In the broader field of thanatology, scholars investigate rituals of dying, attitudes toward death, evolving trajectories of life expectancy, and more. Applying a lens of social class means studying similar themes but focusing on the men, women, and children who worked for wages in the United States. Working people were more likely to die from workplace accidents, occupational diseases, or episodes of work-related violence. In most periods of American history, it was more dangerous to be a wage worker than it was to be a soldier. Battlegrounds were not just the shop floor but also the terrain of labor relations. American labor history has been filled with violent encounters between workers asserting their views of economic justice and employers defending their private property rights. These clashes frequently turned deadly. Labor unions and working-class communities extended an ethos of mutualism and solidarity from the union halls and picket lines to memorial services and gravesites. They lauded martyrs to movements for human dignity and erected monuments to honor the fallen. Aspects of ethnicity, race, and gender added layers of meaning that intersected with and refracted through individuals’ economic positions. Workers’ encounters with death and the way they made sense of loss and sacrifice in some ways overlapped with Americans from other social classes in terms of religious custom, ritual practice, and material consumption. Their experiences were not entirely unique but diverged in significant ways.
Michael K. Rosenow
Christoph Nitschke and Mark Rose
U.S. history is full of frequent and often devastating financial crises. They have coincided with business cycle downturns, but they have been rooted in the political design of markets. Financial crises have also drawn from changes in the underpinning cultures, knowledge systems, and ideologies of marketplace transactions. The United States’ political and economic development spawned, guided, and modified general factors in crisis causation. Broadly viewed, the reasons for financial crises have been recurrent in their form but historically specific in their configuration: causation has always revolved around relatively sudden reversals of investor perceptions of commercial growth, stock market gains, monetary availability, currency stability, and political predictability. The United States’ 19th-century financial crises, which happened in rapid succession, are best described as disturbances tied to market making, nation building, and empire creation. Ongoing changes in America’s financial system aided rapid national growth through the efficient distribution of credit to a spatially and organizationally changing economy. But complex political processes—whether Western expansion, the development of incorporation laws, or the nation’s foreign relations—also underlay the easy availability of credit. The relationship between systemic instability and ideas and ideals of economic growth, politically enacted, was then mirrored in the 19th century. Following the “Golden Age” of crash-free capitalism in the two decades after the Second World War, the recurrence of financial crises in American history coincided with the dominance of the market in statecraft. Banking and other crises were a product of political economy. The Global Financial Crisis of 2007–2008 not only once again changed the regulatory environment in an attempt to correct past mistakes, but also considerably broadened the discursive situation of financial crises as academic topics.
Cindy R. Lobel
Over the course of the 19th century, American cities developed from small seaports and trading posts to large metropolises. Not surprisingly, foodways and other areas of daily life changed accordingly. In 1800, the dietary habits of urban Americans were similar to those of the colonial period. Food provisioning was very local. Farmers, hunters, fishermen, and dairymen from a few miles away brought food by rowboats and ferryboats and by horse carts to centralized public markets within established cities. Dietary options were seasonal as well as regional. Few public dining options existed outside of taverns, which offered lodging as well as food. Most Americans, even in urban areas, ate their meals at home, which in many cases were attached to their workshops, countinghouses, and offices. These patterns changed significantly over the course of the19th century, thanks largely to demographic changes and technological developments. By the turn of the 20th century, urban Americans relied on a food-supply system that was highly centralized and in the throes of industrialization. Cities developed complex restaurant sectors, and majority immigrant populations dramatically shaped and reshaped cosmopolitan food cultures. Furthermore, with growing populations, lax regulation, and corrupt political practices in many cities, issues arose periodically concerning the safety of the food supply. In sum, the roots of today’s urban food systems were laid down over the course of the 19th century.
