- The Heart of Capitalism:Contested Visions of Labor Reform in Lurana Sheldon's Department Store Novels
On 6 May 1890, the Working Women's Society (wws) of New York sponsored a meeting at Chickering Hall to protest working conditions in the city's department stores. Although it was led by middle-class men, the meeting obliquely featured one woman's voice when a male speaker read wws secretary Alice Woodbridge's harrowing account of the "miseries of the poor women" working in department stores ("To Help"). Woodbridge's "Report on the Condition of Working Women in New York Retail Stores" details physical and emotional hardships ranging from exhausting working hours to repulsive sanitary conditions. The circumstances she reveals were so extreme that speakers at the meeting pronounced their reform efforts "a battle for humanity" to "struggle for the emancipation of these poor women" ("To Help"). The meeting's goal was to expose the hardships of shopgirl labor to middle-class consumers who typically experienced department stores from only the other side of the counter. But although reformers arranged the meeting to enlighten middle-class consumers, the majority of attendees were in fact shopgirls. Demonstrably invested in their own welfare, shopgirls showed up in such large numbers that one news story observed that "there were more shop girls than consumers or clergymen" in attendance ("To Better"). Addressing them directly, the speakers encouraged the shopgirls to "combine for their own protection" ("The Interests").
The Chickering Hall meeting raised concerns about department-store labor reform that would reverberate not only through Progressive Era discourse but also through popular literature over the next two decades. Fiction using the department store for its main setting can help us understand how turn-of-the-century authors grappled with the complexities of labor reform within the nation's consumer palaces. American literary criticism that examines consumerism [End Page 106] at the turn of the century rarely considers the service industry labor behind consumer culture; such criticism has instead prioritized consumers' experiences and perspectives.1 While the critical emphasis on consumer culture is a productive perspective, we risk losing sight of the laboring people who enabled that consumption.
For one formerly successful but now nearly forgotten author, Lurana Sheldon, the department store—where labor and consumption meet across the counter—served as an ideal space to consider possible models of labor reform. Two of her novels, For Gold or Soul? A Story of a Great Department Store (1900) and For Humanity's Sake: A Story of the Department Stores (1900–1901), offer a counternarrative to the scenes of glamorized consumption proffered by such writers as Theodore Dreiser and Émile Zola.2 Instead, Sheldon's novels enter the space of the department store expressly to illustrate the hardships its workers suffered. In this respect, her work echoes Zola's emphasis on the workers' lives in Au bonheur des dames (1883; The Ladies' Paradise) as he traces Denise Baudu's physically demanding and mentally discouraging experience as a department-store shopgirl. Sheldon's novels expand upon this interest in the figure of the shopgirl by envisioning reforms to alleviate her hardships in these massive, often corrupt sites of capitalist consumerism.3 In doing so, Sheldon's work both depicts and reshapes the world of department-store labor illuminated by the Chickering Hall meeting, pushing beyond existing nineteenth-century reform efforts in the United States to envision more just circumstances for female retail workers.
Analyzing two of Sheldon's out-of-print novels published between 1900 and 1901, this essay explores how Sheldon worked within her cultural and political contexts to imagine possibilities of labor reform. Recovering Sheldon's work reveals the capacity for imagination that American writers brought to reform; the visions she presents for change in these novels include benevolent management, unified workers, labor-conscious consumerism, and labor unions that encompass both management and workforce. Yet if these novels suggest alternatives to labor exploitation from within consumer culture, they also reveal the limitations of such impulses. Despite Sheldon's evident sympathy for the plight of the shopgirl, even the most radical changes her novels envision retain systems of top-down reform that often leave the shopgirl...