The Middling Sort

Visions of the Middle Class

Close to half of Americans identify as “middle-class,” so on this episode of BackStory, we’ll take a look at what it means.  Who belongs to  the middle class? Who doesn’t?  The hosts explore the rise and fall of the middle class and why so many Americans consider themselves members of this group.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. President Obama has been touting middle class economics a lot lately and needling GOP rivals about it whenever he gets the chance.

BARACK OBAMA: But I will say this. So I’m encouraged that they’re speaking about middle class. But you can’t just talk the talk. You got to walk the walk.

PETER: Today on BackStory, we don’t just talk the talk, we walk you through a history of the middle class in America. We’ll comb through the faintest, middling aspirations buried with an 18th century shopkeeper, go in search of the roots of the African American middle class, and consider how class is always more than a marker of economic status.

CORNELIUS BYNUM: There’s always been a black middle class. But it hasn’t always been pegged to income.

PETER: The challenges and dreams of the middle class today on BackStory. Don’t go away. Today on BackStory, we’ll be right back.

Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh. And I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: There’s a journalist for Politico named Tim Noah. A few years ago, he published a book about inequality in America. And in that book, he wrote about a man you’ve probably never heard of. I certainly hadn’t heard of him. He’s a guy named James Truslow Adams.

TIM NOAH: We don’t know his name. What we do now is the phrase that he created. And that phrase is “the American dream.”

BRIAN: That’s right. This Adams is the originator of the American dream. And so you might guess that Adams was around in the nation’s early years or certainly a few decades later in the heady days of Manifest Destiny. And if you guessed that, you would be wrong.

TIM NOAH: Interestingly, he coined that phrase in 1931. Two years after the–

BRIAN: Odd time to coin the phrase of the American dream, not nightmare.

TIM NOAH: Exactly, exactly, yeah, unemployment was headed towards 25%.

BRIAN: But even in the depths of the Great Depression, the dream of making it in America would have resonated with many, many people. The nation was coming off several decades of unprecedented growth. And a lot of folks had directly benefited from that growth. So much so that James Truslow Adams figured it would be a no brainer to call his book “The American Dream.”

TIM NOAH: And his editor said, oh, don’t call it “The American Dream.” We’ll never be able to sell a book called “The American Dream.” And of course, all these many years later, nobody remembers Adams. Nobody remembers the book. Everybody remembers the phrase, the American dream. So much for editors wisdom.

BRIAN: Despite the books new title, The Epic of America, the dream had staying power. But for Adams the dream wasn’t as simple as we often make it out to be today.

TIM NOAH: He said it was it’s not quote “a dream of motor cars and high wages merely.” But rather quote “a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they’re innately capable and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

PETER: When he wrote that, James Truslow Adams was living in his own version of the dream. To be fair, it wasn’t exactly regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of his birth. Adams’s father was a well to do stockbroker. But still, Adams the younger had amassed a small fortune on the stock market and at age 35 had left Wall Street to pursue a writing career in Europe. He was living in London, in fact, when he wrote The Epic of America.

BRIAN: Now, it might sound a little, let’s just say, cynical for this guy Adams to be pumping his vision of the American dream from England, while the economy was still in tatters. But he had good reason for being optimistic. Adams had been born at a time when upward mobility was a fairly common thing in the United States. For instance, farmers’ sons around the turn of the century were 25% more likely to advance into white collar jobs than they would be half a century later, in a time we usually associate with the golden age of the middle class.

PETER: Since the turn of the 21st century, the middle sector of wage earners in America has contracted, with families more likely to move down out of the middle class than they have been to move up. And yet Americans still think of their country as James Truslow Adams once did, as the land of opportunity. A recent Pew poll found that 40% of Americans think it’s common for people to start poor, work hard, and become rich.

TIM NOAH: That’s the Supreme irony, that Americans are less fatalistic than Europeans are about their chances of moving up. But if you look at the statistics, most countries in Western Europe that are comparable to our economy have more rapid upward mobility at this point than the United States does.

BRIAN: So Tim, is this the American dream of the American delusion?

TIM NOAH: Well, I think that it is a bit of a delusion.

BRIAN: Take, for instance, what Tim Noah refers to as income heritability. That’s the likelihood you’ll make roughly what your parents made. So the higher income heritability is the lower social mobility is. In recent years, economists have crunched the heritability numbers for the 20th century. And what they found isn’t very encouraging.

TIM NOAH: Previously, studies had shown that income heritability was less than 20%. So everybody thought, hurray, the United States has–

BRIAN: You made it on your own.

TIM NOAH: That’s right.

BRIAN: 80% chance of making it on your own.

