In 1868 James Dabney McCabe’s The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries, and Crimes of New York City proposed that “the middle class, which is so numerous in other cities, hardly exists at all here.” New York, said McCabe, had only two classes—“the poor and the rich.”
Such a perception was understandable, given the glaring visibility of the city’s social extremities, but wrong. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population were middle class, an amorphous strata encompassing a wide range of conditions and occupations. Its upper ranks were composed of professionals and managers: doctors, lawyers, editors, professors, architects, landscape architects, civil servants, librarians, reporters, engineers, advertising executives, corporate administrators, lesser merchants, nurses, dentists, retailers, ministers, entrepreneurs, department store buyers, realtors, and artists. At its less affluent end lay growing numbers of shopkeepers, schoolteachers, clerks, and salespeople.
Its boundaries were fuzzy. At the top, the Gilded Age middle class bled imperceptibly into the haute bourgeoisie, with the border peopled by independently wealthy professionals descended from mercantile and landholding families. At bottom, the line between clerks and the more prosperous members of the skilled working class could be hard to discern, especially as clerical workers might well earn less than shipwrights or masons. Generally, however, a lower-middle-class New Yorker would probably take home two thousand dollars a year while a mechanic would be happy to make half that. It is only when looking at the mentalité of this new middle class—its values and ideologies, rooted in changing patterns of work and culture—that its contours come more sharply into focus.
The professionals and managers who set the tone and tenor of middle-class life believed that mind was mightier than muscle. As organizers and officers in the Civil War, they had mobilized manpower and deployed resources, initiatives crucial to the military effort. Such experiences gave them the psychic wherewithal to challenge the traditional republican conviction that all value flowed from artisanal or agricultural labor—that he who worked with head, not hand, was probably a social leech.
The increasing complexity of postwar technical and organizational projects further demonstrated the growing centrality—and enhanced the valuation—of skilled intellectual labor. The Brooklyn Bridge had continued to rise even as its engineer-designer lay sick abed, and Washington Roebling himself had drawn the appropriate conclusion: “When it comes to planning, one mind can in a few hours think out enough work to keep a thousand men employed for years.” Grasping the underlying concepts behind everyday empirical experience elevated professionals above the once vaunted “amateur” (the dismissive word “amateurish” dates from this period) and made them indispensable to the “running” (another contemporary neologism) of modern civilization.
New York City, in particular, spawned many such specialists, and their growing numbers generated a reassuring sense of collective authority. Upper-echelon professionals, moreover, were independent agents, with far greater control over the nature and conditions of their labor than was usual in the now heavily proletarianized city; this too strengthened class confidence.
In the seventies confidence was reinforced by organization. Before the war many professions had been on the defensive, their efforts to set standards and control access to their ranks traduced as aristocratic. Now, newly nerved, they strengthened existing professional bodies and created new ones. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, and architects came together to restrict membership to candidates they designated as qualified and who pledged allegiance to a common code of conduct.
Lawyers multiplied rapidly in the postwar era, though firms remained relatively small. Bidwell and Strong, which represented Steinway and Sons, Wells Fargo, and Western Union Telegraph, consisted of six attorneys and four assistants in 1878. Lawyers served many functions in the new order: defending railroads in court, serving as board directors, working as lobbyists (bridging the worlds of business and government), representing speculators and empire builders, managing real estate interests, advising social and cultural organizations, and handling trusts, estates, and, especially in New York City, the complicated affairs of the new nationally oriented corporations.
Involvement in corporate warfare, however, brought the Bar into serious disrepute. Drew, Fisk, and Gould hired a team of forty-plus attorneys to run legal interference for them in the Erie War, while an opposing regiment of lawyers handled Vanderbilt’s machinations. The Bench too had been tarnished by its abetting of financial and political skullduggery: in 1867 the distinguished attorney James T. Brady accused Tweed crony Judge Barnard of corruption, to his face in open court.
Many lawyers, notably George Templeton Strong of Bidwell and Strong, blamed not corporate capitalism but the 1846 state constitution, which had abolished the old distinctions between attorneys, solicitors, and counselors, placed all lawyers on the same nominal footing, and adopted simplified and unexacting licensing procedures. It had also made judgeships elective rather than appointive positions. The result, Strong believed, had been a “progressive debasement of the Bar & Bench.” The swollen legal fraternity was no longer “learned & dignified” but rather ranked “next below that of patent-medicine mongering.” Strong believed reform required replacing apprenticeship with a law school education. He devoted himself accordingly to expanding Columbia College’s School of Law, and by the 1880s it was one of the two largest in the United States.
Other reform-minded lawyers—Samuel Tilden and William Evarts chief among them—decided that only a new and exclusive group restricted to “the more worthy of the profession” could remedy the situation, given their inability to control access to the field itself. If New York City were to remain the commercial and monetary capital of the United States, Tilden warned, “it must establish an elevated character for its Bar, and a reputation throughout the country for its purity in the administration of justice.” To police their own ranks, define the boundaries of acceptable conduct, aid attorneys in standing up to judges (and the political machines that elected them), and make the law a “noble profession” and not merely a “trade with the rest,” they and others created the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (1870). Rigorous admission procedures and hefty fees allowed the “worthy” to exclude the “uncouth in manners and habits, ignorant even of the English language, jostling and crowding and vulgarizing the profession.” A year after its formation, the self-selected and overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon Protestant founders had admitted only 450 out of New York’s approximately four thousand lawyers to their ranks. Grievance and screening committees were established to exercise some control over the behavior of attorneys and judges. The association’s pioneering effort at self-regulation was swiftly and widely copied throughout the country, and Manhattanites proved instrumental in forming the American Bar Association in 1878.
The New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, under the presidency (after 1869) of Richard Morris Hunt, similarly sought to winnow out those it considered unprofessional and to impose order and standards on practitioners. It recruited only trained architects—often from well-to-do families able to pay for their education—while rejecting older craftsmen who had worked their way up from the ranks of carpenters and masons. The group thus denied membership to John Kellum, perhaps the most employed architect of the day, on the ground that he was merely an unskilled draftsman. Indeed Kellum’s very popularity counted against him: the new men found him too “commercial,” too willing to defer to the wishes of his prosperous clients, too reluctant to improve his employers’ tastes by bringing to bear the authority of his professional credentials.
In the 1870s “regular” doctors made another effort to impose their methods and approaches on the practice of medicine. The New York Medico-Legal Society prepared a bill in 1872 authorizing the County Medical Society to license all physicians, thus allowing the American Medical Association’s allopathic physicians to define their homeopathic rivals as quacks, effectively putting them out of business. The bill passed, but, heeding widespread opposition, Governor Hoffman vetoed it, arguing that only the marketplace should regulate medical practice. A compromise measure passed in 1874, but physicians remained dissatisfied. In the meantime their public-oriented colleagues organized separately: Dr. Edward H. Janes, the city’s sanitary inspector from 1866 until his death in 1893, helped found the American Public Health Association in 1872.
