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When Our Ancestors Became Us

June 2024
24min read

In 1820 their daily existence was practically medieval; thirty years later many of them were living the modern life

It is a commonplace that the American Revolution determined the political destiny of the country. Far less noted is the fact that the Revolution’s consequences, profound as they were, had little, if any, impact on the daily existence of most Americans. The social structures and economic realities that had determined the everyday lives of the British subjects living in the colonies continued to determine the existence of the American citizens of the new Republic. Many still spent their whole lives within a few miles of where they had been born, and those who left home rarely returned. Most made their living by agriculture or commerce, and nearly all lived much as their parents and grand-parents had lived before them.


It required another revolution, the industrial one, to shatter this timeless pattern of everyday life and bring into existence ways of living that are familiar to us today. As Jack Larkin detailed in “The Secret Life of a Developing Country (Ours)” (American Heritage, September/October 1988), the reality of day-to-day existence in the early Republic was not the idyllic picket-fence-and-cottage-garden image created by Currier & Ives and others in the middle of the nineteenth century. Far from it. By modern standards the people of those days led lives that were overwhelmingly backward, dirty, drunken, and impoverished. And yet, when that life began to fade away, it evoked an intense nostalgia (a nostalgia Currier & Ives exploited most profitably).


At first the changes caused by the Industrial Revolution were hard to discern and affected most people only indirectly (just as the Information Revolution in our times began thirty years before the computer became a universal fixture about a decade ago). Then, beginning in urban areas in the 1820s and spreading out to the countryside, a series of developments turned people’s ordinary lives upside down in a single generation. The railroad, good interior lighting, running water, central heating, cookstoves, iceboxes, the telegraph, and mass-circulation newspapers all became common place within a period of thirty years. In those same three decades the rapidly expanding middle class came to dominate American society.

To the people of that era the sudden transformation of their world was both exhilarating and profoundly disturbing: exhilarating because the quality of everyday life improved immensely; disturbing because the landmarks and rules of the old society vanished and a new, far more complex economic, social, and political universe emerged.

As early as 1844 Philip Hone, a mayor of New York City and the author of a vast diary that is indispensable to the study of his times, was utterly bewildered by the whirlwind of change that had come about in his lifetime. “This world is going on too fast,” he wrote. “Improvements, Politics, Reform, Religion—all fly. Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time and beat it hollow. Flying is dangerous. By and by we shall have balloons and pass over to Europe between sun and sun. Oh, for the good old days of heavy post-coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour!”

Hone, by this time, was an old and deeply conservative man, and his use of the phrase “the good old days” is the earliest recorded. Before the 1840s there had been no need for such a phrase: the old days had been much like the present.

They never would be again.

A Revolution Rides the Rails

The new world that emerged during Hone’s lifetime would not have been possible without the rail-road, the seminal invention of the nineteenth century. Until the 1820s sustained land speeds over any great distance were limited to the pace of a brisk walk. In 1829, after Andrew Jackson had been elected President, he needed a full month to make his way by coach from Nashville to Washington for his inauguration. Until the age-old problem of overland transportation was solved, the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, which had begun half a century earlier, were limited by the markets the goods could reach.

Before the late 1820s the only solution was the canal, and many canal projects were undertaken in the new United States. But while canals could move freight and passengers cheaply and in large quantities, they were expensive to build, could not operate in Northern winters, and were extremely restricted as to where they could be placed.

At the very turn of the nineteenth century, an Englishman named Richard Trevithick designed a practical locomotive around a new type of steam engine, and the railroad was born. Many engineering problems had to be solved before the railroad was a practical transportation system; it was only in 1829, the same year as Andrew Jackson’s bone-bruising journey, that an engineer named George Stephenson built the Manchester and Liverpool Railway in England, the first commercially successful steam-powered railroad.

