Standard of Living: The Measure of the Middle Class in Modern America

By Martin, Jay | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2005 | Go to article overview
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Standard of Living: The Measure of the Middle Class in Modern America


Martin, Jay, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Standard of Living: The Measure of the Middle Class in Modern America Marina Moskowitz. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

One evening in 1894, the philosopher John Dewey and his brother, the economist Davis Dewey, went "slumming" in Chicago. Both were interested in the varieties of life in America. First, they went to an outdoor gospel meeting, then to a "ten cent lodging house," next to "two gambling places," and finally, to Carrie Watson's famous brothel. The last was "a high select place ... furnished as elegantly [as] ... 3/4 of the millionaire's houses." The girls, John noticed, "weren't even powdered," and he realized that "an expert might pick them out, but I shouldn't know them from women you might meet at an evening party anywhere." One "might have been a kindergarten teacher for all I could see in her." Another girl told the philosopher that for her, it was "a profession," and that like any other business person, she made her regular donations to charities.

At Carrie Watson's, John Dewey discovered how far the "standard of living" and its concomitant creation of a definite middle-class ideology had spread. Hitherto, he had been much concerned with the conflict between workers and capitalists. Now his attention turned to the center of American life, its middle class. He was to become the philosopher of a "standard of thinking" and of behaving in a philosophy that he called instrumentalism and that others called pragmatism.

In Standard of Living, Marina Moskowitz mentions neither Dewey nor his fellow pragmatist William James. William Dean Howells and Henry James, the great novelists of middle-class American life, are nowhere discussed. The profound effects of politics, legislation, public policy, and judicial decisions receive no attention. The ways in which the conflict of the Civil War accelerated in the immediate postwar period the development of a national middle-class culture, and the effects of the First World War upon consolidating middle-class standards and these values, are not discussed. The relation of Christian religion, social gospel, and charity to the dominance of the middle class is omitted. The astonishing increase in volunteer social organizations that fostered middle-class values as the "standard of life" is not considered. The expositions and fairs that occurred with such regularity in America between 1876 and 1939-most importantly, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago-are barely mentioned, though it was at these that the nation could be introduced to the everexpanding products and values that made the middle class's standard of living. These fairs contributed powerfully to the increasingly planned obsolescence of middle-class material culture, since the focus on the progressively new was strongly inscribed into its value sets. Last, the author shows no interest in how possession of the automobile became a central symbol of a proper standard of living.

Admittedly, the literature on the rise of the middle class and the systematic creation of the national standardization in living is vast, even during the period of 1870-1920, on which Moskowitz focuses. A small library of books on the subject comes to mind, and this has undoubtedly pre-empted many of the subjects and issues that seem to be absent from her study.

Her focus, then, is on four emblems of middleclass standards that she offers as representing much more. Her first focus is on the Reed & Barton Silver company.

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