1815-1850: Life Styles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview
1815-1850: Life Styles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview
Expansion. The first half of the nineteenth century was marked by more rapid and revolutionary change in everyday life than any previous American generation had experienced. Large-scale demographic, political, and social transformations irrevocably changed the daily routines of Americans by altering their communities, the houses in which they lived in, the food they ate, the work they did, the way they spent their leisure time, and the way they viewed their places in society. Two of the most basic changes were the growth of population, from 9.6 million in 1820 to 23 million in 1850, and the expansion of the country’s western boundary, from the Mississippi River in 1800 all the way to the Pacific Ocean by 1848. As the nation grew, regional differences took on increasing importance. More and more, Americans perceived the country as split into two antagonistic sections, the North and the South, as well as a third as yet unformed region: the vast expanse of the West. The North and the South saw each other as separate, alien cultures where people held different beliefs, did different kinds of work, ate different food, and participated in different, separate economies.
Rapid Change. The growth of cities was another source of change. Many Americans, mostly in the North, moved away from their farms to find more lucrative work in mills and factories. When they did so, they left behind traditional, tight-knit communities where people relied on one another for their livelihood and leisure, and they began to live in new worlds where their neighbors were strangers. They were willing to accept this social insecurity because the cities provided economic abundance. Advances in transportation brought a wide variety of foods, reading materials, and other consumer goods from all over the country to the cities of the eastern seaboard. And the everexpanding economy gave an unprecedented number of people the buying power to furnish their houses and clothe themselves with the latest fashions, thereby supporting the new industries that were created to produce such items. A large middle class began to emerge and claim the right to refinement and prosperity, purchasing ready-made clothing, dinnerware, and furniture of higher quality than had previously been available to anyone other than the very wealthy. Americans also began to take advantage of new inventions that made a comfortable lifestyle more accessible, such as the cookstove, gas lighting, and indoor plumbing.
Work. Much of the work available in the new cities revolved around the emerging industries that produced the clothing, shoes, and other household items that were once made in the home. Large factories, where men and women performed monotonous and usually unskilled labor, began to replace the workshops of small-scale manufacturers manned by skilled craftsmen. And with the increase of immigration in the 1830s and 1840s many native-born Americans were replaced by less well paid Irish and German workers. At the same time the emerging industries had a profound effect on people’s homes. Whereas women had previously produced their own fabric, clothing, soap, and candles at home, they could now purchase these items cheaply and use their time to beautify their homes, raise their children, and improve society by participating in religious or social reform movements. Men, who had traditionally worked in shops or on farms that were near their homes, now had to leave home for the workday and enter another, separate sphere. Slowly Americans began to perceive that where there had been one, collaborative world in which all participated (although tasks may have been differentiated by gender), American society was now split into two worlds: one for women and one for men.
Home. The home had previously been a place where a large “family,” which included apprentices and journeymen as well as parents and children, worked, ate, enjoyed their leisure hours, and slept. By the middle of the century the popular idea of the home had evolved into that of a haven to which the father could return after a long day in the harried, outside world to be restored in the bosom of his nuclear family, which comprised only parents and children. As the home and the workplace became two separate worlds, leisure time grew in importance. Bachelors, who had once lived as apprentices with their employers’ families, now lived on their own in boardinghouses and so tended to form bonds with each other that revolved around sports, gambling, and other leisure activities. Because so many workers were relegated to unskilled labor in factories and had no hope of moving on to better work, the time spent away from work grew in importance. Amusement became a compensation for unrewarding work, and an entertainment industry began to form in response to the need.
Optimism. During this period as Americans witnessed the growing economy, the new advances in technology, and the nation’s expanding borders, they began to believe that the amount of progress the nation could achieve was limitless. Opportunities for individuals to better their lives seemed to be growing every day. Social boundaries were fluid rather than fixed, giving anyone the chance to rise on the social ladder. The term “self-made man” was coined at this time, expressing the period’s emphasis on material gain and social mobility. President Andrew Jackson, a man who rose from humble beginnings to become the most powerful man in the nation, embodied the era’s creed that hard work led to rewards no matter who you were. Americans also believed that society itself was headed in a positive direction because people, as God’s creation, could do nothing other than realize his vision of justice, equality, and prosperity. Such was the promise that each individual and society, as a sum of those individuals, possessed. Everywhere one looked—in newspaper editorials, essays in magazines, children’s readers, sermons, lectures, and political speeches—America was trumpeted as “the freest, the happiest, and soon to be the greatest and most powerful country in the world,” as one contemporary observer wrote.
