Rich, Poor, and Middle Class Life

With the growth of urban life in Europe, the standard of living for the average person increased dramatically. Real wages for British workers doubled in fifty years between 1850 and 1906. Even so, greater wages did NOT eliminate hardship or poverty, and did not make the rich and poor more nearly equal. In almost all of advanced Europe, the richest five percent of households received 33 percent of the national income. The richest 20 percent received from 50 to 60 percent of the income, and the bottom 80 percent received only 40 to 40 percent. The bottom 30 percent received 10 percent or less. The Middle Class accounted for less than 20 percent of the population, and with the upper class together, received 50 percent of all income. In other words, the lower classes, who comprised 80 percent of the population, received less income than the upper and middle classes combined. Income taxes on the wealthy were either nonexistent or negligible, and the gap between rich and poor on the eve of the twentieth century remained enormous, perhaps as great as it had been during the agricultural age. This gap was largely because the industrial revolution and urban development made society less unified and more diverse. There was no split between opposing classes, as Marx had predicted, but economic specialization enabled society to produce more effectively and thereby created more new social groups than it destroyed. There were a large group of subclasses between the filthy rich and the dirt poor. Neither the middle classes nor the working class acted as a unified force.

The Middle Classes: It is perhaps more accurate to speak of a group of middle classes than of a unified middle class at this point in history. At the top were the upper middle class, mainly successful business and industrial families who benefited from modern industry and progress. They gained income and lost any trace of radical socialism as they were drawn (perhaps naturally but certainly irresistibly) towards an aristocratic lifestyle, imitating, as it were, the life of the "old money" aristocratic nobility. They purchased country homes and beach houses for weekends and summers, and employed large number of household servants. Wealth and social standing was often measured by the number of household servants one employed. Private Coaches and carriages were also a status symbol. The rich upper class gentleman devoted substantial time to ‘leisure activities" such as golf and tennis and less time to business; indicating a desire to show one did not "have" to work to maintain one’s lifestyle.

Rather than resist the up and coming noveau riche, the old aristocracy rather embraced the development, and cashed in on opportunity wherever they could. One writer says that the old money crowd met the new money people "coming up the staircase." Quite often, European aristocratic families married sons or daughters off to the American sons and daughters of wealthy industrialists, the marriage presumably increasing the social status of one and the innate wealth of the other. Aristocratic families themselves began engaging in business and mining on their estates rather than relying on rents for income. An example is Otto von Bismarck of Germany, who made a fortune by distilling brandy on his family estates.

Below the upper level were the truly "middle" classes. One might describe them as "middle middle," comprised of moderately successful industrialists and merchants as well as physicians and attorneys. They lived comfortably, but lacked the immense wealth of the upper crust. Among this group were specialized professions such as engineers, architects, chemists, accountants, and surveyors who developed into full-fledged professional status. A second type of profession developed comprising those who managed large public or private institutions. This included government officials and business managers who had specialized knowledge and earned a comfortable income from the practice of their profession.

The "lower" middle class consisted of independent shopkeepers, small businessmen, and small manufacturing shop owners. Also were white collar employees, such as traveling salesmen, bookkeepers, store managers, and government clerks. Elementary school teachers became part of this group, as well as dentists. (Previously, barbers had doubled as dentists.) They owned no property, and made no more money than unskilled blue collar workers, but were keenly aware that they were white collar, and fiercely committed to preserving the distinction between themselves and the lower classes; often wearing ties and suits when they were not necessary. An example of their passion to preserve their "middle class" identity occurred in the Balkans where clerks allowed their fingernails to grow long and kept their hands soft, since those who worked with their hands often had short nails on calloused hands. They considered themselves upwardly mobile, and hoped to join the upper echelons of their class by accumulating wealth.

Food was the largest budgetary item for the middle classes, as they liked to eat well, particularly meat. The lunch hour was sacrosanct, and businesspeople as well as school children went home at mid-day for lunch. Over ten percent of the family’s budget was spent on meat alone; 25 percent total on food items. The "dinner party" was the middle class’s favored social event. A wealthy family might entertain eight to twelve people each week; lower middle classes would do so only once per month. Dinners were in the "French style," with eight or nine separate courses. The lower middle class dinner party had only four courses: soup, fish, meat, and dessert.

Preparation of these meals and daily household chores was the work of servants. Employment of at least one servant was the clearest indication that one had crossed the Rubicon, and entered the "servant-keeping class." Prosperous families might retain as many as ten servants; including a cook, kitchen maid, serving maid, governess, gardener, coachmen, stable boy and two housemaids. The cost of food and servants together often consumed 50 per cent of middle class income.

Most middle class families rented rather than owned homes, complete with tiny rooms on the top floor for servants. They were also quite clothes conscious, particularly women. Factories, sewing machines, and department stores had lowered the cost of clothing, and middle class families were keenly aware of and obeyed the dictates of fashionable dress. They also wished to provide their children with the best education possible. Daughters spent hours practicing piano, and tours of foreign countries after school were all considered important elements of education. The middle classes also enjoyed a code of etiquette which governed behavior and morality. The code was demanding and strict. Hard work, self discipline, and personal achievement were stressed. Anyone who committed a crime, or worse, fell into poverty, was considered be responsible for his misfortune. Christian principles of morality were the rule; drunkenness, gambling, and promiscuity were considered stains on one’s reputation. Everyone was expected to know right from wrong, and govern himself accordingly.

