Historical Perspective

A Late-Nineteenth-Century Industrialism

The United States experienced a huge growth in manufacturing in the late 1800s that resulted in prosperity for many but virtual poverty for others. As a result of improved technology and an increase in the number of people in the workforce, including experienced businessmen, factories could produce more goods at a faster rate than ever before. In addition, changes in government policy and the availability of resources contributed to the expansion of manufacturing. Factory jobs were plentiful, but the wages were not always sufficient. Many workers enjoyed a better standard of living, while others struggled to make ends meet.

Factory conditions varied from workplace to workplace, yet the challenge of the type of work remained the same. First, the work was boring. A factory worker generally stood at an assembly line performing the same job repeatedly and to a degree of perfection. Factory work also meant long hours. Workers often averaged ten hours per day, six days per week with few breaks and little flexibility. People who were accustomed to working on farms or to creating their own handcrafted goods found factory schedules a difficult adjustment. Next, the factories themselves lacked safe working conditions and were often dark, dirty, and poorly ventilated. Illnesses, injuries, and even death were not uncommon. Finally, factory workers’ wages varied. Often, women, like Carrie, and children worked at factory jobs because they agreed to lower wages than men did. As a result, men moved from workplace to workplace seeking better conditions and wages or joined labor unions to try to improve their lives at work.

B From Tradition and Gentility to Modernism

The last years of the 1800s ushered in a sense of optimism and confidence felt by most Americans in the beginning of the twentieth century, the time period of Sister Carrie. The United States enjoyed a position as a leading world power, and the country’s industrial growth and resulting stable economy provided the American people with a great measure of security. They believed that the 1900s would continue to offer them the best of that which had occurred in the previous century. Continued technological advances would make life even easier. Work would take less of people’s time; play could take more. People would nurture the same genteel morals, and the arts would reflect their refined tastes. Americans felt that nothing could shake the status quo.

While many Americans basked in their country’s success, others lived a less comfortable existence. The cities were comprised of distinct socioeconomic classes: highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. The very technology that had made the country prosperous also created a huge division between the “haves” and the “have nots.” The upper and middle classes, secure in their positions and comforts, were content to continue their lives as they had always known them; they ignored the less fortunate people around them and supported the same traditions in the arts and letters that they had in the past. At the same time, some members of the arts community began to address the realities of the twentieth century and to gain an audience for works that depicted the facts of life. These creative people-painters, writers, musicians, and architects-began the movement that would mark the beginning of modernism in America.

C Social Class and Status

Social class distinction revealed itself not only through the disparity in wages earned but also through the kinds of leisure activities people enjoyed and the fashions they wore. In Sister Carrie, Carrie strove to attend the events of the wealthier set as well as wear their fashions, hoping she would one day be part of high society.

As technology in the early twentieth century helped create a variety of paying jobs for workers and production methods improved, workers were allowed more time to pursue leisure activities. Sports and show business became amusement favorites for everyone; the kinds of events people attended reflected their socioeconomic status. In addition, the trend towards healthy activities dictated clothing styles.

Organized sports heralded amusement activities for the wealthy. Baseball, the most popular sport for years, was enjoyed only by upper and middle classes until 1876. After that, spectators and participants of all classes became involved in it, although it appealed more to men than to women. Women preferred croquet and bicycling. Croquet and bicycling allowed middle- and upper-class men and women to socialize. Tennis and golf appealed to the wealthy of both sexes. Football began as a sport for privileged college students but soon became as popular as baseball. Women became more involved in sports such as rowing, track, swimming, and basketball as a result of being exposed to these sports in college.

While sporting events drew the interest of mostly wealthy people, show business entertained the common people. As railroad travel improved, circuses reached small towns across the country and prospered. In the cities, popular drama, musical comedy, and vaudeville provided Americans with a means of escape from their daily trials.

Very early on, fashions made a statement about social status. As the times changed, though, the clothes people wore said less about them and more about changes in society. Before the Civil War, only the wealthiest people could afford finely-tailored clothes; others wore hand-sewn clothes. Because of changes in the textile industry to accommodate the mass production of Civil War uniforms, however, clothing became more available and affordable to everyone. Clothing continued to indicate social status. Department stores appeared and catered to the wealthy. Chain stores, like the “five and dime,” met the needs of the general public. In order to look like everyone else, poorer people bought cheap factory-made clothes. The working poor wore the first blue jeans. The wealthy, though, stood out. The men wore three-piece suits in somber colors; the women wore restrictive underclothes and elaborate dresses and hats made of bright, luxurious fabrics.

As women became increasingly involved in sports and new occupations, clothing became more comfortable and sensible. Women needed freedom to move, so Victorian-style dresses and tight corsets gave way to “shirtwaist” styles, loose undergarments, and shoes with shorter heels. No longer did plain dress indicate low socioeconomic status.

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