By 1850 over four thousand workshops in New York were coordinating and conducting clothing manufacture; two-thirds of the ninety-six thousand workers involved were women.51 The city was the leading producer in the United States of ready-made clothing just as the sewing machine was introduced, an invention that considerably expanded production and changed the nature of the clothing industry itself.
By the early 1860s it was estimated that 400 sewing machines and their operators would replace 2000 hand sewers, with comparable savings in cost and increases in production.52 The Wheeler and Wilson Company, for example, ran experiments that graphically demonstrated the validity of these statements. In one, the number of stitches per minute taken by a sewer was 23; a machine made 640 stitches. A second experiment revealed how much time could be saved in manufacturing a garment: a calico dress was completed in 57 minutes by machine whereas a seamstress needed 6-1/2 hours to sew it by hand. A man’s shirt was completed in just over an hour by machine compared to 14 hours by hand.53 Small wonder that by the end of the Civil War 63,000 industrial sewing machines were in use, and the thousands of sewers thrown out of work were competing for handwork at extraordinarily low wages.54
The sewing machines were operated, more often than not, by women workers. Whether it was “an instrument . . . peculiarly calculated for female operatives,” as one newspaper had asserted in 1853, the skills women had and the nature of the labor market insured their employment in such light manufacturing.55
The machine also influenced fashion. It made possible the elaborate trim on women’s clothing because of the ease with which it could be sewn on, and thus enlarged the market for such wear. The yards of material needed to cover hoop skirts were quickly ornamented by machine, whether braiding, pleating, or tucking was required. And the machine contributed to the popularity of certain fashions by reducing their costs. Women’s ready-made cloaks, “mantillas,” cost 50 to 80 percent less when manufactured by machine. These cloaks and other apparel were made by Stewart’s four hundred seamstresses working at sewing machines powered by steam engines located in the building’s subbasement. This mechanized assist not only led to increased productivity and hence profit for Stewart but also, it was observed, relieved “the operatives of much tedious labor.”56
Supervised by a female superintendent, the needleworkers in the store earned from five to nine dollars a week if they were consistent, depending on their piecework scale and the difficulty of their tasks.57 Such wages were much superior to those of women working in other large-scale manufacturing shops or under the dismal conditions of home piecework where 12 to 18 hours of labor a day paid only for the meanest tenement lodging and poor food. For these unfavored women, ninety dollars a year might be wrested from shirt finishing at four to eight cents a garment, seventy-five cents a dozen for overalls, or twenty cents for a day’s hand stitching of pantaloons.58 Too many women workers made the manufacture of clothing cheaper and more widely available while their economic status declined precipitously.
Stewart used such women as part of his system. The women workers who called at the store for take-home work often had to leave a deposit for the value of the goods. It was also the custom to require that they provide their own threads, needles, and machines.59 The outwork required by Stewart’s was varied, including branding patterns to be embroidered and fashioning such accessories as artificial flowers, umbrellas, and straw hats.60 The pay for this work was extremely low, and the profits commensurately high. After an investigation of the Stewart store, The Revolution reported that for seven days of embroidery on a single dress, a seamstress received $3.75; the cloth of the dress cost the store about $20.00 and the finished product sold for $85.00. The journal’s exposé concluded: “It is no wonder that dry goods are sold in marble palaces.”61 At the time this article was published, Stewart’s total annual sales were about fifty million dollars.62
Some journalists believed that “ruinous rates” drove sewing women to apply to benevolent societies for aid to avoid having to supplement their pitiful wages by resort to the “social evil.” For those who did not have this option, one writer asked, “Is it a wonder that so many of the working women and girls glide into sin, with the hope of bettering their hard lot?"63 The contrast between the everyday conditions of Stewart’s employees and the lot of many Stewart customers was representative of the widespread socioeconomic split among women of the period.64 Life was grueling, impoverished, and unhealthy for female workers at a time when industrialization and the availability of servants freed many middle-class and upper-class women from domestic chores, permitting them to spend numerous hours shopping.
