Midcentury America; Life in the 1850's

Midcentury America; Life in the 1850's

Midcentury America; Life in the 1850's

Midcentury America; Life in the 1850's


Through his selection and organization of, and commentary on, the documents and illustrations in this anthology Carl Bode gives his readers a vivid picture of American civilization and popular culture of the 1850s. The twenty-eight selections from contemporary documents and thirty illustrations are divided into seven sections covering various aspects of the American experience- the character of the people and country, home life, work, education, religion, pleasures of life, and slavery.

Americans in the 1850s,the documents show, were worse off physi cally and better off mentally than they are today. They felt more secure because they had more absolutes than we do today. Men in the earlier era trusted in God and in the great social institutions of church, family, school, and country. Yet the 1850s were by no means a bucolic interlude before the Civil War, as Bode makes clear, and the revealing look at the period given here is both rich and rewarding.


If you were the average American (and nobody ever is) living in the 1850s, you would, I think, be worse off physically and better off mentally than you are today. This is a paradox and an unprovable one, the sort that historians love to leap on with a yell. Yet a careful investigation of this interesting decade, a close look at its documents and artifacts, its gaudy mementos and odd paraphernalia, leads pretty surely to that conclusion.

You would be smaller and sicklier but also more sanguine. You would probably be more superstitious and more ignorant. It is certain that you would be smaller. Such men's clothing as has survived the attic and the moth looks shrunken to us. So does the women's: the Smithsonian Institution has an exhibit of gowns worn by presidents' wives, and the further they go from our time the smaller the gowns get. You would be sicklier since disease would be stalking you often. the deadliest of ills you would be exposed to would be tuberculosis, diphtheria, and typhoid. If you became a parent in the 1850s in Massachusetts (the only state to keep life-expectancy records then) , your baby had a life expectancy of only about forty years.

Still, you would feel more sanguine than you would today. Though few of us learn to take disease or death for granted, you would learn to live with them as we have learned to live with the hydrogen bomb. in fact you would expect your children to catch certain diseases and be troubled if they did not, knowing vaguely that it would be worse to catch them later. You would feel more secure in the present and more optimistic about the future, because the history both of your country and your people had been one of spectacular progress. the only obstacle to continued progress (though a formidable one: slavery) you ignored if you lived in the North and refused to consider an obstacle if you lived in the South.

You would feel more secure because you would have more absolutes than you do now. You would trust in the great social institutions of church . . .

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