Semester of Graduation

Fall 2019


Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type




Vitally connected to the antebellum cotton boom, New Orleans quickly became one of the leading ports in the export of white gold. As a result, the population of New Orleans exploded across the first five decades of the nineteenth century, and with it a new way of life emerged. Commodities flooded the local economy. Shops carrying items from near and far opened their doors and advertised their bounties. This new way of life provided an arena for women of different classes to engage with market forces in more intensive ways. These women’s responses to their new economic participation varied depending on class. While women of the upper middle class tried earnestly to mask their budding consumer identity in religious rhetoric, called scripture fashion, they nonetheless engaged directly with the market. Scripture fashion implored women to exude humility, meekness, and modesty at all costs. This philosophy influenced their actions within the New Orleans shopping culture. These actions, which emphasized charity, necessity, and productivity, culminated in what I have termed pious consumerism.

Women who ran millinery and dressmaking shops in New Orleans engaged much more overtly with the shopping culture. Louisiana’s civil code allowed for a margin of economic independence unknown in the other states. Though still predominantly under the influence of the patriarchal society in which they lived, the civil code allowed women to keep their earnings separate from their husbands if they carried on a different profession. Women’s livelihood depended on appealing to their more conflicted counterparts as customers. To draw a consistent consumer base, female shopkeepers refashioned their economic identity into the reputable proprietress. This paragon of female propriety adhered to existing gender norms that emphasized women’s innate ability to comfort and care for their peers. The reputable proprietress underscored her role, and hers alone, in choosing the very best and classiest fashions for her customers. This study calls into question traditional assumptions about women, business, and the larger economy, emphasizing a greater participation, not merely as consumers but as purveyors. In the end, these millinery and dressmaking shops provided a space for working and elite women to negotiate their economic identities.

Committee Chair

Long, Alecia P.



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