The Origins of Middle-Class Culture: Halifax, Yorkshire, 1660-1780

The Origins of Middle-Class Culture: Halifax, Yorkshire, 1660-1780

The Origins of Middle-Class Culture: Halifax, Yorkshire, 1660-1780

The Origins of Middle-Class Culture: Halifax, Yorkshire, 1660-1780

Synopsis

In this book John Smail focuses on the economic and social life in one of the most important northern textile centers as he explores themes fundamental to the history of eighteenth-century England. By developing a cultural theory of class formation, he offers a solution to a question that has provoked spirited discussion in recent years: what were the origins of middle-class English culture? Smail argues that a group's class identity depends on a culture that its members share, one that encompasses economic, social, and political factors in a common worldview. He traces the emergence of an increasingly prosperous manufacturing and middle-class elite in Halifax when large-scale and capitalistic textile operations began to undercut the small-scale, independent clothiers and yeomen. The new manufacturers and the elite professionals associated with them, he shows, became involved in distinctive economic forms and relationships of capitalistic production. They developed their own attitudes toward credit, investment, and money, with a distinctive consumer orientation toward a whole range of luxury items and fashionable goods. By examining the range of voluntary associations and official institutions in the public sphere and the new expectations of the family and forms of sociability in the private sphere, he shows how this new elite built its middle-class consciousness in opposition to other social groups. While Smail concentrates on a particular community, he continually explores the impact of the wider world on these families and the implications of their experiences.

Excerpt

There is no doubt that the publication of E. P. Thompson Making of the English Working Class in 1964 revolutionized the history of class and class formation, and its importance for almost any aspect of social or economic history in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is still enormous. Yet since the mid-1980s, the field created by his book has changed. Some historians, for instance, have finally begun to address the problem of middle-class formation, an issue on which Thompson is curiously silent. Doing so, however, requires significant alterations to the argument in his book, for there, and in much of the literature it spawned, the middle class is little more than a caricature, a class that behaved in such-and-such a way because of its relations to the means of production. Thompson, in short, perpetuated an older picture of the middle class at the same time that he transformed our thinking about the working class. I suspect that Thompson and others use a two-dimensional middle class because, as more recent work shows, the formation of the middle class has a complex and often confusing history. Consider one obvious point: the middle class's identity, unlike that of the working class, must emerge in relation not just to one group, but to two--the upper class and the working class. This double relationship suggests that anyone who set out to write a companion volume to The Making of the English Working Class would have no easy task.

Other changes in the field, however, suggest that it is unlikely that such a volume will ever appear, for historians inspired by poststructuralist theory have begun to challenge the conceptual heart of Thomp son . . .

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