The Department Store’s Acceptable Public Spaces for Women Pre-WWI

The Department Store’s Acceptable Public Spaces for Women Pre-WWI

In the early 1900s, thanks to a variety of social and technological factors (like the suffragette movement, dress reform, the safety bicycle, etc), it became more and more acceptable for women to take part in life outside of the home — albeit still in limited quantities and within certain parameters.

Melbourne artist, Jessie Traill, January 1910, State Library of Queensland, Australia [No restrictions]

The way in which I’d like to focus that involvement is through the contributions of the department store. This idea of women entering public spaces is connected to fashion through retail, but also as an opportunity to be seen and wear a stylish ensemble or a new hat (although not necessarily their Sunday best).


Facing Macy’s Department store in New York City from Herald Square (elevated train in the foreground), 1905, Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress [Public domain]

Alexander Turney Stewart is credited with bringing the department store to the United States. He first developed his drygoods business in the early 1800s in Manhattan, and in 1846 would build his Marble Palace department store. It was 5 stories tall, basically a skyscraper at that time, offered showrooms around a central, circular stair with a skylit rotunda, and even provided  lounge for women. This was far beyond the more basic and smaller scale offering of the drygoods stores, and the success of this new model with many specific, varied departments, and a desirable atmosphere in which to shop was soon copied.

“A. T. Stewart’s Dry Goods Palace-Opening of the New Extension (New York Times, March 29, 1870) Fully complete after the 1870 extension,” XIX century [Public domain]

By the late 1800s, there was a veritable explosion of department stores and these retailers had developed into gargantuan social centers. Shopping had long been an acceptable outing for women, and department stores were quick to capitalize on this opportunity. Keep in mind, prohibition was in effect from 1920-1933, and leading up to this, women’s temperance groups had long been advocating sobriety, so meeting up with a fellow lady pal for a drink was simply not done. However, there were other ways that women could gather within the department store that were deemed acceptable. While it would have been out of place to meet other women for dinner…..


Siegel Cooper Lunch Room.jpg
Booklet issued in 1900 for the massive Siegel Cooper department store.    Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “HAZEL’S PURE FOOD LUNCHEON [held by] SIEGEL COOPER CO. [at] 6TH AVENUE AND 18TH STREET (REST;)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1900.

You could meet for tea or lunch. Jan Whitaker’s, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, provides a fascinating history for anyone who wants to further explore the history of tea rooms! Tea and lunch were considered to be okay by social standards as it implied a lighter fare during the day, although as the 20th century progressed, the tea room fare would greatly evolve and featured lunch and dinner items. Restaurants were still relatively new as a concept in the 19th century and were a meeting grounds for men, and later in the 20th century, a woman if accompanied by a man. As a result, many department stores also contained tea and lunch rooms. Tea rooms offered a light menu for shoppers (not just tea but typically salads, sandwiches, ice cream) and both places gave women a public space for dining.


Lord and Taylor Menu page 1

Lord and Taylor Tea page 2

Lord and Taylor Tea page 3
Some menu pages from Lord & Taylor’s 1917 tea room, Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Lord & Taylor” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Sometimes these spaces might also be called a “chocolate room” or “coffee room” but were essentially the same. This tea room below in the Marshall Field’s department store is from the 1909, and presented female Chicagoan shoppers with a pretty place to convene. 


Marshall Field’s, 1909, Chicago, Chicago Daily News. [Public domain]
While the bar or saloon was off-limits, unless you wanted to be considered a lady of the night, you might fancy a meet-up over another vice…. candy! Confectioneries were another popular meeting grounds where not only candy and confectionery treats were available for purchase, and tables and chairs were provided for the purchaser’s consumption. Some department stores began harnessing the popularity of these sugary treats that had a high value compared to the space they consumed in the store, and made their own candy in-house. Similar to the tea rooms, or perhaps more like a tea room area within a confectionery, the offerings of a confectionery exceeded the sole offering of candy and provided and more well-rounded assortment, though not quite “dinner.”

As a side note, this photo of a confectionery below is a part of the 5th Avenue Hotel, not a department store, but the image brings up the other side of this story – middle-class women with discretionary income now had a public place to gather in the early 1900s, but these places also offered acceptable vocational options for other females.

Maillard’s in the fashionable 5th Avenue Hotel, New York City, ca. 1905


Note that these spaces: tea rooms, lunch rooms, and confectioneries also existed outside of the retail space as a stand-alone business, but the inclusion of these women-friendly establishments into the department stores seemed like a natural extension of these businesses that already catered to ladies’ needs in order to prolong their stay in the store. Also, adding the word “room” to tea or lunch room typically implied that it was a single room within a larger business.

Of course, the department stores also provided an elevated shopping experience which made what might once have been a mundane trip to the drygoods store a novel pleasure. Many stores hosted events throughout the year, played organ music while shoppers pored over goods, and eventually fashion shows would be hosted showcasing the season’s latest trends, among many other inventive means of enticing shoppers (perhaps to be explored in another blog post)!

Women shopping on Ladies’ Mile in New York City in front of the former Siegel-Cooper department store, 1898, [Public Domain]

As the 20th century progressed, women in the Western world would become more ingrained in public life but these first offerings would help to make this a cultural norm. As shopping, which had long been an expected public activity for women, developed as a cultural hub and in scale, opportunities for inclusion in spaces outside the home were developed within these massive retailers. Some food for thought next time you shop at Macy’s!


-Danielle Morrin


Homberger, Eric. Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Whitaker, Jan. Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Whitaker, Jan. Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.


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