Out of the Zoo: “We’re a union just by saying so!”


Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about one of her favorite movies. –JF

Newsies might just be one of my all-time favorite movies. Starring a young Christian Bale as the fictional main character Jack Kelly, the nearly three-decade old film offers a musical retelling of the Newsboys’ strike of 1899. The said strike, which took place on the streets of New York City in protest of high newspaper prices, ended after two weeks when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsies at the end of each day. 

The movie, interwoven with a beautiful Alan Menken score and lively dance breaks, throws around a lot of terms like “union,” “demands,” and “scabs,” each of which could easily be heard inside a U.S. history classroom. However, as much as I love Newsies, I must admit that the film fails to explain these terms with any complexity; it does not place them in their broader historical context either. As a musical theatre geek in high school I found it easy to cheer when Jack Kelly and his chorus of newsboys triumphantly sang, “We’re a union just by saying so!” But as a student I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about what a union was, much less how or why it was formed.

Although Newsies might be entertaining, it remains a shadowy fictional representation of the issues that shaped the reality of the Gilded Age. There are far better ways for students to comprehend the complexities of labor disputes than watching Christian Bale dance across a television screen (sorry Disney). Mr. Anderson, one of the United States history teachers at Northern High School, showed me one such way last week when I got to sit in on his class for my Sophomore field observation. Anderson led his class through an exercise that not only helped his students gain a better understanding of unions, but also allowed them to relate the past to their lives in the present. 

Instead of lecturing for days about organized labor, Mr. Anderson provided the necessary historical context–fleshing out the themes and complexities that defined the Gilded Age–and let his students do the rest of the work. He briefly taught about the two prominent Gilded Age unions, but then let students form a union of their own, dubbed “The United Students of NHS.” First, students broke into small groups and listed all their grievances–issues ranged from passing time between classes to club funding. After narrowing down their complaints, the entire class circled up to decide which eight requests they would draw up and deliver to the school’s administration. 

While he raised his voice occasionally to direct attention to the task at hand, Mr. Anderson let his students take the lead in the entire process. When the whole class collaborated on the final eight grievances, students spoke up from around the circle suggesting a procedure or speaking out in defense of one of their demands. While his students engaged in discussion, Mr. Anderson told me that he thinks that students shouldn’t have everything planned out for them. Instead, educators should leave room for learners to experiment, take charge, and figure things out on their own–always taking time to reflect afterwards about what went well and what could have gone better.

I couldn’t have agreed with Mr. Anderson more. His students were passionate and eager to apply what they learned about unions and the Gilded Age to their everyday lives. They learned to cooperate with each other, compromise when necessary, and innovated if their process became inefficient. And all the while they gained an increasingly thorough and nuanced understanding of the past. It is this kind of history classroom, one where students are invested, engaged, and challenged, that I want to emulate someday.

Historian Richard White on the Gilded Age

WHiteOver at Readers Almanac, the blog of the Library of America, Stanford historian Richard White answers a few questions about his recent book, The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

Library of America: In The Republic for Which It Stands, you take up the challenge of treating two periods of American history, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which are often written about in isolation from each other. One way you bridge the divide is by taking the Republican vision of a good society—a society of homes and “homogenous citizenship”—as an overarching theme, using it as a kind of yardstick against which to measure the age. Was the distance between governing ideology and life as it was actually lived unusually great in this period?

Richard White: Originally, the distance between ideology and life wasn’t great at all. At the end of the Civil War, the United States hadn’t yet become a nation of wage workers. Independent labor and prosperous homes seemed the inevitable outcome of a war to eliminate slavery. Large factories remained relatively rare and class divisions, although real, weren’t impenetrable. Americans believed that free labor would secure independent homes, and black homes, identical to white homes, would arise in the wake of the war. Springfield—Lincoln’s home town—embodied their hopes; the nation would become a collection of Springfields.

Similarly, a homogenous citizenry with a set of uniform rights guaranteed by the federal government in a remade republic was legislatively possible in 1865, but the ideal was never absolute. In practice Indians and Chinese would be totally, and white and black women partially, excluded.

By the 1870s the gulf between the ideal and the reality had widened considerably and would continue to widen for the rest of the century. Americans listed as the markers of this failure the decline of independent labor and the rise of a large and permanent class of wage workers. The inability of many wage workers to earn enough to support the gendered ideal of a home—men protecting and supporting families, women in charge of hearth and home and nurturing children as republican citizens—proved alarming. Particularly in cities, immigrant tenements became the antithesis of the home. Not only did the federal government fail to secure black people a full and equal citizenship, but in both urban areas and the South, reformers pushed restrictions on suffrage. A kind of cultural panic, often racialized, ensued in which black people, Indians, Chinese, tramps, single working women, and many immigrants were defined as threats to the white home.

