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.
In The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900, Stuart M. Blumin explores the development of the middle class in Jacksonian America through his investigation of, primarily, northeastern cities, especially Philadelphia and New York. Blumin contends that while a distinct middle class failed to emerge by the end of the eighteenth century, during the decades prior to the Civil War the middle class developed in American cities. Blumin utilizes a variety of perspectives and evidentiary bases to support this claim, but one of the major factors in distinguishing this emerging middle class was the increasing differentiation between manual and non-manual labor. Non-manual labor was no longer associated with wage earning during this period, and the physical environments of manual and non-manual labor became increasingly separated. This led to an elevation of non-manual labor, affording non-manual laborers an elevated social worth in public perception. This differentiation of those that worked with their “heads” rather than with their “hands” became more prominent in public discussions of social classes, was reinforced, especially by women, through patterns of consumption, as Blumin argues that “domestic womanhood” was crucial in “generating new social identities” (191). Further, the increased prevalence of voluntary associations during this period highlighted the emergence of this middle class, as these associations were either based on these new perceptions of social worth of the middle class, or were designed specifically to combat social divisions. While a consciousness of middle class values did not emerge in politics, they were prevalent everywhere else in social and private life, allowing Blumin to argue for the creation of a new class by showing a demonstration of class “awareness” rather than “consciousness.”