Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea): how department stores both freed and enslaved women

Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea)” (2011)

Ah, shopping – the bane of modern life or the portal to all our fantasies and aspirations? In this informative and entertaining documentary, writer and director Sally Aitken traces the history of a particular kind of department store from its early beginnings in the mid-1800s in France into the global retail and cultural phenomenon it is today, and how it has shaped Western society and attitudes. In the first episode “A Genius Idea”, Aitken investigates the effect glamorous department stores selling desire and fantasy in the nineteenth century had on the lives of women, especially middle class and working class women, and how these institutions not only gave women financial freedom in the forms of jobs and purchasing power but also the freedom to demand political and economic rights.

The story begins in France with Aristide Boucicart, originally from a poor family in Normandy, who arrives in Paris looking for a job and works his way up in retail with the aim of owning his own store selling a variety of goods. In 1838 he opened “Le Bon Marché” as a small shop; it grew to be a fixed-price department store by the 1850s. After 1855, Boucicart’s innovations in marketing became noticeable: he introduced the idea of customers browsing and touching products in the store, the use of price tags, stunning product displays, discount sales, a place to park bored male companions where they could read newspapers and (in 1856) shopping catalogues. Perhaps the most significant innovation was his targeting of women as the store’s core customers, an idea quite alien for French society at the time.

Traditionally women had been viewed by the Roman Catholic Church, science and academia, and society generally as weak, irrational and stupid, and therefore to be kept at home if possible. At the same time prostitution was rife with most working women apparently engaged in it (and with plenty of male clients to cater for). The general view of women was as either pure and chaste Madonna, content to stay at home, or as lascivious whores of loose morals. The social life of women, especially middle class women, was restricted. Boucicart’s ambitions to create a store that sold desires and catered to women’s fantasies for beautiful things (made available by technologies that permitted mass production), in surrounds of glamour and refinement, dealt a blow to traditional social attitudes. His flagship Paris store grows bigger and bigger: in 1867, the store moved to new digs designed by Louis Auguste Boileau; in the 1870s, the store moved into a multi-level building made possible with the latest building technologies using iron and plenty of glass, courtesy of engineering consultant Gustave Eiffel (yes, the father of the tower). Customers who patronised the store were awed by the sunlight that flooded through glass ceilings and the opulent furnishings and displays of goods they encountered.

In addition, Boucicart employed working class women from the provinces (they were cheap labour) and through him these women gained independence, financial freedom and the opportunity to observe and imitate the wealthy female customers they served. Many such workers who passed through Boucicart’s employ later returned home and opened their own businesses: in this indirect way, these women were the shock troops for the cultural unification of France and its domination by Paris.

Boucicart’s success inspired his rivals to set up equally glamorous stores in Paris and his particular concept spread to the US (where department stores had existed since the 1850s and provided Boucicart with much creative inspiration) and to Britain where Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American retailer, established that country’s first major LBM-styled department store Selfridges in 1909 (Britain having had department stores of a plainer style since 1734). At about the same time, a Russian immigrant to Australia, Sidney Myer, established Myers Emporium in Melbourne peddling Boucicart’s concept, Australia having had department stores of some sort or another since 1825.

The film’s tone is light, entertaining and breezy and dramatised recreations of fictional French shoppers going berserk in Boucicart’s recreated store together with interviews of academics and 3-D computer animations of “Le Bon Marché” enliven the voice-over narration and fact-dropping in the unlikely event that it ever gets dry. Particular social and cultural topics are worked into the narrative: a fun fact is that department stores helped facilitate women’s freedom and improved their health by providing public toilets which in turn reduced the incidence of cystitis (a common complaint partly caused by holding one’s bladder too long due to the lack of privies in private). The provision of toilets outside the home meant that women could spend more time away from home (and the watchful eye of relatives, hubby and the in-laws) and in department stores which in turn gave rise to rumours that women were using department stores as dating agencies or places of secret rendezvous with lovers.

Also worked into the narrative is the role department stores played in democratising society: women of different social classes could mix in the one physical space, enabling lower class women to observe and emulate their upper class sisters, and encouraging an incipient sisterhood that would explode into a drive for political and economic rights and the right to vote. Suffragettes in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century used tea-rooms in department stores to hold meetings and rallies; the male owners of these stores were only too happy to allow such meetings to take place and even to let suffragettes sell pamphlets to shoppers outside stores – after all, their custom depended on making women happy. The campaigners deliberately emphasised a glamorous and elegant appearance as weapons to attract supporters for their cause although they were also aware that women workers in department stores earned low wages and their working conditions were often arduous and involved heavy physical work.

In all, the documentary is a delight to watch, visually appealing, if very fuzzy and vague on the details of who actually founded department stores and where they were first set up: depending on how department stores are defined, Britain, the United States and France can all claim to be the first countries to have these institutions. There is a lot of flitting among different countries and time-lines which can be a little confusing for young viewers. Time quickly raced by while I was watching this documentary, so engrossing and lively it is.

