More Bitching From the Middle Class, From 1870

Photo: Public domain via Jan Prokes @
The following essay was originally written for a college course on February 28, 2019. It is posted here because, well, words.

It might be more accurate to say that history falls upon itself rather than that it builds upon itself. But every so often we fall upon an era where the strife and circumstances of existence yield such stark outcomes that all else that follows seems to rest upon it. More than any period in history, the American experience of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries seem to have built upon the economic and social foundations formed during the Reconstruction period and the Gilded Age. Advances in technology, a rapid population influx, and the forging of pathways through entrenched social conventions that occurred during the latter half of the 19th century are all legacies that we today are still trying, in some ways, to recreate.

Before and after the Civil War, the American north and south, though still politically divided, helped sustain each other’s economies. The largely agricultural economy of the south produced cotton which was sold to textile mills in the north. The plantations in the south depended on the free labor of thousands of African American slaves who, as a result of the Union’s victory in the Civil War, were declared free individuals per the United States constitution. The plantation owners exploited the newly freedmen’s disadvantaged position by first “renting” out their land and equipment to the freedmen for a portion of the freedmen’s crops, then charging the freedmen to sell their crops, and then controlling the stores in town where the freedmen were supposed to buy all of their necessities which would often have to be purchased with loans from the plantation owners. (Eves, slide 17) Because of this, plantation owners were in slightly worse shape than they were before the war, and the hoards of freedmen were only moderately better off than they had been. The southern economy, reeling from the costs of the Civil War and this new way of doing business, was in poor shape during this period. In the north, however, the production and sale of cotton caused an economic boom. The rivers and waterfalls of New England provided power to mills via waterwheels. And with the abundance of production happening, there also came an abundance of jobs for unskilled laborers. An additional advantage that New England had in producing and selling cotton textiles was that the waterways made transportation of product to seaports more efficient than via carriage. (Eves) So while the north was far outperforming the south on an economic basis, the average wealth of the nation was beginning to build. And then came steam power and steel.

Between 1870 and 1900 the population of the United States bloomed from 40,000,000 to 76,000,000. (Eves, slide 9) This population increase directly coincided with increases in job and worker availability, investment capital, invention patents and trademarks, and, chiefly, the production of steel and railroads. These advancements positively disrupted New England cotton production in two major ways. One, with the new broad use of steam power, a mill no longer had to be built next to moving water; a steam powered mill could be built almost anywhere. Two, as more railroads were built across the country, product no longer had to be transported via river. It could be moved with great efficiency directly across the land. As the railroads were built further and further west of New England, so followed the industry and labor force. A large portion of the aforementioned population increase was due to immigration. Steel, coal mining, production, and laying of railroads were all positions largely filled by American immigrants. (Eves) One unseen byproduct of all of this production was the pollution caused by fossil fuels. The productions both of steel and steam relied on long-burning coal. Modern science has demonstrated that the current global warming trends began with the industrial revolution. (Eves, slide 14)

Lots of this production led to the enabling of the working and middle classes. For one, clothing, tools, guns, and various individual modes of transportation were being invented and sold for the common consumer, many of whom were able to earn the money to buy these things because of the abundance of jobs. Additionally, the managers running these companies began to learn how to treat their workers. One advancement, termed “industrial paternalism,” drove the companies to invest in their workforces, to take care of them. William Barrows of the Willimantic Linen Company in Connecticut took this to heart. According to Thomas Beardsley of the Mill Museum in Windham, Connecticut, Barrows was raised among the wealthy and educated. When he enlisted in the Civil War, he served alongside the lower class enlisted soldiers. Even after he earned a commission, Barrows observed the general poor conditions of the low class soldiers, who were worked harder than they were paid, drank hard, and exercised poor hygiene. It could be said that this is what led Barrows to later provide his workers at the Linen Company with “free food and non-alcoholic drinks… coffee breaks, and a built a company store-and-library, a dance pavilion, refined Victorian housing…” (Beardsley) among other things. Since the companies and their workers were building wealth simultaneously, the towns were able to finance streets, shop buildings, playhouses, hospitals, schools, parks, and churches. (Eves, slides 32-39) This is called urbanization.