TIM NOAH: 80% chance exactly. To quote that famous poem Invictus, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain my soul.” You could say I am master of 80% of my fate. I am the captain of 80% of my should pretty good, right?

BRIAN: So I might inherit male pattern baldness from my parents. But I’m not going to inherit their income status.

TIM NOAH: Right, but then the problem was they found out that heritability was much higher, about twice as high as they had thought. So it became I am the master of 60% of my fate. And then it dropped even further to about 40% or 50%. And there was actually one researcher– he was looking at income among brothers. And he found that you were likelier to inherit your parents place in the income distribution than you were to inherit their height or weight.

ED: There’s been a lot of talk lately about the plight of America’s middle class. President Obama has made middle class economics a priority of his last two years in office. Even Republicans like Jeb Bush have been highlighting the struggles of Americans who can’t seem to get ahead, no matter how hard they work.

PETER: This is a favorite theme of politicians, in part because it resonates so widely. Almost half of Americans identify as middle class. And yet it’s always been incredibly difficult to pin down what exactly we mean by middle class. Median income varies enormously by region, ranging from $37,000 in Mississippi to $69,000 in Maryland. In New York City alone the middle 60% of income earners– one common definition of middle class– ranges from about $20,000 to $170,000 a year.

BRIAN: And so today on the show, we’re looking at what this powerful, but elusive idea of the middle class has meant to past generations. When did the idea take hold? And how has is changed since then?

We’ll consider how consumption habits define class status all the way back in the colonial era. We’ll hear how the middle classes of the 19th century took shape in part by rejecting the ways of the rich. And we’ll ask what the civil rights movement had to do with the shifting nature of the black middle class in the early decades of the 20th century.

ED: But first, we’re going to return to that idea of the American Dream– or at least to its 19th century variant. Now, a lot of listeners may associate the final decades of the 19th century with the great rags to riches story. This was, after all, the era of famous industrialists who rose from humble beginnings, guys like John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

But Stanford historian Richard White says that most Americans in this era did not aspire to untold riches. Instead, they aspired to something they would have called competency. That meant that by the end of your life you would have enough– enough to live in comfort, maybe own a little property, provide for your children, and not worry that you could lose it all should something unexpected happen.

We invited Richard to explain this idea of competency a little more fully. So competent, we use that almost today as a backhanded competent. Oh, he’s very competent at his job. It’s not something you really want to hear about yourself, right? But can you tell me why they would call it competency?

RICHARD WHITE: Well, they would talk competency, because it meant your ability to take care of yourself and those who are dependent on. And it meant that you weren’t dependent on other people. So it comes out of this 19th century small “L” liberalism, that the whole goal in life is to have a series of relatively autonomous citizens, who in no matter what happened to them be able to meet the circumstances around them.

ED: So was is this a growing group in the 19th century? Would more and more people have found themselves competent?

RICHARD WHITE: They strived to be. I think many of its roots are agricultural. It goes back to a time when people had farms. And the aim of having a farm was not that you’re going to end up being a huge, wealthy person. The idea was in the end you’ll have accumulated enough land to be able to distribute it among your children, that they too can have farms. That there’ll be enough left that they’ll take care of you and your wife in old age.

And as people start moving off of farms, then competence becomes a more nebulous concept. Then we start talking about people who in the 19th century would be called the middling classes. We don’t have a sense of the middle class. But competence would extend to working people whose whole idea is to save enough from their wages, buy a house, put money aside, take care of their children. And if they could get through life and do that they considered themselves a success.

The aim of their working life was not to end up being a manager or a boss, let alone a capitalist. It was to be a successful and competent worker.

ED: Could a woman in the 19th century achieve competency?

RICHARD WHITE: That’s one of the things that women ask. And the answer would be in the late 19th century, yes, they could, but only if they didn’t marry. Because precisely there’s the quarrel over the control of property within marriage. And that’s why you’ll find that many professional women– I mean Jane Addams and others who were famous– they never will marry.

And there’s a lot of reasons for that. But one of them is the surrender of independence, which is simply part of attaining a competency.

ED: Now, they’re giving up that prospect of having a competency by joining their fate with a man. So if he doesn’t become competent, neither can they.

RICHARD WHITE: No, and Abigail Scott Duniway writes this famous suffrage memoir. And she loves her husband. But the guy just can’t make it. And it’s this constant complaint about she had tied herself to him. And he is just the stone the drags her down. And that happens to a lot of women.

ED: And this is also the time when there’s such massive immigration to the United States. And also the time, obviously, that African Americans in the South are trying to make their way in post-slave society, in which they’re trying to carve out something that America has to offer. So what would those folks think about this matrix of competency? Do they have a chance of making with it that?