With the Manchester and Liverpool thriving, railroad projects blossomed in both Europe and America. Most were small, local affairs, designed only to break particular transportation bottlenecks or connect towns to the existing transportation system of river and canal. But soon much larger railroads were planned or came into existence by consolidation. By 1835 there were a thousand miles of railroad track in the United States. In 1840 there were three thousand. By the time of the Civil War more than thirty thousand miles of railroads laced the country together.

The early trains were not comfortable in the least. In the summer they were extremely hot, and sparks from the wood-burning engines were a constant menace. Returning from a trip to Montauk, George Templeton Strong, a New York lawyer and, like Philip Hone, the keeper of a remarkable diary, cursed the Long Island Railroad, as would countless millions after him: “Long detention, rain, smoke, dust, cinders, headache again, all sorts of botheration—home at half-past nine and went straight to bed doubting whether I should ever enjoy the blessing of a clean face again....” Matters were no better in winter, when Strong complained that the cars “with their sloppy floors, red-hot stoves, and currents of chill air from opened doors and windows, are perilous traps for colds and inflammations.”

The first coaches were linked together by nothing more complicated than lengths of chain, and the locomotive engineers delighted in trying to topple the stovepipe hats of the male passengers as the cars jerked suddenly into motion one by one. Indeed, much of what seems, to us, intrinsic to railroads was developed only later in the century. An adequate signaling system had to await the invention of telegraph signaling in 1851. Even the train whistle—that haunting, now nearly forgotten leitmotif of the steam age—did not appear before 1837.

But if the railroads were not comfortable, they were immensely practical from the very start. Until the coming of the railroad many people in the vast and undeveloped United States lived a week, even two weeks away from a major city. For people of modest means a visit to a big city might well be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Even the affluent were often trapped by walls of time and distance. In the early 1830s what became the Erie Railway was being considered for “the sequestered counties” of New York State. Philip Church, a nephew of Alexander Hamilton who had attended Eton and owned more than a hundred thousand acres of the Genesee Valley, was pushing hard for the railroad but had to make an extended, season-long trip to New York City to do it.

His daughter-in-law wrote to her father that “Mr. Church goes to New York for the winter, endeavoring to make interest for the railroad, which is now a topic of much feeling throughout the country. If they get it, it will be indeed annihilating all time and space. They talk most seriously of being able to go from Buffalo to New York in twenty-four hours. You may smile at this, but I assure you, it’s all true.”

Because railroads could carry passengers cheaply and quickly, they created traffic where none or little had existed earlier. In 1829 few people not elected to the Presidency could have undertaken a trip such as Jackson’s. A generation later such a journey was a simple matter of perhaps three days, and people exploited the new mobility to the fullest. The Charleston and Hamburg Railroad in South Carolina began operations in 1830. One of the first in the country, it was on its completion the longest railroad in the world under one management, at 136 miles, and it almost immediately revolutionized travel patterns in the area. Travelers between the two South Carolina cities had previously relied on one stagecoach making three trips a week. Only five years later the railroad conveyed 15,959 passengers in six months, a fiftyfold increase.

Railroads quickly transformed the areas they reached, for they brought not only a great increase in personal mobility but also an equally vast increase in freight traffic. And it was the products of the Industrial Revolution that, more and more, were carried in their freight cars. As railroads widened the potential markets for factory goods, they helped lower the price of those goods, and that, of course, further stimulated demand.

As the railroads reached distant areas that had formerly been too remote to compete, older areas of the country often had to undergo wrenching economic readjustments. Once the railroads had connected the fertile fields of the Middle West with the Eastern seaboard, agriculture in the stony soil of New England became far less profitable. Many New England farmers migrated westward, and others gravitated to the textile mills that were springing up along New England’s swift-flowing rivers. The great diaspora of rural New Englanders caused by agricultural decline and the influx of immigrants to the cities and new factories deeply disturbed the conservative, ethnically homogeneous society that had existed secure for two hundred years. It is no coincidence mat the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the oldest such organization in the country, was founded in 1845. It came into existence to keep alive the memories of the good old days of a vanishing New England.