Perfectionism. Inherent in the idea of America as a nation of progress was the belief that society, and the individuals who comprised it, could be perfected. Improvement was the motto of the age. Religious evangelism had taught Americans that they were responsible for their own salvation. From the Enlightenment, Americans inherited the belief that they had the capacity to perfect themselves, and from Romanticism, the notion that they were released from tradition and the past to create their own ideal future. But at a time when Americans’ faith in their nation’s progress seemed unbounded, some began to feel uneasy about the direction in which the country was headed. To most Americans progress meant the accumulation of money. Alexis de Tocqueville, an astute foreign observer, noted, “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men.” America had been taken over by the drive to obtain wealth at the expense of improving one’s mind and morals, many believed, and as a result the nation was on the verge of moral bankruptcy. In the midst of unlimited optimism, then, could be found an equally earnest despair about the country’s future.
Reform and Utopianism. Some Americans felt that the pursuit of wealth was a hollow goal with dire consequences, including increased disparity between the rich and poor, the revitalization of slave labor in response to the skyrocketing demand for cotton to supply the new textile industry, and a base neglect of those less fortunate in the mad rush for one’s own gain. America needed a solution, according to some, and organizations sprang up all over, especially in the Northeast, to address a wide variety of social ills: the horrific conditions in mental hospitals and prisons, excessive drinking, the lack of a proper education for most Americans, juvenile delinquency, and the enslavement of one-seventh of the nation’s population. Most reformers were influenced by the evangelical belief that humans can and should act to improve their own souls and, by extension, the souls of others. They believed that a perfect society, known for its justice and equality, could be created here on Earth; there was no need to wait for Heaven. A corollary impulse led to the creation of Utopian communities, some of which were religious in nature and others secular. For many of these communities the need to retreat from a corrupt society was paramount, but for most the intent was to establish an improved social order on a small scale that could then be reproduced in other locales and thereby influence the larger society. Utopian communities, particularly the secular ones, strove to create environments in which each individual could flourish and reach his or her ultimate potential and happiness, a goal that many believed American society promised but had not yet achieved. For many of these communities the path to such an Eden on Earth was through the establishment of equality across lines of class, gender, and (in one case) race.
Inequality. Despite the expansion of voting privileges to include all white males and the growing emphasis on equal opportunity in Jacksonian America, the reality of social inequality remained all-pervasive. Mainstream society held the view that Caucasians, especially Anglo-Saxons, were inherently superior to all other people. African Americans and Native Americans were deemed to be biologically, intellectually, and morally inferior and hence unfit to participate in civilized society. Such assumptions led to the continued justification of slavery, prejudice and violence against free blacks, and the removal of Indians from their lands to make way for white settlers. Immigrants, especially those from Ireland, also faced discrimination. Many Americans inherited the English prejudice against the Irish as slovenly, ignorant, and unclean. But most alarming to Americans, who were overwhelmingly Protestant, was the fact that most of the immigrants they saw arriving in ever-increasing numbers were Catholic. Nativist and anti-Catholic groups attempted to modify naturalization laws to limit the voting privileges of immigrants.
Women. Women were the largest group of people denied full political and legal rights. By law or custom women were not allowed to vote, to speak in public, or to sue or be sued; when allowed to work at all, they found only limited kinds of jobs open to them, and they were paid less than men for the same work. A woman lost all claim to her own property and wages (which belonged solely to her husband) if she married, and she lost claim to her children in the case of separation. While white, native-born males began to enjoy more rights and privileges during this period, the promise of equal rights for all was still far from being realized for most Americans, a fact recognized by the growing number of reformers and members of Utopian communities who began the slow process of “freedom’s ferment,” as one historian has called it.
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