Race and Class Identities in Early American Department Stores

The following is an excerpt form Traci Parker’s Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights from the 1930s to the 1980s.

In this book, Traci Parker examines the movement to racially integrate white-collar work and consumption in American department stores, and broadens our understanding of historical transformations in African American class and labor formation. Built on the goals, organization, and momentum of earlier struggles for justice, the department store movement channeled the power of store workers and consumers to promote black freedom in the mid-twentieth century. Sponsoring lunch counter sit-ins and protests in the 1950s and 1960s, and challenging discrimination in the courts in the 1970s, this movement ended in the early 1980s with the conclusion of the Sears, Roebuck, and Co. affirmative action cases and the transformation and consolidation of American department stores. In documenting the experiences of African American workers and consumers during this era, Parker highlights the department store as a key site for the inception of a modern black middle class, and demonstrates the ways that both work and consumption were battlegrounds for civil rights.

Parker’s Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement was recently featured on our Black History Month 2022 Reading List: The Black American Experience.

It, the 1927 silent film based on Elinor Glyn’s popularization of the terms “it” and “it girl,” tells the story of Betty Lou Spence, a department store salesgirl, and her “romantic pursuit” of the store’s new owner, Cyrus Waltham. The plot centers on a predictable “class-crossed romance”; yet the film, itself, provides visual, albeit fictionalized, evidence of department store culture in the early twentieth century. It opens with a series of simple, illustrative shots of the fictional department store Waltham’s, which closely resembles Macy’s Herald Square in New York City. The “establishing shot” focuses on “a sign, on top of a massive brick building, that reads: ‘Waltham’s, World’s Largest Store.’ ” “The camera pans down to a view of [a] bustling street,” with customers hurriedly entering and exiting the store, and then tracks inside Waltham’s to reveal an even busier, glitzy palace of consumption. On the floor are white middle-class male and female customers dressed in their finest clothes. Some are wandering the aisles, surveying and desiring not simply the store’s dazzling goods but also the luxurious lifestyle promised to those who purchase this merchandise. Other customers are purchasing these coveted goods from white working-class saleswomen, who are plainly dressed compared with their middle-class customers. Saleswomen stand behind glass counters assisting swarms of patrons, selling and arranging merchandise, and gossiping with their coworkers about their new, handsome boss. Concurrently, male managers pace the floor observing, and occasionally sexually appraising, the saleswomen.

At the time of It’s release, the department store was a popular haven of luxury and amenity for white middle-class women and the uncontested leading American retailer for nearly forty years—making it a logical choice to set a Cinderella tale. Much of its success lay in store merchants’ and commercial impresarios’ transformation of dry goods stores into palaces of consumption. Architects of this new system of retailing—men such as Alexander T. Stewart, Rowland H. Macy, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field—established institutions that epitomized urban affluence and appealed to middle-class women, many of whom controlled their family’s disposable income and handled the consumption needs of their household. Retailers erected stores of unprecedented size and opulence and confronted customers with both an astounding array of high-quality, stylish merchandise and lavish services that enticed customers to buy much more than the essentials (figures 1 and 2). They mastered the art of creating and satisfying consumers’ personal desires and indoctrinating them with the belief that an urban bourgeois lifestyle could be realized and flaunted through shopping. By the 1910s and 1920s, the department store thus had become an arbiter of middle-class life and aspirations as well as an instrument of social mobility and maintenance.

Although eager to attract the lucrative trade of the middle and upper classes, the department store welcomed all visitors. Stores operated under the principle of free entry and browsing—the right to look around the store without the obligation to buy. This principle helped usher in a new conception of American democracy that was intricately tied to the practices of consumption that the department store fostered. According to the historian William Leach, this democracy had two sides. First, it stressed the diffusion of comfort and prosperity as the centerpiece of the American experience and identity. And second, it championed the democratization of desire, “or, more precisely, equal rights to desire the same goods and to enter the same world of comfort and luxury.” Under this market notion of democracy, white people from different classes—workers and consumers, native-born and immigrant, proletarians and the bourgeoisie—met, mingled, shared similar experiences, and, in the process, forged a common sense of racial and class identity. A woman from the humblest of backgrounds could browse the aisles alongside a woman from high society. Of course, these women were not greeted with the same customer service nor were their purchases equally valued, but they had equal opportunity to look and desire, if not buy, the goods on offer.

Not everyone, however, could look around and access the store equally. Even as the democracy of the department store was open to the broad participation of whites, it conformed to and endorsed notions of racial order and purity. The store, as illustrated in the opening scenes of It, was a “fairyland of whiteness,” where white consumers were peddled the good life by a genteel and ambitious, exclusively white selling staff. Managers feared that any noticeable presence of African Americans or any perception of racial equality would upset the dream world designed for the white middle class and those whites aspiring to join it. But rather than brand themselves as “white only” and deny blacks access, like other public accommodations and workplaces of this era, many stores received African Americans under the principle of free entry and browsing but then constrained their movement and participation in this space. Stores hired them only as maintenance and stockroom workers, elevator operators, porters, and maids—all invisible from the salesroom floor—but barred them from white-collar staff positions in sales, clerical, and management. Black customers were welcome to spend their money on material goods in many stores but were frequently ignored and underserved. They were refused service at eateries and beauty shops, prohibited from trying on and returning clothes, and denied credit. Some stores, especially those in border and southern cities, forbade black patronage entirely or often on a whim, while others confined them to bargain basements. This racial order remained intact until challenged by department store campaigns that began in the late 1930s and continued through the late twentieth century. Before those campaigns, the racialized democracy of the department store shaped the ways that race and class were imagined and employed to create both worker and consumer identities, making the department store an epitome of racial discrimination and thus an ideal site to challenge racial discrimination.

FIGURE 1  Macy’s, New York, N.Y., 1908. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-det-4a22989.
FIGURE 2  Tiffany Mosaic Dome, Marshall Field & Co.’s Retail Store postcard (Chicago, Illinois). V. O. Hammon Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, VO1343.

Shopping and working in these cathedrals of consumption afforded white people at all social levels opportunities to enact an ostensibly common racial and class identity—consuming and displaying white middle-class accoutrements and behaviors—in order to diminish differences and create or affirm an elevated social position. At the same time and in contrast with many other public spaces in America, the department store’s wavering color line made that space racially ambiguous, contradictory, and thus vulnerable. In many ways it made blacks equal to whites as consumers, offering them occasions to browse through and dream of purchasing luxurious commodities, to be waited on by white sales workers, and even to secure employment considered a step above domestic and factory work. They met and engaged whites, not as their servants but as putatively equal shoppers. All of this, African Americans insisted by the start of World War II, was key to achieving and demonstrating social mobility and equality.

Traci Parker is assistant professor of Afro-American studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.