Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd

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Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd

Excerpt from Middletown
Published in 1929

In January 1924 a young couple arrived in Muncie, Indiana, with a special purpose in mind. They planned to conduct a study of religious life in this small town in the middle of the United States. By the time they were finished, though, the scope of their study had expanded. What they finally produced was a richly detailed portrait of how the residents of the place they called Middletown lived. The Lynds' published study gives contemporary readers a revealing peek into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in the 1920s.

"Boys and girls in the three upper years of high school marked the number of times they go out on school nights and the hour they get in at night more frequently than any other sources of friction with their parents. …"

Robert and Helen Lynd had both been born and raised in the midwestern United States, but both were living on the East Coast when they met. At the time of their 1922 marriage, Helen was a schoolteacher and Robert a graduate student in religious studies. After Robert's graduation, the couple moved to Montana to work as church missionaries (those who try to convert people to their own religious beliefs). This experience helped to shift their interest from religion toward sociology, the study of human societies. In the middle of the 1920s, the Institute of Social and Religious Research

hired Robert to conduct a series of studies on small towns. Soon the Lynds were selected to produce a similar study of Muncie, Indiana.

The Lynds' goal was to conduct a factual, highly descriptive study of what they considered an average, typical U.S. town. They would compare conditions and beliefs in the 1920s to those of the 1890s. The Lynds spent eighteen months conducting interviews, handing out surveys, and gathering statistics. They divided their study into six parts, focused on information about how people earned their living, organized their homes, raised their children, spent their leisure time, practiced their religion, and took part in community activities. The Lynds were careful to maintain an objective, nonjudgmental stance, but their work revealed much about the townsfolk's beliefs and values. In their conclusion, the Lynds called the 1920s "probably … one of the eras of greatest rapidity of change in the history of human institutions."

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from Middletown

During the 1920s many social scientists became intensely interested in describing and analyzing U.S. society. The Lynds used what was then a new approach to research, modeling their study after the exhaustively detailed work of anthropologists (people who study human societies, cultures, and origins).

In addition to revealing the changes in how people viewed such things as raising children and spending free time, Middletown highlighted the 1920s trend toward consumerism (the preoccupation of a society with acquiring goods). The Lynds credited this change both to the rise of advertising and to "installment buying [purchasing things on credit and then making regular payments, which include interest, for a set period], which turns wishes into horses overnight."

When the twentieth century began, sociology was not yet widely recognized as a legitimate academic field. Through Middletown, as well as his later work as a researcher and professor, Robert Lynd is credited with helping elevate the status of sociology.

Excerpt from Middletown

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Dorothy Dix: Advice for Ordinary People

Between 1896 and 1951, advice columnist Dorothy Dix's words of wisdom were read by as many as sixty million people a day in newspapers across the nation. In Middletown, the Lynds quote Dix on such topics as marriage, child-rearing, divorce, and housework.

Born Elizabeth Meriweather in 1870, Dix grew up in a once-wealthy Tennessee family. She married at twenty-one, but her husband was mentally unstable and unable to provide for his family. Dix began to work as a freelance writer when her neighbor, Elizabeth Nicholson, publisher of the New Orleans Picayune newspaper, recognized the talent evident in some short pieces Dix had written. She was hired as an assistant to Nathaniel Burbank, the newspaper's editor.

Before long, Dix moved from writing death notices and other short articles to writing an advice column, called the "Sunday Salad." Since respectable women of the day did not want their names published in newspapers, she wrote under an invented name: Dorothy, a favorite name, and Dix, the name of a slave her family had owned before the Civil War. Written in an easy-going, down-to-earth style and focused on issues of concern to women—such as problems with parents, spouses, and children as well as religion, etiquette, and recipes—the column became very popular. Readers appreciated Dix's sincerity, her unsophisticated manner, and the mature approach she took to problems.

In 1901 Dix began to write for the New York Journal. Her new column was called "Dorothy Dix Talks." At the same time she also wrote articles on a number of sensational murder trials. Dix's ability to get victims, criminals, and family members to share details made her ideal for this work. By 1917, however, Dix decided to focus exclusively on her column. She made an exception in 1926, when she covered the Halls-Mill murder trial, a sensational case involving a minister's wife accused of killing her husband and his lover, a married member of the church choir. It is thought that Dix's sympathy for the accused influenced public opinion; the woman was ultimately found innocent.

In her column, Dix projected an outlook both traditional and modern. She believed that women should stay home with their young children if possible, and that children should obey their parents. On the other hand, she firmly supported the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and she knew from personal experience that women's employment outside the home was often a matter of survival for their families.

Dix continued to produce her column until the time of her death in 1951, when she was eighty-one years old.

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What happened next …

Even though their town had not been referred to by its real name, residents of Muncie recognized themselves in the study. Some of them expressed anger, claiming that the Lynds' work was slanted and unflattering to its subjects. The book was popular with readers, though, and was reprinted six times in 1929. It also inspired other researchers to conduct sociological surveys on life in the United States. The Lynds produced a follow-up to Middletown in 1937, when Middletown in Transition was published. This study focused less on detailed description and more on the changes caused by industrialization, class differences, and the effects of the Great Depression (1929–41; the period of economic downtown and hardship that followed the prosperous 1920s). Several other studies of Muncie have since been conducted, and a six-part documentary series titled Middletown was filmed in the early 1980s.

Did you know …

  • Teenagers in the 1920s looked and behaved very differently than their parents (who had grown up at the end of the nineteenth century) had as young people. Adults found it nearly impossible to understand their children. "For those with adolescent sons and daughters it was," notes historian Nathan Miller in his book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, "by all accounts a trying time."
  • Later critics noted that the Lynds' study had involved only Middletown's white residents. In The Other Side of Middletown (2004), a group of researchers sought to provide a more balanced view by chronicling Muncie's African American community.

Consider the following …

  • The parents of teenagers in the 1920s were often shocked and confused by their children's behavior. In what ways do they remind you of today's parents? How do you think the adults of the 1920s would react to today's teenagers?
  • Some of the practices people take for granted today, such as owning a car or going to the movies, were brand new in the 1920s. Look through Middletown to find examples of what people thought of these new, exciting trends.

For More Information


Caplow, Theodore, et al. Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Geelhoed, E. Bruce. Muncie: The Middletown of America. Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.

Hoover, Dwight W. Middletown: The Making of a Documentary Film Series. Philadelphia, PA: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1992.

Lassiter, Luke Eric, et al. The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie's African American Community. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2004.

Web Sites

"Middletown Studies Collection and Digital Archives." Archives and Special Collections Research Center. Available online at,,29036—,00.html. Accessed on June 20, 2005.

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Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd

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