Selling without substance: Fraud, feminization, and the foundations of consumer culture in nineteenth-century England
Whitlock, Tammy Christina
Wiener, Martin J.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation focuses on women, consumer culture, and crime in England in the early to later nineteenth century (1800-1880). As England's textile industry produced goods, especially cotton, on a larger and cheaper scale, consumer culture was also being transformed in bazaars and small shopfronts across England. Rather than serving as passive consumers of the production of English factories, English consumers, particularly women, took an active role in shaping the British economy not by more efficient production, but through their creation of a feminized marketplace. They created a realm of fashion, frippery, and display tailored to the female consumer. They demanded discounted luxuries, making products more affordable for the middling classes. Women's involvement in this seedy business of selling was especially troubling to male, middle-class critics. Accused by such male luminaries as Thackeray and Trollope of selling without substance, the new modes of retailing, including bazaar shopping, "cheap" shops, and large drapery emporiums grew in popularity and were the progenitors of the great department stores. The new culture of unchecked consumerism aroused fears of crime and fraud by both buyer and seller. According to critics, the acts of buying and selling became facades in the new marketplaces--just another opportunity for fraud, trickery, and theft--largely perpetrated by undeserving women seeking genteel status through its material symbols. This criticism of fraudulent consumption masked fears of this threatening transformation of English consumer culture, and the women who both inhabited and held positions of power in this culture. If England was once a nation of shopkeepers, by the 1860s, critics contended, it had become a nation of frauds and shoplifters with women in the lead of those satisfied with the pursuit of selling without substance. Utilizing sources from trial records, advertisements, newspaper reports, literature, popular ballads, and magazines, this study contributes to the fields of gender studies, women's history, economic history, the history of crime, and consumer culture in England.
European history; Women's studies