An ‘Epidemic of Shoplifting’? Working-class women, shop theft and Manchester’s new retail culture, 1918-1939

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The problem of the working-class female shoplifter emerged prominently within press and police discourse in interwar Manchester following a dramatic shift in the city’s retail culture. Providing the first non-metropolitan study of shoplifting in early twentieth-century Britain, this research identifies how the new retail culture was blamed for attracting shoplifters to Manchester. It addresses depictions of shoplifters from the late 1920s in relation to narratives about young working-class women’s increased autonomy, and shows how in the 1930s the city centre was depicted as vulnerable to the geographical mobility and misbehaviour of older, married working-class women, in light of access to the motorcar and advances in public transport. A focus on their illicit access to consumer culture, rather than concerns about sexuality, moves away from a portrayal of working-class women as vulnerable and heavily policed in cities and instead suggests that interwar shoplifting discourse reflected a sense that poorer women had greater freedoms in the post-1918 city. The role of shopping culture helped working-class women gain increased visibility in the urban sphere in similar ways to those experienced by more affluent women in the pre-1918 cityscape.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial History
Publication statusPublished - 4 Aug 2021