Although the economy grew immensely, the evidence we have indicates that individual well-being declined. Americans grew shorter, sicker, and the children of the poor—particularly the black and urban poor—died in shocking numbers. If the purpose of the economy was to buttress the Republic, it seemed to be failing while the two dangerous classes, the very rich and the poor, increased in numbers. The old ideal of a working life—the original American dream of a competency, the amount of money needed to support a family, provide a cushion for hard times and old age and to set children up in life, rather than great riches—seemed harder and harder to attain.

Read the rest here.

Historian Richard White on “Home”


Yesterday we posted a link to a History News Network interview with Stanford historian Richard White.

Today, White is back with a piece at Smithsonian.com on the idea of “home” in America’s Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

When reduced to the “Home Sweet Home” of Currier and Ives lithographs, the idea of “home” can seem sentimental. Handle it, and you discover its edges. Those who grasped “home” as a weapon caused blood, quite literally, to flow. And if you take the ubiquity of “home” seriously, much of what we presume about 19th-century America moves from the center to the margins. Some core “truths” of what American has traditionally meant become less certain.

It’s a cliché, for example, that 19th-century Americans were individualists who believed in inalienable rights. Individualism is not a fiction, but Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie no more encapsulated the dominant social view of the first Gilded Age than Ayn Rand does our second one. In fact, the basic unit of the republic was not the individual but the home, not so much isolated rights-bearing-citizen as collectives—families, churches, communities, and volunteer organizations. These collectives forged American identities in the late-19th century, and all of them orbited the home. The United States was a collection of homes.

Evidence of the power of the home lurks in places rarely visited anymore. Mugbooks, the illustrated county histories sold door to door by subscription agents, constituted one of the most popular literary genres of the late-19th century. The books became monuments to the home. If you subscribed for a volume, you would be included in it. Subscribers summarized the trajectories of their lives, illustrated on the page. The stories of these American lives told of progress from small beginnings—symbolized by a log cabin—to a prosperous home.

Read the entire piece here.

What is More Important: Quality Consumer Goods or Social Equality?

CarnegieThe obvious answer is quality consumer goods. How could we live without them?

At least this is how Pennsylvania steel magnate Andrew Carnegie would have answered the question posed in the title of my post.

Yesterday  in my Pennsylvania History class I taught Carnegie’s famous 1889 North American Review essay titled “Wealth.”

Here is part of what he said:

Formerly articles were manufactured at the domestic hearth in small shops which formed part of the household. The master and his apprentices worked side by side, the latter living with the master and therefore subject to the same conditions.  When these apprentices rose to be master, there was little or no change in their mode of life, and they, in turn, educated in the same routine succeeding apprentices.  There was, substantially, social equality….

But the inevitable result of such a mode of manufacture was crude articles at high prices.  To-day the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the general preceding this would have deemed incredible. In the commercial world similar causes have produced similar results, and the race is benefited thereby. The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford. What were the luxuries have become the necessaries of life. The laborer has now more comforts than the landlord had a few generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer, and appointments more artistic, than the King could then obtain.

The price we pay for this salutary change is, no doubt, great. We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory, in the mine, and in the counting-house, of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom the employer is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid Castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each Caste is without sympathy for the other, and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it. Under the law of competition, the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. Human society loses homogeneity.

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is also great;but the advantage of this law are also greater still, for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train.

After walking my students through this text, I ended class and let them ponder it over the weekend.  We will see what they think on Monday.

The Author’s Corner with Timothy E.W. Gloege

Timothy Gloege is a historian and independent scholar based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This interview is based on his new book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (University of North Carolina Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism?

TG: It began, ironically enough, when I was taking a break from religious history. I had done a lot of research on conservative evangelicalism and, for a change, had taken up a more systematic reading in the history of The Gilded Age and Progressive Era, especially business and consumer culture. I was immediately struck with how this literature assumed a conservative evangelicalism that was at odds with the rise of modern capitalism, when I had seen the opposite at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and elsewhere. But even more striking to me were the many parallels that I saw between new ideas and techniques in business and conservative evangelical (or “fundamentalist”) belief and practice. I had been taught that fundamentalism was a reaction against modernity; now I wondered whether it might, in fact, be a product of modernity–modern business to be exact. 