The Working Classes: The working class consisted of working people who made their living by physical labor and did not employ domestic servants. They were less unified than even the middle class, as there were several sub-groups within the working class: the highly skilled, commonly known as the "labor aristocracy;" the semiskilled, and the unskilled. These distinctions gradually broke down, however, as machines performed the work previously done by skilled artisans. However, the three subclasses developed widely different lifestyles and cultural values, resulting in a very keen sense of social status even within the working class.

The labor aristocracy earned perhaps 2/3 of the income of the lowest level of the servant-keeping classes, but that was double the income of the unskilled. The highest level within this group were construction bosses and factory foremen who had risen from the ranks, jewelers, cabinet makers, etc. and were proud of their achievements. The jewelers and cabinet makers, and others performing skilled labor, were constantly under pressure as the industrial revolution devised machines to do the same work more quickly and more cheaply. By the end of the nineteenth century, woodcarvers and watchmakers had virtually disappeared. Also, new groups often entered the labor aristocracy, such as shipbuilders and railway locomotive engineers. The labor aristocracy was almost always in a state of flux, as old occupations left it, and new ones joined.

The upper working class were as class conscious as the middle class, and adopted distinctive, almost puritanical behavior to separate themselves from the lower ranks. The family and economic improvement were important to them. Families saved money regularly, worried about the education of their children and valued good housing. Yet they did not aspire to the middle class; but rather considered themselves the natural leaders and pace setters of the working class. They were well aware of the moral lapses of those below them, and in order to preserve the distinction, practiced a stern moral code and self discipline. They frowned on promiscuity or heavy drinking/ One German labor aristocrat once observed that "the path to the brothel lies through the tavern." They were quick to find fault with those who did not meet their standards. One William Lovett commented with derision on "this ignorant recklessness and improvidence that produce the swarms of half-starved, neglected and ignorant children we see in all directions, who mostly grow up to become the burdens and often the pests of society which the industrious and frugal have to support." The group also had very well defined political and philosophical beliefs, whether Christian or socialist. These beliefs strengthened their moral code.

Below the labor aristocracy were the semiskilled and unskilled. At the top were carpenters, bricklayers, pipe fitters and others in established crafts, who lived and worked on the edge of the border separating them from the labor aristocracy. Many were factory workers who earned relatively good wages. The unskilled were day laborers such as longshoremen, teamsters, and "helpers." Many were teenagers who were no longer in school. Although many of them had real skills and performed valuable services, they were unorganized and divided, and united only by their meager salaries. Also among this group were street vendors and marketers who competed savagely with each other and with established shop keepers.

The domestic servant class, mostly maids, made up a substantial number of the unskilled laboring class. In Britain in 1911, one of seven employed persons was a domestic servant. Most were women between ages 15 and 20. Most had traveled to the city from the country to take jobs in the domestic corps. The work was hard, pay was meager, there was little chance for advancement, and they were subject to sexual exploitation by the man of the house or his son, who was often wont to brag to his friends of his liaisons with the maid. Among the servants in the house, the maid was at the bottom of the scale. The advantages of this employment were that she had a better chance of landing a husband were better in the city than in the country, and as low as her wages were, they were better than she might have earned performing agricultural work, and were regular. Many eventually became working class wives and mothers, but even so, she often had to join the ranks of "working women," because her husband normally could not support the family with his earnings alone. Many worked at "sweat industries," similar to the old putting out system, whereby women would be paid by the piece rather than the hour. Organization was impossible, and their wages were generally deplorable. Most were employed making cloth, particularly after the invention of the sewing machine, which operated by a foot operated pedal. Ready made clothes made in sweat shops soon replaced more expensive tailor made clothes.

For recreation, drinking was the favorite pastime. It also became its major problem, as the cost of drink often left a family in poverty. It was perhaps with this in mind that Oscar Wilde commented that "work is the curse of the drinking class." However, under the influence of the upper working class, "problem drinking" became less socially acceptable and moderate public drinking became more acceptable. Pubs, cafes, etc. were places where working class men could concentrate and discuss politics, etc. Oddly, women were allowed to participate, as long as they were with their husbands.

In the United States, women were allowed only in restaurants, etc. where alcohol was served’ never in bars or taverns. The one exception was on Sunday, when they were allowed to attend with their husbands and children, and when Ice Cream was served; hence the "ice cream sundae."

Aside from bars and taverns working class people also enjoyed sports and music halls as leisure time activities. "Blood sports," such as cockfighting and bull baiting, had declined considerably, and replace by modern sports, such as racing and soccer. Gambling on sports events was common, and the ability to decipher racing forms was a great incentive to literacy for many working people. Also popular were music halls and vaudeville performances. Not surprisingly, the subject matter of many jokes and songs were mother in laws, sex, drunkenness, pregnancy before marriage and marital difficulties.

Although religion offered solace and meaning to the working class, church attendance seems to have declined dramatically. They often baptized their children, and never renounced their church membership or beliefs, but did not attend church regularly. New churches were not built as quickly as communities grew, and churches were seen as conservative organizations which defended the social order and custom. Many working class people saw the church as defending the very class distinction which they hoped to change. This was especially true of working men, who considered religion "not our thing," although they rarely renounced their church membership or attacked religion.

Oddly, in the United States, the opposite was true. The separation of church and state and the large number of churches which competed with each other saw people separating along ethnic lines rather than by social class. Churches in the U.S. thrived as a means of asserting ethnic identity.