New Yorkers and Brooklynites were particularly prominent in the movement to professionalize civil engineering, as so many leading practitioners were graduates of the area’s many public works projects. Faced with a flood of self-proclaimed engineers in the late 1860s, promoters pushed to create a “proper association, admission to which should only be possible to accomplished and competent men.” In 1867 they established the American Society of Qvil Engineers (ASCE). J. P. Kirkwood and Julius Adams, the engineers of Brooklyn’s sewer system, served as the ASCE’s first president and vicepresident, respectively, and Alfred W. Craven, John B. Jervis, and other Croton veterans became prominent members. Indeed seven of the first eight presidents were either permanent employees of New York City or did consulting work for it. The organization established its permanent home in Manhattan, holding meetings and social functions in offices at the Chamber of Commerce Building, and started regular publication of a professional journal in 1872.
The ASCE thrived, boasting 212 members by 1871. Participation was restricted to men who had been actively employed for five or more years in a supervisory capacity, though less experience was acceptable for those who had completed a college course of study. Before the war New York’s engineers had trained on the job or in apprenticeships; mastery of the fundamentals of math, physics, and mechanics had been deemed unnecessary to solving most technical problems. In 1864, however, Thomas Egleston founded Columbia’s School of Mines, which, despite its name, pioneered broad-based scientific education for engineers as well as geologists, and in 1869 the school began offering four-year courses in civil engineering. Mechanical engineers too, most of whom had emerged from machine shops, set about distinguishing themselves from mere “mechanics,” by forming in New York City the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1880).
One of the greatest obstacles to even organized engineers’ winning professional autonomy was their continuing subordination to the political authorities who controlled public works, but here too there were breakthroughs. In 1860, when Mayor Wood fired Alfred W. Craven, chief engineer of the Croton Aqueduct, Craven fought back vigorously, arguing that he had the technical know-how required to run the city’s water and sewer systems, and the mayor did not. Craven won his point both legally (he was reinstated) and in the court of public opinion, where the mayor was denounced for putting politics above efficiency.
Professionalization spread among corporate managers too, particularly in the expanding railroad industry. Managers of competing companies, striving to rationalize a hodgepodge system, came together to standardize operating procedures and equipment, then continued to meet regularly. A growing sense of professional kinship transcending corporate loyalties gave rise to groups like the American Society of Rail Road Superintendents and the National Association of General Passenger and Ticket Agents.
At the other end of the middle-class spectrum, which consisted of employees rather than professionals and managers, postwar developments in the municipal economy swelled the ranks of clerical and sales forces. Insurance companies, banks, mercantile and stock exchanges, post offices and express agencies, credit rating firms, shipping and railroad companies, newspapers, large-scale manufacturers, and wholesaler jobbers—all these required sizable numbers of bookkeepers, cashiers, accountants, and clerks to staff them. The burgeoning of department stores, fashion and piano showrooms, and elegant retail outlets similarly required growing numbers of stockroom employees and salesmen—and, gradually, saleswomen: in 1869 A. T Stewart’s began to employ “American ladies of refinement and culture” to stand behind the counters.
Such workers seldom organized on the model of the professional organizations; most didn’t organize at all. What bound them together, rather, were common experiences and shared values. Most worked in “clean” environments—the giant new downtown office buildings—rather than grubby factories, grimy warehouses, or messy construction sites, and most of them dressed accordingly. Junius Browne, watching the morning ferry passengers disembark in 1869, noted that the first contingent—“mechanics with their flannel and check shirts”—was followed by platoons of salesmen, accountants, and clerks after seven A.M., at which time “the shirts of the passengers begin to whiten and raiment to improve.” Many of these white-collared workers believed, as an 1868 commentator in Galaxy put it, that “manual labor is disreputable” even though it often paid better than head work (masons earned twice what clerks did). To further distinguish themselves from mechanics and laborers, the lower middle classes adopted appropriate modes of personal conduct—taking their cultural cues from professionals and managers when deciding how and where to live their lives.
HOME SWEET APARTMENT
Manhattan’s middle classes had their own territorial enclaves, spatially distinct from both Hell’s Kitchen and Fifth Avenue. They settled in the West Village, in Chelsea, along cross streets in the rectangle bordered by 14th, 59th, Eighth, and Second, and on the Upper East Side and Harlem. Their travels to and from work downtown helped swell the annual ridership on New York’s thirteen streetcar lines to 150 million by 1873, up fourfold since 1860, despite crammed conditions on the commuting cars (it “would not be decent to carry live hogs thus,” huffed Horace Greeley). Shopping soon followed them northward, and dry-goods stores spread up Third, Sixth, and Eighth avenues, making them the commercial thoroughfares of middle-class neighborhoods.
When they could afford to, middling New Yorkers purchased their own homes. In the postwar years, however, clericals and even professionals found this increasingly difficult to do. Soaring land prices put single-family twenty-five-foot-wide row houses out of reach. Middle-class salaried employees making two thousand dollars a year could seldom afford a ten- to eighty-thousand-dollar town house, and for a skilled mechanic making an annual thousand dollars it was quite impossible.
Many abandoned private ownership altogether and became boarders. As commerce marched into Union Square, the rich decamped northward, and their elegant town houses along lower Fifth and Madison avenues were subdivided and converted into respectable boardinghouses for doctors, lawyers, professors, and smaller merchants. Rooms here might cost from twelve to fifteen dollars a week in 1869. Hotels were another option, and those willing to settle for modest accommodations had a wide choice. By 1869 the construction boom had boosted the total number of metropolitan hotels to between seven and eight hundred, many of which offered rooms for residents as well as for transients. Boardinghouses on side streets offered even cheaper accommodations, which salaried clerks could afford. As Dickens observed on his 1867-68 visit, there were “300 boarding houses in West 14th Street, exactly alike, with 300 young men, exactly alike, sleeping in 300 hall bedrooms, exactly alike, with 300 dress suits, exactly alike, lying on so many chairs, exactly alike, beside the bed.”
But the growing middle class did not like such housing. Respectable people lived in a “home” of their own, not jumbled up with strangers. Multifamily dwellings smacked of tenement life. Boardinghouses, with their centrally cooked and commonly eaten meals, threatened family integrity; wives might mingle promiscuously with others while husbands were off at work. Enforced intimacy mocked middle-class values of family privacy and the sanctity of the home.