RICHARD WHITE: They do. And I think the person who best expresses what they want, the chance they think should have, is Samuel Gompers, who becomes the first head of the American Federation of Labor. Actually, he’s their only head for a very long time.

And what he argues is what workers need is the ability to consume. And that the American economy depends on consumption. And what his slogan becomes is “more.” And by “more” he doesn’t, again, mean great wealth. He means enough that a worker can buy a house, he can decorate that house, have furniture in that house, can support a wife and children, has enough leisure to read books, read newspapers, participate in politics.

So “more,” the slogan of the American Federation of Labor, is in fact an extension of the old doctrine of competency, because what he’s asking for is even wage laborers deserve a competency, which is now going to be defined not so much in independence, because they’re working for wages, but in being paid enough that they can consume sufficiently to have the standard of living, which was assumed with a competency.

ED: It seems to me, too, Richard, that some of the major efforts of both immigrants and African Americans is to achieve a competency collaboratively by creating insurance companies and mutual burial societies. The very things that are cornerstones of competency, they decide our best bet is to give a nickel every week. And then when I die, somebody will bury me. Or that if I get sick, there is some other group to take care of me.

Is competency at tension with that? Or is this just another way of achieving competency?

RICHARD WHITE: Well, you bring up a very good point, because what this is the way in which competency become socialized. And Americans in the 19th century use the word socialism in a very different sense than we do. They can use it sometimes in the same way we do. But more often they use it in meaning as the opposite of individualism.

What they mean is in this large industrial society, they have to do what you just described. People have to cooperate. So the word cooperation is all over the 19th century. And it’s what we can’t achieve individually– the ends of a competency– we can achieve collectively.

ED: So later on, we would imagine the people who identified themselves as striving and middle class would of disdain socialism, because they would have seen that as something kind of dragging them down into the mass. But what you’re suggesting, Richard, is that there was a good chunk of time in the 19th century, when being competent, being middling was seen as a healthy thing, that what you didn’t want to do is fall into dependency below.

But what you’ve suggested was that their dream was not to abandon that great middling to become wealthy. And I’m sorry, that just violates everything we know about the Gilded Age and its name.

RICHARD WHITE: What you have is the very name Gilded Age– I mean, Mark Twain didn’t use the term to praise the age. I mean, he meant in fact to disparage the age and ridicule the age. The whole thing was there was this gilding of wealth, but beneath this was this corrupt center.

So that the problem was that they recognized some people are getting wealthy beyond their wildest imaginings. But those people are disparaged. Those people are feared. Those people are seen as dangerous.

People don’t praise Jay Gould in the late 19th century. Cornelius Vanderbilt is not a popular hero. John D Rockefeller is not somebody who they want to emulate.

What you find is these people are somehow anomalies in the system and signs that the system’s going wrong, that the country itself was conceived as this vast middling society. And you’re perfectly right. They feared the poor. But they also fear the rich just as much.

So I think if we would be puzzled by the Gilded Age, the Gilded Age would be utterly bewildered by us, because we seem to be evolving into the kind of society that they most feared, a society with a small but very wealthy group of people who exercise an inordinate control over all aspects of society. And another group of people who are feared as being too poor to share the values.

That’s what the Gilded Age was afraid would happen to the United States. So the Gilded Age was about that middling. And that’s what they were seeking to keep.

ED: So Richard, when this middle class of post World War II America emerges, what happens to the ideals of competency? Are those transformed in some way? Or do they fall away? Where are they today?

RICHARD WHITE: The idea of competency doesn’t die quickly. I think it continues on through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. And if you look at the last presidential campaign, both Romney and Obama we’re trying to stake out a ground of fairness, a ground of equity, a ground of people having an equal chance, and to cut into this beliefs that the very rich those who control institutions have stacked the game.

And I think what they’re appealing to is the remnants of this old idea. That someplace in the American public, I think, still is the idea of that the real purpose of this country is to produce it relatively equal citizens, where people have a fair chance. If you work hard, there will be a reward. I don’t think that idea is dead.

But I do think the kind of thing I see in many of my students at Stanford, this desire to be wealthy beyond– at least my wildest imaginings– by the time they’re 30. That is quite real now. But I’d also say it’s quite new. I don’t remember that in my own life until quite recently. And I don’t see it that often in American history.

ED: Richard, thank you so much for helping us understand this broad sweep of a central concept in American history.

RICHARD WHITE: I’ve enjoyed it. It’s always good talking to.

ED: Richard White is a history professor at Stanford University. We’ll post a longer version of our conversation at

PETER: It’s time for a short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, a kinder, gentler version of the board game Monopoly that you’ll never have the opportunity to play.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.

PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re taking a long view on the rise and fall of America’s middle class.

ED: Before the break, historian Richard White was making the case that for 19th century Americans it was enough to, well, have enough. And that people back then didn’t set out to make vast fortunes. But 100 years later, people’s aspiration had changed.

CHILD: Uncle, when we grow up, we want to be just like you– rich.

UNCLE: Well, boys, I’ll tell you my secret. Built hotels on Boardwalk.

ED: These our commercials for the board game Monopoly airing in the 1980s and 1990s.

TV ANNOUNCER: Monopoly’s been bringing people together for almost 50 years. That’s how long we’ve been wheeling and dealing together, building hotels together, and going to jail together.

MAN IN COMMERCIAL: Corner the market in utilities. You can’t lose.

ED: Whether or not Monopoly brought your family members together or, more likely, drove them apart, one thing is clear. It has to do that 50 years part. They had their history all wrong. Our producer Kelly Jones caught up with the author of a new book about Monopoly. Here’s Kelly to tell us what she learned.

KELLY JONES: The common story about Monopoly’s origins is a classic rags to riches tale. And it goes like this. In the 1930s, a despondent and unemployed man named Charles Darrow invented the game to make himself feel better about being poor. Ultimately– and this is the part of the story that is true– Darrow became the first millionaire board game inventor when he sold it to Parker Brothers– living the very dream Monopoly celebrates.

But Mary Pilon, author of The Monopolists, says that Darrow didn’t invent Monopoly. It was invented by a woman a few decades earlier. And it was originally called Landlords.

MARY PILON: The game dates to a woman named Elizabeth Magie. And she gets a patent for her Landlord’s game in 1904. And she’d originally devised the game as a teaching tool to protest against monopolies and the monopolists of her time.

KELLY JONES: Elizabeth, or Lizzie Magie was a devout follower of anti-monopolist crusader Henry George. He was the author most famously of Progress and Poverty, a book that sold millions of copies in the 1880s and ’90s. At the time, the only book that sold more was the Bible.

MARY PILON: And the core of his argument was something called a land value tax or a single tax. And his basic idea was that people should own 100% of what they made or created, but that things found in nature, like land, should belong to everybody.

KELLY JONES: George’s efforts kick started progressive reforms around the turn of the century. But when he died in 1897, his followers were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to keep his movement afloat. At the time, Lizzie Magie had been delivering anti-monopolist lectures in her Maryland living room. She felt a strong responsibility to keep the single tax message alive, and lo, the game of Landlords was born.

MARY PILON: And much like Monopoly today, you pick a token, although the charms and things wouldn’t have been there. And you try to make your way around the board gathering properties. And her original board had railroads. It had to “go to jail.” It had public park instead of free parking. So it’s not wildly dissimilar from what a lot of us know as Monopoly today.

KELLY JONES: But the Landlord’s game was different in one crucial way. Magie’s game had two sets of rules. In the monopolist rule set, the goal was to gobble up all the property you could and drive your opponents into bankruptcy. But in the second anti-monopolist, single tax inspired rule set, every player benefited when one player benefited.

There were no taxes on essential utilities. All rent was first paid to a public treasury, not a private property owner. That public treasury eventually got used for things like making the railroads and college free for everyone, and raising wages– that fistful of dollars you get for passing go.

The game was declared over in just five rounds. It might seem weird to have invented a game that you have to play twice. But the two rule sets we’re supposed to teach through stark contrast the merits of spreading wealth versus the evil of hoarding it for oneself. According to Magie–

WOMAN AS MAGIE: There are those who argue that it may be a dangerous thing to teach children how they may thus get the advantage of their fellows. But let me tell you, there are no fairer minded beings in the world than our own little American children. Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system. And when they grow up– if they are allowed to develop naturally– the evil will soon be remedied.

KELLY JONES: The two rule sets lasted for a couple of decades. Magie renewed the game’s patent in 1924. But by then, it was clear which rule set was the most popular. And even as capitalism’s boom and bust cycle showed it’s ugly side in 1929, the monopolistic rules prevailed.

MARY PILON: They allow us a context for role playing. And I think that this idea of being able to throw around property and a lot of money at a time when the middle class didn’t have a lot of that, and it was very much struggling, there’s a fantasy aspect to that I think made Monopoly really, really appealing.

KELLY JONES: Charles Darrow, the guy usually credited with inventing the game, capitalized on the appeal of this fantasy to depression era Americans down on their luck. His board game was just landlords without Magie’s single tax rules. He called it Monopoly and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1935. The same year, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent for just $500, cornering the market on financial board games, and essentially securing a monopoly on Monopoly.