The use of this wealth for “conspicuous consumption” also elicited comment, notably in relation to Stewart’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. Its size and decor made it the first “millionaire’s mansion” (as did its price tag), predecessor to the palatial residences of the Gilded Age. In 1868 The Revolution noted that “we hear much about what Mr. Stewart is going to do for the New York poor, but we know nothing he has done as yet to benefit them, and we fear he never will. Philanthropy would be a far nobler monument to his money than a needless marble mansion.”65 Stewart’s one attempt to make a grand philanthropic gesture for women—to whom he owed his fortune—was a hotel for working women. Finished after his death, its purpose was subverted by his executor and the venture failed.66
The Revolution’s critique and rage was directed at Stewart as the personification of the new industrial capitalism which affected the working conditions and lives of not only his 1000 women workers but all 2000 employees. Departmental managers and their assistants exercised continuous supervision throughout the twelve-hour workdays that began at seven o’clock in the morning. There were also various checks on customer sales, a system of fines for lateness, mistakes, and improper conduct, as well as bonuses based on merit and good work. No different from the management of factories of the period, this strict regimen marked the modernization of work habits and behavior imposed by the industrial revolution and the functional requirements of large, complex firms. Stewart’s attitude toward his employees was summarized by a contemporary publication—in which the generalized male references should be understood to apply equally to female employees:
He regards his employees as cogs in the complicated machinery of his establishment. . . . The men are numbered and fined. . . . There is a penalty attached to all delinquencies. It takes all a man can earn for the first few months or so to pay his fines . . . if he exceeds the few minutes allotted for dinner . . . if he eats on the premises . . . if he sits during business hours . . . comes late or goes early . . . if he misdirects a bundle . . . mistakes a street or number, if he miscounts money, or gives the wrong change.67
The differential between the appearance and the reality of working at Stewart’s was also considered in the Woman’s Journal: “The women who worked for Stewart have been supposed to be the best cared for in the city but this idea has since been discovered to be fallacious, since the fines for every trivial shortcoming materially reduced the earnings of all Stewart’s employees.”68
The exploitation of sewing women thus accompanied emerging industrial capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century and would continue for decades thereafter. Only if the conditions under which the sewing women worked are ignored can one conclude that the department stores were an unalloyed benefit for women. And that said, the value of the department store, even for middle-class and upper-class women, is still open to debate.
1. “The Sewing Women,” The Revolution, 1 (Feb. 26, 1868), 117. The phrase “a paradise of fashion” comes from W. Frothingham, “Stewart and the Dry Goods Trade of New York,” Continental Monthly, 2 (1862), 531. For a wider discussion see Deborah S. Gardner, “The Architecture of Commercial Capitalism: John Kellum and the Development of New York, 1840–1875,” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1979.
2. My understanding of Anthony’s criticism of Stewart in The Revolution was considerably strengthened by Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Suffrage Movement in America, 1848–1869 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978), chaps. 4 and 5.
3. The Revolution, 1 (Sept. 3, 1868), 136.
4. “Patronizing Art,” The Revolution, 1 (Dec. 17, 1868), 380.
5. The Revolution, 1 (Sept. 3, 1868), 136. Two years later, the journal wrote, “It takes the toil, tears, brains, sinews, souls of thousands like these poor wharf rats to make a Peabody, an Astor, a Stewart” (3 [Feb. 3, 1870], 73).
6. Bayrd Still, Urban America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974), 148.
7. “An Hour in A. T. Stewart’s Retail Store,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 40 (Apr. 24, 1875), 107.
8. A number of investigatory articles at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries documented these persistent problems. See, for example, surveys on working conditions and wages in big department stores in The Arena, 22 (Aug. and Sept. 1899), 290–291, 165–186, 320–321; The Survey, in 1913 and 1915; “Labor Conditions in the Department Stores,” Municipal Affairs, 3 (June 1899), 361–362; and History of Women in Industry (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909), vol. 9. See also Sarah S. Malino, “Faces Across the Counter: A Social History of Female Department Store Employees, 1870–1920,” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1982.