I’ve always been drawn to work that brings disparate historiographies into conversation with each other (like Lisabeth Cohen’s combination of labor and consumer culture in
Making a New Deal). I thought that combining the histories of capitalism and religion held similar promise.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Guaranteed Pure?

TG: Guaranteed Pure explains how two generations of evangelicals at the Moody Bible Institute created a modern form of “old-time religion” using new business ideas and techniques. This smoothed the advent of consumer capitalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and transformed the dynamics of Protestantism in modern America.

JF: Why do we need to read Guaranteed Pure?

TG: I think my book offers a new way for us to understand conservative evangelicalism that better explains not only why it has survived in twentieth century America but also thrived. In so doing, it also lets us interrogate some of the categories that structure our histories of Protestantism: terms like “evangelical,” “fundamentalism,” “conservative,” “liberal,” and “modern.” And then finally, I think it demonstrates how entwined religious systems are in their social and cultural milieux. If fundamentalists–the supposed culture rejecters–cannot escape being profoundly influenced by this environment, it seems difficult to suggest any other group could do better. So then it’s also a call for religious historians (perhaps especially, historians of evangelicalism) to take these broader contexts into consideration. 
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TG: I decided I wanted to become a historian when I was an undergraduate–and at time when my study habits suggested I had no business pursuing it. Still, I was attracted by two core tenets of the profession. First was empathy: the requirement (for me, it was the permission) to refrain from passing judgment on anything that I could not first explain on its own terms. Second was the idea that everything is capable of changing over time–from our most mundane habits to our loftiest ideals–and most likely has. 

Having grown up in a largely ahistorical context, I found history to be liberating and slightly dangerous. Empathy allowed me to enter into the worlds and lives of people far different from myself. It gave me a safe space to try on new modes of thinking. Change over time simply gave me a framework that made better sense of the world we live in. The world became less Manichean–a starkly divided world of good and evil–and something more subtle and wonder-filled. It was like the introduction of color to a black and white world: both breathtaking and disorienting. 

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be in a situation where I can continue these pursuits, both in my writing and in teaching when opportunities arise.

JF: What is your next project?

TG: There are two projects I’m pursuing at the moment. One, speaking of historical empathy, is a “life and times” biographical treatment of Reuben A. Torrey, an immensely important, but misunderstood, figure in the history of fundamentalism, pentecostalism, and (I’ll argue) the early social gospel movement in the late 19th century. His life demonstrates the fluidity of Protestantism during that time. The second project is also empathy centered: a reappraisal of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies (and its lead-up) through the perspective of the modernists, critically assessed.
JF: Both sound like great projects, can’t wait to see what you come up with. Thanks Tim!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #47

Immigrants and ABS agents at Ellis Island

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I am back at the American Bible Society archives in New York City. Yesterday was a travel day, but I did manage to get some work done on the ABS book project.  First, I had a good meeting with my research assistant Katie Garland.  If you have been reading these updates you know that Katie is working on the history of the ABS between 1865 and 1918.  In the course of our meeting we developed several important themes that we want to cover in this period.  They are:

  • Race, Reconstruction, and the development of a “colored” Bible society in 1901
  • The ABS strategy for dealing with urbanization and immigration at the turn of the 20th century
  • The ABS and the West, with particular focus on outreach to Chinese immigrants
  • Changes in the governance and structure at the ABS that reflect larger American patterns of nationalism and active government.
  • Bible translation issues
We do not think that we will have a chapter for every one of these themes, but all of them will certainly be covered in one way or another.

Katie and I also talked about whether the book should cover every detail of the history of the ABS or focus instead on  a few major themes without trying to be comprehensive.  I think we are going to go for the second option. Stay tuned.

Second, there were more developments on the publishing front today.  Things are looking good at the moment.  I hope to have something to announce on this front very soon.

Richard White: "Americans Didn’t Always Yearn for Riches"

But, according to Credit Fix, all of this changed in the Gilded Age when Americans began to think of the American dream “not as competency but rather as the accumulation of great wealth.” The change had a lot to do with the books of Horatio Alger and the social theory of William Graham Sumner.

Read Richard White’s essay at Boston Review.  Here is a taste:

Speaking in New Haven in 1860, Abraham Lincoln told an audience, “I am not ashamed to confess that 25 years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son.” After his death, Lincoln’s personal trajectory from log cabin to White House emerged as the ideal American symbol. Anything was possible for those who strived.

