by Mary Goljenboom
In the 1890s, as today, stores were often packed with shoppers in the days leading up to Christmas, lured by sale prices and special merchandise. At that time, however, the shopping season only spanned the few weeks before the holiday. Merchants often did not have all their holiday merchandise available until mid-December. Shoppers waited until a few days before Christmas—and especially Christmas Eve—to make their selections and have them packaged and sent to the recipient, with delivery expected before Christmas. This consumer behavior put tremendous pressure on retail employees, and interfered with their own holiday celebrations.
It took a concerted social movement to make store management change their policies and for consumers to buy-in. Ironically the change has led to Black Friday and shopping madness on Thanksgiving Day. But the story of that social movement also illustrates what needs to happen in our own time to cause change for modern workers.
The movement was started by a group of middle- and upper-class women interested in changing the working conditions of women and children with jobs in retailing. At the time there was no minimum wage, no maximum number of hours to the work day or week (and, therefore, no overtime compensation), and no limits on child labor. While some labor organizers were working to improve conditions through unionization, Josephine Shaw Lowell, Maud Nathan, and other like-minded women believed in another strategy—the power of the purse. They reasoned that consumer demand dictated the policies of employers and, therefore, consumer demand could force change to those policies. In 1891, these women organized themselves into the Consumers’ League of the City of New York (CLCNY).
Maud Nathan, who became president of the group in 1896, explained one tactic:
The majority of employers are virtually helpless to maintain a high standard as to hours, wages and working conditions under the stress of competition, unless sustained by the cooperation of consumers.
A woman who joins our league agrees to shop early in the day. She does not insist that her goods shall be delivered on the same day, declining to receive anything after 6 pm. This enables the delivery men and errand boys to finish their labors early. A member of our league does her Christmas-shopping early. She avoids shopping in the evening and on Saturday afternoons. She does not even ring up the grocer or the butcher by telephone on Saturday afternoons and order goods.
Another tactic used by CLCNY was to create and publicize a list of merchants who met the league’s criteria for fair working conditions; league members and sympathetic consumers (who may have seen it in the newspapers) would then patronize those businesses. The league actively investigated conditions by visiting stores, interviewing managers, and separately seeking verification or contradiction from workers. The list was called the White List for it was the opposite of blacklisting merchants. Eleven retailers, including Lord & Taylor, were on the league’s first White List in 1891. Four years later there were 31 including John Wanamaker, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, and F.A.O. Schwarz.
As the CLCNY investigated and reported on workplace conditions, they realized the particular burden the Christmas holiday, particularly Christmas Eve shopping, placed on workers. After a twelve- or fourteen-hour selling day, shelves needed to be restocked, goods packaged for delivery, and deliveries made (gifts were almost never sent early at this time), keeping employees—including children—working far into the night.
In typical league fashion, Maud Nathan’s CLCNY fashioned a multipronged approach, reaching out to retailers and consumers. It encouraged White List merchants to close early on Christmas Eve. For instance, eight days before Christmas 1898, White-List-member Wanamaker’s started announcing in its holiday advertising that it would close early (at 7 pm instead of 10 pm) on Christmas Eve. The next year, Wanamaker’s ran an ad explicitly stating that they were closing early on Christmas Eve so “the thousands of us who will have helped with your good Christmas can get ready for our own.”
The league also discouraged evening hours during the Christmas shopping season and encouraged merchants to display all holiday merchandise earlier than the few weeks just before Christmas, as was the custom, so shoppers could make their selections early. “We found that just as soon as demand for these gifts was made, supply was forthcoming,” Nathan wrote in her book on the league, Story of an Epoch-Making Movement.
Finally, CLCNY, in its annual appeal to members and supporters, urged them to shop early at the White List stores.
Over the next decade these tactics became a campaign to promote early Christmas shopping.
The league amended its fairness standards to cover the evening hours. To comply, a merchant must “not remain open after 7 pm more than four evenings between December 15th and December 25th,” and not remain open “later than 9 o’clock on these four evenings.” The White List was divided into two categories: “Stores not open in the evening before Christmas” and “Stores open in the evening before Christmas” (in 1908, there were 34 stores closed in the evening compared to 14 open). Members pledged to shop early. The White List was printed in newspapers, magazines, and theater programs.
Nathan made speeches, gave interviews, wrote opinion pieces and letters to the editor. She set up a Committee on Arousing Public Sentiment. They produced thousands of flyers, posters, letters, and postcards with the appeal to shop early. These were distributed through churches and synagogues (some 15,000 in 1907 alone), in schools and clubs. At CLCNY’s urging, they were also used as talking points by clergy and teachers. Women’s clubs signed pledge cards to complete shopping before December 15th. In 1909, from November 30th to December 14th, a 25×30 foot banner was hung over 23rd St. between 5th and 6th Avenues. It read Do your Christmas shopping before December 15th to help the workers in the shops and factories. [signed] Consumers League of the City of New York.
The movement and the Consumers’ League spread nationwide. Habits changed. Merchants displayed their goods in November and, in some cases, October. CLCNY reported proudly in 1906 that “one merchant sent notices in October to all of his charge customers, informing them that his full Christmas stock would be on exhibition by October 29th , and that selected goods would be reserved for later delivery if purchased before December 10th.”
In her memoir, Maud Nathan wrote with pride “No longer do shoppers feel that they must wait until the hurried last days before the holiday. . . .Each year holiday goods are displayed earlier and earlier to meet an ever-increasingly early demand.” If she was here today, she would protest shopping hours on Thanksgiving Day. Or maybe start another movement.
Story of an Epoch-Making Movement by Maud Nathan via Haithi Trust Digital Library
The San Francisco Call. 27 May 1902 via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers at the Library of Congress
New-York Tribune. 28 Jan. 1894 via Chronicling America
The New York Sun. 16 Dec. 1898 via Chronicling America
New-York Tribune. 15 Dec. 1899 via Chronicling America
Volumes of the Annual Reports of the Consumers’ League of the City of New York via Haithi Trust Digital Library
Copyright 2014 Ferret Research, Inc.