Railroads also created markets where none had existed before. Until quick transport was available, fresh milk from rural areas could not be carried to the fast-growing cities. The rich could keep a cow or two in their stables or buy milk from nearby farmers who catered to the carriage trade. Less affluent city folk had to make do with what was called swill milk. Breweries kept herds of cows that were fed the mash after it had been fermented (and thus most of its nutrients extracted). The milk of these poor creatures was thin, bluish, and often contaminated with brucellosis and tuberculosis. The stench of overcrowded cow barns was often detectable half a mile away.

Then, in 1843, an agent for the Erie Railway had the idea of transporting milk from upstate Orange County to New York City. Lines a block long formed at the Erie terminal to buy all the milk offered for sale. Soon wholesome country milk was widely available for about two-thirds of the cost of swill milk and drove the latter from the market. The improvement in child care, public health, and quality of urban life was considerable.

But however practical railroads were, however great their effect on the quality and possibilities of everyday life and on the economy, it was their potential for speed that captivated the imagination of the people. Human beings had never been able to travel at even ten miles an hour. Now it was possible to travel at two, even three times that speed for hour after hour, a thing inconceivable to anyone who had lived even a quarter of a century earlier. It is little wonder that the rail-road almost immediately acquired a symbolic role for the early Victorians. It seemed to them the epitome of their new-found technological prowess and of the progress that they came to regard, with every good reason, as the hallmark of their new civilization.

Even Philip Hone, only fifteen months after he had been yearning for the return of the good old days, was astounded at how news from Great Britain had been carried by ship to Boston and that “the distance from Boston [to New York], 240 miles, was traveled by railroad and steamboat in the astonishingly short time of seven hours and five minutes. What a change from the times when the mail stage left for Boston once a fortnight, and consumed a week in going to Philadelphia!”

As should be expected, the younger generation had none of Hone’s occasional misgivings. “It’s a great sight to see a large train get underway,” George Templeton Strong wrote in 1839, when he was only nineteen. “I know of nothing that would more strongly impress our great-great grandfathers with an idea of their descendant’s progress in science.... Just imagine such a concern rushing unexpectedly by a stranger to the invention on a dark night, whizzing and rattling and panting, with its fiery furnace gleaming in front, its chimney vomiting fiery smoke above, and its long train of cars rushing along behind like the body and tail of a gigantic dragon—or like the d—1 himself—and all darting forward at the rate of twenty miles an hour. Whew!”

The New Comforts of Home

Before the Industrial Revolution the last major improvement in domestic technology had been the chimney, which came into use in middle and upper-class households in the high Middle Ages. In the 1820s houses were still heated by fireplaces and lighted by candles. Water was hauled in by bucket from a well, spring, or cistern. Cooking was done on an open hearth, and storing perishable foods for more than a few hours in summer was usually impossible.


One of the earliest changes of the industrial era to affect people’s daily lives was gaslight and the oil lamp. Before gaslight there were only candles and the light of the hearth to supply illumination after sundown. But candles were as expensive then, in real terms, as they are now. Only the rich could afford interior lighting in abundance; the poor went to bed with the dark.

Then, in the 1790s, a Briton named William Murdock developed a practical method of extracting in quantity a gas from coal that could be burned to produce a bright yellow flame. In 1813 coal gas was used to illuminate Westminster Bridge in London, and gas streetlights began to spread through British cities. Soon American cities were following suit. Gaslight had been demonstrated in Philadelphia in 1796, but it was Baltimore—where Rembrandt Peale maintained a museum lit by gas—that first passed an ordinance encouraging gas street-lights, in 1816.

In New York City the New York Gas Light Company was formed in 1823 and began to lay pipes for street lighting two years later. By the end of the decade Broadway was illuminated from the Battery to Grand Street, and soon all the major streets and avenues of the city, dark and dangerous since Dutch days, were brightly lit. Anne Royalle, an English resident of the city, was exhilarated in 1829 by “the profusion of lights to which I had long been a stranger.”

