Mark's Reviews > The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760 1900

The Emergence of the Middle Class by Stuart Mack Blumin
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Jun 02, 2011

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bookshelves: non-fiction, history, sociology, economics
Read from June 02 to July 30, 2011

I read this for a project I'm working on, and it felt very much like studying a textbook for a class. I learned a lot of interesting things about the development of the middle class in America, but I had to wade through acres of academic language to do it, and I skipped over some of the sections that were detailed recitations of lot and block analyses Blumin had done of various historic cities.

Generally, Blumin makes the case that in the 1700s, America had two classes -- the wealthy and everyone else, and that they often lived in close proximity in the really tiny cities we had then. By the mid-1800s, though, the industrial revolution was beginning to change the whole nature of work, and a new corps of people who worked with their heads and not their hands began to emerge, and began to separate both in terms of where they worked and where they lived. Partly because America was so reluctant to give up its idea of Jeffersonian democracy, though, writers were reluctant for a long time to identify this emerging group as the middle class, and the term didn't take full hold until after the Civil War.

The middle class in the mid-1800s also had strong ethnic overtones, since almost all these clerks, bookkeepers and middle managers were native-born, and most of the Irish and German immigrants of the time belonged to the manual working class. Along with the the middle class separation into new neighborhoods and homes came a Victorian lifestyle that emphasized the role of women as heads of this new style of life, centered around the parlor, where visitors and friends would be received and entertained.

As the 20th century neared, some of this dynamic began to change. Now the sons and daughters of Irish and German immigrants were joining the middle class, while the new Southern and Eastern European immigrants populated the ranks of the working class, and when the department stores and other large retail establishments took hold, suddenly white collar workers were often not being paid any more than better-paid factory workers, even though their cultural world was very different.

This is a scholarly, well argued exposition about how class-conscious America has always been despite its democratic pretensions. Just don't expect a galloping read.

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06/02/2011 page 16
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