September 8, 2021

The Downtown Department Store: Purveyor of Women’s Independence?

Vancouver has already seen the reuse of large downtown retail floorplates for other purposes. Take a look at Simon Fraser University downtown which is the old Sears Department Store, or the Army and Navy store which will be repurposed as a housing development.

Woodwards in 1992 on Hastings Street announced they were closing, and was repurposed with Westbank’s Ian Gillespie and former City Councillor and Downtown Eastside activist Jim Green working through a partnership to redevelop for residential use.

But the department store especially in western Canada had a  historic separate purpose for women: as CBC’s Maryse Zeidler writes  were “key gathering places” for middle class women.

There’s a long history of the importance of the department store in allowing women to be able  to congregate in public spaces, as shown in the YouTube clip below. Prior to the advent of the department store, women were not allowed to shop in downtown areas unescorted. The 19th century development of the department store made a “women friendly” environment that catered to women and their needs.

They were also all inclusive, with a barbershop for the children, hair stylist for them, food courts, restaurants, candy stores, and clothes, fabrics, furniture, kitchen and  gardening items and hardware.

Department stores also had clean, sometimes staffed, all important public washrooms. Prior to that public washrooms often meant only urinals located on the street.

It was respectable as women to shop in these department stores and it was not uncommon for a day to be spent in the downtown centred around the store. There was even parcel delivery for women that travelled by bus, streetcar or foot. Asking for an item “to be wrapped” meant you would have your purchases sent to you in Vancouver in the 1930’s.

Besides being an acceptable social space for women, department stores also provided a burgeoning market for the development and manufacturing of new items produced in North America.

In  conversation with a history professor Ms. Zeidler notes “The department store “became important distributors of the new goods that were being produced in the factories. They really kind of revolutionized the way people shopped and … what they bought and used in their homes.”

There are many Vancouverites who will remember being taken as children to the lunch counters at Woodwards or the Bay as a special treat out when shopping with their mothers. Some department and grocery  stores had little framed tiny one room  “theatres” where kids sat on bench seating and watched cartoons as their moms shopped. That made the experience of shopping with a parent more palatable.

This short film from the History Channel describes the important role of department stores in women’s independence and freedom to move in downtown areas.



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