Much as they appreciated the street lighting, people at first were very wary of letting gas into their homes, fearing explosions and fires, a fear by no means unjustified. By 1840, however, the advantages of gaslight had overcome their trepidation, and gas pipes were installed in more and more houses. By the 1850s its faint hiss and odd, dank smell filled the homes of the middle and upper classes. “Gas is now considered almost indispensable in the city,” a New Yorker wrote in 1851. “So much so, that scarcely a respectable dwelling house is now built without gas fixtures.”

Rural areas and towns too small to justify building a gas works could not benefit from gaslight, of course. But beginning in 1830, the oil lamp, which burned whale oil, proved a cheaper and much superior alternative to candles. And by the 1860s oil lamps were more and more burning kerosene instead of oil from the fast-diminishing schools of whales. In both city and country, interior illumination was cheap for the first time in history and could be used in abundance. Warmth as well as light entered the American household at this time. Although the Romans had had elabop rate means of heating their villas and baths, the technology had vanished in the Middle Ages. Various means of central heating were rediscovered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a few commercial establishments in Europe, such as greenhouses, employed them. The Bank of England had a hot-water heating system installed in its offices as early as 1792. But it was not until canals, and then railroads, had lowered the cost of coal, and the Industrial Revolution had drastically lowered the cost of ducting and pipes, by the 1840s, that central heating became possible for middle-class homes.

The first household furnaces used hot air. The early ones heated the air in a large brick vault about six feet by nine in the basement. The air was brought in from the outside by wooden ducts, and other ducts conveyed the warmed air to the rooms above. Big as they were, these furnaces could heat only the lower floors; upstairs bedrooms still relied on fireplaces.

While the early furnaces were a blessing, they were not always adequate to the job, and they often produced as much smoke and fumes as heat. On January 8, 1866—"the coldest day in sixty years"—George Templeton Strong complained that he could not get the temperature of his house in New York above thirty-eight degrees, despite the fact that both furnaces and all the fireplaces were roaring away.

Americans fell immediately in love with central heating. Englishmen visiting this country were horrified, just as they are today. “The method of heating in many of the best houses is a terrible grievance to persons not accustomed to it,” wrote Thomas Golley Grattan, the former British consul in Boston, “and a fatal misfortune to those who are. Casual visitors are nearly suffocated, and the constant occupiers killed. An enormous furnace sends up, day and night, streams of hot air through apertures and pipes.... It meets you the moment the street door is opened to let you in, and it rushes after you when you emerge again, half-stewed and parboiled, into the welcome air.” Hot-water systems and then steam, with all its technological, if not aesthetic, advantages, soon replaced the primitive hot-air furnaces, and by the 1860s the chill of winter was fast disappearing from middle- and upper-class American households.

Cooking had long been done on a fire in an open hearth. This chore was necessarily done largely on one’s knees, and the need for constant adjustment of the coals meant that the cook stayed close to the fire for hours at a time. Benjamin Franklin invented a considerable improvement over the fireplace for heating in the 1740s with his Franklin stove, and it was not long before the possibility of a stove for cooking was considered.

But the cookstove didn’t really catch on until the Industrial Revolution had begun to bring down the cost of cast iron and of shipping heavy freight. The cookstove, “that conserver of nerve and muscle, of woman’s temper and woman’s complexion,” as one enthusiast termed it, was vastly more efficient, reliable, and easy to use than the hearth. Its arrival in American households was greeted by those who did the cooking with the same unbridled joy with which their descendants met the automatic dishwasher and clothes washer.

Just as furnaces and cookstoves provided heat, so the ice-box provided cold. Ice had long been an item in American commerce, and the principles of insulation were well known. In the 1840s it became possible for small iceboxes to be made cheaply enough to become a feature of the middleclass kitchen, while the ice wagon on its regular rounds became a fixture in urban neighborhoods. A cold glass of milk in July became, in many American households, a marvelous reality, and the menace to health and the economic waste represented by spoiled food began to decline. By the 1850s ice—cut on ponds in the winter and stored in vast ice-houses under tons of sawdust—was a major New England industry, employing upwards of ten thousand people. Some 150,000 tons of ice a year were shipped out of Boston as far as India, and ice accounted for more freight tonnage than any other American item except King Cotton itself.

