Social Life: Urban Life

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Despite their rarity, early America's towns served a vital role as social centers for much of period before 1820. Prior to 1783, large cities with ten thousand or more residents were distributed across the eastern seaboard, from Boston in the north to Philadelphia in the middle colonies, and Charleston in the South. The immediate post-Revolutionary decades witnessed a reorganization of this hierarchy. By 1800 Charleston had lost ground while Baltimore had joined this elite of urban centers with twenty-seven-thousand residents; furthermore, Philadelphia and New York, with over sixty-thousand residents each by that time, were easily the largest cities. Overall, just 5 percent of the early American population lived in towns, a proportion that would not increase until well into the nineteenth century. As social hubs for both townsfolk and the residents of their hinterlands, however, these cities fulfilled a role much greater than their relative size would suggest.

rural and urban sociability

For many Americans, social life revolved around the rural homestead. Among whites, social calls to the houses of their neighbors (who often resided at some distance) provided entertainment and cemented a sense of community. In highly rural areas of the South, such as Virginia, centers of sociability that had, in the Old World, been situated in or near towns—churches, racecourses, and courthouses, for example—were also located in the countryside. Deprived of the freedom to move away from their rural places of work, many enslaved black Americans of this era had little choice but to create a social life that revolved around agricultural labor and plantation life. The function of towns as economic and political centers, however, meant that many black and white Americans could at least sometimes engage in social activities there. And, over the course of the eighteenth century, social amenities unique to the townscape started to spring up throughout the colonies, making certain leisure pursuits possible only in an urban environment. As the American population became more stratified by race and class in the years after 1750, cities also proved essential as the only places offering socializing opportunities to all sectors of society.

elite and middling americans

In the decades before the Declaration of Independence, towns across the English-speaking Atlantic became indispensable to the leisure activities of elites and middling classes. Taverns, theaters, assembly rooms, public gardens, teahouses, and coffeehouses were for the most part exclusive to towns and constituted the main spaces in which wealthy free men and women sought company, entertainment, and conversation. In particular, towns assisted the New World's privileged classes in fashioning themselves as "genteel" individuals: people with good manners, a graceful posture, a fashionable appearance, a keen appreciation of the arts, and a font of educated conversation at their fingertips. In taverns, clubs and societies convened in the name of a wide variety of causes: drinking, literary discussion, celebration of a shared nationality, charity for the poor, Masonic rituals, and political debate. Mostly homosocial in character, these organizations represented the extension of a British sociability to early America; but, at the same time, they also reflected unique facets of New World society. Hence, Scottish, German, or French societies were indicative of the colonies' ethnic diversity, and the conflict between the elitist "modern" Freemasons and their more populist "ancient" brothers exposed the more democratic character of club life in America from the 1750s onwards.

Outside of clubs, elites and middling sorts passed much of their free time participating in dancing assemblies, promenading in gardens, attending concerts and plays, and drinking tea. By the 1760s, all of early America's largest cities had the amenities necessary to the pursuit of such activities, and some towns, like Charleston, South Carolina, thrived precisely because they were an essential refuge for gentry (the agricultural elite) seeking entertainment and a healthier environment away from their plantations. As central marketplaces and shopping centers, moreover, America's towns were also essential to the provision of the accoutrements of the genteel lifestyle; towns hosted shopping districts where strolling, buying, and socializing could be combined into a single leisure activity. Throughout the Revolutionary period, and into the era of new nationhood, America's cities continued to play this central part in the social lives of the wealthiest citizens.

the poor

Because of their physical size and the diversity of their spaces, towns also furnished special social opportunities for poorer early Americans—slaves, free blacks, and whites alike. In the harbor areas of all port towns on the eastern seaboard, there was a plethora of legal tippling houses and taverns, as well as innumerable illegal, temporary establishments. There, sailors, workers, apprentices, free blacks, and urban slaves all gathered to enjoy drinking, gambling, or popular games such as dice, billiards, and bowling. Increasingly, theaters proved to be sites of entertainment for those working poor whites who could afford the price of an entrance ticket.

All of these social activities, however, cost money that many did not have, and for this reason the open, shared spaces of towns were also favored as gathering places. Greens or fields provided the ideal location for slaves to come together in cities, a habit brought to light by the discomfort that this caused among white authorities. Streets also served as social spaces among the urban poor, and there one could often find traveling entertainers or tricksters surrounded by their audiences. Importantly, such offerings represented socializing opportunities for slaves unimaginable on the plantation, and for blacks fortunate enough to be sent to sell produce at town markets by their owners, even the commercial spaces of early America's towns could be turned into hubs of conversation, gossip, and entertainment.

Such activities, of course, were all a very long way from the genteel urban environment that elites were striving to fashion, and the conflict between their social goals and the culture of the lower sorts went far beyond protests against slave gatherings on the town green. Until the nineteenth century, America's cities were not divided into clear districts distinguished by the wealth of their residents. In southern towns, free blacks and poor whites lived in tenement housing that was frequently situated between—or behind—the townhouses occupied by the wealthy. In these circumstances, wealthy whites were forced to make a conscious effort to erect barriers between their genteel social lives and the popular pursuits of the poor, something that they achieved by instituting high subscription fees and entrance restrictions for their clubs, and even by cordoning off open spaces within towns for their exclusive use. Such actions merely reflected the increasing chasms between rich and poor, and black and white, that were emerging in American society before 1783.

the early national era

During the early Republic, two new trends manifested themselves in the social lives of the new nation's burgeoning cities. Before independence, cities had been the focus for many annual social events that linked Americans to the British Empire of which they were a central part. From Boston to Charleston, fireworks and dinners in honor of the king's birthday and the celebration of British victories against the French and the Spanish studded the urban social calendar. With new nationhood, however, such events were transformed into landmarks of independence, with Fourth of July commemorative feasts, balls, and parties becoming quickly established as annual celebrations of identity and unity. Elsewhere, independence made itself felt in urban club life. Masonry, with its emphasis on fraternal values, flourished in these decades, its values practically inseparable from those of the new nation. As well as embodying a new national unity, urban social life also began to display more of the features of class division than ever before. Most noticeably, the social lives of urban middling sorts emerged as a clear strand all of its own. This was a sociability characterized less by the drinking, gambling, and dancing enjoyed by elites and more by a quest for improvement of morals among poor or black citizens. Often, this middling drive for reform stemmed from a collective identity founded around evangelical religion, temperance, and a growing sense of gentility and propriety.

See alsoCity Growth and Development; Class; Dance; Gambling; Holidays and Public Celebrations; Recreation, Sports, and Games; Slavery: Slave Life; Taverns; Theater and Drama .


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Emma Hart

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Social Life: Urban Life

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