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Nature's Aristocracy

A Plea for the Oppressed

Jennie Collins

Publication Year: 2010

In 1871 Jennie Collins became one of the first working-class American women to publish a volume of her own writings: Nature’s Aristocracy. Merging autobiography, social criticism, fictionalized vignettes, and feminist polemics, her book examines the perennial problem of class in America. Collins loosely structures her series of sketches around the argument that nineteenth-century U.S. society, by deviating dangerously from the ideals set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had created a corrupt aristocracy and a gulf between the rich and the poor that the United States’ founders had endeavored to prevent. Collins’s text serves as a mouthpiece for the little-heard voices of nineteenth-century poor and laboring women, employing sarcasm, irony, and sentimentality in condemning the empty philanthropic gestures of aristocratic capitalists and calling for justice instead of charity as a means to elevate the poor from their destitution. She also explores the necessity of suffrage for female workers who, while expected to work alongside men as their equals in labor, were hampered by lower wages and lack of control by their exclusion from the voting process.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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This kind of recovery project would not be possible without the assistance of staffs at research libraries and archives. The editor extends grateful thanks to the librarians of the New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Boston Public Library, the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library...

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Editor’s Introduction

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pp. ix-xl

Jennie Collins wrote Nature’s Aristocracy; or, Battles and Wounds in Time of Peace: A Plea for the Oppressed at a time when questions about the meaning of work and about relations between labor and capital were being passionately debated. During the headlong postbellum expansion of American industry, people struggled to understand the changing workplace. One journalist wrote in 1869, “It is becoming more and more plain, and being...

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A Note on the Text/Dedication

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Jennie Collins’s text is reproduced from the only edition, which was published in late 1870 by Lee and Shepard of Boston, Massachusetts, and by Lee, Shepard, and Dillingham of New York, New York. The title page is dated 1871, although 1870 is the copyright date, and most published reviews of the book appeared in late 1870 and early 1871. The text as presented here is nearly the same as Collins’s, retaining nineteenth-century...

Table of Contents

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Chapter 1: Nature’s Aristocracy

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pp. 11-15

They are sad tales indeed which I have to tell. Too full of sorrow and suffering, defeats and discouragements, oppression and cruelty to be sought by the gay, and too true to attract the novelist. Yet I must write them. The world shall hear them, though the recollec-tion brings tears and the repetition a shudder. Sad faces! How they ...

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Chapter 2: The Beggars

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pp. 16-23

Poor little Lizzie! How sad she always appeared as she came to the kitchen door and asked for something to eat! I can see her still as I recall her tattered dress, dirty feet, matted hair, fresh red cheeks, and large blue eyes. With all her rags and filth she had the air of a queen, — a queen of moral purity and love. Behind her bright eyes ...

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Chapter 3: One Grade above the Beggars

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pp. 24-35

Do you call them dens? You are right; they are dens. For most as-suredly they are not homes, although they may be human dwellings. Ah! how you revolt at the idea of entering those musty attics and those damp and vermin-filled cellars! But the lowest stage of human wretchedness will not be seen without such a sacrifice; so march ...

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Chapter 4: Crime and Nobility

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pp. 36-47

It does seem to me that there are times when, notwithstanding the scripture, it is eminently wise to “thank God that we are not as other men”;1 and when the wisdom of that celebrated divine who never saw a thief, drunkard, or murderer without saying to himself, “It might have been me,” is fully...

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Chapter 5: Newsboys and Bootblacks

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pp. 48-51

It is not my purpose to give in this chapter the many cases where bootblacks and newsboys have become wealthy and influential men; for many whose names I find in the “scrap-book” would object to the publication of their lives. A correspondent of the Boston Travel-ler, writing in 1857, stated that there were then “ten leading editors ...

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Chapter 6: Shop-Girls

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pp. 52-65

There is probably no class of persons in New England who are so necessary to its prosperity, and at the same time so little noticed or cared for, as the shop-girls. They are to be found in every depart-ment of trade, in nearly every workshop and manufactory; and ev-them. Behind the counter, at the book-keeper’s desk, in the pack-...

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Chapter 7: Journeymen Tailors

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pp. 66-72

There is no class of workingmen so subject to annoyance as that of the journeymen tailors. They are either overrun with work, or have none at all. To-day they earn ten dollars and tomorrow will earn nearly all night to fulfil the contracts made by their employer, and next week they will be seen loafing about the shop or street cor-...

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Chapter 8: Servant-Girls

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pp. 73-86

When the cry of the working-women of New England finds lodgement in the ears of the wealthy housewives, the first question which they put is always this, “Why do they not go out as house-servants?” and the question is asked in that decided manner which indicates that the speaker declines to do anything for them as long as that field is open.1 There is a great demand for housekeepers and servant- girls even in New England, and the...

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Chapter 9: Then and Now of Factory Life

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pp. 87-102

This is an age of bargains and contracts. Those good old days of generous hospitality, of friendly assistance, and of mutual good-will have passed into history as a thing that existed once, but can never come again. Everything that is performed to-day seems to be done under a contract, in which each gesture, step, and thought is ...

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Chapter 10: How Cotton Is Manufactured.—Factory Friendships

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pp. 103-116

In order that the reader may be able to understand the terms which I shall be obliged to use in the chapters that follow, a few words the cotton passes while being manufactured into cloth. The cotton placed in the basement of the factory, which picks and combs out the sticks, seeds, and hard lumps, leaving only the light, feathery ...

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Chapter 11: Among the “Strikers”

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pp. 117-141

If it needed any argument to prove what is already patent to the most careless observer, namely, that the working-classes are natu-rally intelligent and able, nothing would be more forcible than a reference to the “strikes” which have occurred among the operatives in New England within the last ten years. It may be thought that ...

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Chapter 12: Charitable Institutions

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pp. 142-161

Charity! — how many conflicting reflections that word brings into the mind! Love, pride, vice, shame, benevolence, ambition, hate, other in the idea it suggests, that an accurate definition would be impossible. The time was when it meant a simple, unostentatious act of the purest sympathy and love. But that day passed more than ...

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Chapter 13: Natural and Unnatural Aristocrats

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pp. 162-182

It is refreshing, after long contemplation of vice, cruelty, and in-justice, to turn our eyes for a time upon the opposite picture, and greatness. It is inspiring to see, through the clouds of battle, some portions of the great army scaling heights and winning victories, Some of Nature’s noblemen do win the battles of life, and are able to ...

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Chapter 14: Labor Reform

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pp. 183-193

The time was, not many years ago, when the employee who received his regular wages never ventured to inquire into his employer’s busi-ness, nor questioned the equity of his pay, provided that he obtained a sufficient amount to defray his necessary expenses. It mattered but little to him, as far as right was concerned, whether the pay was ...

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Chapter 15: Woman’s Suffrage

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pp. 194-208

The exact meaning of the word “rights” has never been definitely settled, and the expression “woman’s rights” only serves to render its import more vague and complicated than when standing alone. You want your “rights.” I want my “rights.” White men want their “rights,” and black men want their “rights”; but in the whole list ...


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pp. 209-217

E-ISBN-13: 9780803229983
E-ISBN-10: 0803229984
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803219342
Print-ISBN-10: 0803219342

Page Count: 260
Illustrations: 1 b&w photo
Publication Year: 2010