The purpose of this paper is to explore the experiences of a significant group of retail employees, specifically the African‐American operations and service workers that…
The purpose of this paper is to explore the experiences of a significant group of retail employees, specifically the African‐American operations and service workers that worked behind the scenes in department stores during the Jim Crow era, defined here as 1890‐1965.
Department stores have rightly occupied a prominent place in business historiography. This wealth of scholarship can be explained partly by substantial archival resources, but especially by department stores' significance to US business, cultural, and social history. Yet, despite this rich historiography, a significant number of department store employees have been overlooked, and this omission has distorted the picture of the work culture and marketing strategies of these massive and influential retail institutions. Department stores employ a large number of operations and service staff, such as delivery people, housekeeping and maintenance workers, elevator operators, stock workers, packers, and warehouse workers. These positions make up roughly one‐fifth of all department store work. This paper presents a close study of the two most prominent department stores of early and mid‐twentieth century Richmond, Virginia – Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads – to offer insight into the work culture and workplace experiences of these employees.
Ultimately, this paper shows that African‐American employees played an important role in the maintenance and image of Richmond department stores. Store managers place high demands for “loyalty” and “faithfulness” on their black staff to demonstrate their lavish services to the buying public. For black employees, this means that the work environment can be highly stressful, as they seek to meet competing demands from customers and co‐workers. However, department store work offers opportunities, in particular, steady employment among a close network of African‐American coworkers. Finally, the presence of segregated black employees undermines managements' attempts to convey their workforce as one “happy family.”
The research is entirely based on two high‐end department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, both based in Richmond, Virginia. Two store archives – available at the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Virginia Historical Society – are the primary resources for this project. Because, the papers in these archives are donated by store managers, a limitation to this study is the dearth of unmediated voices of the employees themselves.
This research adds to the historiography of department stores by shedding light on employees who are expected by employers to remain nearly invisible in their jobs, and unfortunately, have been fairly invisible in the historical record as well.
The purpose of this paper is to synthesize the papers written for this special issue, to suggest some themes and problems emerging from recent retail history, and to bring together work from a variety of subfields.
The essay surveys recent themes in retail history, using the contents of the special issue as a point of departure. It relies on secondary sources.
The articles in this issue highlight the importance of power relations and more formal political economy and government policy to retail firms. They also emphasize the importance of nearby institutions and populations to retailers. Taken as a whole, the pieces speak to recent interest among business historians in the social contexts and contingencies that shape firms and also in the history of failure, draw their attention to the importance of “the local” in business generally, and point to the possibilities of more work on very small firms, early American and non‐US (or globally framed US) retail and questions of women and gender. This work is part of a resurgence of interest by historians of all stripes in retail and its history; although reading across sub‐disciplinary lines can be challenging, the essay concludes by encouraging scholars of retail to do so.
This essay should encourage work in understudied fields and particularly encourage broad reading among retail historians.
The essay introduces readers to literature they may not have encountered and articulates themes and questions emerging from new scholarship on retail.