Victorian Shoplifters by M. Louisa Locke

Posted by on Aug 8, 2016 in 19th Century U.S., Featured Book, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 3 comments

Pilfered-Promises185x280One of my goals for writing the books in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series has been to feature occupations held by women in the late 19th century.

Consequently, in Maids of Misfortune, Annie, my amateur sleuth, goes undercover as a domestic servant, in Uneasy Spirits, she investigates a fraudulent trance medium, in Bloody Lessons, she tries to find out who is sending poison pen letters about local public school teachers, and in Deadly Proof, she gets caught up in the world of women working in the San Francisco printing industry.

In the latest installment of this series, Pilfered Promises, I turned to department stores for my setting, knowing that in 1880 women were becoming important as both shoppers and shop girls.

Men like Robert Macy, who is often credited as the first to set up a modern department store in America, did everything possible to get the urban middle class woman to leave the privacy of her home and travel to his store to shop. They provided restaurants and tearooms, art galleries, musical entertainment, extravagant window displays and bargains. They also increasingly turned to women in their hiring practices. In his History of Macy’s, Ralph Hower estimated that by 1870s over eighty percent of Macy’s work force were women, from the lowly cash girl sand sales clerks, to individual department buyers and managers. (Hower, 275;193-94)

What I hadn’t expected to discover when I started my research in order to create my fictionalized department store, the Silver Strike Bazaar,  was that women were also dominating a third category connected with the modern department store––that of shoplifters.

Shoplifting was not a new problem in 1880. The word itself dates from the 1690s (unlike the term department store, which seems to have been first used in 1878 and didn’t become popular until the late 1880s and 1890s). As long as there were shops, there had been people who stole or “lifted” items from those shops.

What seemed to be new, at least to 19th century observers, was the participation of well-to-do, respectable persons in this petty pilfering. Especially puzzling to store owners, judges, newspaper journalists, and medical professionals was how often it was respectable women who engaged in this behavior. In a time when middle and upper class women were still firmly put on pedestals as the guardians of morality, this seemed to be a problem that had to be solved or at least satisfactorily explained.

shoplifters3Elaine S. Abelson, the author of the delightfully titled book, When Ladies Go a Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store, found that store owners believed that the revenue they lost in the last decades of the 19th century was substantial. And, as one owner of a large Chicago store reported, “You must know that shoplifters are generally among the best-dressed and most respectable-looking women that come into our store.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, May 11, 1880)

Department store owners were faced with a conundrum. What were they to do when the very type of shoppers they were trying to attract with their glittering displays of goods seemed to be the same sort of upper and middle class woman who was taking  fans, gloves, silk shawls, and jewelry out of the store without paying for them, even if they had the money to purchase those goods in their purses? (Women’s multiple layers of clothing made it easy to secret a small item into a hidden pocket or stuff larger ones under their wraps,  but some women actually used the cages of their bustles to hide items.)

If the store owners let these acts of petty pilfering go, then they had to accept losses that near the Christmas season could rise to as much as 5% of their revenue. But if they tried to have the women arrested, as Robert Macy did the day before Christmas in 1870, there was a terrible public backlash. (Abelson, 120-125)

The women themselves, when accosted, either became indignant or tearful and appeared to be at a loss to explain their behavior. Their friends and family were incredulous, judges and juries tended to acquit them if they were actually charged with theft, preferring to believe the clerks or department store detectives who accused the women of stealing were malicious or mistaken. The medical professionals decided to treat this behavior as some sort of mental disorder that they called kleptomania (the term was first used in the 1830s to describe a compulsion to steal for emotional rather than economic reasons.)

This idea that shop-lifting, when done by a woman who could afford to buy the item, was some sort of medical problem, was so widespread that the San Francisco Chronicle could joke that “Kleptomania is coming into fashion again, and rich shop-lifters will be let off and poor ones sent up.” (San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1879)

In a similar vein, The Chicago Daily Tribune published the following little ditty.


“Long since all women of our day
The honest path forsook:
For gloves and shoes sometimes they’ll pay,
But buttons they will hook.”
––Chicago Daily Tribune October 12, 1879

Needless to say, as an author, I was delighted by what my research was turning up about the prevalence of shoplifting. I now had the perfect reason for my amateur sleuths, Annie and Nate Dawson, to become involved with a department store. Nate, a local lawyer, would be hired by the owner of the Silver Strike Bazaar to represent the store when a woman was accused of shoplifting, and Annie, who is developing a career as a forensic accountant, would be hired to determine if the increased “shortages,” the store was experiencing could be explained by petty pilfering alone. And mystery and murder would ensue!

M. Louisa Locke, August 8, 2016


  1. That sounds fascinating! Can’t wait to read it.

  2. Oh, what a fun read! Besides the shoplifting info, I was fascinated to read how early restaurants were part of department stores. Never would have guessed.

  3. I think this book is going to be a fascinating read.