Social class in America for dummies
May 13, 2019 8:36 AM   Subscribe

Can someone help me find a very basic summary of how social class has evolved over the last, say, 150 years in America? Really no summary is too basic for me.

I am a middle-class person married to a middle-class person in a nineteenth-century Philadelphia rowhouse that clearly used to be owned by people much wealthier than us. For instance, neighborhood gossip has it that our block of brownstones was originally mostly occupied by doctors working at a nearby hospital. There are architectural indications (e.g., back stairs, gas lighting outlets from a time when that would have been brand-new technology) that whoever lived here in, say, 1880 would have been higher up the social ladder that we are today, possibly with servants. And yet this would have been at a time when a family like that would have been very likely to have only one income.

Anyway, I find this interesting. How can we afford to live here now when we are both decidedly not making doctors' incomes in 2019? How has the economy changed in a way I can understand easily?

I realize that here I may be making inaccurate assumptions about any number of things in the past (what it meant to have servants, to be a doctor, to live in this particular city at different points in time, to change from mostly one-income households to mostly two-income households).

Is there a good, relatively short summary of how things have changed from the standpoint of a household economy? What's fair to compare and what's not? I really know next to nothing about any of this, including literally what it meant economically for women to start working in large numbers, so no answer is too patronizing.
posted by catesbie to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Ooh, I don’t have an answer but I want one.

One note though, it’s only white women who weren’t working for pay back in the age of the day one-income family.
posted by OrangeVelour at 9:10 AM on May 13, 2019

Response by poster: Good point, of course, although I strongly suspect anyone living in my particular house was white and relatively wealthy. But I'm interested in broader answers too!
posted by catesbie at 9:12 AM on May 13, 2019

it’s only white women who weren’t working for pay

It's only affluent women. The servants that you speak of were largely lower class women and girls, both white and black. Women have always worked outside of the home.

I'm actually wondering whether the best way to approach this for you would be to read some primary sources (fiction written in the nineteenth century, or nonfiction journals and letters). These sources might give you a roadmap to follow for further investigations of particular topics or historical personages.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:17 AM on May 13, 2019 [16 favorites]

This is a great question that doesn't have a short answer because the relative prices of things change and so do the social status associated with them -- with varying lags. You can find painstaking charts of the mean and median wages in a region over time, vs. the cost of what people bought, but the `market basket' of what runs a family changes. E.g., sometime/places meat was really expensive but backyards are cheap enough that day-labor households have a pig and some chickens. So some historians chart wages vs the calories the wages would buy, or the amount of heat, hoping that those things are roughly proportional to all goods.

Check out your local public library or university for local-history resources; I am always fascinated by the city directories for my town, or even reading a few years' newspapers looking at the ads. Women's papers and magazines are full of material history details in the ads, the recipes, the advice columns, the fiction -- the stories are SO FULL of status-vs-virtue negotiations.

Thirding that only rich white women didn't work, before WWII, though maybe not working for wages. Making the household linens and shirts and turning a pig carcass into preserved food is work! Plus also -- reading small-scale history I come across far more well-off, market-entrepreneurial, USians of color and independent women than either the averages or consensus history lead me to expect. We make it hard for outsiders and then we wipe out the memory of successful ones.

tl;dr It's complicated and all the details are fascinating.
posted by clew at 9:25 AM on May 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

`Outsiders' is the wrong word taken literally -- is there a single-word complement to `hegemon'?
posted by clew at 9:26 AM on May 13, 2019

Anyway, I find this interesting. How can we afford to live here now when we are both decidedly not making doctors' incomes in 2019? How has the economy changed in a way I can understand easily?
Cars is how the economy has changed is the short answer.

Cars enabled the wealthy to have reasonable commutes and more land or to be more centrally located (in taller towers), so mid-market products which have the obvious limitations (too close to neighbors for suburbs, not exclusive enough for the real wealthy) like brownstones in Philadelphia have fallen out of favor.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:38 AM on May 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Gas lighting was super common (in Britain at least) by the mid 1800's, so it wasn't cutting edge tech by 1880.

Servants were cheap & you would not have been able to maintain a house of any size without them with the amount of work that needed to be done just heating & cleaning such a building is mind boggling. They would have definitely had servants.

