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Rise of the Middle Class

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Rise of the Middle Class

Today, the middle class is a distinct socioeconomic group. However, as recently as the 19th century, there was no middle class in America. There were only two distinctions: the impoverished lower class and the extremely wealthy upper class. With industrialization and the expansion of the labor market, the middle class began to rise and made lasting impacts on society.

The Rise of the Middle Class Overview: The Gilded Age

Industries exploded in size during the Gilded Age, and industry leaders created new positions to keep up with the expansion. Managers, secretaries, and accountants became essential parts of the operation, and society saw these positions as professional jobs, distinct from the factory and slaughterhouse-type work of the lower class. Employers reinforced this distinction by paying their professional employees far better and treating them with much more respect.

The Gilded Age

a period of immense wealth, but also widespread corruption and inequality, lasting from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century.

The Rise of the Middle Class: Meaning and Causes

The middle class developed as the central ground between the extreme poverty of the working poor and the extreme wealth of the upper class. Professional workers had disposable income that the working poor could only wish to have, but professional workers had nothing compared to industry leaders. The middle class often invested in higher education as a means of bettering their and their children’s lives. In this way, education and opportunities became multigenerational, and the middle class proved it was there to stay.

The Morrill Land Grant Act, passed in 1862, allocated federal lands to states for the purpose of building public universities. This made higher education more accessible to the general public.

The Rise of the Middle Class: Characteristics of the Middle Class

When we discussed the growth of industries, we covered managers, secretaries, and accountants but the middle class was also composed of:

  • Doctors

  • Lawyers

  • Government employees

  • Shopkeepers

  • Artisans

Women in the Workplace

While women were able to break into the professional job market, they often found themselves as secretaries rather than managers and receptionists rather than doctors. They also faced a wage gap far larger than the one today. Typically, once a woman married, she would abandon her job so that she could perform the duties of wife and mother while her husband worked. The role of the middle-class wife was to keep the home and shop for the family.

So, now that we know what they did for a living, what were the characteristics of this new middle class? They had access to education and money, and as such, a better standard of living. For example, they had a longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rate than the working poor. They also had time for leisure activities as they were not spending every waking moment at a factory. Many families even became employers themselves and hired maids, cooks, and coachmen.

Although the term American Dream had not been coined yet, the middle class was certainly chasing it. They believed that hard work and discipline led to financial success, and that one day, they too could be a part of the elite, upper class. Appearances were very important to the middle class, as they aimed to emulate the elite and show off their wealth and status. As we noted above, the role of the middle-class wife was to keep the house, and they made sure to keep it clean and full of status symbols, such as fine China and expensive furniture.

It is important to remember that members of the middle class were almost universally white, Protestant, and born in the United States. People of color and immigrants faced discrimination and generally found themselves forced into low-paying, non-professional jobs with no hope of rising in socioeconomic status.

Historiography of the Middle Class

While historians cannot deny the formation of the middle class, there are disagreements as to who exactly made up the middle class because of its heterogeneous and ever-changing nature. Even today, the middle class is hard to nail down. As a result, many sociologists have made a distinction between the so-called upper-middle class and lower-middle class. In this school of thought, members of the upper-middle class have more education and more financial security than those of the lower-middle class.

Impacts of the Rise of the Middle Class

The rise of the middle class had lasting impacts on American society.

Impacts of the Rise of the Middle Class: Consumer Culture

Rise of the Middle Class Impact Dishwasher Advertisement StudySmarterAdvertisement for a dishwasher, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As we noted earlier, a distinguishing factor of the middle class was their disposable income. They could afford to buy goods that were once considered luxuries, and consumer culture truly exploded. Middle class women no longer had to sew clothes by hand and could simply go to one of the newly created department stores. If the department stores were too far away, mail-order catalogs offered a wide variety of goods that would simply show up on the doorstep.

Rise of the Middle Class Impact Vaudeville Poster StudySmarterVaudeville show poster from 1899, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Outside of splurging on goods, middle-class families spent a good deal of money on leisure activities, including:

  • Vaudeville shows

  • Amusement parks

  • Circuses

  • Sporting events

  • Concerts

  • Dances

It was during this time that baseball became America’s favorite pastime. The first Major League Baseball game was on April 22, 1876.

