Skip to Gallatin Navigation Skip to Gallatin Main Content

Consumer Culture and the Birth of the Department Store

Semester and Year FA 2017
Course Number IDSEM-UG1939
Section 001
Instructor Nancy Rubino
Days MW
Time 3:30 PM - 4:45 PM
Units 4
Level U
Requirement   HUM



The transformation from the practice of “buying” as a practical acquisition of consumer goods, to the practice of “shopping” as a feminized, bourgeois leisure activity is linked to nineteenth-century socio-cultural influences such as urban renewal, architectural innovations, industrial advancements, and evolving notions of crowd and female psychology. This course will explore the ways in which literature and visual culture of the nineteenth-century represented the transformation from “buying” to “shopping” through the phenomenon of the department store. We will examine how literature and other cultural productions such as prints, paintings, advertisements, and photographs depict this commercial phenomenon as a “phantasmagorical space” in which stereotypical notions of female desire are disseminated, and ideas of social mobility and scientific progress are advanced. We will also explore how contemporary display strategies of the  grands magasins , or “cathedrals of commerce,” helped create a new consumer culture of “commodity aesthetics” based on spectacle, artifice, and pleasure. We will read Benjamin, Simmel, Uzanne, and Marx, as well as critics of gender and modernity to understand some of the underlying strategies behind the literary and visual portrayals of consumerism in the late nineteenth century. We will closely examine Zola’s novel,  The Ladies’ Paradise , as well as Balzac’s  César Birotteau  and Dreizer’s  Sister Carrie  to further understand the evolution of consumer culture and how social constructs of gender are intimately woven into the fabric of modern consumer practices.


All Syllabi

Course Type

Interdisciplinary Seminars (IDSEM-UG)