Technology would be a contributing factor in the changes. Technology leading to factories so servants went to work in them rather than be in service, technology coming to the rescue with furnaces instead of open coal fireplaces, indoor plumbing, water heaters, gas stoves, cleaning equipment. Materials that could be machine washed.
posted by wwax at 9:39 AM on May 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

Also, you may find several of these TV shows edifying. I mean, they're not Scholarly Historic Works by any means, but they do give a good idea of the sheer amount of work involved in pre-industrial housekeeping in a pretty visceral way.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:45 AM on May 13, 2019

Relevant nonfiction books I liked, from all sorts of angles, that are shorter than Piketty's Capital (joke):

Victorian Houses, N. Rena Goff, ed.
Has some contemporaneous middle-class budgets, also double-use furniture for a tiny house designed by Beecher & Stowe.

My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846-1950, Thomas C. Jepsen
Working for wages outside and in (really!) the home, and the huge pop-culture response

Slave in a Box, M. M. Manring
Selling pancake mix. Fascinating and infuriating.

The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine
Making social norms change because economic conditions have changed

For Her Own Good, Ehrenreich and English
Advice to women. One of Ehrenreich's early books

How Women Saved the City, Daphne Spain
There were a couple generations in which it was normative for well-off women to have college degrees, but not to work for pay. They were bored and capable and often idealistic and there was a great deal of public work to be done.

Lots of Susan Strasser's books, also Laura Schenone's

Biographies of Isabella Beeton, Fanny Trollope, Elizabeth Raffald

Getting into academic works, two collections of short works The Consumer Society, edited by Goodwin, Ackerman and Kiron has more numbers and history, Consumer Society in American History: A Reader, Lawrence B. Glickman, ed., has more vivd examples.
posted by clew at 10:04 AM on May 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

I also would consider how the "fashionable" parts of your city may have also changed too.

What I mean is - the reason why you're able to afford a former doctors' residence now may not just be about social class. It may be because the neighborhood you're in used to be the super-ritzy part of town but over time has become less-ritzy; that kind of change in a city can happen for reasons that have nothing to do with social class.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:50 AM on May 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: The_Vegetables: Cars! Of course! It seems perfectly obvious now; the practical supply of housing literally increased. That makes so much sense.

EmpressCallipygos: Sure, maybe? But again, I don't actually know how to make the comparison, because a 19th century city and a 21st century city seem like very different animals. Fashionable? Sort of, at both points, I think, but I'm not sure the same meaning applies in both cases - fashionable enough to attract doctors at one point and fashionable enough to attract yuppies now, both of which were groups limited and empowered by many many different factors.

wwax: Good point. Which brings up another: just to be clear, I'm interested in how the economy generally has changes people's prospects over time, and the UK is the place I seem to notice the opposite effect. I've got friends in UK families of, like, 2 lawyers who are paying eye-watering sums for housing that used to hold families of dockworkers a hundred years ago.
posted by catesbie at 11:11 AM on May 13, 2019

I book I read decades ago still resonates for me: Serving Women.

The elaborately decorated rooms of the Victorian Era and the intricately carved woodwork required a lot of cleaning. And guess who did it? To some extent our standards of cleanliness are really markers of social class. The pristine home is a sign of wealth. And you know cleanliness is next to godliness, right?

The American Medical Association was founded in the 1840s. Here's a bit of history. Nativist, racist, sexist, classist are good ways to describe it.

And it was not just cars that expanded the suburbs, it was government spending on the interstate highway system, and government assistance for home-buying, like VA loans.
posted by mareli at 11:18 AM on May 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

You might also be interested in a couple of series by the BBC which look at the history of a single house or street in the UK: A House through Time, and The Secret History of our Streets.

Where people live of a particular social class has more to do with rising and falling levels of gentrification and desirability of a particular area. So, in the UK, Notting Hill has been verging on desirable, very undesirable, to very desirable, and now is almost unattainable.

On the other hand, how people of a particular class have lived, is more driven by technology change and other economic factors. Until industrialisation, material goods were expensive, and labour was cheap. That began to change as countries industrialised. Transport has always driven housing locations. Housework was a lot more labour, and not really possible for one person to do to a high standard without modern appliances.

