Marshall Field and Company was a cultural and commercial anchor in Chicago's downtown area known as 'The Loop.' By 1914, it had expanded into the largest department store in the world at that time. This article illustrates Field's as a cultural and retail institution of artistry and popular education through a trope I term “the drama of shopping.” Using merchandising strategies adapted from the aesthetic movement, Field's produced the drama of shopping with social and cultural implications about class, gender, and race in three ways: First, the architecture of the store served as a carefully designed theatrical space for seeing and being seen in the drama of shopping. The departmentalization and arrangement of merchandise by degree of expense and luxury differentiated and sorted Field's clientele according to their social status and what they could afford to buy. Elite shoppers who purchased luxuries did so under the gaze of other shoppers, who watched from across the aisle. Second, Field's merchandising and marketing followed trends of the new profession of domestic science. It served as the script for the drama of shopping, through which customers negotiated the cultural hierarchy of artistry and new technology. Third, merchandising resembled the subculture of the aesthetic movement, but without its controversial gender roles, while it privileged predominant Anglo-American culture and rendered other social groups, including people of color, invisible. Today, the social and cultural traditions of American department-store retail that began in the gilded age remain present as new forms of retail marketing. In turn the gendered cultural fences that divide retail patrons remain in the present day, though with different names and locations.
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