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Social Development: North and South, Standards of Living

western countryside, uniform sizes, urban society, good roads, fundamental ways

The commercial and industrial transformation of the North and West increased standards of living. Food was abundant, and manufactured goods found their way into even the poorest homes. Yet the bounty of progress was distributed much more unevenly than in the past, and thousands made the transition to commercial–urban society at the expense of economic independence.

As American cities grew, the nature of work and society in the city changed in fundamental ways. In 1800 nearly all manufacturing was performed by master artisans who owned their own workshops and hired at most a few journeymen (wage-earning craftsmen) and apprentices. After 1815 the nature of manufacturing work changed. As production speeded up, many masters stopped performing manual work and spent their time dealing with customers and suppliers and keeping records. The number of journeymen increased, and they often worked in workshops separate from the store. Increasingly, less-skilled work (sewing together pieces of shoes, assembling ready–made clothing from pieces cut in uniform sizes) was farmed out to women who worked in their homes. Thus successful masters became businessmen, while most skilled men and thousands of semiskilled women became members of a permanent working class. Although there had been rich and poor neighborhoods in early seaport towns, class segregation and stark contrasts between rich and poor became much more prevalent after 1820.

In the northern and western countryside there were signs of prosperity. Wallpaper, manufactured dishes and furniture, and other finished goods were finding their way into most farmhouses, and paint, ornamental trees, and flowers were dressing up the outside. Yet even in the countryside, the distance between rich and poor increased, and the old neighborhood relationships through which much of the local economy had been transacted became weaker. Debt, for instance, had always been a local, informal relationship between neighbors. After 1830 a farmer’s most important and pressing debts were to banks, which required annual payments in cash. Commercial society also demanded good roads to transport products, and public schools to teach literacy and arithmetic; local taxes rose accordingly. Farmers spent less effort maintaining necessary relations with neighbors and more effort earning cash income to pay taxes and debts. Those who could not establish or maintain themselves as farmers tended to move out of agriculture and into towns and cities.

Women and men who left rural communities to take up wage labor experienced the transition in different ways. White men, whose citizenship and social standing had rested on being independent property owners with patriarchal responsibilities, experienced wage labor as a catastrophic fall from grace. Relatively few, however, ended up in factories, and those who did took more-skilled and better-paying jobs.

Until the 1840s the factory work force of the Northeast was made up primarily of women and children. Women who left poor New England farms (and the crumbling patriarchy that often governed them) and moved into factory villages valued the independence that wage labor provided them.

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