The first “apartment houses” were built to solve this spatial and cultural conundrum. New Yorkers had been hearing about so-called French Flats, the grand buildings lining Haussmann’s new boulevards, and most of what they heard was negative. French Flats were too public; they came with a nosy concierge; they lacked most features of a proper Anglo-Saxon home. Some magazine writers did note their advantages: everything was on one floor, eliminating the need to squeeze up and down a brownstone’s narrow stairway; they were more spacious and easier to clean; the nosy concierge looked after things when owners summered out of town. Still, prevailing opinion was opposed. “Gentlemen,” as one of the breed irately put it, “will never consent to live on mere shelves under a common roof!”
It took the combined prestige and power of the city’s most francophiliac architect and a gentleman of unimpeachable social standing to pierce the armor of conventional opinion. Rutherfurd Stuyvesant was as patrician as you could get in New York. His father, Lewis Rutherfurd, was merely a distinguished astronomer. But his mother was a direct descendant of Petrus Stuyvesant and had transmitted the family fortune to Rutherfurd (on the condition that he spurn patrilineality and adopt his mother’s last name). Stuyvesant had admired apartment houses in Paris, and in 1869 he hired Richard Morris Hunt, whom he had met in France, to create one for him on a fourrow-house-wide stretch of 18th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue. Each of the first four floors had four separate apartments, and the fifth was reserved for artists’ studios. To the astonishment of many, the apartments, overseen by a French-style concierge, were rented immediately, by young couples of impeccable “old Knickerbocker” credentials.
Hunt next constructed a far grander apartment house for Paran Stevens (whose wife’s parties were then scandalizing more staid society matrons). The striking marbletrimmed, mansard-capped, eight-story building, when completed in 1872, occupied the entire south side of 27th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway and was one of the largest buildings in the city. Stevens House had eighteen suites, each with parlor, dining room, kitchen, butler’s pantry, bedrooms, dressing rooms, and bathroom—along with steam elevators that rose to an attic where servants’ quarters were available. Stevens had overreached, and his luxury operation was soon converted into a more modest apartment hotel, but the Second Empire edifice remained a New York cultural and technological landmark.
Now socially certified, the French Flat began to catch on. By the mid-1870s, with a dozen or so up or in the planning stages, especially around the lower border of Central Park, the New York City Buildings Department adopted “French Flat” as an official category. The term, like “apartment house,” implied a larger and better-quality edifice than “tenement,” and to underscore the class status of their residents, the new buildings took toney names like Osborne, Knickerbocker, Berkeley, and Saratoga.
The as yet limited number of apartment houses could shelter only a relative handful, however, and many middle-class home and status seekers, in pursuit of an immediate solution, decided to cross the East River. The wealthiest professionals took up quarters in Brooklyn Heights or Cobble Hill, mingling with old New England merchants and new-monied businessmen. Others settled in Fort Greene (particularly around Washington Park, where contractor William Kingsley built his home in 1867) or in Clinton Hill (where oil magnate Charles Pratt erected a mansion in 1875). Less costly accommodations could be found in Boerum Hill or in row houses with deep front gardens along the streets around Carroll Park, an area developed after 1869. The least-well-paid members of the middle class could turn to the lower Park Slope area, between Third and Sixth avenues, though it was unattractively interlaced with the light industrial establishments spreading outward from the Gowanus Canal.
Those willing to travel farther could settle in growing Bedford. Speculators and builders advertised the area as the “Garden of Brooklyn,” perfect for the “refined and select” middle class. Single-family Gothic-style frame houses with gas, hot and cold water, indoor plumbing, and, in some cases, gardens, grape arbors, and apple trees, could be had in South Bedford for between five and ten thousand dollars. These new homes were deliberately situated away from the LIRR stops on Atlantic Avenue and the horsecar line on Fulton Street, even though 50 percent of Bedfordites commuted all the way into Manhattan, a two-and-a-half-mile journey that took about an hour and cost thirteen cents. Catching a ride to the city entailed a long walk, but it seemed worth it to preserve, for the moment, the area’s bucolic character. To the north, by contrast, row houses and tenements clustered around the Flushing and Myrtle Avenue lines of the Brooklyn City Rail Road. Their cars transported native-born lower-middle-class clerical workers to Manhattan or to Brooklyn’s City Hall and Fulton Street commercial districts.
Some professionals were drawn to the Queens suburban frontier, to places like the new railroad community of Richmond Hill, named for a London suburb. New York attorney Albon Platt Man built it in 1869 along the wooded hills of the terminal moraine and ensured its class character by barring such “nuisances” as factories, warehouses, and tenements. But in the 1860s and 1870s, Kings seemed preferable to Queens, as residents could visit local analogues of New York City’s cultural institutions (Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn Club, Mercantile Library, Long Island Historical Society) and were close to Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, and more distant rural diversions. A Brooklyn Heights resident could leave his Manhattan office at three o’clock, return on the Wall Street ferry, dine at four, then take a leisurely drive to the outskirts of town. Residents and realtors began to boast that Brooklyn was a middleclass paradise, free from urban ills and evils, a complacency that required ignoring the tenements of detested “micks” on the flats south of the Navy Yard.
Brooklyn was indeed something of a paradise for the African-American middleclass. Though the vast majority of black Brooklynites consisted of manual laborers, the city was also home to a small elite of professionals (doctors, lawyers, journalists, ministers, and teachers) and businesspeople (dressmakers, undertakers, carpenters, barbers, tailors). Some were affluent enough to invest in real estate during the 1870s, via the Excelsior Land Association of Brooklyn, and some owned substantial middle-class dwellings, complete with pianos, libraries, and pictures of Lincoln, John Brown, and AME Bishop Richard Allen.
The presence of this African-American elite was felt most strongly in Brooklyn’s black churches, which moved away from religious enthusiasm toward a more urbane and intellectual Christianity. Their trained and educated ministers focused heavily on promoting learning, literacy, and culture. Concord Baptist, Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal (AWME), and Siloam Presbyterian took the lead in providing libraries, classes, lectures, and concerts of classical music. The black Brooklyn community also developed autonomous institutions, like the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum (1866), the African Civilization Society, which began publishing the newspaper Freedman’s Torchlight the same year, and the Zion Home for Colored Aged (1869).
THE CULTIVATED LIFE
In the 1870s Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote novels about New York life—like We and Our Neighbors; or, the Record of an Unfashionable Street (1875), which featured heroines like Eva, “a child of wealth and fashion” whose father had gone bankrupt. Eva married a journalist, moved to an unfashionable street, made do with only one servant, and moderated her expectations to middle-class levels-. Referring to the posh Elmores she said: “We must keep in sight of them. All I ask is to be decent. I never expect to run into the extremes those Elmores do.”
