Everyday Life in America

In the decades after the Civil War, Americans experienced remarkable changes in their everyday life, from the clothes they wore and food they ate to their opportunities for recreation. Mail order catalogs allowed rural residents to buy new equipment and follow the latest trends in fashion or household appliances without ever going to a store. The public school and university systems grew and developed as the demand for education increased. Meanwhile, Americans filled their leisure time with a diverse range of activities, from sports to vaudeville to amusement parks. The impact of these changes in lifestyle was reflected in both the serious and popular literature of the time, which emphasized realism and targeted the growing middle class.

The impact of mass production. Mass production changed the way Americans dressed, shopped, and ate. After the Civil War, handmade clothing quickly gave way to ready‐to‐wear clothes sold through retail outlets. But people did not have to live in large cities or even visit the stores themselves to buy what they needed. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward opened the first mail‐order retail business and issued a one‐page catalog featuring nearly 150 items; by 1884 the catalog contained more than 200 pages and listed over 10,000 items. Montgomery Ward and its more successful competitor Sears, Roebuck and Company brought the benefits of mass production to farms and small towns by selling everything from clothes to agricultural implements through their catalogs. Mail‐order buying was made even more accessible in 1896 with the first rural free delivery (RFD) service.

The variety of foods available also increased dramatically. By the 1880s, Easterners could buy California oranges, Wyoming beef, and fresh milk shipped from rural dairies by rail in refrigerated cars. More and more women shopped for commercially prepared food and did less baking and canning. Many of today's best known brand names — Campbell's soup, Nabisco crackers, and Coca‐Cola — were introduced in the 1890s. These products were marketed through grocery chain stores like the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, or A & P, which added foodstuffs and household products to its inventory in the 1870s. Perhaps the best known example of the chain store was the “five and dime,” created by F. W. Woolworth in 1879. Like the new department stores, the retailing success of A & P and Woolworth's was due to large‐volume buying and heavy advertising.

The expansion of education. Public‐school enrollment doubled between 1870 and 1900, including a significant jump in the number of high school students during the same period. Both trends contributed to a sharp drop in illiteracy in the United States. The growth in elementary education reflected the influx of immigrants. Immigrant parents wanted their children to go to school as a means of getting ahead, while educators and public officials saw schools as the best instruments for acculturation. Children of the middle class, however, accounted for the increase in the secondary‐school population. New classes in American history, the sciences, and the “manual arts” were added to the basic curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and the first vocational high schools were established by the turn of the century.

Higher education also expanded. As a result of both public and private investment, American colleges and universities had almost 250,000 students by 1900, four times the number 30 years earlier. The Morrill Act of 1862 led to the creation of 12 new state colleges, 8 agricultural and mechanical colleges, and 6 black colleges, and the federal government provided partial funding for these institutions through the Second Morrill Act (1890). At the same time, wealthy entrepreneurs and philanthropists endowed new schools, such as Johns Hopkins University (1873), Stanford University (1885), and the University of Chicago (1890). Higher education became more accessible to women as several women's colleges, such as Vassar (1861) and Smith (1871), were founded and state land‐grant universities became coeducational. In fact, women accounted for nearly 20 percent of college graduates in 1900. Not everyone fully shared in these changes though. Although a number of all‐black colleges were established, African‐Americans certainly did not benefit as much as middle‐class whites from the expansion of public education.

The use of leisure time. Sports became a popular pastime for many Americans in the late nineteenth century. Golf, tennis, and bicycling (which became a short‐lived national craze in the 1890s) attracted middle‐class and well‐to‐do men and women, while baseball drew more diverse and much larger crowds. Not long after the professional Cincinnati Red Stockings began barnstorming around the country, the National League was formed (1876) and the rules of the modern game took shape. The rival American League began play in 1901, and the inaugural World Series was held two years later. Prizefighting, long considered a working man's sport, gained wider acceptance with the introduction of the Queensberry rules, which mandated the use of gloves, set the length of a round at three minutes, and outlawed wrestling holds; no less a figure than Theodore Roosevelt endorsed boxing as a manly sport. Football quickly became the premier collegiate spectator sport, and Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891 as an indoor game that could be played between the football and baseball seasons.

Vaudeville, which grew out of the pre‐Civil War minstrel shows, was an important form of family entertainment. A variety of acts, including dancing, singing, magic, juggling, acrobatic, and trained‐animal, toured on circuits organized by theater owners. For more highbrow tastes, almost every major American city had a symphony orchestra by the turn of the century. Band performances, both open‐air and in concert halls, were well attended in cities and small towns across the county. The repertoire relied heavily on patriotic marches such as John Philip Sousa's “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Ragtime, which came out of the African‐American tradition, became part of American popular music. The publication of Scott Joplin's “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 brought syncopated rhythms of the saloons and black community to a wider audience. New York's Coney Island became the first and best known of the great amusement parks, which offered exhilarating rides, strange sideshows, and cheap food. A smaller number of Americans had the opportunity to see the wondrous products of the industrial age and the cornucopia from the country's farms at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

Literature and popular reading. Realism was the central literary style in the works of American writers after the Civil War. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was the first major American writer born west of the Appalachian Mountains. His most famous works — The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) — drew on his experiences of life in Missouri and along the Mississippi River before the Civil War. Among Twain's contemporaries were William Dean Howells and Henry James. Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) portrays the newly rich middle class and is among the earliest fictional accounts of an American businessman, while James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881) examines a young American woman's experiences in the European societies of England and Italy. Influenced by the deterministic aspects of Darwinism, Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser used naturalism — a form of realism emphasizing the role of environment and fate in characters' lives — to present a more pessimistic depiction of society and human existence. Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) tells the story of the slums of New York and an innocent woman's fall into prostitution and death. In Sister Carrie(1900), Dreiser describes how a young country girl is literally seduced by her own ambition and city life. One of the most popular books of the late nineteenth century was not a realistic depiction of urban life but a utopian novel. Edward Bellamy,mn's Looking Backward (1888) is set in the year 2000 when poverty, crime, and corruption have disappeared and everyone is working for a government‐owned‐and‐operated trust for the same pay.

Popular reading was often geared to a specific audience. As the tide of immigration grew, so did the number of ethnic newspapers published in the United States. The foreign‐language press included dailies and weeklies in French, German, Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish (the language spoken and read by East European Jews). Magazines aimed primarily at middle‐class women appeared, such as Harper's Bazar (1867), Ladies Home Journal (1883), and Ladies' Home Companion (1886). An enduring notion of post‐Civil War America perpetuated in popular reading was that anyone could be successful through hard work and perseverance. Horatio Alger, who wrote more than 100 young‐adult novels beginning with the best seller Ragged Dick (1867), did more than anyone else to popularize the “rags‐to‐riches” myth. In fact, his heroes managed to pull themselves up more by luck than by sheer determination — they saved the life of the daughter of a wealthy businessman and got a job with the company as a reward. Alger's suggestion that anyone could succeed did not match the reality of social mobility. Successful men usually came from a middle or upper class background and had fathers who were in commerce, banking, or the professions.