9. William Leach, True Love and Perfect Union: The Feminist Reform of Sex and Society (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 213. Chapter 9 is devoted to the topic “The Bee and the Butterfly: Fashion and the Dress Reform Critique of Fashion,” 213–260.
10. Gunther Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 144. See chap. 4, “The Department Store,” 110–147.
11. The general discussions of urban commerce and the dry goods trade are based on the following studies: Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of an Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1962; Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1966), and The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977); Thomas C. Cochran, Two Hundred Years of American Business (New York: Basic Books, 1977); Elisha P. Douglas, The Coming of Age of American Business (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1971); Herman E. Kroos and Charles Gilbert, American Business History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972); and Glenn Porter and Harold C. Livesay, Merchants and Manufacturers: Studies in the Changing Structure of Nineteenth Century Marketing (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).
12. “New York Daguerreotyped, 2. Business Streets, Mercantile Blocks, Stores, and Banks,” Putnam’s Monthly, 1 (Apr. 1853), 356. In 1850, there were 139 dry goods importers serving a comparable number of retail firms (Cochran, Two Hundred Years, 87).
13. Stewart’s life and business activities are reconstructed from contemporary sources as no personal papers have survived. Supplemental material was provided by an unpublished biography, and notes on the development of the department store (“The Ladies Paradise, 1830–1880") in the Harry E. Resseguie Collection, Baker Library Division of Archives and Manuscripts, Harvard Business School. Several articles written by Resseguie were also useful: “The Decline and Fall of the Commercial Empire of A. T. Stewart,” Business History Review, 36 (Autumn 1962), 255–286; “A. T. Stewart’s Marble Palace—Cradle of the Department Store,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 48 (Apr. 1964), 131–162; and “Alexander Turney Stewart and the Development of the Department Store, 1823–1876,” Business History Review, 39 (Autumn 1965), 300–322.
14. While there will always be scholarly arguments to decide the first person to invent a new technology, or devise a new means of marketing, or in this instance create the department store, clearly the management as well as the economic and physical organization of the Stewart stores were the prototypes for the modern department store, evolving from the same social and economic developments that were shaping similar retail ventures in England and France during the mid-nineteenth century. Resseguie argues convincingly (1965) that Stewart originated the department store system, for its salient characteristics were all present in his organization: central location (in the business district), many departments under one roof, “free” services (exchanges and refunds, delivery, rest rooms), one price, low mark-up, cash sales, aggressive advertising, large volume, centralization of nonselling functions, buying for cash, “free” entrance, maintenance of a clean stock (clearance sales), and an efficient, disciplined store organization. Chandler (Visible Hand, 225) concurs with Resseguie’s assessment, suggesting that Stewart’s became a full-fledged department store about 1862 when it added more lines: “The department store appeared when an establishment which retailed dry goods or clothing began to add new lines such as furniture, jewelry, and glassware.” The evolution of the department store in America after Stewart is traced in Chandler, Visible Hand, 225 ff.; John William Ferry, A History of the Department Store (New York: Macmillan, 1960); Leach, True Love, 227 ff.; and Sheila M. Rothman and David J. Rothman, Sources of the American Social Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1975), II, 3–17.
15. The store is discussed in Resseguie, “A. T. Stewart’s Marble Palace,"; Mary Ann Smith, “John Snook and the Design of A. T. Stewart’s Store,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 58 (Jan. 1974), 18–33; and Winston Weisman, “Commercial Palaces of New York: 1845–1875,” Art Bulletin, 36 (Dec. 1954), 285–307. Stewart’s architectural innovations can be appreciated by contrast with previous American practice and contemporaneous European stores in Nikolaus Pevsner, A History of Building Types (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), chap. 16, “Shops, Stores and Department Stores,” esp. 261–266. A major difference between Europe and America was evident to Stewart’s peers: “One peculiarity of the New York stores which distinguishes them from their London and Paris rivals is the fact that they generally occupy the whole of the building for purposes connected with their business, and are not confined to the first stories” (Putnam’s Monthly, 1853, 129).
