The Middle-Class City: Transforming Space and Time in Philadelphia, 1876–1926
In this fluent study, John Henry Hepp traces the geography of middle-class life in Philadelphia between the Centennial Exposition in 1876 and the Sesquicentennial in 1926. He uses "three quintessentially bourgeois enterprises" (p. 8), department stores, newspapers, and transit, as starting points for an analysis of how a city-within-a-city emerged during the late 1800s that middle-class residents could experience as a complete world—"one great big stretch of middle class" (p. 169)—despite the obvious coexistence of a huge working class, along with a formidable elite.
Hepp begins with the assertion that the Victorian middle class undertook to imprint a "scientific worldview" on its environment (p. 2). The middle class defined "science" broadly to encompass classification, organization, and system as well as the expansion of knowledge and technological innovation. Basing his argument on a dogged combing of diaries and other manuscripts distributed among Philadelphia's archives as well as on printed sources, Hepp insists that the Victorian effort to create an orderly city arose from a "middle-class faith in progress and the future" (p. 8). [End Page 842] Standard texts such as Robert Wiebe's Search for Order (1967) have depicted a fearful middle class reacting defensively to the social and moral changes wrought by urbanization and industrialization. Middle-class Philadelphians endeavored to create an orderly city, Hepp shrewdly counters, more often from an optimistic attraction to order than from anxiety over disorder.
Hepp first examines how transit, train stations, retailing, and newspapers all reflected the imposition of bourgeois taxonomy on urban space. Railroad timetables and department-store sales calendars reordered time and space in the name of predictable movement and commerce. Between 1880 and 1900, genteel newspapers such as the Evening Telegraph and the Public Ledger as well as less discriminating competitors such as the Inquirer—like their counterparts across the United States and Western Europe—reorganized their contents into functional departments with predictable places in each day's edition. For Hepp, newspapers offered such a self-evident print analog to the reordering of urban space that editors did not need to explain these new conventions to readers, who did not bother to ask.
The imperatives of commerce could turn "science" into a tool for eroding the self-contained city that the Victorian middle class had constructed. As the white, immigrant working class grew more assimilated and prosperous, transit companies, department stores, and newspapers found they could use "scientific" methods to broaden their appeal beyond the middle class to a mass market. John Wanamaker, Jacob and Isaac Gimbel, and their competitors added bargain basements to draw in workers and white ethnics, while upstairs departments became calibrated by price and status to target differentiated segments of the populace. The Evening Bulletin's studied blandness, which appealed to all and offended none, explains its crushing circulation victory over the genteel Public Ledger, renowned for intelligent, accurate reporting.
As more blue-collar Philadelphians could afford trolley fare, apartment houses crept into middle-class, row house neighborhoods. New Jersey seaside resorts lost some of the middle-class respectability that the cost of train tickets had previously afforded them. By the 1920s, Hepp argues, "the early twentieth-century multi-classed metropolis" was displacing the "Victorian middle-class city" (p. 124). Yet Philadelphia and other American metropolises retained a "middle-class taxonomy of space" (p. 214), segregated by class and race and segmented by function. The middle class strings together its city today by automobile instead of trolley.
Hepp makes an excellent case for science as a principal force driving Victorian urbanism. Even so, many works on Victorian cities—for example, Donald J. Olsen's The Growth of Victorian London (1976) and The City as a Work of Art (1986)—reveal that the middle class left space in its orderly world for sentiment and mystery. Victorians used systematic methods and [End Page 843] industrial materials to construct transit stations with intricate ironwork to go to Queen Anne or Craftsman homes, Gothic churches, and Romantic parks. In contrast to the functionalist strain in twentieth-century modernism, Victorian urbanism supplemented rationality with turrets, carvings, odd angles, and haunted corners. Hepp has effectively identified the structured plot around which the Victorian middle class constructed its Philadelphia. In the myriad diaries and letters he consulted, he may have overlooked the unexplained twists and the eccentric characters that gave life to Victorian cities as well as Victorian stories.
Dr. Lessoff, professor of history at Illinois State University, edits the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He is historical consultant and catalog editor for an international exhibit on Adolf Cluss, Washington’s leading architect in the l870s and 1880s.