Mary Pilon says it wasn’t simply the very real prospect of poverty that made middle class Americans want to play at being rich, because as middle class prosperity returned after World War II, Monopoly continued to enjoy huge popularity. In fact, at that very time, tiny irons, thimbles, Scottie dogs, and top hats became staples of American households.

MARY PILON: The middle class needs a nice refrigerator. And they need nice appliances. And you have the rise of suburbs and things like that. And Monopoly very much becomes like another ubiquitous household item.

KELLY JONES: In the second half of the 20th century, aspiration to wealth was coming to define the American dream. More and more it was a part of what it meant to be middle class. Monopoly, the cunning, cruel, and, according to Lizzie Magie, evil version of the game perfectly embodied the new American dream. And if you wanted to keep up with the Joneses, you’d better have a hotel on Boardwalk.


ED: Kelly Jones is one of our producers. Helping her tell that story was Mary Pilon, author at the new book, The Monopolists.

PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of America’s middle class. Our next story is about dining out, which as it turns out was a strong indicator of social class towards the end of the 19th century. For starters, there weren’t many restaurants back then. Most cities had only two or three. And we’re not That Red Lobster are Chili’s.

ANDREW HALEY: These restaurants are pretty exclusive. They have highly trained hoards of waiters. And in general, you have one waiter per every table.

BRIAN: This is Andrew Haley, a historian at the University of Southern Mississippi. He says these restaurants were all about service. And I don’t mean just getting your meal on time. Your waiter stood at attention, ready to cater to your every need.

ANDREW HALEY: That waiter is going to go to the kitchen and get your food. He may cut your roast. He may recommend the best dish or the freshest fish of the day.

But waiters were sometimes asked to do other servile tasks. They might be sent to the hotel lobby in order to purchase a cigar for you or even sent down to the railroad station in order to get the timetable of trains coming in.

BRIAN: So it was kind of like rent a servant.

ANDREW HALEY: It was kind of rent a servant.

BRIAN: Now right around the same time, the group we’d identify as the new middle class, factory managers, small business owners, lawyers, doctors, were starting to dine out, at least once in awhile. And when they did, it was a bit of a culture shock.

ANDREW HALEY: These are diners who are not accustomed to going out to fancy restaurants. They’re a bit intimidated by the experience anyhow. They don’t know the French language that is most often used on these menus. They don’t know the standards of behavior for the restaurant, how to dress, which fork to use.

And on top of that, this cost them a lot of money. To dine out at the turn of the century cost about $20. It might be the equivalent of spending $400 at one of these fancy restaurants.

BRIAN: All these things tripped up the new middle class diners. But none were as irksome as the relatively new practice of tipping.

PETER: Tipping was a convention that wealthy travelers had brought back from Europe in the years following the Civil War. By the turn of the century, it was common practice in American cities. And it served a few purposes, all of which suited the wealthy. It ensured top notch service, allowed people to flaunt their surplus wealth, and, says Haley, kept the waiters from spilling any proverbial beans.

ANDREW HALEY: You were also renting a degree of privacy, right, because the waiter was there the whole time, ready to wait on your table. And by paying a generous tip, you ensured that that waiter wouldn’t talk about what happened at the table, whether that was a business deal or you were dining with somebody other than your wife.

BRIAN: Middle class diners had no use for any of that. They hated the fact that there was no set standard for tipping. To them, this convention celebrated ostentatious wealth and nothing more. And they made their disgust known, railing against the so-called tipping evil in newspapers, magazines, really, in every venue that they could find.

MAN QUOTING NEWSPAPER: Class distinctions are being more and more emphasized in this country. And one of the causes of it is the prevalence of tipping. A considerable number of persons to whom money comes easy, like to show off by aping the customs of the aristocracy of the Old World, by giving freely to those who serve them.

BRIAN: This is from the Lincoln Daily News in 1915. It typifies the ideological critique of tipping that showed up on editorial pages. But on the ground, the anxiety was much more concrete. And it was all about the waiters.

ANDREW HALEY: The middle class were terrified of the idea that waiters were adulterating their food, spitting in their soup, doing other things. And occasionally, there was a kind of backlash against the waiters. In Chicago, they rounded up 100 waiters at one point in time who were suspected of doing something to the food.

BRIAN: Others took a less hands on approach. They looked to technology as the answer to this seemingly intractable problem.

ANDREW HALEY: There were about 20 patterns that were filed in the early 20th century for waiter-less restaurants.

BRIAN: One proposed remedy might seem odd coming from people who claim to be against class distinctions. The idea was that you’d sit at the table and write your order on a tablet of some sort.

ANDREW HALEY: And then the center of your table descends down into the kitchen with your order. And instantaneously, people throw the food on. And it rises back up. And you’ve been served your dinner without ever meeting a waiter and without having to tip.

PETER: Haley says the conflict over tipping was in large part due to the fact that the small, but growing middle class had no space to call its own. Today, we take for granted that the vast majority of restaurants, hotels, and stores are basically for the middle class. But around the turn of the century, it was either restaurants with $400 plus meals or seedy taverns, not many in betweens.

ANDREW HALEY: The middle class have two choices. They’re going to try and insert themselves into this upper class culture, in which they always are kind of second class citizens. Or they can try and colonize and take over some of these working class establishments.

BRIAN: The middle class went with option number two. Taverns were gradually upgraded and became a cleaner, friendlier, and reasonably priced option. Fast food, buffet restaurants soon emerged.

As for tipping, it obviously didn’t go away. But in the 1920s, the idea of a standard tip was introduced, helping it to become more predictable, more affordable, and a little less evil.

PETER: Andrew Haley helped us tell that story. He’s a historian at the University of Southern Mississippi and the author of Turning the Tables, Restaurants and the Rise of the Middle Class.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. And if you leave a big enough tip, we’ll be back in a minute.

This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about the history of the middle class in America. So far we’ve been talking as though this somewhat ambiguous category has its roots in the end of the 19th century and really took shape a few decades later.

But I recently sat down with somebody who managed to dig up, and I mean dig up, some stuff that back dates our story a whole lot earlier.

CHRISTINA HODGE: We found trash, foundations, privies, all sorts of stuff archaeologists love.

PETER: This is Christina Hodge. She’s an archaeologist at Stanford, who spent a decade sifting through the castoffs of one Elizabeth Pratt, a widowed shopkeeper in Newport, Rhode Island, all the way back in the 1700s.

It would, of course, be anachronistic to the label Pratt middle class. But it would be fair to call her one of the middling sorts, who were just beginning to coalesce into a recognizable social group at this time. A big part of that was about defining themselves against what they were not– poor or rich. It was a process of making consumer choices, choices that could look to us through the haze of time as, well, somewhat contradictory.

CHRISTINA HODGE: She spent some money on very fancy cuts of meat, but had really difficult life with parasitic diseases. From documentary records, we know that she had to sell all of her pewter plates at one point to make money. But she still spent money on a silk riding hood.

She had a really messy yard, but invested heavily in porcelain tea wares. Proportionally, percentage wise, she had as many porcelain wares as elite planters in Maryland or elite families in Massachusetts. But she had this tiny house. So the question was why where there’s so many porcelain tea wares there, and why weren’t there are other things, punch bowls or plates.

This was a time when people were starting to develop individual place settings as a fancy way of dining. So why wasn’t she as interested in that as she was interested in tea wares.

PETER: Some people would say, oh, she just wants to be the kind of person who has this stuff with all that silk and porcelain and so forth. But you don’t think that’s a fair characterization? That she’s not buying up, as it were? She’s not making believe that she’s a Bourgeois person?

CHRISTINA HODGE: I don’t think so. I think that’s too narrow an interpretation of what was going on. And it doesn’t really take non-elite people, middling sorts or other sorts, lower sorts, seriously as historical agents, as knowing consumers. When you start looking at the material culture in her house versus the material culture in her neighbors homes, for example, other middling sorts or even the elites, there’s not a predictable pattern. Everybody was doing it a little bit differently, but they were doing it at the same time.

So just saying that she was just copying others doesn’t explain what we were finding. And so we had to look– or I had to look for a different explanation for what was going on and how she was creating this idea of the middling sorts every day through everything she chose to do.

PETER: Now it sounds like Elizabeth was pushing her luck on some occasions or at least stretching her resources. So in a way, the great concern for somebody in her physician would be that she couldn’t sustain it.

CHRISTINA HODGE: Yes, that’s true, especially because she was a woman. And women’s control over their bodies, their property was so tenuous.

She did not purchase her home, she did not become a shopkeeper until after she was widowed and was able to take those steps legally. But as economic circumstances changed, she actually ended up in a series of lawsuits with both of her sons-in-law over her house, over her shop of goods, which they wanted.

And ultimately, she was no longer in control of that shop. It went to one son-in-law. She was no longer paying for her own way in the world, that was part of a lawsuit between the two sons-in-law that someone had to support her. So that real precarious grasps she had on the middle class through entrepreneurialship through financial solvency, through property ownership slipped away.

PETER: Yeah, so to be a female in that world was to be in a truly liminal position as a middling sort. Women were not supposed to be independent under the law of coverture and the conventions of the day.


PETER: As you’re talking about these middling sorts of people, Christina, I’m thinking Benjamin Franklin’s phrase, “happy mediocrity.” If you can imagine being mediocre and happy today it’s, well, it’s hard to imagine that. But I think that speaks to this idea that there is actually value and virtue in achieving this kind of independence. And that this is the bedrock of a good society.

CHRISTINA HODGE: I think that’s absolutely part of the value that were emerging at this time. And the idea that this was something you could define for yourselves, certainly with reference to other groups, but it looks different for everyone. So you have those shared values, but kind of idiosyncratic, strategic, material expressions of this, depending on who you are.

I think it’s part of what we see in the consumerism and definitions of middling sort in the 18th century all the way through today, where everybody thinks– maybe not everybody– but a lot of people identify as middle class or in the middle, even though there’s a wide range of behaviors and these things have shifted over time.

PETER: Christina Hodge is the academic curator and collections manager of Stanford University’s archaeology collections. She’s the author of Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America.

ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking this hour about the ups and downs of America’s middle class. Last week President Obama traveled to Chicago to designate a new national monument in the South Side neighborhood of Pullman.

Pullman was originally a company town, created by George Pullman to produce his namesake luxury railroad cars. Guests on those cars were treated like royalty, waited on by a fleet of famously hardworking porters. President Obama came to Pullman, because it was there that those porters created the nation’s first, all black labor union in 1925.

BARACK OBAMA: These men and women, without rank, without wealth or title, became the bedrock of a new middle class. These men and women gave their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had.

CORNELIUS BYNUM: There’s always been a black middle class. Even prior to the founding, there was a black middle class. But it hasn’t always been pegged to income.

BRIAN: This is Cornelius Bynum a historian at Purdue University. A few years ago, he published a biography of the activist who organized the Pullman porters, A. Philip Randolph. Bynum told me that while Randolph did help forge a new African American middle class in the 20th century, he himself was the product of an older black middle class. That older black middle class was defined find the one hand by African Americans who had the ear of important whites, and on the other what would seem to be the complete opposite.

CORNELIUS BYNUM: Autonomy, the degree to which a particular African American is independent from white influence. So that would be black ministers, for instance, who aren’t particularly concerned about white patronage. That would also be black entrepreneurs as well.

BRIAN: Interesting, so they may not be particularly wealthy or make much of an income, but they’re middle class because their income is not derived from whites.

CORNELIUS BYNUM: That’s exactly right. It’s about the ability to be autonomous to some degree from white influence.

BRIAN: Now you’ve written about an important African American leader, A. Philip Randolph. Could you tell me a little bit about Randolph? And I’m really interested to know if he came out of that 19th century, middle class milieu that you just described.

CORNELIUS BYNUM: Absolutely he did. Randolph was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1889, I believe. And his parents were exactly the kind of middle class community leaders that I’m talking about. His father was an itinerant AME, African Methodist Episcopal, preacher.

There are numerous instances in Randolph’s childhood where his family status comes into play. There’s one instance he recalls quite vividly where rumors of a lynching circulated around the community. And his father’s the sort of the community leader that rallies the black community to stand vigil at the county jail to ensure that nothing untoward happened to the potential victim.

And again, that’s predicated on his ability to sort of stand separate from white influence. It wasn’t something that he had to worry about in terms of economic reprisals being evicted from home, being fired for a job that gave him a kind of insulation from those kind of white reprisals that often plagued the lives of everyday African Americans.

BRIAN: Now, as we move into the 20th century, African Americans do begin to work in a white world more frequently. By that I’m talking about industrialization. They work for the railroads. They work in factories.

How do notions of what constitutes the black middle class began to change as African Americans have more daily interactions with a white world of work?

CORNELIUS BYNUM: As you move into the 20th century, what I think comes to be more defining with respect to class is consumption. Moving to cities in the first decades of the 20th century and then in the buildup to the First World War, moving into industrial employment creates sort of new economics for African Americans.

They now have greater access to disposable income. And it’s the disposable income that provides for a measure of consumption that comes to be more characteristic of black middle class status than in the 19th century. So for instance, people could not only afford to buy black newspapers, but the actual consumption of that kind of media made it possible for African Americans to find livelihoods as a journalist or as editors.

BRIAN: So as nature the of African American involvement in the political economy changes, tell me about A. Philip Randolph’s role in all of us.

CORNELIUS BYNUM: Well Randolph is both a beneficiary of some of these changes, as well as someone who comes to take the lead in shaping some of the ways in which the black middle class will find political footing in the mid 20th century.

So what I mean to say by that is that as we see this transformation in black discretionary spending in the years around the First World Ward, Randolph, in fact, will found a newspaper called The Messenger that becomes a very popular publication among African Americans in New York in particular. He’s able to publicize his political views.

That becomes the platform by which he’s invited to participate in the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. And this really becomes the basis of what ultimately becomes his civil rights careers.

BRIAN: You know, despite all of the progress, when race so easily and quickly can trump class for African Americans, is it fair to say that any progress has been made? Without security, without certainty that once achievements will keep one in the middle class, is one really middle class?

CORNELIUS BYNUM: That’s a great question. Can economic progress without the civil and political rights to protect it ever really be progress? I think that that much of what we’ve seen– the aftermath of the housing crash and its impact on the African American middle class, the downturn in the economy, and the kinds of pressures that those kinds of events, economic events, have put on the black middle class, really bring that whole question back to the forefront.

Can, in fact, one be in the middle class, if the expectation of being able to pass on those benefits, that wealth, is, in fact, possible? If one’s economic standing is so vulnerable to these kinds of economic shifts, can one, in fact, really be classed as middle class? I think that’s a legitimate question.

BRIAN: Cornelius Bynum is a historian at Purdue University. His book is A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights.

ED: Brian, Peter, it seem that Neil’s question is one that has kind of haunted this entire show. What does it mean to have middle class identity and status if you can’t pass it on? I mean, is this something that we’ve discovered now? Or has this been there all along?

PETER: No, Ed, I think it’s a great question and it goes back to the very beginning. Neil talked about independence, a keyword. He was talking about the black community under conditions of segregation not dependent on white as a marker middle class, black identity.

Well, go back to the American Revolution. It’s all about the independence of Americans– not just America– of Americans. And that independence is predicated on the way the economy works and on the way you can sustain your family and pass on land and opportunity to your children.

And it’s an overwhelmingly agricultural society, so at the beginning it’s framed in terms of land ownership. But there’s always a problem with that independence. And that is that it is insecure and vulnerable.

What if you lose that property? You could lose the property because of taxation or because you go into debt, because you’re not truly independent.

BRIAN: Or because the railroad doesn’t happen to go where you are.

PETER: That’s right. So the original American dream, it seems to me, is to sustain independence as conditions change. And change is the very condition of being in America. There’s a tremendous amount of mobility, both a vertical– that is up and down– horizontal, moving from space to space.

ED: Yeah, and it only gets less settled in the 19th century. Everything is just completely scrambled, Peter. Not only do you have all these questions about land and railroads, but the whole continent is kind of flooded with immigrants and resettle.

So, Brian, we have the paradox, ironically, that the 20th century seems so filled with anxiety, seems to have lots of tools suddenly available for the middle class to secure itself in a way that we didn’t have before. Are we maybe more stable than we use to be?

BRIAN: Yes. I’ll bet you didn’t expect such a definitive answer, Ed. And I think that’s exactly the problem. I think for much of the 20th century we expected to be able to pass on middle class status to our kids. We expected that our kids would be able to own a home of their own, even if we couldn’t. We expected our kids to get a college education, even if we didn’t have one.

And so to answer Neil’s question, I think that this is a very recent question by 20th century and 21st century standards. It’s only in the last 20 to 30 years that suddenly a college education seems out of reach. And it’s only in the last 30 years that we have seen home ownership by the younger sorts– let’s say 25 to 35-year-olds– decline precipitously.

Things that we simply took for granted as being passed on as a birthright, if you will, of being middle class are now suddenly very open to question. And not so secure a la the world that Peter and you, Ed, described.

PETER: Yeah, Brian, I think that’s exactly right. There are all kinds of safety nets out there. But they look frayed now.

And what we’ve discovered, I think, is that the independence we thought we had as middle class people was actually interdependence, multiple dependencies. And we see how tenuous those dependencies are. And how fragile the prospects of our own children are because of those fraying nets, that lack of opportunities.

So you got a good education, got a PhD, for instance. What good does that do you?

BRIAN: Ed, what’s interesting is how new those nets are that are already fraying. I think that people of the 18th and 19th centuries would say, what are you guys worried about? Things have never been stable. You’ve never been secure in your identity in America. And for 15 or 20 years after World War II, you guys made up all this machinery you thought was going to keep middle class society going forever. It’s already breaking down. Welcome to American history.

ED: That’s going to do it for us today. But we’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s show. Our email is You can also leave a comment on our website. And while you’re there, take a moment to weigh in on our upcoming shows. They include episodes on the history of trash and of religious renewal.

We really do value your input. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

PETER: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, and Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Kahlil [? Elhi. ?] Special thanks this week to Nathan Connolly and Jenny [? Goliveway. ?] BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding was provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

MALE ANNOUNCER: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.