16. New York Herald, Sept. 26, 1846, 1.
17. Baker Library Division of Archives and Manuscripts, R. G. Dun & Co., Credit Ledgers, 197:026 (1855).
18. For a detailed discussion of the aesthetic and technological attributes of cast iron, John Kellum’s (1809–1871) career and experience in the medium, and the Stewart store, see Gardner, “Architecture of Commercial Capitalism,” 21–49, 62–69, passim. Stewart’s opinion is quoted in “Men Who Have Assisted in the Development of Architectural Resources, No. 1. John B. Cornell,” Architectural Record (Dec. 1891), 245. Resseguie (“Biography,” 85) suggests that cast iron was a desirable medium because its use lowered insurance costs by 25 percent.
19. “Men Who Have Assisted,” 245.
20. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, 40 (Apr. 24, 1875), 107.
21. Alice B. Haven, “A Morning at Stewart’s,” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, May 1863, 430.
23. D. J. K., “Shopping at Stewart’s,” Hearth and Home, 1 (Jan. 9, 1869), 43.
24. R. G. Dun & Co., Credit Ledgers, 204:778 (1863), and Haven, “A Morning,” 431.
25. D. J. K., “Shopping,” 43.
26. Edward Crapsey, “A Monument of Trade,” Galaxy, 8 (Jan. 1870), 98.
27. D. J. K., “Shopping,” 43.
28. Haven, “A Morning,” 431.
30. “Rich and Poor of New York,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 18, 1865, 135.
31. Alison Gernsheim, Victorian and Edwardian Fashion (orig. pub. 1963; New York: Dover, 1981), 45–46, 48. The crinoline or structurally supported skirt dated from the seventeenth century. The heavy petticoats and other stiffening materials were replaced in the 1850s by a French invention consisting of a separate cage of steel springs in hoops of increasing diameter to the bottom, connected with tapes or curved steel ribs. It was quickly adopted in Europe and America.
32. D. J. K., “Shopping,” 43, reported that Stewart’s sold a thousand pairs of gloves in a day.
33. Margaret Walsh, “The Democratization of Fashion: The Emergence of the Women’s Dress Pattern Industry,” Journal of American History, 66 (Sept. 1979), 300; see also Stella Blum, ed., Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper’s Bazaar: 1867–1898 (New York: Dover, 1974), Introduction.
34. “Stewart’s,” Nation, 34 (Apr. 20, 1882), 332.
35. Ibid. The occasion for the Nation article was the closing of Stewart’s. When A. T. Stewart died in 1876, his close friend and executor Henry Hilton bought the firm (building, factories, cash assets) with his million-dollar bequest from Stewart. Lacking Stewart’s acumen, he overextended the firm and was forced to dissolve it by 1882. The firm failed also because he embezzled from it.
36. George Ellington (pseud.), The Women of New York, or the Underworld of the Great City (New York: New York Book Company, 1869; New York: Arno, 1972), 69.
37. Veblen elaborated this concept in The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899 and 1912; New York: Modern Library, 1961), chap. 4.
38. Ellington, Women of New York, 28, 37; Nation, 1882, 332.
39. Haven, “A Morning,” 431–432.
40. New York Times, Sept. 19, 1868, 2; Haven, “A Morning,” 430, “a neatly decorated ladies’ dressing room of good dimensions.” When John Kellum designed a new store for Charles L. Tiffany, famous purveyor of jewelry and elegant household effects, he included a “retiring room for ladies and children.” As the New York Times noted, “very many ladies residing in the country, or in towns adjacent to New York, come here to purchase their holiday goods, and almost invariably they bring their children with them, and such toilet rooms become an absolute necessity” (Nov. 12, 1870, 2). The cast-iron Tiffany store was located on Union Square. See Gardner, “Architecture of Commercial Capitalism,” 93–98.
