Education: Essay

Public Amusements In An Era Of An Emerging Middle Class

by Dr. Graham Warder, Keene State College

During the 1700s, Americans had entertainments very different from those that arose in the following century. In some traditional amusements, men and women were kept apart, but people of various social classes intermingled. Throughout the colonies, and, with the Revolution, throughout the early United States, male entertainments usually involved the consumption of beverage alcohol. In the South, the honor ethic dictated that social elites provide the community with manly entertainment in the form of horse races, elections, militia musters, and other events, frequently combining alcohol and gambling. In the North, work and leisure were mixed in ways that would become unthinkable for the middle class of the nineteenth century. Periodic breaks for alcohol were common in both artisan shops and in agricultural fields. Such breaks were considered necessary for any arduous physical labor, much as many office workers today consider coffee a necessary stimulus for intellectual labor.

Barn raisings, quilting bees, and corn huskings were also typical communal gatherings that combined work and leisure. All these forms of amusement added to communal identity and fostered a sense of an assigned place in an inherited social hierarchy. Activities considered entertaining linked people into closely knit communities of extended families. They were not about turning a profit.

During the first decades of the nineteenth century, things began to change. The Market Revolution, the period after the War of 1812 when the exchange of money replaced local barter as the most important economic practice, brought about the rapid commercialization of life and upset older notions of community. The Second Great Awakening, the waves of evangelical Protestant revivals from the 1790s through the 1830s, created a sense of religious optimism and faith in the ability of human beings to create a purer world. Urban centers grew rapidly and attracted middle-class aspirants. Immigrants from Ireland and Germany, with seemingly strange and bewildering cultural practices, arrived in ever-increasing numbers. Out of these far-reaching historical transformations came the nineteenth-century middle class. These people strove for financial security at a time of increasing economic dependence and instability. They believed in the efficacy of their wills to achieve spiritual salvation, in hard work, in order, and in the sanctity of the private home. The temperance movement, so popular among this segment of society, taught them to forego alcohol. Drink became the embodiment of evil -- Demon Rum.

These Americans of middling social rank believed in the moral superiority of their social class and defined themselves against other classes. Those below them, the working class, they considered lazy, dissolute, and deserving of their poverty. Those above them, the old financial and mercantile elites, were dissolute in their luxury and their fashionable vices. Both groups, according to this emerging middle class, were sinful, governed by their appetites for sex and alcohol. They lacked self-control. For this emerging middle class, education, proper character, hard work, and delayed gratification provided the road to the good life.

For the middle class, self-improvement was the order of the day. They believed in progress for themselves and for society as a whole. It was into this world that P.T. Barnum sought to make money.

But how could one justify commercial amusements to a group so suspicious of fun?

Barnum’s answer was to present it as "moral" and educational. The American Museum was promoted by emphasizing its mission of moral uplift. Barnum’s advertisements hid the Museum’s primary function as a place of entertainment. He stressed the rules that kept drinkers and prostitutes out of his establishment. He encouraged ministers and moral, middle-class women to attend. He assured his patrons that this public house was safe for families and put on matinees to make it easier for mothers and their children to attend. Before Barnum, theater was considered degraded in the eyes of the moral middle class, but Barnum’s theater, where many moral melodramas were presented, was called the "Lecture Room." It was a theater in fact but not in name.

Given that profit was his goal, Barnum did not exclude other groups -– as long as they conformed to his rules of propriety. Barnum actively attracted aspiring members of the working class seeking to climb the socio-economic ladder. Moral and intellectual uplift was thus the catalyst for what would ultimately become America’s mass culture. Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, with their proper behavior but unusual statures, fascinated members of this emerging middle class, and many were happily willing to part with some of their money to see them. According to the rules of the urban middle-class world of the 1840s and beyond, they were safe but simultaneously extremely entertaining because of a fascination with bodily difference. P.T. Barnum, in turn, became wealthy. The deal was struck.

How to cite this essay in a Chicago Manual of Style footnote: Graham Warder, “Public Amusements in an Era of an Emerging Middle Class,” Disability History Museum, (accessed date).