An exceedingly demeaning portrait of a significant feminist / anarchist figure in “Emma Goldman – An exceedingly dangerous woman”

Mel Bucklin, “Emma Goldman – An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman” (2003)

This portrait of Emma Goldman, the American woman anarchist / political activist / writer / feminist / advocate for socially liberal causes, is as much a survey of politics and society in the United States from the 1890s to 1940, the year of Goldman’s death, as it is of her life; it also reflects in its narrative some unpleasant aspects of our current society of which more will be said later. The style of the documentary is deceptively straightforward: it’s a chronology of Goldman’s life, her work and the people she worked with, told through a mixture of photograph and picture stills, interviews with historians, artists and writers, and re-enactments of significant episodes in Goldman’s life, all laid over by voice-over narration. The pace is leisurely and the narrator and interviewees speak and explain particular aspects of Goldman’s life clearly yet paint a very complex picture of Goldman, the life she led, the contrast between her beliefs and ideals on the one hand and the reality she lived on the other, and how she navigated her way through a conservative society that was (and in many ways still is) unready for her politics, thinking and message of sexual equality in both private and public life. The film is part of the “American Documentary” series issued and distributed by PBS.

Goldman’s life is picked up in her teens when she has already emigrated to the US from Russia, has started working in a factory and is becoming political and radicalised through associations with radical workers and after-hours socialising. In those days (1850s – early 20th century), talk of revolution, socialism and better working and living conditions was popular with working class people (or it just seems that way from the viewpoint of our current self-absorbed cocoon society). After a short failed marriage, Goldman moves to New York City and meets anarchists Alexander Berkman and Johann Most: Most starts training Goldman as a public speaker and Berkman becomes her friend and eventual lover. Goldman and Berkman are involved in a factory strike which indirectly leads to Berkman being sentenced to 20 years in jail (the actual cause is that he tried but failed to kill the factory manager). Goldman later breaks with Most, and keeps up a busy life that includes jail-time (during which she studied nursing and read many books), lecturing in the US and abroad, writing a magazine called Mother Earth, and being implicated by Leon Czolgosz in his murder of US President William McKinley. After Berkman is released from jail, having served 14 years, the couple try but fail to pick up their relationship; Goldman later marries a doctor called Ben Reitman (the marriage is short-lived). She switches from advocating revolution and worker freedom to talking feminism, freedom in love, sex and marriage, and birth control. Come World War I and Goldman and Berkman oppose conscription; after the war, they are jailed briefly as traitors with the option of deportation. They go to the Soviet Union to live but although they follow politics and events in that country, they become disillusioned with Lenin’s government and its methods of repression and leave the country. Goldman spends the rest of her life travelling in Europe and Canada, lecturing and writing on various topics, maintaining her friendship with Berkman until his death in 1936, before dying herself in Canada in 1940.

The film concentrates heavily on events in Goldman’s life and not much on her anarchist philosophy or other writing and on her thoughts and opinions on subjects such as capitalism, fascism, feminism, prisons and criminal justice, atheism and homosexuality. Goldman’s life is split in phases depending on her relationships with men; there’s nothing about any women who might have been significant influences on her life. The structuring of Goldman’s chronology in this way does the woman a great disservice, given that she believed strongly in men and women being equal partners in all aspects of life even if she didn’t necessarily always practise what she preached. One woman who must have been a great influence on Goldman’s beliefs was the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger whom Goldman supported and whose pamphlets she helped distribute. Some significant events are brushed out of the film completely: there is no mention of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 9) in which Goldman took great interest and followed. Makes you wonder what else the film deliberately left out. There is no mention of Goldman’s influence on philosophical thought, feminist theory or popular culture after her death.

My impression is that the film packages Goldman’s life in a way that makes it palatable to a politically and culturally conservative audience and pigeon-holes her as an idealist naive about the reality of human nature and the society around her, and its capacity for improvement; this fits in with current ideas about humans as biologically rather than culturally predetermined in their behaviour. Goldman is made to sink into a funk after Berkman’s death and the ultimate message seems to be that even a rebel like Goldman needs a man psychologically if not physically to give meaning and structure to her life. Goldman’s continuing interest in politics, her opposition to World War II and her disgust at late-1930s life and society in Britain and France which led her to retreat to Canada to live are glossed over. It’s as if Goldman is just an interesting minor footnote in American political, social and cultural history and is mentioned in a documentary series aimed at the general public because some kids in high school might have to do a project on a historical American female personality.