Middling New Yorkers adhered to values that, like their jobs and residencies, set them off from vulgar lower classes and dissipated upper ones. “Decent” was an imprecise term, more or less interchangeable with “genteel,” “cultured,” “refined,” “civilized,” “respectable,” and “cultivated,” but all the near-synonyms suggested an earned status. “Cultivation” implied self-development, a purposeful pursuit of “higher things.” It prized intellect and sensibilities tutored in arts, letters, and manners. It was an identity rooted in education rather than in labor or wealth.
Not that the middle class had anything against wealth as such: prosperity was an indispensable precondition for gentility. Indeed it was the growing purchasing power of the postwar middle class that allowed ever greater numbers of New Yorkers to acquire the trappings of gentility: to live in tasteful homes in good neighborhoods, wear respectable clothes, attend refined schools, cultivate the arts and graces. Only “mere” or “vulgar” wealth was objectionable, wasted as it was on display rather than development, squandered in private hedonism rather than promotion of the public good.
Wherever they settled, therefore, middle-class New Yorkers decorated their quarters with objects that betokened their cultivation. Art galleries á la A. T. Stewart were out of the question, but mass-produced artwork was readily available. In his studio at 212 Fifth Avenue, John Rogers fashioned sculptural tableaux in clay, then churned out reproductions in plaster and bronze, which sold throughout the city and, via advertising and railroad delivery, across the continent. Rogers used industrial methods to evoke preindustrial life—The Village Post-Office, Coming to the Parson—along with more topical, even political themes, which balanced realism and sentimentality. Contemporary critics noted that his was not a “high art” but lauded the “Rogers groups” for their “elevated meaning” and “true feeling,” which were “alike satisfying to head and heart.” Metropolitan middle-class parlors were embellished as well with Currier and Ives chromolithographs that limned the triumphal expansion of Christian American civilization out west and hailed the triumph of a middle-class order in New York City.
As cultural possessions piled up in the parlor, along with machine-made upholstery, drapery, and carpeting and heavily carved furniture, they demanded an increasing level of maintenance. The haute bourgeoisie solved this problem with platoons of servants, but most of the middle class could at best afford but one. This required the housewife to take a professional approach to increasing the efficiency of such domestic labor as she had available. Advice books had been telling wives to manage households scientifically since the 1840s, but now the audience for such counsel had grown large enough to support an ongoing journalistic advocacy. Thus Eunice Beecher wrote a regular domestic advice column for the Christian Union in the 1870s, in which she aimed to help a woman “conduct her household as a business, prepare herself for it as a man prepared for his life work.”
When they turned from work to play, more and more middle-class New Yorkers could afford to take in the same operatic and theatrical performances at the Rialto as did the haute bourgeoisie. But they also enjoyed more modest pastimes, like group singing in their parlors or reading aloud from genteel magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Scrib-ner’s. Lectures were popular too: the uplifting or scientific ones at Chickering Hall (Fifth Avenue and 18th Street) and the effusions of humorists like Artemus Ward at Dodworth Hall (just north of Grace Church).
The new Central Park attracted many middling Manhattanites. When flags flew on omnibuses and horsecars, or one heard that “the ball is up in the Park,” it meant that the pond at 59th Street was frozen over and one could go skating (at night the area was illuminated by calcium lights). Park officials enforced respectable behavior, and regulations said that “any person observing any act of indecorum may signalize a park-keeper by holding aloft or waving a handkerchief.” Middle-class New Yorkers couldn’t afford private carriages, but they could rent one from a livery stable for a dollar or two an hour, at least for special occasions. Families of clerks, prosperous shopkeepers, young professionals, and independent artisans (especially Germans) also went for walks, strolled through the Ramble, and took their children to the nascent zoo at the Arsenal. On summer Saturday afternoons, when most of “the mechanic and laboring classes” were still at work, Dodworth’s band concerts attracted crowds of forty-five thousand or more to the Mall. These assemblages, the papers noted, were composed of the “orderly, wellconducted and respectable,” the kinds of people (said the Tribune) “whose tastes are above grog shops and lager bier gardens but whose pockets are not equal to Newport or Saratoga.”
Those who could afford the bicycles produced by several city manufacturers—which retailed for a stiff fifty dollars to three times that—could take classes in biking at the new Velocinasium. Here, the Scientific American observed in 1869, “on any weekday evening may be seen upward of a hundred and fifty gentlemen—doctors, bankers, merchants, and representatives from almost every profession—engaged in this training school preparatory to making their appearance upon the public streets and fashionable promenades.”
Shopkeepers, clerks, and skilled craftsmen (especially butchers) dominated the city’s baseball fields, hailing the sport as a healthful outdoor exercise. Amateur outfits continued to flourish, and by 1867, with the return of veterans who had played in the army, there were over one hundred clubs in Brooklyn and Manhattan, many formed by companies and colleges. But baseball had begun its own professionalization process during the war, when William H. Cammeyer opened the Union Grounds in Brooklyn’s Eastern District, providing a rent-free playing field to three clubs but charging a tencent admission fee to watch the games. His success inspired a competitor in the Capitoline Grounds (once part of the old Lefferts farm). Now the clubs that drew the biggest crowds demanded a share of the gate; to attract greater attendance they sought more proficient players; athletes, in turn, demanded pay to play and proved willing to engage in “revolving”—jumping from one team to another that paid better.
By the late 1860s baseball had become a business, an urban entertainment commodity with Brooklyn and New York City at its center. The metropolitan area was a major market for recruitment: when a Cincinnati Red Stocking triumph in 1869 ended the local area’s domination of baseball, most of the Reds proved to be New Yorkers.
The huge crowds that came to contests were predominantly drawn from the city’s middling ranks. In part this was simply because the fees (twenty-five to fifty cents) and costs of travel to out-of-city fields effectively barred unskilled laborers. It was also due to baseball’s peculiarly white-collar charms, its appeal to middle-class sensibilities. An extremely orderly game, full of reassuring rules and penalties for infractions, baseball grew ever more “scientific” in nature as it professionalized. This was reflected on the field, in growing levels of specialization, training, and discipline and in the invention of new techniques: Dicky Pearce, the Atlantics’ star shortstop, became the first to employ the bunt as an offensive weapon. Even fandom required new levels of cerebration. Henry Chadwick, editor of the Chronicle, invented box scores and began calculating batting averages. Spectators could now peruse the reports, tables, and statistics in the sporting press and follow players and teams in a methodical fashion. The commentary of sports journalists in turn expanded the available information pool—the New York National Police Gazette, a major source, was widely available in hotels, barbershops, and saloons—and helped educate habitués in the finer points of observation.
