The United States in 1870
Ulysses S. Grant was president. Corruption was rampant. And business was booming.
Local transportation was by horse, carriage and wagon. Lighting was by candle and gas. Indoor plumbing was minimal. Every middle class family had servants.
The Industrial Revolution was in full blast. Flour was now milled in a factory in Brooklyn which meant the end of the local miller. Shoes were now manufactured in New England factories which meant the end of the shoemaker.
Immigration was in full swing as Europeans fled wars, poverty, and famine for what promised to be a new prosperous life in America where the streets were “paved in gold.” Some groups landed in Eastern cities and immediately headed west to populate the great wilderness that was accessible by wagon and soon to be by train. Others stayed in the cities to work in the thousands of factories requiring mass labor.
For the first time in history, a burgeoning middle class was developing in the cities. The men were manufacturers, builders, bankers, land developers, lawyers, doctors, ministers, railroad men -- entrepreneurs of all types.
They were looking for ways to enjoy their leisure, and places to take their families out of the cities which were inflicted with diseases such as cholera in the hot summer months.
A religious revival, similar to one that had taken place in the 1830s, was also in full bloom. Methodist camp meetings were growing along the Eastern seaboard.
Developing throughout the century had been the concept of the two sphere society. Men’s sphere was the world of business; women’s sphere was the home. The two sphere system permeated every aspect of life. All social values were defined within these spheres.
By the late 1860s, this concept of “sphere” was expanding. For instance if a man visited a prostitute and brought venereal disease into his home, then prostitution became an issue in the domestic sphere. A man who spent his wages on drink threatened his family’s home. Threats to the domestic sphere were threats to all of society.
This was also a time when the medical profession still did not understand germs. They had not yet recognized the need to wash their hands between patients. They had new confidence in their skills, but they did not know the basics of women’s physiology and did not know, for instance, when in a woman’s cycle she became pregnant. But they all had theories. Women still preferred midwives, but doctors were beginning to take over those practices. Child birth remained very dangerous, and middle class women were anxious to limit births to decrease the size of their families, thus save their lives and health. Abortion was not illegal, and it was an important aspect of birth control, as were prolonged nursing, abstinence, and invalidism. Birth control was almost universally practiced by the Protestant middle class.
Homosexuality and lesbianism had not yet been described.
Although it would be another 50 years before women could vote, they could now own property, at least in New York State. In fact, a husband could not sell property without his wife’s consent.
Since the Revolution, when all men with property were expected to be citizens and therefore to be educated, universal education had been important: the boys as future citizens and the girls as the mothers, and therefore educators, of their sons.
Women’s colleges were now being developed rapidly, and it was not unusual for middle class women to go to college. Just as an educated Revolutionary mother made for better future citizens, a college educated mother would improve the quality of her home. However, there was a great debate in medical circles as to whether girls’ bodies could develop both brain and uterus. To prove their point, it seems, a disproportionate number of female college graduates at the time did not marry and set up households together -- they choose to teach, especially at women’s colleges.
Their mothers, it turned out, had not been very good role models of happily married bliss, many of them having taken to their beds as invalids to avoid their marital and motherly responsibilities. Invalidism was an epidemic in some circles. Within 20 years, invalidism had completely disappeared, and young women were taking on social causes and creating institutions which were the foundations of so many organizations that today serve the poor, the deranged and sick, and disadvantaged children... But that was still in the future.
In the period we are discussing, women did not go out unchaperoned; they still covered their bodies from neck to ankle, and wore bustles and big hats, often with veils. When they went into the sea, their costumes were black wool from neck to toe.
The middle class Methodists of Brooklyn were generally Lincoln Republicans. They believed that government should not interfere with business. They had fought to preserve the Union and had been abolitionists. They did not approve of the institution of slavery, though they shared an antipathy towards blacks, Italians, Irish, Chinese -- anyone who was not like them.
The men had great confidence in their business abilities, their rightness in all things, and their righteousness in their faith. The women, on the other hand, whose mothers and grandmothers, for the most part, had been farm wives with work to do from dawn to dusk, were left with little to do. At this time, middle class women were ornaments. We often do not even know their names.
Revolutionary change had come in the guise of the Industrial Revolution for men, and it was coming for women as well, but not just yet
An End Note: The preceding section is based on general historical knowledge of the authors and enhanced by recent reading of the following:
Degler, Carl N., At Odds, Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present, Oxford University Press, 1980.
D’Emilio, John and Estelle B. Friedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, The University of Chicago Press, 1888.
Ehrenreich, Barbara and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 years of Expert Advice for Women, Anchor Books, 1978.
Evans, Sara M., Born for Liberty, A History of Women in America, Free Press Paperback, 1989.
Mintz, Steven and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life, The Free Press, 1988.