But the goal of this striving was not great wealth. Perhaps the most revealing memorial to Lincoln and his world is found in one of the most mundane of American documents: the census. There he is in the Springfield, Illinois, listing of 1860: Abraham Lincoln, 51 years old, lawyer, owner of a home worth $5,000, with $12,000 in personal property. His neighbor Lotus Niles, a 40-year-old secretary—equivalent to a manager today—had accumulated $7,000 in real estate and $2,500 in personal property. Nearby was Edward Brigg, a 48-year-old teamster from England, with $4,000 in real estate and $300 in personal property. Down the block lived Richard Ives, a bricklayer with $4,000 in real estate and $4,500 in personal property. The highest net worth in the neighborhood belonged to a 50-year-old livery stable owner, Henry Corrigan, with $30,000 in real estate but only $300 in personal property. This was a town and a country where bricklayers, lawyers, stable owners, and managers lived in the same areas and were not much separated by wealth. Lincoln was one of the richer men in Springfield, but he was not very rich.

Not only was great wealth an aberration in Lincoln’s time, but even the idea that the accumulation of great riches was the point of a working life seemed foreign. Whereas today the most well-off frequently argue that riches are the reward of hard work, in the Civil War era, the reward was a “competency,” what the late historian Alan Dawley described as the ability to support a family and have enough in reserve to sustain it through hard times at an accustomed level of prosperity. When, through effort or luck, a person amassed not only a competency but enough to support himself and his family for his lifetime, he very often retired. Philip Scranton, an industrial historian, writes of one representative case: Charles Schofield, a successful textile manufacturer in Philadelphia who, in 1863, sold his interest in his firm for $40,000 and “retired with a competency.” Schofield, who was all of 29 years old, considered himself “opulent enough.” The idea of having enough frequently trumped the ambition for endless accumulation.

As the men and women of Lincoln’s and Schofield’s generations aged, they retained the ideal of progress from poverty to competency. Later in the century, midwestern publishers created county histories that featured images of their subscribers’ homesteading progress, from “first home in the woods” to comfortable farm. The “mug books”—so called because they included images not only of cabins and farms but also of their owners—captured the trajectory of these American lives and the achievement of their economic ambitions: the creation of prosperous homes. They built them, but they could build them because they were citizens of a democratic republic. The opportunity to build secure homes was part of the purpose of the economy

For a moment at the end of the Civil War, it seemed the liberal ideal of a republican citizenry, in which autonomous individuals build a society based on contracts, would reach fruition in a United States where extremes of wealth and poverty were largely nonexistent. Instead, by 1900, extremes of the sort that hadn’t been seen since the abolition of slavery were de rigueur. In 1860 there was only one Cornelius Vanderbilt, but 40 years later, the concentration of wealth in the corporate form ensured an enlarged class of the super-rich.

Tim Lacy on Jackson Lears’s "Rebirth of a Nation"

Jackson Lears’s Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America has been on my reading list for a couple of years now.  Tim Lacy’s recent reflection on the book at U.S. Intellectual History has convinced me to bring it closer to the top of my pile.  Here is a taste:

In my pre-reading of Rebirth (wherein I thoroughly study the TOC, Notes, and Index), I had identified chapter five as the pivotal part of the book. I do not mean, in any way, that chapters one through four are less valuable. All four are absolutely necessary to the story. But chapter five met my expectation of importance. It stirs militarism, violence, market culture, white male supremacy, and urban-rural tensions into a hot cauldron of 1890s crises. In this cauldron, crises were dissolved into a new language of reform, order, and regeneration, manifest in market consumption, the idea of a cooperative commonwealth, and empire. Every major character of the age appears in the chapter: Addams, Adams, Beveridge, Bryan, Burnham, Coxey, Darwin, Debs, Gompers, Herron, James, Morgan, Pullman, Roosevelt, Strong, Twain, and Willard. Lears shows how misunderstandings about Darwin were put to both good and evils (p. 204). The introductory discussion of  empire in this chapter (pp. 200-221) is first rate, supplanted only by the contents of chapter seven, titled “Empire as a Way of Life.” Lears’ discussion of civil religion in the chapter compared favorably, in terms of themes, to the contents of Ray Haberski’s God and War—though the later focuses on the post-World War II period and, to my knowledge, doesn’t reference Lears.