Houses fitted with the new technological marvels were a lot more comfortable than their immediate predecessors had been, but they still required a large number of servants to function efficiently. In the early years of the nineteenth century, affluent Americans had had a “servant problem” because only a small percentage of the population wanted employment as domestics and a large percentage wanted to employ them. But as people began to move off the farms, especially after the great Atlantic migration began in the 1840s, the price of servants began to tumble. To be sure, Europeans—especially the illiterate, primitive Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine—were not much admired as domestic help; help wanted ads often specified “American” applicants, a plain and simple code for “No Irish need apply.” But servants were cheap and plentiful, and the latter half of the nineteenth century was to be the great age of domestic help in this country.

By mid-century a typical upper-middle-class urban household kept a cook, a waiter, and a maid, who cleaned the parlors and bedrooms. (The waiter not only waited on the table but also kept the china and silver in order and did such heavy chores as tending the furnace, hauling coal, and shoveling snow.) A wealthy family would have had not only these three but an upstairs maid, a laundress, a houseman (who did the heavy work), a coachman, and a governess for the children as well. Skilled domestic help (such as cooks) earned as much as six or seven dollars a week plus room and board, a decent wage then, for which they worked six days a week, generally rising an hour before the family and remaining on duty until dismissed for the night or the family went to bed. In many families favorite servants were an integral part of the household and were greatly loved and valued. Under these circumstances the life of a servant, especially for an unmarried female, could be a pleasant one. It was certainly a great deal more pleasant than most of the alternatives: a job in one of the new factories and a room—or, more likely, part of a room—in the teeming, noisome slums that were fast blighting American cities as immigration from abroad and from declining rural areas relentlessly accelerated.

The Miracle of Clean Water

The Romans, of course, had developed elaborate means to supply Rome and other cities with water, but as cities decayed at the end of classical times, so did the technology needed to sustain them. It was largely reinvented during the Renaissance. Because American cities were very small until the nineteenth century (even the largest, Philadelphia, had a population of only 42,444 in 1790), they could obtain the water they needed from local wells, streams, and, for the affluent, cisterns fed from house roofs. As the population of American cities began to swell in the first decades of the new century, the problem of water for drinking, cleaning, bathing, and cooking became acute.

People still bathed—when they bathed—in the kitchen. They used back-yard outhouses or chamber pots, whose contents as often as not were emptied into the streets. There rain or the herds of pigs that wandered around many American cities would, it was hoped, cope with the mess. Although it was not known at the time, water, grossly contaminated by this sewage, was the source of the frequent epidemics of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhus that swept many American cities. Meanwhile, cisterns and water barrels provided ample breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carried yellow fever and malaria.


American cities met the problem each in its own way and according to its local water resources. In 1830 Philadelphia opened the Schuylkill Water Works, and in 1832 the first houses in America to be built with bathrooms were supplied with water from this system. New York, with the greatest population and the greatest technical difficulties, did not get a reliable water supply until July 4, 1842, when the forty-five-mile-long Croton Aqueduct opened. Philip Hone, for one, was agog. Months later he reported in his diary that “nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water.... Fountains, aqueducts, hydrants, and hose attract our attention and impede our progress through the streets.... Water! water! is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

Soon the new cookstoves were fitted with water tanks, and hot running water, a luxury unimaginable a few years earlier, became a commonplace. To the middle and upper classes, this was nothing short of a miracle. The lack of running water was one aspect of the good old days that Hone and everyone else was more than happy to part with. Hone almost immediately had his mansion at Broadway and Great Jones Street fitted out with bathrooms. When George Templeton Strong’s father had a bathroom installed in his house on Greenwich Street in 1843, his son became altogether carried away. “I’ve led rather an amphibious life for the last week,” he wrote happily in his diary, “paddling in the bathing tub every night and constantly making new discoveries in the art and mystery of ablution. Taking a shower bath upside down is the last novelty. A real luxury, that bathing apparatus is....”