In the UK, before WW1, being 'in service' was the largest employment category, and most of those people were women. I'm reasonably confident it was similar in urban areas of other industrialised and industrialising countries. While we often think of large Victorian era grand houses with multiple servants and butlers and so on, one of the largest categories of service was as a 'maid of all work' a single servant working in a middle class house. In the later books of the Anne of Green Gables series (set in a doctor's house in Canada in the early 1900s) the character Susan is one such person.
posted by plonkee at 11:25 AM on May 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Miscellaneous points:

--Historically, medicine wasn't an especially high-status, high-class or high-earning profession.
Physicians were university-educated and probably higher-status than surgeons (with the hierarchy flipping at some point in the mid- to-late- 19c), but both professions in the 19th century feel squarely middle-class. It's gross to have to serve other people, especially by touching their bodies, and that limits the status-earning potential of those occupations. (That you now casually assume "doctor=better than me!" is basically the result of a ton of very careful and sustained political maneuvering by the AMA in the early 20th century. The Social Transformation of American Medicine is a classic account of that process.) So you shouldn't assume that the house's occupants were uber-wealthy just because they were doctors.

--There's a kind of reverse-gentrification life cycle whereby once-fashionable city neighborhoods gradually fall in status and real estate value over time, as the rich folks opt to move into nicer and newer-built digs. In London, for instance, by the 19th century, some of the poorest tenements were subdivided mansions and palaces from the Renaissance.

--Just for what it's worth, rich white women absolutely did work in the 19th century. The more servants a woman could afford to do the manual portion of the housework, the more responsibility fell on her to manage those servants, doing exactly the same types of supervision/ recruitment/ motivation/ planning work that somebody in middle management would do today. (19th-century novels absolutely call out rich women for being diligent or lazy, competent or incompetent at their work in managing the servants.) And of course, once you got well and truly rich enough to hire a meta-staff (housekeeper, butler, etc.) to manage the staff, then you had increasingly daunting sets of responsibilities for status performance and social-position-maintaining work, like charitable signaling and engineering family matches/ alliances.
posted by Bardolph at 11:31 AM on May 13, 2019 [14 favorites]

One more book -- The Labour-saving House. That's the Project Gutenberg entry -- you can read it in a bunch of formats including online. Lots of pictures. Written in WWI, as servants are becoming much less usual and technology is following the need and taste is following technology (The book is trying to hurry taste along into rationality). Intro:
Why do we need Labour-Saving Houses?


1.—Life is too short and time too valuable to waste in doing work which is unnecessary and which adds little or nothing to our comfort.

2.—There is a scarcity of labour. Girls of the class from which domestic servants were drawn formerly now dislike service. The would-be employer finds it difficult to obtain servants and to keep them when obtained.

3.—Unless great changes are made in our houses and households it will become even more difficult to obtain servants, because so many professions are now open to[4] young women that they are in a position to choose how they will earn a living.

4.—When servants are not obtainable, the mistress is driven to turn to and do the work of her own house. That is why a demand for labour-saving mechanism is making itself felt.

5.—Owing to modern inventions, it is now possible to achieve a house in which a family may be housed and fed in comfort at half the cost of labour which is absorbed in the labour-making house.

6.—It is pleasanter to spend money on the things one likes than to squander it on unnecessary coals and kitchenmaids.
There's some very energetic argument that house-keeping should be better paid and respected if done for wages, and better paid and respected if done for not-wages. Which argument is at least fifty years old in WWI! It's really common in minutes of the suffrage societies! We're still making it! (sigh)
posted by clew at 11:32 AM on May 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just adding: I absolutely agree with soren_lorensen that if you want to understand the evolution of class over time, your best bet is to read novels from the period you're interested in.

The novel is arguably a form that's about nothing else besides class anxiety (from a middle-class POV, of course), and when you're talking about something as complex and intangible as social status, you really want narrative to help you pick up the subtleties. Louisa May Alcott and Henry James both have interesting treatments of class dynamics in late-19th-century America. Just NOT "historical" novels-- those are about social class in the writer's present day, regardless of when they're technically set.
posted by Bardolph at 11:42 AM on May 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

Not a direct answer to your question, but you might enjoy this site which includes historic, searchable maps of Philly. You might be able to pin down more exact information about your house.