The respectable middle class knew the kinds of entertainment it didn’t like, as well: the sordid goings-on in Kit Burns’s rat pit. The American Society for the Prevention of
“City Enormities—Every Brute Can Beat His Beast!’ from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 28, 1865. This depiction of cartmen abusing a horse is said to have prompted the formation of the ASPGA, which used it for many years to rally support among the urban middle classes. (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)—a strictly New York City concern despite its expansive name—had been founded in 1866 by Henry Bergh, son of wealthy shipbuilder Christian Bergh. Addressing a crowded Clinton Hall meeting of the American Geographical and Statistical Society, Bergh had denounced the cruelties practiced upon urban animals, particularly by the brutish (and Irish) lower classes, and urged New Yorkers to follow England’s example in tackling the problem organizationally and legislatively. The backing of wealthy bourgeois gentlemen (Astor, Fish, Belmont) and leading ministers (the Unitarian “Pope” Henry Bellows) won the ASPCA a charter and gained passage of restrictive laws, but the rank-and-file supporters of the organization were mainly middle class.
The ASPCA took out after lower-class blood sports, deploring both their cruelty and their waste of working-class time. It repeatedly raided Kit Burns’s establishment, forcing sportsmen to shift to pits in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Hoboken, and in subsequent decades largely succeeded in driving animal sports from the city. Except, that is, for the upper-class pastime of fox-hunting.
In addition to denouncing particular forms of working-class play, many professionals scorned the communal culture of the immigrant streets. Frederick Law Olmsted objected to “young men in knots of perhaps half a dozen in lounging attitudes,” who rudely obstructed sidewalks or descended into a “brilliantly lighted basement, where they find others of their sort, see, hear, smell, drink, and eat all manner of vile things.” Proper neighborliness did not consist in sitting about on doorsteps or curbstones while children “dodge[d] about at play,” but rather in sitting at the “tea-table with neighbors and wives and mothers and children, and all things clean and wholesome, softening and refining.”
RAGS TO ‘SPECTABILITY RELIGION
More than ever, middle-class families hewed to distinctively middle-class creeds and denominations, clustering in neighborhood Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches and having little-to do with Catholicism unless they were Irish or German. Middling New Yorkers harkened particularly to the teachings of three theologians whose messages resonated with special force within their social stratum: the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the Rev. Dwight L. Moody, and the Rev. Horatio Alger Jr.
In the postwar years Henry Ward Beecher was at the top of his form. His exuberant oratorical performances pulled crowds of Manhattanites across the river on Sunday mornings (on “Beecher boats”) to drink in his Plymouth Church sermons alongside Brooklyn brokers, small businessmen, professionals, clerks, bookkeepers, and skilled laborers. The “Hercules of American Protestantism” made twenty thousand dollars a year—equal to the president’s salary—supplemented with income from writing articles for the secular and religious press, penning a bestselling novel, and giving lectures.
Part of Beecher’s attraction lay in his long-standing ability to successfully negotiate tensions in middle-class ideologies, as in his continuing reassurances to privileged audiences that social inequalities generated by the free market system were divinely sanctioned and morally justifiable. Now, in the postwar age of Darwin, Beecher demonstrated a capacity to reconcile religion with reason—coequal polestars for his middle-class followers. Confronted with hard evidence from geologists, paleontologists, and biologists that challenged traditional biblical teachings, Beecher responded by accepting the new findings, formally embracing Darwin in 1882, though implicitly he had done so much earlier. Beecher argued that Science and Religion were not really in conflict, as evolution was God’s work. God was imminent in Nature, and His Laws might be grasped by the rational mind, but His Divine Essence was Love, and that could only be captured by contemplation of Nature’s beauty. God could therefore be best discerned, Beecher suggested, by the refined and the sensitive, attributes that (like knowledge and education) could be cultivated. It was possible, accordingly, for people to “ripen” by their own efforts to a “nobler plane,” attaining a level at which they were naturally attracted to love and goodness and cleaved to proper behavior as a matter of course, not coercion.
Organizing the process of elevating masses of middling men and women to such an exalted status was central to the work of Dwight L. Moody, the era’s most influential evangelical preacher, and in 1875 Moody decided to undertake a jumbo-scale revival in Beecher’s Brooklyn, one that would dwarf the efforts of prewar predecessors like Charles Grandison Finney. As a young man, Moody had moved from Massachusetts to Chicago, become a successful shoe salesman and usurious moneylender, and worked for the Chicago YMCA. After a conversion experience, he became an itinerant revival preacher in the midwest, then rocketed to fame after a successful 1873-75 tour of England, Scotland, and Ireland, along with Ira D. Sankey, his musical director, who led congregants in old hymns and taught them new ones.
On his return, Moody launched the revival in Brooklyn. Demonstrating a mastery at organizing urban camp meetings, the evangelist converted a huge skating rink to a six-thousand-seat auditorium, advertised extensively with posters and newspapers, and accommodated reporters on the platform who in turn related the services at great length. The following year, 1876, he worked out of New York City’s mammoth Hippodrome, the remodeled Harlem Railroad Depot at 26th and Madison whose adaptation cost a substantial ten thousand dollars, plus a fifteen-hundred-dollar weekly rental.
Moody’s ministry was financed by the very wealthy (William E. Dodge, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, J. P. Morgan). As one journalist observed, a Moody revival was “a vast business enterprise, organized and conducted by businessmen, who have put money into it on business principals for the purpose of saving men.” They applauded his views, which, though short on doctrine, suggested that urban suffering was due to city folk having drifted away from God and could best be addressed by seeking personal salvation through Jesus and avoiding sins such as drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking, and theatergoing or other “worldly amusements.”
Moody’s meetings were themselves fabulous middle-class entertainments. Immense crowds, often ten thousand or more, jammed and overflowed his arenas, aided by the streetcar companies, which built special tracks to their doors. The hymnbook and photograph vendors, the common singing, the mixing with pious strangers: these afforded a social outlet sorely needed by those required to abjure wicked commercial pleasures.
Such guilt-free get-togethers were particularly attractive to recently arrived, country-bred, evangelically oriented young men who had perhaps secured an office job but whose status and social networks still seemed fragile and insecure. One such newcomer was Horatio Alger, a recently secularized man of the cloth. Born in 1832 in Revere, Massachusetts, Alger went to Harvard, tried unsuccessfully to make a living as a professional writer for the Boston weeklies, then finally, and somewhat reluctantly, entered Cambridge Theological School to prepare himself for the ministry. Alger spent the war years preaching. On the side, he wrote patriotic verse and a juvenile novel, Frank’s Campaign, “to show how boys can be of most effectual service in assisting to put down the Rebellion.” In 1864 he settled down as a Unitarian pastor in Brewster, Massachusetts, but his ministry ended abruptly two years later, after an investigation by church authorities determined that the pastor had been engaging in “unnatural crimes” with young boys in the parish. Alger, admitting he had been “imprudent,” left town on the next train.