Recipe for Murder: an entertaining look at thallium poisoning craze in society traumatised by post-war social changes

Sonia Bible, “Recipe for Murder” (2010)

Contrary to what most people think about the 1950’s, the decade or the early part of it at least wasn’t a halycon period of peace, stability and prosperity for people in most Western societies. The Communists had come to power in China in 1949 and were soon fighting a proxy war against the US and its allies in Korea. The Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and there were fears worldwide that that country and the US would soon fight a war with nuclear bombs which would result in deadly radiation spreading over the planet. In the US itself, Senator Joseph McCarthy and others had tapped into fears about Communist subversion to pursue an agenda of finding and eliminating opinions and points of view that dissented from or were deemed dangerous to a narrow conservative political agenda that privileged corporate business interests over others.

In Australia there were fears of invasion from China or the newly independent Indonesia, headed by President Sukarno who then was considered in much the same way as Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi is now: a maverick, crazy despot with suspect loyalties and ambitions. In such a jittery, nervous context, the mood was ripe for a scare, however laughable it might look today, and in 1953 Sydney was caught up in a thallium-poisoning frenzy which is the focus of Sonia Bible’s droll and entertaining documentary “Recipe for Murder”. This hour-long feature mixes dramatisations, old newsreel films, a terse narrative by Dan Wyllie and a talking-head style of interviewing (in which viewers see historians, crime writer Peter Doyle, witnesses and retired police talking to an offscreen interviewer asking unknown questions) into an informative mix that captures something of the panic of the time and flavours it with a hard-boiled detective crime fiction feel. Several social issues such as the position of women generally, society’s attitudes to marriage and domestic violence, and stereotypes of how women should behave and the public reaction to news of women who didn’t behave demurely, in a period in which women had worked in factories during World War II and were expected to give up their jobs and independence and retire quietly back into domesticity when the fighting was done, are briefly investigated.

The documentary is structured around the cases of three Sydney women who were arrested in 1953 and charged with murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At the time, a rat plague had broken out and there were fears that the bubonic plague scare which erupted in 1900 would do so again. Rat poison in which thallium – a soft white metal toxin banned elsewhere in Australia at the time – was the main ingredient was commonly used, being slow-acting and having no smell or taste that would warn wily rats. The first murder case was that of Yvonne Fletcher who was charged with murdering two husbands; her trial was followed closely by the tabloids and the Sydney Morning Herald which diligently (though perhaps inadvisedly) printed details of how the poisoning was carried out and what the symptoms of thallium poisoning were. Next up was Caroline Grills, a kindly aunt who made tea, cakes and biscuits for relatives and in-laws, and inherited some of their properties whenever they died. Grills was charged with murdering four people, all of them related to her in some way, and of attempted murder of a fifth person. The third and most sensational case was of Veronica Monty, charged with the attempted murder of her son-in-law, local celebrity football-player Bob Lulham, with whom she was having an affair; she admitted she had tried to kill herself but had accidentally given her laced cup of tea to Lulham.

Stylish and minimal re-enactments of the three women’s lives in the manner of film noir, emphasising the circumstances that led to their actions and arrests, combined with old photographs and recreations of newspaper headlines, illustrate the gritty tenor of life in Sydney and the severely limited range of options available to women in trouble. Fletcher’s two husbands had been alcoholics prone to violence; Monty likely suffered from depression as, two years after being acquitted of attempted murder, she took her own life; as for Grills, nothing is known of her motives for killing her stepmother or her in-laws, but probably she harboured repressed feelings of rage and revenge under a warm and smiling mother-hen facade. Fletcher and Monty are tragic figures, victims of a set of beliefs that decreed married women must put up and shut up and bear their burdens stoically; in addition, Fletcher had a reputation as a floozy and no doubt many people saw her conviction and death sentence as fit justice for previous bad behaviour. As for Grills, her case could well be the stuff of genteel whodunnit mystery fiction if it hadn’t been real; indeed, in the manner of whodunnits, the first person to suspect her of poisoning her victims isn’t a trained detective but her son-in-law. The case is very disquieting and, if we knew of Grills’s motives for dispatching her relatives with poisoned tea and cakes, could be blackly hilarious, sinister and malevolent, depressing or even all of these. Serial killers don’t usually come in the form of middle-aged grandmothers offering warm scones and biscuits and cups of tea!

The whole program is very tight and breathlessly packed with information and memorable images that mimic the sensational reporting of the time. It seems much shorter than its hour-long length and the individual stories and their social and cultural context, not to mention the dark mirror they hold up to society and its assumptions about women and family life, perhaps deserve a deeper treatment than what the documentary is able to give. The publicity the three trials attracted encouraged other people to use thallium either as a murder weapon or a method of suicide until eventually its sale as rat poison was banned. The two detectives Ferguson and Krabe who worked on the three cases are intriguing characters in their own right: feted as celebrities and heroes in the press, they later came to be known as two of the most corrupt police in New South Wales. You wonder what it was about Sydney, its people and culture, and the nature of crime there, that made these men’s star fall so low.