1850-1877: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview
1850-1877: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview
The American Spirit at Midcentury. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans were among the most optimistic people on earth. Economic growth and territorial expansion all contributed to a sense of apparently boundless opportunity. Dedicated to individualism, Americans sometimes struck European visitors as being materialistic to the point of greed and optimistic to the point of arrogance. At the same time many Americans were devoted to a largely unrealistic cultural and social ideal that included strict attention to morality and the work ethic and the exaltation of home life. As the growing middle class became more attached to convenient, cheaply produced consumer goods, they also became more worried about declining morals and social problems. Although their religious zeal had abated somewhat, the reform movements that had arisen from evangelical religious revivals of 1830s and 1840s—including temperance, women’s rights, and abolitionism—continued to influence American life at midcentury.
Conflicting Loyalties. Americans were still more alike than different. The majority of them still lived on farms (53 percent in 1870). Most of them spoke English as their first (and only) language, worshiped in Protestant churches, and revered the precepts passed down to them by their forebears of the Revolutionary War generation. Though they still found these principles worth fighting for, Americans did not always agree on how to interpret them. In the decade before the Civil War the debate between North and South over the expansion of slavery into new territories forced a growing awareness that the country was heading toward some sort of division. Most Americans hoped that these sectional differences could somehow be ironed out, and later they prayed that the country would survive the gathering storm.
The Civil War. The tragedy of the Civil War overshadowed every aspect of daily life. In addition to the split between North and South the war also brought to light, and worsened, internal divisions in both regions. Union sympathizers in eastern Tennessee and western Virginia deplored the secession of their states, while in some nothern cities draft riots revealed the reluctance of some potential soldiers, particularly new immigrants, to risk their lives while wealthier men purchased exemptions.
Reform Movements. The war accelerated social changes already underway in some areas of American life. The wave of reformism that had swept across the country in the 1830s and 1840s had left behind hundreds of organizations dedicated to the betterment (and perhaps eventual perfection) of the American people. Temperance, abolitionism, and a nascent women’s rights movement were joined by a host of more-eccentric crusades. The war and the Reconstruction era that followed it offered some women new career opportunities in teaching and nursing, and women who had been active abolitionists went on to reinvigorate the women’s rights movement. By the end of the war, however, the idealistic spirit of reform and Americans’ optimistic sense of their national destiny had given way to weary resignation. No longer dedicated to individualism and the dream of perfecting human society, people began to look toward larger institutional solutions.
Industrialization. The Industrial Revolution had already been well underway in the United States, particularly in the North, for twenty years before the Civil War. Before the Industrial Revolution, American customs and daily life changed only slowly over the years. Since most people lived on farms, they ate what they could grow, wore clothes they could sew at home, and oriented their daily life around seasonal rhythms. Their houses were built along the same lines as those of their grandfathers, and they kept to their old customs even when they moved to new locations. The new technologies of the nineteenth century brought labor-saving inventions such as sewing machines and cast-iron cooking stoves, improved transportation via railroads and steamboats, and better methods of preserving foods. A machine that could do the work of ten men ensured that consumer goods could be produced quickly and cheaply. The abundance of inexpensive goods such as printed cloth, dishes, cookware, farm implements, and furniture raised the standard of living considerably for free white Americans. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, technology began to transform every aspect of life in antebellum America. Mobilization for the war effort promoted some aspects of industrialization.
Urbanization and Standardization. Millions of immigrants from Europe found work in American factories, contributing to the creation of a class of urban wage-earners, including women and children. Though some women welcomed the new opportunity to earn money and some parents were happy to find a way in which their children could contribute to the family’s income, factory work was arduous, poorly paid, and dangerous. Many social critics called this “wage slavery” one of the great evils of modernization. The war also hastened standardization. For example, standardization of printed money and the institution of an income tax had a profound effect on the way Americans perceived their relationship to their government. Such vast increases in the interference of the federal government in private lives contributed—along with urbanization—to a decreased sense of individualism among Americans.
Household Economy. A city-dwelling, working-class family needed between $500 and $600 per year for food, rent, clothing, and fuel. Since the average unskilled laborer rarely earned more than $300 to $450 per year, it became necessary for women and children to contribute to the family’s income. Working-class women often worked in the sewing trades or as domestic servants. Many also took in work at home, such as doing laundry, plaiting straw for hats and fans, or stitching fabric uppers for shoes. Farm families all had to work hard. Farming was a seasonal activity, and they usually had to put their cash into seeds and supplies, or borrow ahead against the next year’s crop. It cost between $500 and $750 to start a 150-acre farm. Throughout the nineteenth century most Americans had little cash, and farmers, domestic help, and laborers alike all worked long hours, typically six days per week and ten hours per day. During the Civil War, the Union blockade of southern ports resulted in severe shortages and massive inflation throughout the South. A Richmond family that had spent $6.65 a week for groceries in 1861 was paying $68.25 two years later. Food shortages, partly caused by speculation and inflation, eventually caused bread riots in several southern cities. In the twenty years following the war, farm acres devoted to food production tripled as settlers flocked to western territories. Technological innovations such as harvesters and reapers also contributed to increased food production. Improved transportation not only got farm products to cities faster but also expanded the farmers’ markets, making it possible for most Americans to enjoy a healthier, more varied diet. As factories that had stepped up production to serve the war effort turned to making consumer goods, prices came down, allowing wage-earners to enhance their quality of their home life.
“Victorian” Americans. Americans of the mid nineteenth century were enamored of all things British and especially adored Queen Victoria. American women followed her lead in fashions. Although wealthy American ladies also copied the beautiful Empress Eugénie of France, who popularized hoop skirts, Parisian fashions had little practical influence in the United States. American ladies pored over French fashion plates and sometimes adapted these styles to suit American taste, but Queen Victoria’s taste for plaid and the deep mourning she began to wear after the death in 1861 of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, were far more influential than French fashions in the United States.
European Influences. English and French political events, and especially European attitudes toward the Civil War, made front-page news on a daily basis in every American newspaper. In addition to influencing American literature, theater, music, fine arts, and fashion, European tastes also shaped Americans’ ideas about home furnishings, fine cuisine, and etiquette. European immigrants also contributed to the changing panorama of American daily life, bringing with them traditional foods and customs.
Manners and Social Life. From the 1840s through the end of the century an immense assortment of etiquette manuals appeared in the United States. The authors of these books borrowed heavily from European publications, but they also frequently alluded to differences between Americans and Europeans. One of the most frequently praised American characteristics was a “frankness and easiness of manners,” which American etiquette writers considered the basis for all good breeding. At the same time strict rules of behavior were being applied by the emerging middle class. Calling cards, visits of ceremony, proper comportment toward ladies, and correct dinner-table behavior were all discussed with intense interest and in the most minute detail. Throughout American society, and especially in the South, women were treated with singular politeness and respect. At the same time, however, American men were given to some deplorable habits, including widespread tobacco chewing and spitting. The universality of this custom excited scorn, criticism, and contempt among European travelers in the United States. During the Civil War society matrons in the North and the South threw huge public balls to raise money for their causes. Some observers commented on the almost inappropriate level of “frantic gaiety” at these wartime social events. Even the harshest critics, however, acknowledged that although American society was not free from class distinctions, public behavior—at least among white persons—was scrupulously egalitarian.
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