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: 178 ; Chapter 8 GenealogyandtheQuestfor anInheritedFuture • D espite her continued allegiance to the rural traditions of New England, New York City was the backdrop against which Earle operated for most of her life. For at least nine months of every year, she and her family lived in an urban neighborhood, surrounded by unfathomable numbers of strangers. The Earle house in Brooklyn Heights stood on a block of Henry Street amidst almost fifty other houses. That one block was a minuscule section of an enormous grid that spread relentlessly—northwest into Manhattan, pausing briefly at the East River, south to the Atlantic Ocean, and eastward on Long Island. In a world of such indeterminate physical boundaries, new social and cultural boundaries had to be developed and continually reinforced from within. Earle’s strategy for constructing those boundaries involved an emphasis on roots and ancestry, real or imagined. Genealogical connections could offer a sense of virtual family and long-standing community ties, even where there were none. Moreover, social and cultural boundaries, Earle believed, could be maintained through physical proximity to symbolic forms that would stand in for real ones. Ancestral artifacts, as well as ancestors themselves, could help to bolster families against the insecurity of the present (fig. 25). For Earle and most other members of the urban middle class,the process of establishing and maintaining new social boundaries had begun several generations before—in Earle’s case, with the generation of her father and : 179 Genealogy and the Quest for an Inherited Future mother.The quest for new forms of social security expressed itself in inwardlooking families, clustered in selective groups. These groups were typically defined by status (determined by class and race) and familial links (genealogy ), not by local proximity and communitarian values as in earlier times. Social and urban historians have identified a process of turning inward, away from traditional community values and toward an increasingly atomized nuclear family and more individually centered social attitudes. This separation of public from private life became the dominant middle-class behavioral system during the first half of the nineteenth century.1 In this privatized world, individual families—to the extent that they were able— remained the basic nuclear social unit that they had been since the earliest Puritan days.In contrast with the Puritan model,however,late-nineteenthcentury middle-class families tended to insulate themselves from the world around them, relying instead on internal structural supports that operated within carefully defined small groups of like-minded “respectable” people. Figure 25.Earle’s family in Worcester,like many other families,expressed their ancestry visually through their domestic settings. Her sister, Frances Clary Morse, included this photograph, taken in the Morse family dining room, in her 1902 book Furniture of the Olden Times. The handsome mahogany sideboard and knife boxes, the array of silver tea wares and decanter trolleys, and the blue and white historical transfer-printed plates hanging on the wall all suggest deep American roots and give evidence that collecting and connoisseurship were a Morse family enterprise. 180 ; Chapter 8 In antebellum towns and cities especially, families began to employ architectural and behavioral strategies to reinforce their economic and social distinctions rather than interacting seamlessly with the community at large. Through careful genealogical screening, backed up by increasingly selective neighborhoods, clubs, vacation spots, and other social devices, they were able to create a new social nexus that was the product of personal selection, genteel behavior, and individual will, rather than being determined, as the Puritans saw it, by the will of God.2 Two important forces, one demographic and one intellectual, helped shape the choices people now made about their social identities and their ideas of community. Since the earliest years of the nineteenth century, demographic forces had been eroding the ability of most Americans to predict with any certainty what the future might hold for themselves and their children. Rural communities found themselves squeezed by increasing numbers of newcomers competing for limited prime acreage.3 The fertility of their marginal farmland was not always adequate to support large numbers of in-migrants or to compete with the potential of newly accessible, highly fertile acreage in lands to the west. That situation was exacerbated by improvements in transportation that made it possible for farmers in these newly settled regions to ship their agricultural produce to eastern markets. In the face of declining agricultural opportunity for newcomers, the lure of the frontier and the rapidly developing industrial cities offered an irresistible future to...


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