Of course, as with every major technological advance of the industrial era, there were those who saw the imminent collapse of Western civilization in the luxury of too frequent bathing. In 1845 the city of Boston, ever alert to the possibility that people might be enjoying themselves excessively, actually outlawed daily bathing except on a doctor’s prescription. It is doubtful anyone paid the slightest attention.

In rural areas water from a hillside spring was often piped in to supply a farmhouse. In the 1850s the prefabricated wind-mill was developed to pump water to a tank in the attic, whence it flowed to kitchen and bathroom. In less affluent households the soon familiar farmhouse pump offered a vast improvement over hauling water by bucket.

As rapidly increasing demand brought down the cost of fixtures, the cost of having running water fell too. Bathrooms, originally built one to a household, were soon being built one to a floor and even one to a bedroom in the more prosperous houses. The American love affair with plumbing was on in earnest. As early as August 1846 the New York Daily Tribune was reporting that “the demand for water is so great in the present hot weather that it is found impossible to keep up the supply in the distributing basins as fast as it is taken out.” New Yorkers were soon proud that they used as much water as London, then a city four times the size.

Within a few years new houses could not be sold unless they had water closets and bathrooms, and cities undertook crash programs of sewer and water-main construction. The drop in demand for well water often caused the local water table to rise alarmingly. This forced cities to construct storm and drainage sewers to overcome epidemics of flooded basements. Happily this also meant that the streets, once frequent quagmires of mud, now drained far more quickly after rainstorms.

By 1860 all major American cities had clean running water available in the areas inhabited by the middle and upper classes. As the amount of water used per person per day sky-rocketed, the standards of personal hygiene and clean clothing soared as well. The stench of human existence that had been so pervasive as to go unnoticed now became socially unacceptable. (Servants, however, seldom rated a bathroom of their own and were certainly not allowed to use the family ones, at least when the family was in residence, so they were forced to continue to rely on the chamber pot and the kitchen hip bath. It was a common complaint for years in affluent households that other people’s servants were a bit on the whiffy side.)

Far more important than the social niceties, however, the increasing availability of clean and abundant water in the 1840s and '50s dramatically reduced the number of deaths from waterborne diseases. It remains one of the greatest triumphs of public health in human history and an element in the increase in the average American life expectancy at birth, which was 39.4 in 1850 and rose to 48.8 by 1900.

Everyone (Almost) Gets Richer

The Industrial Revolution generated wealth wherever it reached, and this new wealth, together with the new technology, now gave the middle class a standard of living that even the very rich had not known two generations earlier. The newly affluent were the most rapidly growing segment of the population. In 1828, when New York’s population was 185,000, there were only 59 New Yorkers with property assessed at more than one hundred thousand dollars, a large fortune in those days. By 1845, when the city’s population had more than doubled to 371,000, the number of citizens with property worth more than one hundred thousand dollars had quintupled and the word millionaire had been coined to describe the very, very rich. The number of those who were, in the Victorian phrase, merely “comfortably fixed” far more than kept pace.

The relative ease with which new wealth could be created, not just in agriculture and commerce as before but now also in manufacturing, transportation, and finance, had profound consequences for human society. As early as 1828 the English social critic John Sterling wrote: “Wealth! wealth! wealth! Praise be to the god of the nineteenth century! The golden idol! the mighty Mammon! such are the accents of the time, such the cry of the nation.... There may be here and there an individual, who does not spend his heart in laboring for riches; but there is nothing approaching to a class of persons actuated by any other desire.” Although Sterling was referring to England, his observations were equally true of the United States. Money—who had it and how much- was a subject of abiding interest to the early Victorians, an interest they made little, if any, effort to conceal. The cost of everything, even churches, was among the details regularly given in guidebooks to American cities.


