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When department stores were new: women in the American city

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones' 1911 painting "Shoe Shop" captures the rise of department stores and the changing roles of women. The artwork showcases the shift from custom-made to ready-made goods, the new public activity of shopping, and the social mobility it offered to both shoppers and workers. The painting blends realism and impressionism, reflecting the artist's unique style. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - We're in the Art Institute of Chicago looking at a painting by Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones called Shoe Shop that dates from 1911. This painting is so loosely brushed. - Sharhawk-Jones is deliberately leaving that brushiness in places that gives us a sense that we're looking at a moment that is passing us by. - While they're shopping like this feels pretty ordinary to us here in a modern American city, this was something that was incredibly new. - Department stores begin their rise in the late 19th century. By the time we get to the early years of the 20th century, there's still a sense of newness about its role in modern city life. - So we're talking about stores that have departments for different kinds of goods, and so likely here we are in the shoe department. This is the time when clothing and shoes are being made not to order, not custom-made, but ready-made, manufactured according to certain standard sizes. You would go into a department store and items would be arranged according to size and they would be clearly labeled with their prices. This kind of shopping and this kind of displaying of goods was something new in the latter part of the 19th century. - It's a new kind of public activity, commercial activity, especially for women. We have no men depicted here, it's all women. We have two women who don't have hats on, and you can see they're wearing shirtwaists, or blouses, with black skirts, and these are the shop girls, as they were often time referred to. So there's the new kind of assistance that is generated around this new kind of commercial activity drawn out of mass production. - And so we have a new kind of activity, the shopping, that takes place by upper and middle class women, who have new freedom around the city because of shopping, because of the department store, but we also have mobility happening for working class women who can work in a respectable place, like a department store, and hopefully in that way, better themselves. - Sparhawk-Jones studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Among the several department stores that had grown up in the city center of Philadelphia was Wanamaker's. In 1911, the same year that this work was first exhibited, Wanamaker's opened a grand new department store right in downtown Philadelphia, blocks from where Sparhawk-Jones is studying. - As a woman artist, there were historically very limited opportunities for women to study art, but the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was known to have a liberal curriculum and allow women artists into many courses that, for example, women couldn't get into in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. - But by the time that Sparhawk-Jones is painting this in 1911, the field had opened up for women. - It does feel like we have a controlled chaos that I do associate with the feeling and the experience of shopping. We have two figures on the left who look down at the black shoe that the woman in this lovely dress is trying on, and pulling her skirt up to look at how that shoe looks. - And she's working with the shop girl who's seated on this stool, who has her head down and her hands clasped. - And the same thing with the two women on the right, where we have the shoes coming out of the box, another shoe on its side, and again looking at the shoe, is this fitting, is it not fitting? It feels very businesslike. But I do notice that for the two shop girls, their heads are slightly lower than all of the women who are shopping, who are obviously of a higher class than they are. And so there is somewhat of a feeling of subservience, of deference. And so although the city and modern technology is enabling a social mobility, it is very different for these two women. A moment ago, you used the word shirtwaist, and it's hard not to think about the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire where more than a 140 women died because they were locked into a work room so that they didn't take breaks that weren't allowed. They had nowhere to escape. So, what we're not seeing is the work that went into making ready-made clothing, the work that went into ready-made shoes, the factory labor, which was often underpaid, had very long hours and was often, as we know from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, dangerous. - We're not seeing the banks of sewing machines, where a foreman is working the young women or men to a strict schedule to create as many shoes as they can. We're seeing shoes presented in boxes. - And in this grand environment that in some ways hides the realities of factory life. And we could also think about this decade of the teens as being a very important transitional decade for the women suffrage movement and the 19th Amendment which is passed in 1920, which finally gives women the right to vote. - That movement began in Seneca Falls in 1848, and it takes until 1920 for the passage of the Amendment. But in the nineteen-teens, these kind of cross-class interactions transpired with women coming together to fight for women's suffrage. - Clearly Sparhawk-Jones is aware of the work of the impressionists, of Degas who is painting modern life, but here really creating a style that's very much her own. - Sparhawk-Jones has a personal style that blends realism and impressionism. - And so by impressionists, were thinking about the touches of paint, the openness of the forms, the lack of very clear outlines. - And the realism has to do with more of the sturdiness and the modeling of the figures that she conveys with these rapid brushstrokes. It's still grounded in a readable space and a sense of forms that are moving in that space. - What a fascinating painting to explore here at the Art Institute of Chicago. (soft piano music)