- Commodity Culture and Social Class in Dublin 1850–1916
Stephanie Rains’s examination of commodity culture in nineteenth-century Dublin addresses a blind spot in studies of nineteenth-century consumerism, which tend to focus primarily on the growth of commodity culture in England, continental Europe, and America. Rains focuses instead on Dublin’s growing middle class in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, and examines the social history of Dublin through the lens and trends of consumer culture. She organizes [End Page 154] the evidence chronologically, with each of the five chapters exploring the evolution of Dublin’s middle classes through the expansion of department stores, mass transit, and suburban areas. The book aims to correct the misconception that there was no thriving middle class in nineteenth-century Dublin. Rains convincingly illustrates how, week after week, Dubliners flocked in increasing numbers to department stores. Some of these “temples to consumerism” still remain in twenty-first century Dublin—for example, Arnott’s on Henry Street and Clery’s on O’Connell Street (formerly Sackville Street).
Rains begins with a careful examination of the controversial transition in commodity culture from small shops to “monster houses,” or department stores, in the 1850s. Small family-run shops, which had dominated in the previous half century, accused emerging department stores of monopolizing, undercutting prices, and generally squeezing them out of business. As a result, shop owners formed the Dublin Traders’ Association to protect their interests while owners of such “monster houses,” as Pim Brothers and Company, and McSwiney, Delaney and Company, scrambled for more space to meet consumer demand. Rains points out the key differences between “monster houses” and small shops that made the former more attractive to the consumer. Unlike small shops, department stores displayed their prices; shoppers knew immediately if they could or could not afford an item without having to ask or haggle. She argues that middle-class suburban women in particular embraced this new type of shopping experience, although they also complained about having to buy crinoline frames and other personal items from “strapping fellows”—a trend that would change with the employment of “shop girls” in the 1860s. Furthermore, department stores, unlike the smaller establishments, paid their workers better wages, housed them in dormitories on company property, and dangled possibilities for professional advancement.
The second and third chapters consider the expansion of mass transit in the 1860s and 1870s as a major contributor to the growth of department stores. In many ways, Rains’s study of commodity culture is also a study of Dublin’s mass transit system. As Dublin Tramways Company expanded into the suburbs, allowing workers and shoppers to travel to the city center and back, department stores grew dramatically—Arnott and Company bought and redecorated more space while Pim Brothers began offering delivery services. Later in the nineteenth century, as trams multiplied and fares grew cheaper, overcrowding became an issue and tensions arose between female shoppers and workers commuting to Dublin from the suburbs. An editorial in the Irish Times in 1887 titled “A Hint to the Ladies” complains about exhausted workers being expected to give up their seats to female shoppers with bulky parcels—a gallant but fatiguing gesture. [End Page 155]
As Rains studies the development of commodity culture in Dublin, she also charts the emerging association between women and consumerism—the transformation of department stores into gendered spaces, and shopping into a woman’s activity. Rains reveals how middle-class women in suburban Dublin purchased more luxury items, specifically clothing and home décor, due to the low cost of housing rent, which took on average ten to twenty percent of a family’s annual income. In response to their buying power, the department stores stocked products to meet the demands of middle-class women, chiefly fashions and furnishings, both imported and homemade. Women’s participation in commodity culture also facilitated the creation of a more recreational shopping experience, leading to the opening of tea rooms and restaurants within department stores...