Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class

In Cradle of the Middle Class, Mary P. Ryan explores the changing dynamics of family organization, public and private spheres, and women’s social role in fostering the creation of a middle class in her community study of Oneida County, New York, with a specific focus on the city of Utica.  In the transition from a rural to an industrial age in the “canal era,” in upstate New York, a crucial shift in family dynamics occurred that conditioned the creation of the middle class.  With the rise of market towns like Utica, the family was transformed from one defined by patriarchy, in which the father had immediate control over all the children, to one with a more matriarchal focus in which mothers took the lead in child rearing.  “Early in the nineteenth century,” Ryan argues, “the American middle class molded its distinctive identity around domestic values and family practices” (15).  Through revivalism and voluntary associations aimed at moral reform, a middle class value structure took shape in which women took on greater roles.  Though their position was still circumscribed, the boundaries between public and private life became blurred during this period.  As Ryan continues into the 1840s, she notes that families became more “private,” but that nonetheless, women’s roles expanded in important ways.  This change in the role of women and the family marked the creation of a distinctly middle class value structure.

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