While the nation seemed to be building itself, the richest in the country were becoming obscenely rich. Men with names like Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Rockefeller were creating monopolies on the nation’s largest industries. On a lower level, factory managers were exploiting the workers’ needs for their jobs. For example, one method of pay in production was called piece work, or paying the worker for the number of, say, pants sewn in a day versus for the number of hours spent sewing. In these cases, should an employer want to increase production, he could decrease the piece rate for that day to motivate the workers to sew faster. They could also make wages lower just to keep money for the company. A typical working class American in 1900 would have made about $435 that year. Comparably, a middle class household income that same year would have been about $2000—about five times as much. (Eves, slide 9) In this way and others, the middle class was more like the working-upper class. This vast, growing difference between the wealth of the upper versus working classes is called divergence. Due to access to education, connections, and having spoken the English language, the middle- and upper-class jobs were mostly filled with white workers. In the working class, the workplace was likely to be diverse since it was some of the only work as could be found by immigrants. Likewise, based on affordability, the living situations of these classes were largely segregated. Early middle class persons were likely to be able to afford land and homes large enough to house the family and often times their servants. Working class families often lived in the middle of urban areas in direct proximity to neighbors of the same ethnicity (African American, Jewish, Italian, et al). This resulted in an “ethnic salience,” or a reinforced importance in one’s own cultural roots. On the one hand this made it easier for persons to come to the United States and take advantage of the general prosperity. If one wanted to move from, say, Poland to the United States, and this person did not speak English, it is probable that this person already knew of a Polish community in America that could help them find work and a place to stay. (Eves) They could feel somewhat at home in this foreign land. But it also forged a barrier between many persons coming to see themselves as Americans first, and for others to see them as anything other than foreigners. It’s a problem we still struggle with today. Can a person be an American even if they are not an American citizen? Must they first denounce in great measure their own heritage before we accept them as such?

A pressing concern for modern Americans is whether or not the middle class is shrinking. In the mid twentieth century, the concept of being middle class shifted from the comparably rare “large house, live-in servant” image of the Gilded Age that of the relatively common “medium house, self-sufficient” working man. What remains constant is the aspiration of the middle class to be seen as affluent. If the middle class in the twenty-first century is shrinking from what it was in the twentieth century, then it could be said that the population and its distribution of wealth is returning to that of the Gilded Age; the wealthy are very wealthy, and the middle class is part of the affluent few. The working class will be the poor majority. What will be necessary to look for is whether ethnic salience follows this trend back to how it was during the Gilded Age. Does rich equal white? It certainly did in the late nineteenth century. A similar advancement of technology is here, the unskilled jobs are not (in fact, technological advancements are eliminating unskilled jobs). The population is already here, and they continue to carve paths for the social minorities. There’s even an interesting parallel here to the nineteenth century sharecroppers: high costs of just about everything are driving the less wealthy to take out loans from the wealthy and keeping them from truly being free and independent. The subjugation of the working class may be subtle in appearance, but it is very real, just as real as it was in the Gilded Age following the Civil War.

Eves, Jamie. “Laying the Groundwork: The Civil War, Reconstruction, Institutional Racism, and the Conservative Coalition.” PowerPoint, Willimantic, CT, 2019.

Eves, Jamie. “How the Civil War and Reconstruction Changed –
and Didn’t Change – America.” PowerPoint, Willimantic, CT, 2019.

Eves, Jamie. “Redefining America: How the Second Industrial Revolution Changed America: The United States at the End of the Gilded Age.” PowerPoint, Willimantic, CT, 2019.

Beardsley, Thomas R. “William Eliot Barrows.” Windham Textile and History Museum. N.d., n.p. Accessed 1/24/2019.

Eves, Jamie. “The Rise of the Textile Industry in Willimantic, CT, 1820-1880:
Life in a New England Mill Town.” PowerPoint, Willimantic, CT, 2019.


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