Social Classes

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the shared perceptions and ideals of the middle and working classes
  • Describe everyday life for women in America during the early-mid 1800s

The Middle Class

Not all enterprising artisans were so successful that they could rise to the level of the elite. However, many artisans and small merchants, who owned small factories and stores, did manage to achieve and maintain respectability in an emerging middle class. Lacking the protection of great wealth, members of the middle class agonized over the fear that they might slip into the ranks of wage laborers; thus they strove to maintain or improve their middle-class status and that of their children.

To this end, the middle class valued cleanliness, discipline, morality, hard work, education, and good manners. Hard work and education enabled them to rise in life. Middle-class children, therefore, did not work in factories. Instead, they attended school and in their free time engaged in “self-improving” activities, such as reading or playing the piano, or they played with toys and games that would teach them the skills and values they needed to succeed in life. In the early nineteenth century, members of the middle class began to limit the number of children they had. Children no longer contributed economically to the household, and raising them “correctly” required money and attention. It, therefore, made sense to have fewer of them.

Pregnancy prevention

As you can imagine, birth control methods in the nineteenth century were a gamble at best. Starting in the 1840s, it was also quickly becoming illegal. Methods of pregnancy prevention included withdrawal, primitive condoms, pessaries (devices that blocked sperm from entering the cervix), and acidic spermicides sold in syringes, which were marketed as “feminine hygiene” products or “female remedies” to get around the laws banning contraception. Research has also shown that White, Protestant, middle-class women were the most likely to seek out abortion services, which were also illegal, but demonstrating the middle-class desire to have the ability to limit their number of children.[1]

Northern business elites, many of whom owned or had invested in businesses like cotton mills that profited from slave labor, often viewed the institution of slavery with ambivalence. Most members of the middle class took a dim view of it, however, since it promoted a culture of leisure. Slavery stood as the antithesis of the middle-class view that dignity and respectability were achieved through work, and many members of this class became active in efforts to end it.

This class of upwardly mobile citizens promoted temperance, or abstinence from alcohol, which they believed to be responsible for evils like laziness and domestic violence. They also gave their support to Protestant ministers like George Grandison Finney, who preached that all people possessed free moral agency, meaning they could change their lives and bring about their own salvation, a message that resonated with members of the middle class, who already believed their worldly efforts had led to their economic success.

The Working Class

The Industrial Revolution in the United States created a new class of wage workers, and this working-class also developed its own culture. They formed their own neighborhoods, living away from the oversight of bosses and managers. While industrialization and the market revolution brought some improvements to the lives of the working class, these sweeping changes did not benefit laborers as much as they did the middle class and the elites. The working class continued to live an often precarious existence. They suffered greatly during economic slumps, such as the Panic of 1819.

Although most working-class men sought to emulate the middle class by keeping their wives and children out of the workforce, their economic situation often necessitated that other family members contribute to its support. Thus, working-class children might attend school for a few years or learn to read and write at Sunday school, but education was sacrificed when income was needed, and many working-class children went to work in factories. While the wives of wage laborers usually did not work for wages outside the home, many took in laundry or did piecework at home to supplement the family’s income, while also being responsible for household duties and childcare. Many working-class women who earned income at home also supervised the young babies and children of their neighbors or relatives who worked in factories.

The ideal of an innocent and protected childhood was a privilege for middle- and upper-class families. Joseph Tuckerman, a Unitarian minister who served poor Bostonians, lamented the lack of discipline and regularity among poor children: “At one hour they are kept at work to procure fuel, or perform some other service; in the next are allowed to go where they will, and to do what they will.” Prevented from attending school, poor children served instead as economic assets for their destitute families. Working-class women and children worked to supplement the low wages of many male workers. Around age eleven or twelve, boys could take jobs as office runners or waiters, earning perhaps a dollar a week to support their parents’ incomes.

A street filled with horses and horse-drawn carriages. Several shops line the street.

Figure 1. Thomas Horner, “Broadway, New York,” 1836.

Although the urban working class could not afford the consumer goods that the middle class could, its members did exercise a great deal of influence over popular culture. Theirs was a festive public culture of release and escape from the drudgery of factory work, catered to by the likes of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the celebrated circus promoter and showman. Taverns also served an important function as places to forget the long hours and uncertain wages of the factories. Alcohol consumption was high among the working class, although many workers did take part in the temperance movement. It is little wonder that middle-class manufacturers attempted to outlaw alcohol and eventually succeeded in the 1920s with Prohibition laws.

P. T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid

The Connecticut native P. T. Barnum catered to the demand for escape and cheap amusements among the working class. His American Museum in New York City opened in 1841 and achieved great success. Millions flocked to see Barnum’s exhibits, which included a number of fantastic human and animal oddities, almost all of which were hoaxes. One exhibit in the 1840s featured the “Feejee Mermaid,” which Barnum presented as proof of the existence of the mythical mermaids of the deep. In truth, the mermaid was a half-monkey, half-fish stitched together.