The rapidly increasing middle class came to dominate society and taste in the 1840s and ’50s, especially in the United States, which had no aristocratic tradition. The newly affluent, able to afford leisure, greatly increased the market for books and magazines while gaslight and oil lamps greatly increased the ease of reading and the time available for it. Publishers began to pour out new and inexpensive works of fiction and travel. (It is ironic that Charles Dickens, who deplored the Industrial Revolution and the capitalists who drove it, probably never realized that changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution had contributed mightily to his own immense income.)

The furnace and efficient stoves made entertaining and socializing much more pleasant in winter. The cookstove made elaborate cooking much easier in the middle-class kitchen and allowed meals to become as elaborate as those once served only in the wealthiest households. At the same time middle-class housewives, delighted to have vast sets of now-inexpensive matching china, flatware, and table linens (luxuries most of their mothers could only have dreamed of), naturally wanted to show them all off, and this further increased the trend toward elaborate meals.

The common obsession of the nouveau riche with manners, decorum, and proper behavior generated a big market for books and magazines dealing with etiquette, fashion, and “household management.” The new preoccupation with proper behavior also ensured that the nineteenth century became the golden age of the euphemism. Thomas Bowdler gave his name to the language by carefully editing Shakespeare for a “family” audience, peopling the often bawdy plays with eunuchs and madonnas. Sexual matters and body parts—when their discussion was unavoidable—were wreathed in verbal cotton wool. Americans began referring to chicken as white meat and dark meat in order to avoid the all-too-suggestive breast and leg.

At the same time, the new technology profoundly affected decoration. High Victorian style has been traditionally ascribed to simple bad taste. In fact, it was largely determined by the wondrous capacities of gaslight, the easy availability of products of the Industrial Revolution, and the natural human tendency to go overboard with new possibilities.


In the mid-nineteenth century gilding and mirrors abounded to catch and multiply the twinkling glow of gaslight. Walls that had perforce been light-colored in all but the richest houses, to reflect what light there was, were now covered in the dark and often elaborately patterned wallpapers that newly invented presses were able to grind out by the acre. Floors were covered in equally elaborate wall-to-wall carpets, made possible by new looms developed in the 1840s. Bric-a-brac, china figurines, lithographs, and other ornaments once restricted to the rich now littered the tables, shelves, and walls of the middle class. Conspicuous consumption was the order of the day.

The Birth of Mass Culture

Until the nineteenth century the speed of communication was, for the most part, limited to the speed of human travel. Although it had been realized as early as the 1720s that electricity could be conducted along a wire for a considerable distance and used to convey messages, more than a hundred years passed before the telegraph was a practical system. As with the railroad, the telegraph had many fathers, and no one can claim to have invented it. Samuel F. B. Morse put the whole thing together. He developed a practical single-circuit instrument, invented the remarkably efficient Morse code, and built, with money voted by Congress, a thirty-seven-mile telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, his partner, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore, transmitted the words “What hath God wrought.” The message arrived in Washington in about one-thousandth the time that any other means of communication would have required.

Once its practicality had been established, the telegraph spread quickly, often along railroad rights-of-way. By the 1850s all major American cities and many small towns were linked by telegraph, and in 1858 a telegraph cable between the United States and England was established. In 1861 a transcontinental line reached California.

Although the Atlantic cable failed in only four weeks and was not replaced until after the Civil War, America’s profound isolation from Europe was coming to an end. At the turn of the nineteenth century, news from England had taken six to eight weeks to reach the United States. After the passage of less than a human lifetime, it could cross the Atlantic in as many minutes. The latest news from Europe and California involved matters that were happening now, not something that had transpired weeks or months earlier. “What hath God wrought?” was a question the early Victorians had occasion to ask themselves over and over again.

The telegraph was too expensive at first for most Americans to make use of it directly; transatlantic cables cost a dollar a word with a fifteen-word minimum, nearly a week’s wages for a skilled worker. Nonetheless, the technology had an immediate impact through the proliferating newspapers.