Moving to New York, Alger rented a room in a cheap hotel on St. Mark’s Place and set about making a career as a writer, though at first his articles and novels garnered good reviews but disappointing sales. In the meantime he had begun to study the habits of New York’s “street Arabs” and to aid the work of the Newsboys’ Lodging House. A project inaugurated by Charles Loring Brace’s Children’s Aid Society, it provided dormitory space at Fulton and Nassau where newsboys and bootblacks could lodge for a nickel a night. Alger’s experiences provided him with material that, once fictionalized, proved the making of him as a writer.
In 1867 the Boston editor of a children’s magazine, Student and Schoolmate, began bringing out monthly installments of Alger’s Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York. Dick, the bootblack hero, is ragged indeed, but a youth of enterprise and ambition. By chance (and luck plays as much a part as pluck in Alger’s novels) Dick is hired by a wealthy merchant to guide his rural nephew, Frank, around the city. Dick initiates the country lad into the ways and wiles of the city. He takes Frank (and the reader) on an extensive tour of Manhattan, alerting Frank to urban perils: “A feller has to look sharp in this city, or he’ll lose his eye-teeth before he knows it.” At the same time, Frank introduces Dick to refined speech and dress and awakens his latent desire to rise in the world. Dick announces his intention to “try to grow up ’spectable.” To ready himself for a job “in an office or counting room,” he takes up lodgings, opens a savings account, and gets some new clothes. At this point, his past looms up in the person of Micky Maguire, an Irish Five Points tough, who accuses Dick of “putting on airs” and picks a fight. When Maguire (a boy of “impetuous” Irish nature) strikes out “wildly,” Dick (a model of “quiet strength and coolness”) fells the bully with “adroit” and “measured” blows. From here on Dick never looks back, and in the end he gets a Pearl Street countingroom job (at ten dollars a week), becomes Richard Hunter, Esq., and moves to “a nicer quarter of the city.”
Dick’s trajectory is not from rags to riches but from rags to ’spectability. Alger’s sermons, like those of Beecher and Moody, honored not robber-baron rapacity but middle-class diligence. He counseled ambitious young boys to make themselves useful and acceptable to potential employers—to prepare themselves, as it were, for the dispensation of economic grace. Alger’s secularized vision of salvation demanded ongoing subordination, not manly independence, as illustrated by the once scrappy Dick’s now humble response to his job offer: “I’ll try to serve you so faithfully, sir, that you won’t repent having taken me into your service.” His was a creed for clerks.
THE POLITICS OF DECENCY
The question of how to apply science to society—particularly the affairs of New York City—posed a conundrum for the middle class in general, and its intellectuals in particular. On the one hand, there was continuing enthusiasm in the postwar years for “scientific governance”: action by experts, armed with up-to-date statistical information, to improve urban conditions. On the other hand, “social Darwinism” won many advocates; this credo, as expounded by Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher, and William Graham Sumner, the Yale sociologist, suggested that evolution’s natural workings should not be interfered with by misguided state-based activists, even in the name of science, compassion, or justice. In the 1860s and 1870s New York’s college-educated professionals veered back and forth between purposive social action and a revitalized laissez-faire, but people of both persuasions agreed the government of New York City was in the wrong hands.
Disgruntled observers believed the public sector responded all too readily to particularistic political and economic interests. Politicians pandered to the urban proletariat, dispensing largesse to alien immigrant voters, and self-serving businessmen barged their way into the legislative process, buying what favors they needed. Both streams of corruption commingled in the ample person of Boss Tweed—crony of Jay Gould, patron of the Irish, enemy of good government. There were, to be sure, sanitary engineers, landscape architects, educators, and physicians sprinkled throughout city government who had carved out positions of some independence—witness Croton engineer Craven—but trained intellectuals were generally shunted aside or forced to make dishonorable compromises with ignorant politicians.
What New York needed, argued the American Social Science Association (1865), was a neutral corps of experts, along the lines of the English civil service, in which Oxford and Cambridge graduates found respected positions administering the realm. To achieve it, the association called for civil service reform—taking public jobs away from party spoilsmen and giving them to qualified professionals—and a campaign got underway in which George William Curtis, political editor of Harper’s Weekly, assumed the leading role.
Social Darwinists like E. L. Godkin also supported civil service reform. Godkin, a middle-class Protestant born in Northern Ireland, had emigrated to New York in 1856, having received a rigorous training in classical political economy at Queens College, Belfast. He began a career as free-lance journalist and, in 1865, accepted editorship of the Nation, which Olmsted had urged the Union League Club to establish. Godkin used his magazine pulpit to warn cultivated middle-class readers about looming threats to laissez-faire. Manufacturers wanted tariffs, which would disrupt the free flow of trade between nations. Greenbackers sought to block restoration of the gold standard, the only rational form of specie. The labor movement wanted to tamper with the “eternal laws of political economy” by imposing an eight-hour day, as preposterous an idea as legislating against the attraction of gravity. For Godkin, the most “scientific” government was the one that governed least, and bureaucrats of the proper persuasion would be far superior to Tammany hacks. In this Godkin had the fervent backing of bourgeois taxpayers who believed that politicians were spending extravagant sums of city money—their money—on public projects.
With both hands-off and hands-on advocates concurring that government should be turned over to (in Godkin’s words) “thoughtful, educated, high-minded men,” representatives of both perspectives inched their way toward the conclusion that universal suffrage was the major stumbling block to professionalizing government.
One strategy for curtailing the influence of the urban masses was advanced by Simon Sterne, a New York lawyer and University of Heidelberg graduate who promoted the English idea of “cumulative voting,” a nostrum calculated to restore the influence of the educated minority. Others proposed giving extra weight to the ballots of college graduates or establishing literacy tests to screen out the uncultivated. Godkin suggested giving propertied taxpayers power to veto city expenditures adopted by “the representatives of mere numbers” or treating the city as a corporation and letting only those who held stock in it vote.
Though suffrage restriction remained a minority prescription, it won some sympathy in the most surprising quarters. In Democratic Vistas (1871) Walt Whitman denounced the terrible deficiencies of America’s democratic society in the age of Grant and Tweed. Looking his times “searchingly in the face,” Whitman found himself unable to “gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage”—the “half-brained nominees,” the “savage, wolfish parties,” the governments “saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration.” Most distressing of all was the fate of his beloved cities, New York and Brooklyn. Certainly there was still much to admire: the “oceanic amplitude and rush,” the “hurrying, feverish, electric crowds,” the “costly and lofty new buildings.” But these aesthetic delights could not outweigh the “demonism of greed,” the “robbery and scoundrelism,” and the ascension of “a mob of fashionably dressed speculators and vulgarians” whose antics were matched only by the “plentiful meanness and vulgarity” of the masses below. The city had betrayed the promise of its artisanal republican youth, and Whitman could summon up only a nebulous hope for its moral renaissance.
