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The Northern Economy

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Northern Economy - Social Classes

During the early nineteenth century, the urban economy in the North quickly developed three distinct social classes: the wealthy, the middle class, and the urban poor. All three classes grew rapidly, and it was relatively easy for anyone who acquired enough money to move into a higher class socially.

The Upper Class

Wealthy society lived in an atmosphere far removed from that of the poor or the middle class. The people in this small group, who owned a disproportion- ate amount of the community’s wealth, spent their time together. Wealthy men were involved in politics and had inherited incomes to manage. Wealthy women organized entertainment events for themselves and their friends. The children of the upper class were educated to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Sometimes the wealthy interested themselves in patronizing the per- forming arts or in charitable work. Most of their time, however, was spent in idleness and the pursuit of pleasure.

The Middle Class

The urban middle class lived very differently. This class was primarily made up of people who owned their own small businesses, who belonged to a profession, or who had good positions in larger businesses. Lawyers, teachers, professors, clergymen, artisans, and shopkeepers were all members of the middle class. These people generally lived comfortable though not luxurious lives.

Because the middle class wanted to appear as distinct as possible from the poorer class, middle-class women did not work—at least, not for wages. While in Colonial times it had been a matter of pride that everyone in a family worked, the middle class made it a matter of pride that their women could afford not to work. Respectable middle-class women were supposed to stay at home, managing the house and raising the children, while the men went out to work at a profession. Middle-class families could usually afford servants; robbed of her traditional housekeeping chores and banned by social custom from working outside the home, a prosperous middle-class housewife lived a life of enforced idleness.

Being confined to such a narrow sphere of activity created deep discontent among many women who had enough intelligence and education to imagine and desire wider horizons than those provided by home and hearth. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” an 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, sums up the plight of nineteenth-century middle-class women in its chilling portrait of a young married woman literally driven mad by a husband who refuses to let her write or take part in any other intellectual or physical activity because it might be too much for her nerves. The boredom of respectability helped give rise to the women’s rights movement, in which women began to demand college educations, to fight for the right to train for professions, and to have honorable goals other than marriage and motherhood. The women who led the national fight for social, education, and political reform were almost all from the middle class.

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