Lindsay Allen, a doctoral candidate in history at Clark University, sits in the Goddard Library.

Race, class and shopping: A Clark researcher explores Chicago’s department stores

February 22, 2017

During the mid-19th century, American women flocked to new department stores for the service, amenities and wide selection of merchandise. How that consumerism continued to develop during the early 20th century fascinates Lindsay Allen, a doctoral candidate in history at Clark University.

Allen’s dissertation focuses on the stores and emporiums that brought Chicago’s consuming women together into a shared public space. She expected to find predominantly white, affluent women represented in these places, but her research has uncovered some surprises.

“Newspapers, first-hand accounts, photographs and department store records described the daily visits black and working-class women made to the stores,” she says. “Retailers, too, thought about how they might develop strategies that catered to different consumer groups.”

Allen, who expects to earn her doctorate this year, now is examining the city’s stores to see how women mixed across lines of race and class. Working-class and black women fought to be seen as legitimate consumers and helped sculpt what commercial sites would look like. Her advisers, Janette Greenwood, professor of history, and Amy Richter, associate professor of history, are providing Allen with “thoughtful critique and continued encouragement” as they have throughout her studies.

Below, Allen, a 2007 graduate of Kenyon College and native of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, discusses her Clark experience and how her research will impact the field.

Why did you choose Clark for graduate school?

When I started the graduate school search, my undergraduate adviser encouraged me to look at Clark. I reached out to Janette Greenwood to discuss our shared research interests. I thrived at Kenyon because of the tight-knit community of students and committed faculty, and wanted to find a similar program for my graduate studies. Clark’s history department proved a perfect fit for me.

What do you like best about being a graduate student at Clark?

The faculty members are dedicated educators and exceptional scholars. I like that the program is small and graduate students received significant individual attention. My history graduate student cohort has also been an invaluable support network. We meet often to discuss our research and push each other to continue researching, writing and, sometimes, take a much-needed break.

Have any professors mentored you or served as an inspiration to you?

Janette Greenwood and Amy Richter have acted as wonderful mentors throughout each stage of the graduate program — from my early coursework and comprehensive exam to my dissertation writing and research.

While I’ve interacted the most with my advisers, the department as a whole is truly admirable. I have taken at least one course with nearly every faculty member, and I was impressed with the high level of teaching. Consistently, the professors challenged me to see new perspectives and made me grow as a writer and researcher.

Can you explain what impact your research could have on your field and in the greater world?

My research will add to a growing body of literature that examines turn-of-the-century consumer culture and public space. Most of the current literature places each group of women into different conversations. While their identities are complex, relegating these groups to separate historiographical places misses the importance and fact that working-class and black women were shopping, eating, and socializing in many of the same places as their white middle- and upper-class consuming counterparts. Public areas of consumption provide the ideal site to demonstrate that studying these women in tandem is necessary.

Many of the questions I ask in my research remain pertinent today. In an increasingly diverse America, retailers still cater to specific classes and races. Recently, a number of department stores like Macy’s implemented a “Customer Bill of Rights” to hopefully improve service and decrease discrimination. It’s important to realize and think about how a person’s identity intersects with the commercial world and how people continually fight to define their role in that world.

Have you done any hands-on fieldwork while at Clark?

In history, hands-on fieldwork often revolves around archival work, and I’ve spent a significant amount of time in various archives researching my dissertation. I received funding for several trips to Chicago where I conducted extensive research in the Chicago History Museum’s archives. There, I combed through a number of department store collections — Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott & Co., Wieboldt’s, F.W. Woolworth, and Chas A. Stevens. The collections were fascinating; they included everything from employee handbooks and training manuals, to photographs of window displays and customers eating in tearooms. The collections provided a glimpse into how the department stores functioned and the people who chose to shop at them. The museum’s holdings also included microfilm of many Chicago newspapers that deeply informed my research.

While in Chicago, I spent time at the Cook County Courthouse looking through legal cases filed against department stores for various forms of discrimination. I also visited the University of Illinois at Chicago and explored their collections where I found holdings on the Black Women’s Club Movement in Chicago and their active engagement against department store discrimination.

What do you hope to do after you graduate from Clark?

I’ve been an adjunct professor at Newbury College in Brookline for the past six semesters. I’ve enjoyed teaching while also conducting my own research, and hope to continue my work as an educator while pursuing my research interests.