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Although most working-class men sought to emulate the middle class by keeping their wives and children out of the work force, their economic situation often necessitated that others besides the male head of the family contribute to its support. Thus, working-class children might attend school for a few years or learn to read and write at Sunday school, but education was sacrificed when income was needed, and many working-class children went to work in factories. While the wives of wage laborers usually did not work for wages outside the home, many took in laundry or did piecework at home to supplement the family’s income.

Although the urban working class could not afford the consumer goods that the middle class could, its members did exercise a great deal of influence over popular culture. Theirs was a festive public culture of release and escape from the drudgery of factory work, catered to by the likes of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the celebrated circus promoter and showman. Taverns also served an important function as places to forget the long hours and uncertain wages of the factories. Alcohol consumption was high among the working class, although many workers did take part in the temperance movement. It is little wonder that middle-class manufacturers attempted to abolish alcohol.

P. t. barnum and the feejee mermaid

The Connecticut native P. T. Barnum catered to the demand for escape and cheap amusements among the working class. His American Museum in New York City opened in 1841 and achieved great success. Millions flocked to see Barnum’s exhibits, which included a number of fantastic human and animal oddities, almost all of which were hoaxes. One exhibit in the 1840s featured the “Feejee Mermaid,” which Barnum presented as proof of the existence of the mythical mermaids of the deep ( [link] ). In truth, the mermaid was a half-monkey, half-fish stitched together.

Illustration (a) depicts a creature with the head and upper torso of a young monkey and the bottom half of a fish. Photograph (b) shows crowds of people surrounding P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.
Spurious though they were, attractions such as the Feejee mermaid (a) from P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City (b) drew throngs of working-class wage earners in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Visit The Lost Museum to take a virtual tour of P. T. Barnum’s incredible museum.

Wage workers in the North were largely hostile to the abolition of slavery, fearing it would unleash more competition for jobs from free blacks. Many were also hostile to immigration. The pace of immigration to the United States accelerated in the 1840s and 1850s as Europeans were drawn to the promise of employment and land in the United States. Many new members of the working class came from the ranks of these immigrants, who brought new foods, customs, and religions. The Roman Catholic population of the United States, fairly small before this period, began to swell with the arrival of the Irish and the Germans.

Section summary

The creation of distinctive classes in the North drove striking new cultural developments. Even among the wealthy elites, northern business families, who had mainly inherited their money, distanced themselves from the newly wealthy manufacturing leaders. Regardless of how they had earned their money, however, the elite lived and socialized apart from members of the growing middle class. The middle class valued work, consumption, and education and dedicated their energies to maintaining or advancing their social status. Wage workers formed their own society in industrial cities and mill villages, though lack of money and long working hours effectively prevented the working class from consuming the fruits of their labor, educating their children, or advancing up the economic ladder.

Questions & Answers

what is taring and feathering?
Dominic Reply
Isnt there any laws in place for gun control?
Ryan Reply
How would you characterize the former president’s reaction? What do you think he means by writing that the Missouri Compromise line “is a reprieve only, not a final sentence”?
Tonda Reply
Compare and contrast the steamboats of the antebellum years with technologies today. In your estimation, what modern technology compares to steamboats in its transformative power?
Tonda Reply
airplanes to jets. Another would be electric trains.
I would say the Internal Combustion engine was as if not more transformative the the Steam power which it replaced. The ability of the Steamboat to rapidly move large amounts of goods through the water ways that weave there way from town to town increased our fledgling country's economy. I can draw direct coraleris with the National highway system built during the 1950's that were soon clogged with Transport trucks using I.C.E.
what are the impact of the missionaries on indigenous knowledge of black communities
Don Reply
What were the initial issues that lead to the introduction of legislation
Benedicta Reply
what is the main title of franklin D roosevelt
Allan Reply
the president of the USA
who abolish slavery
Abraham Lincoln
who was the fists empire in americans
Alex Reply
who organized the most massive attack in American History, which caused the Germans to begin to retreat in September 1918?
Jmora Reply
"Black Jack" Pershing
Is there answers anywhere to all of the critical thinking questions?
Heather Reply
What were the direct causes of the civil war
Trinity Reply
How did slavery issues effect the war
How were politics involved
north wanted to unify the south
south wanted independence
freeing slaves was just a way to recruit black soldiers to fight for north
Lincoln couldn't let the south separate from the union , agriculture was way to valuable
South felt North was opposing their interests and would be better off as a separate nation
progressive reforms under Theodore Roosevelt
Karpi Reply
TR was determined to pursue the public interest
what was the main thing suposed to happen when the tea party
Gavin Reply
Which plan resolved the issue of representation for the U.S. Constitution?
Nichole Reply
The plan which became known as the seventeenth amendmet.
amendmet because not an article of bill of rights.

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Source:  OpenStax, U.s. history. OpenStax CNX. Jan 12, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11740/1.3
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