In this meticulously researched social history, Stephanie Bower traces the multigenerational process by which descendants of middling antebellum Kentucky families became members of early-twentieth-century Louisville’s middle class. Where works such as Jonathan Daniel Wells’s Origins of the Southern Middle Class (2004) and Frank Byrne’s Becoming Bourgeois (2006) have explored the pre-1865 origins of southern middle-class culture, Bower examines the postbellum processes by which a growing number of hinterland southerners abandoned their agrarian roots and swelled the ranks of a middle class shaped by industrialization and urban development. Drawing on Sam Bass Warner’s classic study of Boston in Streetcar Suburbs (1978), Bower focuses on the white-collar Cherokee Triangle suburb at the eastern end of Louisville’s Broadway trolley line.
Out of the 502 families that occupied single-family homes in Cherokee Triangle in 1910, Bower examines the 42 white families of Kentucky backgrounds in which “both husband and wife were present,” “the male head-of-household was in his thirties, forties, or fifties,” and who owned their residences (pp. 11–12). Making detailed use of the census schedules of 1850, 1880, and 1910, Bower also tracks each individual through public records, newspaper notices, city directories, cemetery records, and oral histories. The result is a collective biography that traces families from the primarily agrarian generation of the 1850s to the Cherokee Triangle homeowners of 1910. The grandparents of thirty of the forty-two families lived in rural communities in 1850; wealth percentiles for each of their counties show that few were planters, but most possessed “above average [End Page 265] wealth as represented by holdings in land and slaves” and “standing within their local society” (pp. 50, 68). Many members of the next generation relocated to small towns; Bower argues that their occupations there provided experience vital to navigating the new urban culture and economy. Although this generation experienced reversals from war, economic depression, subdivided property, and competition with the produce of western lands, by 1910 their children had recovered and established themselves within the urban middle class.
Of particular interest is Bower’s argument regarding the key role of wives in achieving middle-class status. Although it was husbands’ salaries that made it possible to purchase a Cherokee Triangle home, the mothers and maternal grandparents of Cherokee Triangle wives frequently channeled critical material resources, including property and educational opportunities, as well as social skills and aspirations, to set couples on the path to the middle class.
The extraordinary level of detail Bower provides is at once the book’s strength and a limitation. Given the number of individuals discussed, readers may occasionally struggle to follow her conclusions. If the details make for dense reading, however, they offer nuanced insights into the many individual histories that together reveal previously unseen patterns of class formation. At the same time, the study size inevitably raises questions of typicality. The compilation and analysis of biographical information on forty-two relatively unknown families across three generations (588 individuals) is a truly impressive undertaking. Yet the number of men or women who exemplify particular patterns within any one generation is necessarily limited. To her credit, Bower does not overstate her conclusions. She clearly identifies the number of individuals on which they are based and discusses any anomalies.
Limitations aside, Bower has made an insightful and important contribution to the literature on southern middle-class development. She convincingly demonstrates that it was a multigenerational process in turn-of-the-century Louisville. In tracing the transmission of property along maternal lines, she adds a new dimension to our [End Page 266] understanding of gender in this process. Moreover, she provides new insight into the question of whether the New South represented continuity or change from the antebellum years. In navigating the transition from middling to middle class, Bower argues, families preserved their relative status within a changing world.
AMANDA R. MUSHAL is an associate professor of history at The Citadel. Her...