The American Social Classes

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

High Society

American “high society” was made up of families who had been in America for several generations. Their position in the topmost social rank was not dependent on wealth so much as on ancestry—on the fact that their money was inherited rather than earned in trade. Men in this social class might sit in a law office for a few hours a day, or serve on a board of trustees, but for the most part, high society was idle. Members of this American aristocracy married within their own social set, spent months of every year traveling in Europe, and paid servants to look after all their needs. It was this class and the newly rich that gave rise to the phrase “Gilded Age,” a nickname for the decade of the 1890s.

The Newly Rich

The giant industrialists and financiers who had made their money in big business were not considered “upper class.” They were self-made men who had earned their money in trade rather than inheriting it from illustrious ancestors. Their greatest ambition was to become part of high society, but high society was not welcoming. American aristocrats considered the newly rich to be a class of social climbers, snubbed them when they met them socially, and excluded them from parties and balls. However, the newly rich eventually used their fabulous wealth to surmount the barricade of class. They often had far more money to spend than the members of the old guard of society; in fact, they were so wealthy that in 1899, socialist Thorstein Veblen described their lifestyle as one of “conspicuous consumption.” They lived in enormous mansions and might spend thousands of dollars to host a single evening party.

Edith Wharton and Henry James were the most important novelists to record the lives of these two social classes. In novels such as The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, they depicted the old families of society and the newly rich who schemed and plot- ted to enter their social circle by marriage or other means.

The Middle Class

The middle class expanded greatly during this era. The rise of industry had meant the creation of millions of jobs for educated, trained workers, such as engineers, architects, lawyers, stockbrokers, and doctors. Young middle-class women had more limited opportunities than their fathers and brothers, but many urban businesses welcomed them into the workforce. Female salesclerks and secretaries earned less than their male counterparts but worked just as efficiently, which made them desirable employees. Most young women left the workforce when they got married; after that, they remained at home to raise children and run a household. Many also found time for volunteer work, such as involvement in the ongoing struggle for women’s suffrage or settlement- house work in the cities.

The Immigrants

The lowest social class was largely composed of recent immigrants. At this time in American history, most immigrants who came through New York’s Ellis Island—hundreds of thousands each year—came from southern and eastern Europe. At the same time, a flood of Chinese crossed the Pacific, landing at Angel Island off the California coast.

Because these new immigrants did not usually speak English, they were initially isolated from mainstream American life and from immigrants of other nationalities. They generally formed their own small communities within New York or other cities, which provided some continuity with home. Neighbors who spoke their language helped them find work and make friends. The new immigrants also contributed some of their small incomes toward the building of neighborhood churches; these churches played an important role as com- munity centers.

Much of the vitality of American cities, from that day to this, is due to the immigrant presence. Immigrant populations continued to cook familiar dishes, to publish newspapers in their own languages, and to observe religious and cultural festivals as they had done at home.

Immigrants faced both social and professional discrimination. Socially, they were regarded with suspicion by the previous generation of immigrants, now that the latter had been in the country long enough to feel that they were “real Americans.” As immigration continued to rise, a new nativist movement grew up in protest against it. Despite the fact that the United States was an entire nation of immigrants and still continued to be the United States, nativists feared that immigrants from so many different cultures would drastically alter American society. They did not want immigrants bringing in new ideas, lowering the working wage, or taking jobs away from people who had been born in the U.S. All nativists ignored the fact that their own families had once been immigrants.

Professionally, immigrants took the lowest-paid jobs in business and industry. Many had been skilled workers at home, but had no money with which to establish a business in the United States. They had to take any work that was available in order not to starve. Because they were newcomers and frequently did not understand much English at first, they often did not know their own rights, and owners found it easy to bully and intimidate them.

Up to this time, almost all immigrants to the United States had been either European or African—and Africans had little power or influence socially, except among themselves. This changed with a wave of Chinese immigrants who crossed the Pacific Ocean in search of jobs. Nativist Americans of European descent treated the Chinese as an unwelcome foreign population for three reasons. First, they could not comprehend Chinese languages. Second, they had never seen anything like the traditional Chinese dress. Third, the Chinese had distinctly non-European physical characteristics that nativist Americans immediately labeled “inferior” to Caucasian features. Anti-Chinese prejudice culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which denied U.S. citizen- ship to anyone born in China. This meant that no Chinese immigrant could ever become a citizen, although his or her children born in the United States were automatically citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act also banned further Chinese immigration to the United States.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Glided Age and the Rise of Big Business Practice Test

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