Illustration (a) depicts a creature with the head and upper torso of a young monkey and the bottom half of a fish. Photograph (b) shows crowds of people surrounding P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.

Figure 2. Spurious though they were, attractions such as the Feejee mermaid (a) from P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City (b) drew throngs of working-class wage earners in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Visit The Lost Museum to take a virtual tour of P. T. Barnum’s incredible museum.

Wage workers in the North were largely hostile to the abolition of slavery, fearing it would unleash more competition for jobs from freed slaves. Many were also hostile to immigration. The pace of immigration to the United States accelerated in the 1840s and 1850s as Europeans were drawn to the promise of employment and land in the United States. Many new members of the working class came from the ranks of these immigrants, who brought new foods, customs, and religions. The Roman Catholic population of the United States, fairly small before this period, began to swell with the arrival of Irish and German Catholics, many of whom were fleeing persecution by Protestant governments in their home countries.


Education in America at the time did not look like it does today. Schools were mostly private schools, serving many grades at the same time, with no standardized curriculums, no set process for training teachers, and extreme variations in opportunities depending on location. Despite this, Americans became increasingly invested in the importance of education and it became a greater priority for middle-class children in providing a foundation for future economic privilege. As artisans lost control over their trades, young men had a greater incentive to invest time in education to find skilled positions later in life.

Enterprising instructors established schools to assist “young gentlemen preparing for mercantile and other pursuits, who may wish for an education superior to that usually obtained in the common schools, but different from a college education, and better adapted to their particular business,” such as that organized in 1820 by Warren Colburn of Boston. In response to this need, the Boston School Committee created the English High School (as opposed to the Latin School) as one of the first public high schools in the U.S. with the plan that it could “give a child an education that shall fit him for active life, and shall serve as a foundation for eminence in his profession, whether Mercantile or Mechanical” beyond that “which our public schools can now furnish.”

Formal education also sought to equip young women with the tools to live sophisticated, genteel lives. After sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Davis left home in 1816 to attend school, her father explained that the experience would “lay a foundation for your future character & respectability.”

After touring the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville praised the independence granted to the young American woman, who had “the great scene of the world…open to her” and whose education “arm[ed] her reason as well as her virtue.” Middle-class young women also utilized their education to take positions as school teachers in the expanding public school system. Bristol Academy in Tauten, Maine, for instance, advertised “instruction…in the art of teaching” for female pupils. In 1825, Nancy Denison left Concord Academy with references indicating that she was “qualified to teach with success and profit” and “very cheerfully recommend[ed]” for “that very responsible employment.”

Education for Lower-Class Americans

As young middle-class Americans found opportunities for respectable employment through formal education, poor young adults remained in marginalized positions. Their families’ desperate financial state kept them from enjoying the fruits of education. When working-class children did receive schooling through institutions such as the House of Refuge in New York City (a reform prison and school for juveniles admitted for petty crimes), they were often simultaneously indentured to successful families to serve as field hands or domestic laborers in order to pay for their own education. The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents in New York City sent its wards to places like Sylvester Lusk’s farm in Enfield, Connecticut. Lusk took boys to learn “the trade and mystery of farming” and girls to learn “the trade and mystery of housewifery.” In exchange for “sufficient Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging, and Washing, fitting for an Apprentice,” and a rudimentary education, the apprentices promised obedience, morality, and loyalty. Poor children also found work in factories such as Samuel Slater’s textile mills in southern New England. Slater published a newspaper advertisement for “four or five active Lads, about 15 Years of Age to serve as Apprentices in the Cotton Factory.”

American Women

Women reading books and taking care of babies.

Figure 3. “The Sphere of Woman,” Godey’s Lady’s Book vol. 40 (March 1850): p. 209.

Just as children were expected to be sheltered from the adult world of work, American culture expected men and women to assume distinct gender roles as they prepared for marriage and family life. An ideology of separate spheres set the public realm—the world of economic production and political life—apart as a male domain, and the world of consumers and domestic life as a female one. (Even non-working women labored by shopping for the household, producing food and clothing, cleaning, educating children, and performing similar activities. But these were considered “domestic” because they did not bring money into the household, although they too were essential to the household’s and the nation’s economic viability.) While reality muddied the ideal, the divide between a private, female world of home and a public, male world of business defined American gender hierarchy for decades.

The idea of separate spheres also displayed a distinct class bias. Middle- and upper-class families reinforced their status by shielding their women from the harsh realities of wage labor. Women were to be mothers and educators, not partners in production. But working-class women, by necessity, contributed directly to the household economy. The middle- and upper-class ideal was only feasible in households where women did not need to engage in paid labor. In poorer households, women labored as factory workers, piece-workers producing items for market consumption, tavern and inn keepers, and domestic servants. While many of the fundamental tasks women performed remained the same—producing clothing, cultivating vegetables, overseeing dairy production, and performing any number of other domestic labors—the key difference was whether they performed these tasks for cash in a market economy.

