In a period when industrialization, commercial capitalism,
and urbanization were transforming the class structure and social relations
in the United States, a new middle class culture emerged. The creation
of this culture was marked by attempts to define the behaviors and values
that should be considered as the marks of middle class status as well
as the style of life that was appropriate to that status. Those who,
like Lincoln, came from simple backgrounds, could aspire to join the
middle class as they became successful and adapted to class expectations
and norms. Because economic life was chancy and unpredictable in the
antebellum decades, money was not emphasized as the major requirement
for inclusion in the middle class. But the style of genteel life depicted
as the ideal could not be achieved or maintained without a suitable
Between 1820 and 1860, more than 100 books of manners
written for middle class readers appeared. The very number of books
suggests the social and economic fluidity that left many Americans feeling
as if they needed advice on appropriate behavior in an unfamiliar or
changing social setting. While some books offered instructions for dealing
with servants, most provided advice on how to act in the company of
social equals. The works sketched out elaborate rituals for introductions
and encounters in public places, for leaving ones card or paying a call
to a lady at home, or organizing a dinner party. Polite behavior in
mixed company was stylized and physically restrained.
The social encounters depicted in the advice books focused
on those, which brought men and women together. The emphasis on mixed
gender interactions differentiated these nineteenth century books from
their colonial counterparts that described an all-male world. The implication
was that middle class women were full participants in the social world.
The books also pointed to a transformation in ideas about gender. In
the colonial period, men were considered superior to women. Advice books
in the nineteenth century, however, described women as men's moral and
social superiors who deserved to be treated by them with elaborate politeness
and consideration. A gentleman was to defer to a lady's wishes in society,
for she knew best. In public, he was to protect her.
The social world depicted in etiquette books may not
capture how middle class men and women actually acted, but they do point
to new cultural norms and ideals. They also suggest a cluster of related
ideas about the nature and character of men and women.
The fact that gentlemen were to protect ladies from
untoward incidents and contact with rude and unmannerly people (by implication,
members of the working class) makes it clear that men and women were
thought to be quite different. Women were not deemed to be inferior
to men, but they were considered to be more delicate and physically
weaker than men. While this view perhaps had some basis in reality,
especially given women's constricting clothing and their corsets, the
other characteristics thought to belong to women by nature were not.
The qualities attributed to women included religiosity and morality,
intuition, patience, selflessness, and sympathy. All these traits suited
women for their primary and "natural" role as mothers and wives. From
this perspective, women belonged at home. Their personal fulfillment
came from caring for and serving others. While clearly not all middle
class women actually found fulfillment in serving others, the ideals
encouraged women to invest themselves emotionally in their families,
especially in their children. Locating women at home with what were
deemed to be significant duties also precluded paid employment outside
of the home.
In contrast, men were worldly, rational, intellectual,
and aggressive. Expressing a widely shared view of masculinity, one
lawyer explained, "Man is made for action, and the bustling scenes of
moving life, and not the poetry or romance of existence." These supposedly
innate male qualities were in keeping with the demands of a tumultuous
world of business and politics. While men needed the refreshment of
domestic life to recover from the hectic pace of the public world, the
public sphere was their main area of activity not the private and domestic
sphere that belonged to their wives. These ideas fitted the reality
of middle class men's lives, the need to get ahead and make a living
in order to support a their families in a socially acceptable way.
The middle class household was conceived as a private
retreat. In its arrangement of rooms, the number of bedrooms, the presence,
in some cases, of a bathroom, the middle class home did allow for greater
personal privacy than had been available in the previous century. The
relocation of cooking to a rear or basement kitchen also segregated
servants from the family. But the middle class home was not just a retreat,
it was also a center of consumption and display. The main room for entertainment
was the parlor, which was the most lavishly, and expensively finished
and furnished room in the house. Decorated with intricate moldings,
featuring draperies, rugs, and elaborate sets of furniture produced
by machine, the parlor was the space where the middle class women presided
over their genteel entertainment. The term 'separate spheres' captures
the cultural ideas about gender differentiation and the activities and
places connected to them. Any examination of the concept of separate
spheres, however, must acknowledge that ideas were more rigid than realities.
Although supposedly women were confined to domestic settings and to
the care of their families, the idea that they were innately religious
and moral allowed many of them to enter the public sphere in pursuit
of reform and religious causes. And the emphasis on male aggression
and public activities did not prevent men from relishing domestic life,
being involved with their children or even rejecting competitive masculine
ideals for a life devoted to benevolence and reform.
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in the American City, 1760-1900 (1989).
Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities
Cott, Nancy E. The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England,
Hemphill, C. Dallett. Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners
in America, 1620-1860 (1999).
Kasson, John. Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century
Urban America (1990).
Kerber, Linda. "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The
Rhetoric of Women's History," Journal of American History, 75
Mahoney, Timothy R. Provincial Lives: Middle-class Experience in
the Antebellum Middle West (1999).
Mangan,J.A. and James Walvin (eds.). Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class
Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940 (1987).
©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization