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Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915

Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915

by Thomas J. Schlereth

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A valuable and compelling portrait of the daily life of Americans during the Victorian era—the fourth volume in the Everyday Life in America series 


A valuable and compelling portrait of the daily life of Americans during the Victorian era—the fourth volume in the Everyday Life in America series 

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
From Schlereth (American Studies/Notre Dame): a detailed, lively survey of the commonplace objects, events, experiences, products, and tastes that comprised America's Victorian culture, expressed its values, and shaped modern life. Between the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and the San Francisco one in 1915, the US population doubled, redistributed itself, and developed the character and lifestyle identified with the middle classes in the 20th century. Its mobility required roads, trains, trolleys, maps, canals, autos; new means of communication in telephones, telegraphs, and mass media; and a standard time devised by railroads and measured by alarm clocks, time clocks, and cheap watches. New economic systems emerged: farms were commercialized; foods were processed (Kellogg's), condensed (Borden's), preserved (Heinz), distributed in food chains (A&P), promoted through advertising, and identified with brand names and slogans. New occupations emerged; typewriters created secretaries who cultivated new standards of personal appearance wearing shirtwaists, using cosmetics, shopping in department stores, and visiting beauty parlors. Toothpaste, razor blades, health foods, and spas expressed the rising interest in personal fitness as well as recreation, which extended to moving pictures, spectator sports, public gardens, amusement parks, and bicycles—all based on the new technologies, on the new vision of people mastering nature. But the book is not all trivia, not just the Juicy Fruit gum and the cafeteria-eating that Americans discovered at the San Francisco Fair. Schlereth, a writer of immense tact and range, recounts with equal interest and vitality the wholeconstellation of events that surrounded the development of suburban living, domestic history, the labor movement, the architecture of colleges—and conveys it seamlessly. The notes reveal something of his erudition, his ability to see the relationships, to depict unpretentiously this complex period of cultural history with all its ironies and color. A splendid achievement. (Forty-three pages of photographs—not seen.)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.93(d)

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Chapter One


Migration and movement, mobility and motion characterized identity in Victorian America. A country in transition was also in transit. Everyone seemed en route: emigrating and immigrating, removing or being removed, resettling and relocating, in many directions--east to west, south to north, rural to urban, urban to suburban. In American slang, "going places" came to mean a geographic as well as a social destination. Movement so touched this American era that it deserves to be treated first in any survey of its everyday life.

An overseas diaspora marked the personal history of a quarter of Americans living in 1915. These "new" immigrants figure prominently in the national image of the period, an age of unprecedented immigration and one immortalized in two national symbols: the Statue of Liberty (1886) and Ellis Island (1892). Immigration entailed both departure and destination. The rupture of traditional everyday life--relocation from familiar surroundings, separation from kinfolk, the experience of becoming a foreigner and ceasing to belong--took a toll that will never be completely knowable.

America also experienced continual internal migration, causing Norwegian novelist, Knut Hamsun, to note, "Everyday is moving day . . . The population is only half-settled."1 Treks westward took every conceivable form: Arizona land runs, Yukon gold rushes, California dreams. Flights out of the South took blacks to northern cities and whites to the Southwest plains. Midwesterners, in a revolt from the village, poured into Milwaukee and Minneapolis, Cleveland and Chicago.

Movementincreased on the margin as well as in the mainstream. Vagrants, squatters, and regiments of unemployed workers, took to the roads; some (for instance, Coxey's Army in 1893-94) marched on Washington (figure 1.9) to dramatize their plight. Paradoxically, as homeless, landless, and jobless Americans roamed city streets in the 1890s, other citizens took to traveling about on annual vacations.

Some Americans were moved against their will or prevented from moving. American Indian nations were systematically removed to (usually western) reservations. Nativists, a half million strong in the American Protective Association in 1894, clamored that some foreigners ought to be excluded or restricted in their movements, particularly if they were Orientals, Jews, or Catholics. Jim Crow laws sought to keep blacks in their place.

Immigrants and Emigrants

Arrivals: Europe, Asia, and the Americas

Immigration officials, nativists, and social reformers often turned to statistics to demonstrate the massive influx of newcomers. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor mounted an "electrical diagram" at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition that furnished spectators with extensive data on the "races of alien arrivals; occupations of those persons admitted; causes of exclusion; and arrests and deportations by classes."2 The display noted that before the Civil War, the banner year for new immigrants was 1854, when 427,833 people arrived. A new peak was reached in 1882, when 788,992 entered. However, in the early twentieth century the annual influx passed the million mark six times, and in 1907 the figure rose to 1,285,349.

Many who came after the 1880s were labeled "new immigrants" because they differed from those who previously emigrated largely from northern and western Europe. The outflow of Italians, Greeks, Slovaks, Poles, Russians, Austro-Hungarians, as well as people from the Orient (first the Chinese, then the Japanese and the Filipinos) and from Mexico diversified everyday American life. These new immigrants differed in religious background, for many were Greek Orthodox, Buddhist, or Roman Catholic, entering a basically Protestant society; a large segment were Russian and Polish Jews. The new immigrants spoke numerous languages and were generally poorer and less educated and more differentiated in color and culture than were the earlier immigrants.

In focusing only upon national statistics and ethnic diversity, historians often lose sight of emigrating and immigrating as personal historical acts. Why did individuals or families decide to go or to stay? How did they journey? Did they feel uprooted or transplanted? How did their everyday lives change?

In summarizing the European experience, John Bodnar suggests a combination of factors that prompted people to leave: the commercialization of agriculture, the decline of craft work, changes in landownership patterns, expansion of the population, and major shifts in the financial and market conditions of capitalism. To be sure, the familiar imponderables--wanderlust, adventure, family problems--played their part, but most of those who moved did so because they were "pragmatically adjusting their goals and behavior throughout the nineteenth century to meet the changing economic realities in Europe as well as opportunities in America."

Most emigrant streams Bodnar identifies followed one of two courses. Skilled artisans and independent farmers, threatened by the factory production of cheap goods and by the commercialization of agriculture, left first. Hoping to avoid the "further decline in social and economic status, they usually possessed modest financial resources, left in family units, and were less likely to return." As a pioneer wave, they "exercised leadership and influence in American ethnic communities." A second group, larger in size and poorer in status, "consisted of marginal land owners who hoped to earn enough to return and increase their holdings," the children of such owners, and those with no real property. This second group was comprised more of individuals than of family groupings and, at least initially, their intent often was to come to America to earn money that would allow them to improve their life once they returned to Europe. Whatever their plans, most immigrants set out well prepared for their journeys. Through kinship networks, labor agents, and other intermediaries, as well as emigrants' guides and maps, most had amassed a wealth of detailed information, before departing, concerning exactly where they wanted to go and how to get there.3

Emigrants first journeyed to a major seaport, such as Liverpool, Hamburg, Le Havre, Bremen, or Antwerp. Once they were there, numerous decisions had to be made: which baggage runners, boardinghouse keepers, and provisioners to trust; which border officials, emigration officers, and government bureaucrats to placate; and which tickets, sailing routes, and accommodations to purchase.

What People are Saying About This

Linda K. Kerber
Wolf understands that the past is a foreign country. [This] splendid account of eighteenth century life reflects the newest scholarship and introduces us to a colonial American society that was complex, lively, and rapidly changing...Full of surprises.

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