Mashers, Prostitutes, and Shopping Ladies: Consumer Capitalism and the Purification of Downtown Chicago
With the growth of new consumer institutions at the turn of the twentieth century, an unprecedented number of unescorted women streamed into the central business districts of America’s largest cities. This daily crush created new opportunities for sexually aggressive men, known as “mashers,” to ogle and insult respectable ladies on the street. In Chicago, female shoppers protested that street harassment hindered their ability to circulate freely in the retail district and rendered blocks where mashers congregated inaccessible to respectable women. Their claims troubled both retail capitalists and city officials, who feared that constraints on shoppers’ mobility would impede commercial growth. To foster the circulation of white, female consumers, Chicago’s city fathers resolved to purge the downtown of “vicious” characters. Mashers were not their only targets, however. City leaders also sought to drive out prostitutes who frequented downtown saloons and allegedly promoted inappropriate expressions of male desire.
Their campaign involved a dramatic expansion of the police force and new laws against loitering aimed at mashers and prostitutes. In short, to facilitate the flow of reputable ladies in the retail district, Chicago officials began to surveil and regulate the movements of disreputable women and men. The effort to purify Chicago’s shopping district provided affluent, white women with greater mobility and autonomy in the urban public sphere, while placing new constraints on poor& and minority women. It also expanded the role of the state in creating and maintaining the legal, moral, and physical environment that sustained the expansion of American consumer capitalism in the twentieth century.
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