Domestic expectations constantly changed and the market revolution transformed many women’s traditional domestic tasks. Cloth production, for instance, advanced throughout the market revolution as new mechanized production increased the volume and variety of fabrics available to ordinary people. This relieved many better-off women of a traditional labor obligation. As cloth production became commercialized, women’s home-based cloth production became less important to household economies. Purchasing cloth, and later, ready-made clothes, began to transform women from producers to consumers.

In cities, where women could buy cheap imported cloth to turn into clothing, they became skilled consumers. They managed their husbands’ money by comparing values and haggling over prices. Maintaining a family’s finances and keeping a household running smoothly became almost an art form that middle-class women tried to perfect and was considered a desirable quality in a potential wife. In one typical experience, Mrs. Peter Simon, a captain’s wife, inspected twenty-six yards of Holland cloth to ensure it was worth the £130 price. Even wealthy women shopped for the best values. While servants or enslaved persons routinely made low-value purchases, the mistress of the household trusted her discriminating eye alone for expensive or specialized purchases.

Women might also translate their domestic skills into business opportunities. In addition to working as seamstresses, milliners, or laundresses, women might undertake paid work for neighbors or acquaintances or combine clothing production with management of a boarding house. Even enslaved persons in domestic service who showed particular skill at producing clothing could be hired out for a higher price, or might even negotiate to work part-time for themselves. Most enslaved persons, however, continued to produce domestic items, including simple clothing, for home consumption.

Similar domestic expectations played out in the slave states. Enslaved women labored in the fields. White enslavers argued that Black women were less delicate and feminine than White women and therefore perfectly suited for agricultural labor. The southern ideal meant that White plantation mistresses were shielded from manual labor because of their presumed natural fragility and the need for them to produce children, preferably male, to inherit the family’s wealth. Throughout the slave states, aside from the minority of plantations with dozens of enslaved persons, the majority of White women by necessity continued to assist with planting, harvesting, and processing agricultural projects despite the cultural stigma attached to it. White southerners continued to produce large portions of their food and clothing at home. Even when they were market-oriented producers of cash crops, White southerners still insisted that their adherence to plantation slavery and racial hierarchy made them morally superior to greedy Northerners and their callous, cutthroat commerce which exploited free White citizens for labor. Southerners and Northerners increasingly saw their ways of life as incompatible.

WatcH It

If life for White women during the 1800s sounds difficult, it was even worse for enslaved women. Watch this CrashCourse Black American History video to hear about the experiences of some enslaved Black women, including Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs.

You can view the transcript for “Women’s Experience Under Slavery: Crash Course Black American History #11” here (opens in new window).

Marriage and Family Life

While the market revolution remade many women’s economic roles, their legal status remained essentially unchanged. Upon marriage, women were rendered legally “dead” by the notion of coverture, a common law doctrine that counted married couples as a single unit represented by the husband. Without special precautions or interventions, women could not earn their own money, own their own property, sue, or be sued. Any money earned or spent belonged by law to their husbands. Women shopped on their husbands’ credit and at any time husbands could terminate their wives’ access to credit. Although a handful of states made divorce available—it had before only been legal in Congregationalist states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, where marriage was strictly a civil contract, rather than a religious one—it remained extremely expensive, difficult, and rare. Marriage was typically a permanently binding legal contract.

Ideas of marriage, if not the legal realities, began to change in the nineteenth century. This period marked the beginning of the shift from “institutional” to “companionate” marriage. Institutional marriages were primarily labor arrangements that maximized the couple’s and their children’s chances of surviving and thriving. Men and women assessed each other’s skills as they related to household production, although looks and personality certainly entered into the equation. But in the late-eighteenth century, under the influence of Romantic and Enlightenment thought, young people began to prioritize personal character and romantic compatibility with their potential partners. Money was still essential: marriages prompted the largest redistributions of property aside from the settling of estates after death, but the means of this redistribution was changing. Especially in the North, land became a less important foundation for matchmaking as wealthy young men became not only farmers and merchants but bankers, clerks, or professionals. The increased emphasis on affection and attraction that young people embraced was facilitated by an increasingly complex economy that offered new ways to store, move, and create wealth, liberalizing the criteria by which families and individuals evaluated potential spouses.

Try It


coverture: a common law doctrine that held that a married couple was a single legal unit represented by the husband. Wives could not legally own property or make contracts in their own name and were legally required to surrender any income to their husbands. In some cases, however, a wife was also not considered legally liable for debts or crimes, since it was assumed that she acted with the approval of her husband.

House of Refuge: a school for working-class children in New York, which educated young people on the condition that they enter into an indenture contract with a family or a business so they could work off the cost of their own education

separate spheres: a social idea of gender roles that can trace its origins back to Classical Greece. The idea of separate spheres held that men should inhabit the world of business, politics, and public life, while women should maintain the “domestic sphere” of child-rearing, housekeeping, social engagements with other women, and general household management, including finances and supervising any servants that they family employed.

temperance: abstinence from alcohol

  1. Mother’s Friend: Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century America. National Museum of Civil War Medicine. 2017, February 5