As the number of people and the percentage of the population above the subsistence level increased, their need and desire for information about their civilization, its perils, and its opportunities increased also. Until the 1830s there were few means to obtain it. Newspapers were expensive and targeted at specific audiences for specific purposes. Papers aimed at merchants supplied only news of the marketplace, prices, the arrivals and departures of ships. Political papers were the organs of particular factions and were hardly more than editorial pages wrapped in a little tendentious news.

Then, in the 1830s, the steam engine and new types of printing presses were combined, greatly lowering the cost per copy of newspapers and greatly increasing the number of copies that could be printed quickly. Suddenly newspapers could be afforded and read by the masses as well as the elite, and many intellectuals and politicians, such as Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune , and Henry J. Raymond, of the Times, moved to exploit the new possibilities. But it was people like James Gordon Bennett and Benjamin Day, neither intellectuals nor politicians, who edited the first truly modern newspapers.

A newspaper, they thought, should not be an instrument of instruction or of political indoctrination; rather, it should be a window the people could use to look out onto the new industrial world—in all its splendor and misery—and form their own opinions. Their aim was to give the people what they wanted to read, not just what an editor thought was important or proper for them to know. It was Bennett, in the 1830s and ’40s, who first printed stock tables and a sports page and first used the railroads and the telegraph to speed timely news from distant points to his readers. And it was the new newspapers that first exploited the insatiable appetite of the nouveaux riches for information on the life-styles of the rich and famous by introducing gossip columns and articles on the houses and clothes of the fashionable.

Americans responded immediately to this revolutionary brand of journalism. Long before Bennett’s death his New York Herald had become the most successful paper in the world. He had made newspapers an essential part of daily life, and every day he printed nearly as many copies of the Herald as all the daily newspapers in the English-speaking world had printed at the turn of the century. The streets of every major city rang with the cries of newsboys hawking the latest issues. Weekly editions were taken by railroad to towns and villages throughout the country.

“The daily newspaper,” wrote the North American Review in 1866, only thirty years after the Herald ’s founding, “is one of those things which are rooted in the necessities of modern civilization. The steam engine is not more essential to us.

The newspaper is that which connects each individual with the general life of mankind.” The newspapers unified the Victorian age just as television unifies ours. They gave the people their sense of the world in which they lived, a world that had become in their lifetimes far wider and richer, far more interrelated and more complex than any known before. Ironically, it was the very richness and variety of the new world created by the proliferating technology that made so many yearn for the good old days.

More than anything else, the Industrial Revolution accelerated the rate of technological innovation. In 1790 the U.S. Patent Office issued 3 patents; in 1840 it gave out 458; and in 1860 there were 4,357. After 1867 no fewer than 12,000 were issued in any year.

At first the early Victorians had thought they were living in a singular age of transition from one period of order and regularity to another of equal predictability. It was only as the new miracles of technology continued to pile one on top of another and the social, political, and economic consequences of those miracles began to play themselves out that they came gradually to understand that the only thing now permanent was change itself.

By the Civil War the modern world had largely replaced the good old days in the developed areas of the country. While the pace of technological change would only continue to accelerate in future years, most later miracles, such as the electric light, the telephone, and the automobile, would only replace and improve upon the older ones, such as gas-light, the telegraph, and the railroad, that had come into being in the thirty years before the Civil War. And by that point, because of the Industrial Revolution, technological miracles had become a commonplace, and change a constant. The disconcerting sense of living through a discontinuity in the stream of time was lost.

To those who had lived through that discontinuity, however, it was the regularity and simplicity, certainly not the squalor, disease, and poverty, that they missed about the good old days. Through the softening haze of time—and with a good deal of help from the likes of Currier & Ives and Dickens—the good old days came to seem ever more appealing, compared with the “age of chaos . .. [this] heaving, tumbling age” (James Gordon Bennett’s words) in which they now lived.


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