While American gambling has a historical association with the lawlessness of the frontier and with the wasteful leisure practices of Southern planters, it was in large cities where American gambling first flourished as a form of mass leisure, and as a commercial enterprise of significant scale. In the urban areas of the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, and the upper Mid-West, for the better part of two centuries the gambling economy was deeply intertwined with municipal politics and governance, the practices of betting were a prominent feature of social life, and controversies over the presence of gambling both legal and illegal, were at the center of public debate. In New York and Chicago in particular, but also in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, gambling channeled money to municipal police forces and sustained machine politics. In the eyes of reformers, gambling corrupted governance and corroded social and economic interactions. Big city gambling has changed over time, often in a manner reflecting important historical processes and transformations in economics, politics, and demographics. Yet irrespective of such change, from the onset of Northern urbanization during the 19th century, through much of the 20th century, gambling held steady as a central feature of city life and politics. From the poolrooms where recently arrived Irish New Yorkers bet on horseracing after the Civil War, to the corner stores where black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers bet on the numbers game in the 1960s, the gambling activity that covered the urban landscape produced argument and controversy, particularly with respect to drawing the line between crime and leisure, and over the question of where and to what ends the money of the gambling public should be directed.
Maureen A. Flanagan
The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members. Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.
Jessica Ellen Sewell
From 1800 to 2000, cities grew enormously, and saw an expansion of public spaces to serve the varied needs of a diverse population living in ever more cramped and urban circumstances. While a wide range of commercial semipublic spaces became common in the late 19th century, parks and streets were the best examples of truly public spaces with full freedom of access. Changes in the design and management of streets, sidewalks, squares, parks, and plazas during this period reflect changing ideas about the purpose of public space and how it should be used. Streets shifted from being used for a wide range of activities, including vending, playing games, and storing goods, to becoming increasingly specialized spaces of movement, designed and managed by the early twentieth century for automobile traffic. Sidewalks, which in the early nineteenth century were paid for and liberally used by adjacent businesses, were similarly specialized as spaces of pedestrian movement. However, the tradition of using streets and sidewalks as a space of public celebration and public speech remained strong throughout the period. During parades and protests, streets and sidewalks were temporarily remade as spaces of the performance of the public, and the daily activities of circulation and commerce were set aside. In 1800, the main open public spaces in cities were public squares or commons, often used for militia training and public celebration. In the second half of the 19th century, these were augmented by large picturesque parks. Designed as an antidote to urbanity, these parks served the public as a place for leisure, redefining public space as a polite leisure amenity, rather than a place for people to congregate as a public. The addition of playgrounds, recreational spaces, and public plazas in the 20th century served both the physical and mental health of the public. In the late 20th century, responding to neoliberal ideas and urban fiscal crises, the ownership and management of public parks and plazas was increasingly privatized, further challenging public accessibility.
Peter B. Dedek
With unique aboveground tombs, massive walls of burial vaults, and a density of historic funerary structures found nowhere else in the United States, the cemeteries of New Orleans are among the most fascinating and historic aspects of the city. The cemeteries reflect the unique climate, history, and culture of New Orleans. Although New Orleans cemeteries share characteristics with burial grounds in Mediterranean and many Latin American countries, such historic “cities of the dead” are rare in the United States. Four major factors guided the evolution of the New Orleans cemetery: (a) the high South Louisiana water table; (b) a need to conserve land in a growing city surrounded by water; (c) French, Spanish, and Caribbean traditions of aboveground burial and tomb building; and (d) neoclassical and Victorian architectural fashions that prevailed during the 19th century, the period during which the cemeteries as we know them developed. New Orleans’ burial traditions contrasted with the predominantly underground interments in the cemeteries of northern Europe, England, and the United States apart from the Gulf Coast. Because of this, tourists often marvel at the exotic nature of the historic New Orleans cemeteries, expressing many of the same impressions and reactions to their architecture, layout, and general character as their 19th-century forbears. New Orleanians also value their unique historic cemeteries, most of which are still active burial grounds.
Meg D. O'Sullivan
Women in the United States have drunk, made, bought, sold, and organized both against and for the consumption of alcohol throughout the nation’s history. During the second half of the 20th century, however, women became increasingly visible as social drinkers and alcoholics. Specifically, the 1970s and 1980s marked women’s relationship to alcohol in interesting ways that both echoed moments from the past and ushered in new realities. Throughout these decades, women emerged as: (1) alcoholics who sought recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous or a lesser-known all-women’s sobriety program; (2) anti-alcohol activists who drew authority from their status as mothers; (3) potential criminals who harmed their progeny via fetal alcohol syndrome; and (4) recovery memoirists who claimed their addictions in unprecedented ways.