“WOMEN: THEIR RIGHTS AND NOTHING LESS”
The booming metropolitan economy opened up opportunities for middle-class women to make their mark in professional and managerial positions—particularly those geared toward serving other women. Jane Cunningham Croly was a regular news columnist who published collections of her pieces under the pen name “Jennie June.” Dr. Clemence Lozier was a highly regarded obstetrician who had established the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women in 1863, from which Dr. Susan Smith, daughter of a Weeksville pork merchant, graduated in 1870 to become New York’s first female African-American doctor, and later founder of a Women’s Hospital and Dispensary in Brooklyn. Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, daughter of George Palmer Putnam, studied medicine in Paris, taught at the Women’s Medical College, and in 1872 would found the Women’s Medical Association of New York City. Ellen Louise Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions by now had sixty thousand readers, some as far away as mining settlements in Colorado and isolated farms in the Midwest. Sarah Payson Willis (Fanny Fern), now nearly sixty, was still the greatest circulation draw at Robert Bonner’s Ledger, and Margaret Getchell, general manager of Macy’s, was responsible for many of the firm’s innovations.
Despite these individual successes, which built on the prewar legislative victories that allowed wives to keep their own earnings, middle-class females in general found themselves repeatedly thwarted in efforts to crack male monopolization of professional positions. When three women applied to Columbia Law School, one trustee responded, “No woman shall degrade herself by practicing law, in New York especially, if I can save her.”
One such snub precipitated a collective reaction. On the occasion of Charles Dickens’s second visit to the metropolis, the New York Press Club decided to pay him homage with a fancy Delmonico’s dinner. Women, including journalist Croly, were barred. Croly, along with Willis, proposed forming a woman’s club, in counterpoint to the male havens lining Fifth Avenue, in which women could support one another’s initiatives and careers. Several of the best-known professional women had already begun meeting periodically at Sunday evening receptions held in the oak-paneled library of Alice and Phoebe Cary, two poet sisters. The core group quickly incorporated Sorosis—the first such organization in the country—and by April 1868 its members were meeting regularly in a second-floor room at Delmonico’s. The idea of a woman’s club triggered widespread derision, but the lampooning soon died down, in part because many members’ husbands were powerful men. By 1870 Sorosis included thirty-eight writers, six editors, twelve poets, six musicians, two artists, ten lecturers, four professors, nine teachers, two physicians, and one historian.
Many in the group were feminists and freethinkers, including Jacobi, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Paulina Wright Davis, and in 1869 Sorosis leaders helped organize a Woman’s Parliament in New York City. The body established committees to deal with education, household reform, health reform, and newspaper work for women, among others. It lasted only a year but was resurrected, in 1873, as the Association for the Advancement of Women, again at the initiative of Sorosis. The association sponsored the first Woman’s Congress, to which it invited all who “have conquered an honorable place in any of the professions or leading reforms of the day.” Over four hundred women from eighteen states came to New York, all from upper- or middle-class backgrounds, and they concentrated on problems specific to professional women, like having “two careers.” They applauded the ongoing expansion opportunities in women’s education—that same year the Normal College of the City of New York (1869), the teachers’ training institution presided over by Thomas Hunter, moved into a neo-
Anatomy Lesson at the New York College for Women, 1870, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 16, 1870. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
Gothic building at 68th and Lexington—but delegates also demanded the opportunity to be educated for all professions and businesses.
Professional women in New York City also provided a powerful constituency for the broader feminist movement now revitalized by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Both had been based in New York since Henry Stanton won appointment as deputy collector of the Custom House in 1862. The Stantons had settled into a brownstone on West 45th Street, a block from the Colored Orphan Asylum, and Anthony boarded with them. Like many other women, the duo had subordinated feminist concerns for the duration of the war—even when the state legislature took advantage of the temporary abeyance of feminist pressure to gut several provisions of the Married Women’s Property Act. After Appomattox and the Thirteenth Amendment’s abolition of slavery, they decided to press on for the emancipation of women, and in particular the right to vote.
In 1866 Stanton became the first woman to run for Congress—having noted that though females were disfranchised, nothing in the Constitution forbade them from holding office. A symbolic breakthrough, her campaign in New York City’s Eighth District was an electoral flop, garnering but two score votes.
In 1867 Stanton and Anthony organized a lobbying and petition campaign to pressure the state constitutional convention—then considering black male suffrage—into extending the privilege to women too. Granted a hearing by Horace Greeley’s Committee on Suffrage, they parried a barrage of jibes and objections, including Greeley’s jocular query whether the women—given that “bullet and ballot go together”—were “ready to fight.” “We are ready to fight, sir, just as you fought in the late war,” Stanton snapped back, “by sending our substitutes.” In the end the convention refused to grant female suffrage, an innovation “so openly at war with a distribution of duties and functions between the sexes.”
The campaign for women’s suffrage drew this satirical response from Currier & Ives, known variously as The Age of Brass or The Triumph of Women’s Rights. (© Museum of the City of New York)
The women fared no better at the federal level. When former abolitionists set out to guarantee the vote for black males by passing the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, Stanton and Anthony supported them but insisted that suffrage for women be included in the demand. Rebuffed by hitherto staunch supporters like Wendell Phillips, who announced that “this hour belongs to the negro,” Stanton and Anthony countered that Phillips’s definition of “negro” left out half the African-American race and that by smuggling the word “male” into the Constitution, the proposed new amendment was actually taking a step backward. Their protests proved unavailing, and many abolitionist women (mostly in Boston) supported Phillips’s argument that burdening black suffrage with women’s rights would sink it.
Balked by Republicans, Stanton and Anthony turned to Democrats, in the process embracing racist justifications for their cause. Arguing that white men should accept women as allies against the supposed perils of black supremacy, they joined forces with the flamboyant millionaire George Francis Train and campaigned for enfranchising Beauty, Virtue, and Intelligence to counter freedmen’s Muscle, Color, and Ignorance. Many of their colleagues felt shamed by this appeal, but Stanton and Anthony argued that the Republican Party was a sinking ship, and “rats—that is female rats ought to know enough to leave.” Yet when they appealed for support at the national Democratic Party convention in 1868, Stanton was literally laughed out of Tammany Hall.