You can also search the City Directories by street address and find out who lived in your house (and their occupations) over time. (Click on "View Details from the Internet Archives" to search.)
posted by mcduff at 1:08 PM on May 13, 2019

This isn't a direct answer to your question, but this book -- a history of anorexia -- fills in a totally compelling history about the connected rise of medicine and the bourgeoisie, women staying at home, and 19th C family life during this transformation: Fasting Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg.
posted by nantucket at 3:12 PM on May 13, 2019

Another recommendation: The Spencers of Amberson Avenue (memoir of a late 1800s Pittsburgh middle-class family). The father was an avid photographer; his archive is available online at Pitt.
posted by candyland at 3:38 PM on May 13, 2019

Are you by chance living on the 800 block of Pine Street? That row of brownstones is incredible! My best friend from high school lived in one of those houses. It had back stairs, paintings on the ceilings, leaded pocket doors and a private garden. Her father was, in fact, a doctor, but not a rich one. He bought in the 50's I think. I am very sure I could not afford to live there now, unless it was carved up into condos. Most of the enormous brownstones on that block have been converted to doctor's offices, and are owned by Pennsylvania Hospital.

I know this doesn't answer your question at all, but it did make me think of that house. And it fits your description of brownstones near a hospital.
posted by citygirl at 5:07 PM on May 13, 2019

One more resource suggestion: Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through The American Status System focuses mostly on the present day, but reading it will also 100% improve your ability to understand historical systems by making you a sharper reader of class dynamics in general. In particular, Fussell does a great job of debunking some common misperceptions about class, like "Americans don't have a class system" or "Class is the same as wealth/income."

As a bonus, the book is also very funny and compulsively readable-- I finished it in two days and find its insights really illuminating for today's status culture, even though the author wrote in the 90s. Highly recommended!
posted by Bardolph at 6:22 PM on May 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, having a housemaid and a cook in the late 19th century was basically what it meant to be upper-middle-class. If you were lower-middle-class, you might have a woman who "came in for the day," who maybe alternated between you and one or two other families. If you were working class, you were the housemaid/cook/day-woman. I think the biggest transition there was the conversion of domestic service into labor-saving devices like the washer/dryer, electric oven, microwave. A lot of that happened around the time of the World Wars, so your Gilded Age doctor would have been living in a relative heyday of income inequality, when domestic service would have been fairly cheap. For many in service, tenements or street-living would have been the alternative, so wages were kept low in return for room & board.

In addition to books, there are lots of movies about the period, sometimes made later but within living memory of the late 19th c. Different city, but Meet Me in St Louis (1944) is about a professional-income (dad's a lawyer) family in St Louis at the turn of the century -- they are played as solidly middle-class/relatable to a 1940s audience. And Life with Father (1947) is set in 1880s NYC -- the family in that is probably on the richer side (dinner at Delmonico's Steakhouse) but still single-income as dad's a stockbroker.
posted by basalganglia at 6:41 PM on May 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Books on the rise of the union movement will shed light on a certain period of time.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:51 AM on May 14, 2019

Basalganglia's mention of Meet Me In St. Louis gave me another brainstorm about another impact on social class and economics: family size! Bigger families were more common in the past, so someone on a doctor's or lawyer's salary may have had also been trying to support five or six kids as well as a grandparent instead of just one or two kids. Today it's more common for our elders to live in outside facilities or stay in their own homes, and families have only a couple kids instead of a whole bunch, so there's less mouths for a doctor to feed.

So the changing average-family-size may also be a factor in tracking how the social classes have changed over time.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:30 AM on May 15, 2019

As well as the directories mentioned above, you should be able to see the census data up to 1940. This will give you some info on who was living in the house over the decades, including the number of children and any live-in servants. There can be a lot of information (though it will depend on what exactly was asked in the census form) and by looking at your house and the ones around it you can get an idea of how that area has changed over time.
posted by scorbet at 5:26 AM on May 17, 2019

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