Impacts of the Rise of the Middle Class: The Growth of Suburbia

Rise of the Middle Class Impact Suburban Neighborhood StudySmarterSuburban neighborhood, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Before industrialization, cities had been relatively small, with only a few pockets of poverty. As industrialization took hold, however, these pockets of poverty grew in size. Cities became overcrowded and plagued by crime and disease. While the working class was stuck living in tenement houses in the slums, the middle class could afford to relocate. This prompted the growth of suburbia, where walking no longer cut it and modes of transportation were necessary.

Rise of the Middle Class - Key takeaways

  • The middle class developed during the Gilded Age as industry expanded and professional jobs became available.
  • Professional jobs paid more money and called for a higher level of respect than jobs in factories or slaughterhouses.
  • Professionals and their families formed the new middle class. They had access to better education and opportunities, allowing the status to become multigenerational. They also had disposable income and time to spare on leisure activities.
  • The middle class fueled a new consumer culture and contributed to the growth of suburbia.
  • The middle class was almost universally white and born in the United States. Immigrants and people of color were unable to obtain professional jobs or elevate their socioeconomic status because of discrimination.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rise of the Middle Class

In the Gilded Age, the middle class was made up of working professionals with disposable income. 

The expansion of industry and the creation of new, higher-paying jobs led to the rise of the middle class. 

The middle class was generally made up of white, non-immigrant families. They had disposable income, better access to education, and more time for leisure activities. 

The rise of the middle class was during the Gilded Age.

The growth of the middle class changed society by increasing consumer culture and expanding suburbia.

Final Rise of the Middle Class Quiz

Question

How did suburbia grow?

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Answer

Government programs that made home ownership accessible for more Americans, the development of new methods of construction and the post-war baby boom. 

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Who created assembly line style of house construction?

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Answer

Abraham Levitt

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What was the first suburban area named?

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Levittown in New York.

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How much on average did an American have to pay as down payment for a home purchase before the VA and FHA?


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Answer

58%

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What federal program issued guaranteed home loans to veterans?

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Answer

The VA(Veterans Administration) issued home loans through the GI Bill or the Servicemen's Readjustment Act.

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How many steps were required to build a Levitt model home?

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Answer

27 steps from start to finish

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Where was the first Levitt & Sons housing community?

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Outside of New York City in the state of New York. 

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What did Levitt & Sons offer for veterans & their families?

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Answer

The Levitt & Sons company would require no downpayment for veterans.

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What changed in the attitude of working Americans with the growth of suburbia?

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The idea of commuting to work versus living in rented accommodation close to work began to become popular. 

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What did the growth of suburbia do to form the idea of the "American Dream"

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The ability to own a home and having children became the marker of success for the American family. 

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What part of popular culture grew rapidly in the 1950s?

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Answer

Car culture became mainstream

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During what period did the middle class develop?

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Answer

The Gilded Age

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Which was not a professional job?

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Answer

shopkeeper 

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What led to the mass creation of professional jobs?

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Answer

the expansion of industry 

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The majority of members of the middle class were:

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Answer

white 

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The middle class led to the:

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Answer

rise of consumer culture

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Women were able to have professional jobs.

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Answer

True

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What government act made higher education more accessible to the general public?

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Answer

The Morrill Land Grant Act

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Why were leisure activities popular among the middle class?

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Answer

They had both free time and disposable income.

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What type of store became popular with the rise of the middle class?

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Answer

the department store

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Which was not a popular leisure activity of the middle class?

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Answer

the movie theater

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When did the rise of consumerism occur in the United States?

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Answer

The Gilded Age

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What socioeconomic class contributed most to the rise of consumer culture?

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the middle class

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Consumerism applies to goods, not services or forms of liesure. 

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False

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What technology did not become available to the average middle-class family during the Gilded Age?

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Answer

the radio

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What industrial process helped produce cheaper goods?

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mass production

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Who did most of the shopping for the household?

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Answer

middle-class women

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Which was not a new way consumers could purchase goods?

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department stores

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Which was not a development in advertising during the Gilded Age.

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Answer

the rise of brand names and brand loyalty

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How did buying on credit work?

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Answer

Consumers could "buy" products with the promise of paying it off in the future. 

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Which new type of store carried a wide variety of products and catered to urban areas?

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Answer

department stores

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