41. See Marlene Stein Wortman, “Domesticating the Nineteenth-Century American City,” Prospects, 3 (1977), 531–572.
42. “The New Store of A. T. Stewart,” New York Times (Sept. 19, 1868), 2; James McCabe, Jr., Lights and Shadows of New York (1872; facs. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1970), 381; Crapsey, “Monument of Trade,” 95, 98; Haven, “A Morning,” 430–431; and R. G. Dun & Co., Credit Ledgers, 204:377–378 (July 1862).
43. The Tribune of Mar. 7, 1845, was quoted in History of Women in Industry, vol. 9, 34. The male clerk, according to Resseguie (“Biography,” 25) and the Herald (1835) played an important role in attracting customers. Stewart’s men were long known as “handsome, polite and well bred.” See Ellington, (Women of New York, 343–344): “It is a fact that most women had rather be attended upon by a polite, handsome man, who will smile upon them and say pretty things than by the cleverest girls that can be found. . . . This is one of the reasons why shopping becomes such a passion with the women, and is such a bore to the men. What fun or interest could there be for a man to purchase a dozen yards of silk from a man? But for a woman the case is entirely different.” Even the male clerks at Stewart’s had some cause of complaint about their salaries during the Civil War which, some felt, had not kept pace with inflation. See New York Times, July 29 and 31, 1864, 8 and 8.
44. According to Seymour Mandelbaum, Bass Tweed’s New York (New York: John Wiley, 1965), 31, See also History of Women in Industry, vol. 9, 238–240. There were not enough women dry goods clerks to form an association to better their working conditions until 1870, when they were assisted by the existing male organization. See The Revolution (July 21, 1870), 42–43. Leach reports that Stewart employed some Englishwomen as salesclerks (True Love, 223). In hiring foreigners he may have been following the example of Arnold Constable who hired women salesclerks (at lower wages) after a trip to Paris where he observed that young educated women added “class” (Barbara Wertheimer, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America [New York: Pantheon Books, 1977], 156).
45. Haven, “A Morning,” 430. On conditions in the “old fashioned establishments” see McCabe, Lights and Shadows, 379–380, and “Working Women’s Association Meeting,” The Revolution, 1 (Oct. 1, 1868), 198. The carpet department is a good example of Stewart’s mixture of wholesale and retail business. Carpet factories sold through agents or commission houses who, in turn, “disposed of goods to the wholesalers or large jobbers in New York, Boston or Philadelphia—to a house like A. T. Stewart & Co.—who in turn, supplied the retailers throughout the country” (Arthur H. Cole and Harold F. Williamson, The American Carpet Manufacture: A History and Analysis [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941]), 53.
46. Haven, “A Morning,” 431–432.
47. D. J. K., “Shopping,” 43.
48. Lower-grade men’s ready-made clothing had held an important place in the domestic market since the 1820s (Resseguie, manuscript notes on the men’s clothing industry).
49. See Haven, “A Morning,” 432–433; New York Daily Tribune, Sept. 18, 1868, 2; McCabe, Lights and Shadows, 827; “The Working Women of New York,” 2 and 3, and “The Sewing Women,” in The Revolution (Feb. 26 and Mar. 12, 1868), 117, 148–149.
50. “Notes and News,” The Woman’s Journal, 8 (Nov. 3, 1877), 349.
51. Grace Rogers Cooper, The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1976), 101.
52. Ibid., 58.
53. Ibid. For other contests between hand and machine sewers, see James Parton, History of the Sewing-Machine (Lancaster, 1868), 7 ff. (repr. of an article in the Atlantic Monthly, 19 [May 1867], 527–544). Parton reported that the victory of Elias Howe and his one machine over five seamstresses in an 1845 encounter elicited the following comment from journeymen tailors, “320 stitches a minute at first trial. Death to sewing machines or death to tailors!”
54. Wertheimer, We Were There, 155. For an analysis of the impact of the sewing machine on female labor, wages, and occupational segregation within the context of industrializing America, see the excellent survey by Joan Wallach Scott, “The Mechanization of Women’s Work,” Scientific American, 247 (Sept. 1982), 136–151.
