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Historical Themes

Middle Class Culture

By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.

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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 income.

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.

Bibliography
Blumin, Stuart M. The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (1989).
Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1993).
Cott, Nancy E. The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835 (1977).
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 (June 1988).
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).

 

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