Renewing their search for allies, Stanton and Anthony discovered their true constituency: middle-class women like themselves, particularly those living in New York City. Using funds provided by their rich ally George Francis Train, they launched a feminist journal, the Revolution, from offices in the Woman’s Bureau, a large town house near Gramercy Park established by Elizabeth B. Phelps as a meeting center for New York women. With Anthony managing and Stanton editing, they brought out the first issue in January 1868, its masthead proclaiming, “Men Their Rights and Nothing More—Women Their Rights and Nothing Less.” Train, a militant Fenian, departed soon after for Ireland, leaving Stanton and Anthony the sole directors of the paper.
The Revolution, promising that “not only the ballot, but bread and babies will be discussed,” embraced a whole panoply of gender-related issues. The editors resurrected the radical feminist heritage by publishing the work of Frances Wright and Mary Wollstonecraft. They boldly tackled the divorce issue, which Stanton had first raised, to great consternation, at the Tenth Woman’s Rights Convention in 1860, and again urged that marriage be treated not as a sacred pact but as a civil contract, easily dissolvable in the event of desertion, drunkenness, insanity, cruelty, adultery, and even simple incompatibility.
Setting the divorce issue in a still larger framework, the editors argued that women needed to become independent so they could marry and remain married out of choice, not economic necessity. This in turn required equal rights under law, the vote, coeducation in schools and colleges, and fundamental changes in society’s attitudes about men, women, and the nature of their relationships. To this end, the editors took up subjects usually considered anathema in respectable publications, including sex education, infanticide, rape, wife beating, and prostitution. In 1867 the duo had protested when the Metropolitan Board of Health, picking up on Dr. Sanger’s antebellum proposal, recommended fighting venereal disease (which had spread dramatically during the war years) by legalizing and registering prostitutes and requiring they be regularly inspected. Questioning why men who visited the prostitutes were to be immune from such public surveillance, they denounced the proposal as an insult to women, got the bill killed, and in 1871 beat back another attempt to pass what Anthony called a “Social Evil Bill.”
The Revolution’s editors also mobilized for action around the suffrage issue. At an 1869 meeting in the Woman’s Bureau, they and their supporters formed the National Woman’s Suffrage Association—an avowedly feminist-first body whose officers were all women—to press for passage of a Sixteenth Amendment to guarantee female access to the ballot. It was supplemented the following year by the New York City Woman Suffrage Association (1870), formed by Dr. Clemence Lozier and Charlotte Wilbour, president of Sorosis, beginning what would be a decades-long struggle to win the franchise locally.
The Revolution’s militant policies won significant support from New York City’s professional women. Many in Sorosis were quite prepared to take up daring subjects: club members discussed abortion and prostitution, and Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi lectured about the need to abolish female ignorance concerning sexual physiology. Dr. Anna Densmore, vice-president of the New York City Woman’s Club, gave scientific lectures for women on physiology and in 1868 got Board of Education approval to train female public school teachers to pass on such information to their students.
Other women were alarmed or repelled by material they considered far too controversial. In addition, former antislavery activists denounced Stanton and Anthony’s continuing resort to race (and class) bigotry. When the Fifteenth Amendment passed Congress in February 1869, making no provision for women, Stanton denounced it as an “open, deliberate insult to American womanhood to be cast down under the iron-heeled peasantry of the Old World and these slaves of the New.”
At the same moment they were being challenged by relatively conservative women, Stanton and Anthony found themselves confronting Victoria Woodhull, a feminist who was in some respects more radical—and certainly more flamboyant—than they were. Born poor in the frontier hamlet of Homer, Ohio, Woodhull had spent her youth roaming the Midwest with a traveling family medicine show—telling fortunes, communing with spirits, practicing faith healing and animal magnetism. With her sister Tennie C. (or Tennessee) Claflin she came to New York after the war and struck up an alliance with Cornelius Vanderbilt (Tennessee’s physical ministrations warmed the old man’s bones while Victoria’s seances consoled him over the loss of his wife). Vanderbilt’s remarriage suspended more intimate relations, but the grateful millionaire set them up on Wall Street. Woodhull, Claflin, and Co., the first woman’s brokerage firm in the all-male New York financial world, was a great success, its rise in no way impeded by the sisters’ well-known association with the Commodore, and the women made a small fortune.
They did not, however, rest on these professional laurels, but instead entered the world of radical politics. In 1870 they started their own newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, which took up the deeply scandalous (and deeply misunderstood) issue of Free Love. Widely seen as a commitment to unbridled lechery, it was, in fact, a feminist challenge to men’s sexual prerogatives under prevailing gender rules. Free Lovers attacked the double standard and insisted men be held to the same high levels of moral purity that were required of women. In some respects, Woodhull’s position was not far removed from that of those who had challenged the convention of marriage (“We are all free lovers at heart,” Stanton said). The Revolution, quite as often as Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, carried demands for a woman’s “control over her own person, independent of the desires of her husband.”
If some of Woodhull’s ideas weren’t shocking, her manners certainly were. Woodhull was a feminist for the age of flash, as shrewd about publicity as Barnum, as brash in personal style as Jim Fisk. Her personal appearance violated gender proprieties: short hair, skirts that reached only her shoe tops, jackets of mannish cut, bright-colored neckties. Worse still, Woodhull argued that people might have more than one “natural mate,” which raised the theoretical possibility of extramarital pursuits (in Victoria’s case, apparently, not merely theoretical), and she took a positive view of sexual pleasure, even when not aimed at procreation, and indeed agitated openly for legalized prostitution and birth control. Mainstream feminists did not approve of contraceptive devices (though many used them) for fear their widespread adoption would increase male promiscuity. They were wary of abortion (though many had them) because they were associated with frivolous society women, demimondaines, and the poor and because they too could be used by men to escape the consequences of their cavortings.
Given her notoriety, when Woodhull plunged into the suffrage movement, many in the American Woman Suffrage Association and even some in the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (including Stanton) were dismayed. But Woodhull quickly earned some kudos. She presented a memorial to the House of Representatives arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment’s extension of suffrage to blacks provided ample constitutional grounds for granting it to women, and she proposed that women take direct action at polling places and assert their right to vote. Woodhull’s speech and battle plan met with tremendous acclaim and catapulted her to a leadership position in the suffrage movement. Objections by those scandalized by association with such a forward woman were brusquely dismissed by Stanton: “We have had women enough sacrificed to this sentimental, hypocritical prating about purity,” she said scathingly. “If Victoria Woodhull must be crucified, let men drive the spikes and plait the crown of thorns.”
In 1872 Stanton went so far as to back Woodhull’s proposal to use the May meeting of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association in Steinway Hall to launch a third political party, of which Woodhull would be the presidential candidate. The new People’s Party platform, as leading feminists envisioned it, would merge their crusade for the enfranchisement of women with the movement that, for the past several years, had been pressing for the emancipation of labor.