Cradle of the Middle Class

by Mary Ryan

Paperback, 1983




Cambridge University Press (1983), Edition: 1st, 336 pages


Focusing primarily on the middle class, this study delineates the social, intellectual and psychological transformation of the American family from 1780-1865. Examines the emergence of the privatized middle-class family with its sharp division of male and female roles.


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LibraryThing member mdobe
Ryan approaches early 19th century American religious revivals from the perspective of women's roles in the movement and comes up with a very different perspective from Johnson (pp. 11, 103). In Ryan's account of the family history of Oneida County, New York, the focus is on the revivals as part of
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the broader change in family relations. For Ryan, as for all the other historians we have studied, the most important occurrence in the 1st half of the 19th century in America is the end of patriarchy in society and in the home.

She concludes that, instead of serving a negative role -- as a means by which the bourgeoisie controlled the proletariat -- the revivals were part of a larger change in the fabric of society in which "women of the middling sort" in particular were empowered in new ways both in society and in the family (p. 91). The Female Missionary Society and the Maternal Association took the lead in society in initiating the revivals, and once they had succeeded male organizations followed (p. 96). In assuming leadership of this movement, mothers also assumed responsibility for the salvation of their children and thereby instituted a new form of maternal child-rearing (p. 104) Thus are societal and familial structural changes intimately linked.

The enthusiasm of religious revivals was mirrored in the fervor for associations in the 1820s and 30s. The function of these associations is best seen in that of the Female Moral Reform Society, which sought to "reinstitute the methods of moral surveillance similar to those long practiced by corporate institutions of church and state" (p. 121). This was an attempt to reinstitute the moral code of a household economy, which foundered on the opposition of the clerks (representatives of what C. Wright Mills and Mary Ryan refer to as the "new middle class" of professionals and white collar workers) (p. 126).

The associations were not all bent on the public assault on private morality in the manner of the female moral reformers or the t-totalers. Other associations approached the change in family life more benignly. The clerks and aspiring professionals banded together in young men's associations both for the purposes of self-help and to recreate the atmosphere of the old corporate family (pp. 129-30). Conversely, families assumed the aspect of associations in that they became "voluntary relations among relatives." For instance, no longer could someone count on their family to automatically extend credit (p. 138).

It was this changing family structure amongst people of "the middling sort" which was economically under assault at mid-century. Ryan uses C. Wright Mills' distinction between "an old middle class" and a "new middle class" (explained on page 14) to locate the change in family structures during this period. She explains that the "cult of domesticity" along with its analog "the self-made man," in conjunction with the need for the middle class to ensure its progeny did not slip into the ranks of the proletariat. Women and men of the "old middle class," as parents, ensured that sons had the extended education, moral and technical, to enter the ranks of the "new middle class" (pp. 171-3). Retreating to the family and away from public associations, the conjugal family at mid-century successfully reproduced its economic status for the next generation (p. 177).
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9 inches


0521274036 / 9780521274036
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