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Daily Picayune, September 9, 1866. The phenomenon of the middle-class shoplifter gets to be a endemic social problem after the mid-19th century, and judging from the newspaper coverage, non-professional light-fingeredness was overwhelmingly a feminine attribute. Of course, it could have been the case that female criminals were considered more newsworthy.

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2 Comments

  1. That canny sniffer-out-of-hot-buttons Zola homes in on this newsworthy issue in Au Bonheur des Dames–but I think American popular fiction of the period is more fascinated by the shopgirl (or boy)whose till doesn’t “come out,” as in “Only a Shopgirl,” or any randomly-selected volume of Pansy set in New York or Boston (such things never happen in villages). Pansy does have a dope fiend mother who lifts laudanum in *Wanted,* but I can’t think of another klepto in the U.S. 19th-century canon.

  2. I suspect the reason most shoplifters in that era were female was simply that back then, women did most of the shopping. Proper manly men of manly manliness were busy working in the baking powder mines, while women were making daily trips to the store to buy lead-lined tins of baking powder so as to have a warm meal of Baking Powder Loaf ready when the manly man of the house came home.

    Basically, I think the issue here is just that gender roles were so strictly enforced that just as there was Man’s Work and Woman’s Work, there was Man’s Crime (which involved guns) and Woman’s Crime (which involved stealing baking powder.)


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