55. Cooper, Sewing Machine, 30. Cooper notes that Singer merchandised his light-weight family machine to women, 33–34, 47, 158. The potential for its home use was realized by the pattern industry, according to Walsh.
56. Walsh, “Democratization,” 301 ff.; Cooper, Sewing Machine, 59. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, April 24, 1875, 107.
57. Haven, “A Morning,” and “A. T. Stewart and William B. Astor,” Belfast News-Letter, July 15, 1876, cited in The Posthumous Relatives of the Late Alexander T. Stewart (New York, 1876). The wage figures appear somewhat inflated as they would compute to a yearly income of $250 to $450. This compares favorably with incomes of highly skilled dressmakers catering to the wealthy at $3.50 to $6.00 a week. The New York Times (July 31, 1864, 8) reported that male clerks at Stewart’s earned $400 a year while the average annual sewing woman’s wages there were $100 to $250.
58. “The Working Women of New York,” The Revolution, 1 (Feb. 19, 1868), 99–100, and “The Needle Again,” Hearth and Home, 1 (May 15, 1869), 320–330. On the sewing industry, see History of Women in Industry, vol. 9, 115–145, and McCabe, Lights and Shadows, 822–828.
59. Wertheimer reports that early sewing machines were unreliable and often tore the fabric of a garment. Home workers were charged for these damaged goods (We Were There, 101).
60. Lace collars earned 22 cents a dozen, and ladies’ cloth cloaks, sewn in a day, $2; see Haven, “A Morning,” 432; McCabe, Lights and Shadows, 824–825; History of Women in Industry, vol. 9, 23, 160 ff.; “Working Women’s Association Meeting,” The Revolution, 1 (Oct. 1, 1868), 198.
61. H. M. Shepherd, “Experiences,” The Revolution, 1 (Apr. 23, 1868), 117. The Revolution, 1 (Jan. 15, 1868), 21, quoting the New York Sun, a workingmen’s paper, gave another example of a woman being paid $4 for an infant’s cape which took her fourteen days of labor; the store sold it for $70.
62. Resseguie, “Alexander Turney Stewart,” 320, estimates that the total value of retail and wholesale transactions in 1865 was over fifty million dollars; eight million dollars of this sum was retail sales.
63. McCabe, Lights and Shadows, 282. See also Hearth and Home, 1 (May 15, 1869), 329–330, wherein readers are exhorted to assist in the organization of protective unions, cooperatives, and emigration societies (to send women west for better opportunities) and to patronize homeworkers themselves. The New York Working Women’s Protective Union was founded in 1868 to act as an employment agency and give legal assistance in the collection of wages withheld by unscrupulous employers. The Workingwomen’s Association was founded by Susan B. Anthony in 1868 to organize women for better wages and job conditions. Neither organization had the resources to really tackle the severe wage problems. See Rosalyn Baxandall et al., eds., America’s Working Women (New York: Random House, 1976), 82–84, 117–119; DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage, chap. 4; and History of Women in Industry, vol. 9.
64. On the shift in lifestyles, see Gerda Lerner, “The Lady and the Mill Girl: Changes in the Status of Women in the Age of Jackson,” in Jean E. Friedman and William G. Shade, eds., Our American Sisters, 2d ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1976), 120–132.
65. The Revolution, 1 (Feb. 12, 1868), 89. See Gardner, “Architecture of Commercial Capitalism,” 211–216, on the history and design of the mansion.
66. On the history, design, and problems of the hotel, see Gardner, “Architecture of Commercial Capitalism,” chap. 5, “The Commercial City: Wealth and Welfare,” 216–260.
67. Frothingham, “Stewart,” 532–533; McCabe, Lights and Shadows, 59, 383; Crapsey, “A Monument of Trade,” 99. This mechanistic imagery was popular; “Stewart, plain, earnest and industrious . . . amid this army of clerks and bustle of external traffic, drives the secret machinery with wonderful precision,” Frothingham, 533.
68. “News and Notes,” The Woman’s Journal, 7 (June 24, 1876), 205.