- The Class Divide in American Culture in the Early Twentieth Century
Recent polling generally reports nearly universal individual self-reporting as "middle class," even though the U.S. economy is in a recession and the rate of housing foreclosures is nearing depression levels. These circumstances are wreaking destruction in vulnerable neighborhoods across the country, with consequences falling most heavily on black and Latina female borrowers, who join countless other American workers facing insecure employment and rising health care costs. The economist Paul Krugman has resurrected the label of the Gilded Age to name the increasingly accepted standard of widening inequality and concentration of wealth at the top which characterizes contemporary U.S. society. In this context, the pervasive use of the term "middle class" as a form of self-categorization suggests that by the twenty-first century, the language of class has itself been emptied of meaning because the cultural and rhetorical claims of [End Page 255] the label "middle class" far outweigh any vestiges of descriptive or comparative measurement.
Each of the books under review here offers a historical study with the potential to illuminate the interactions through which rhetorical languages of class interact with the social and economic forces changing American culture in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Susan Porter Benson's book Household Accounts: Working Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States relies on an analysis of family budget studies to explore the dissonance between a national culture of mass consumption and working-class cultures of family consumption, showcasing the negotiations between wage earning, household production, market-replacement, reciprocity, and market activity in reconciling family subsistence and individual goals and desires (7-8). Marina Moskowitz's Standard of Living: The Measure of the Middle Class in Modern America spotlights the role of new national distribution systems in four carefully chosen case studies to ask how "certain objects, structures and landscapes became 'standard' possessions" for Americans by the 1920s, possessions which then served to identify the growing middle class "both to themselves, and to others, on a national scale" (2). Susan Currell's The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure in the Great Depression analyzes commentary by various social reformers, social scientists, educators, artists, and writers in an attempt to determine "How, during a period of mass unemployment, leisure came to feature as a central problem of culture," and "Why did leisure—both proper and improper—become such an intense object of interest, concern, and surveillance by national policy makers, experts, and intellectuals alike in the 1930s?" (3).
Susan Porter Benson's Household Accounts provides an extraordinarily revelatory portrayal of what Benson argued consistently we must learn to see as "the work of consumption." Benson has done more than any other scholar to identify the everyday dynamic interrelationships between wage-earning, reproduction, and consumption through a combination of broad-based and finely tuned analysis of working class family economies. Benson's chapters explore working-class family economies by paying attention to the gendered expectations and experiences of confronting everyday circumstances of scarcity and insecurity with improvisation, ingenuity, resilience, disappointment, conflict, and loss.
Benson's primary sources are the reports on home-visit interviews with women wage earners conducted by field agents for the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Labor department in the 1920s and 1930s, and the published studies of families confronting unemployment assembled by academic social scientists and settlement workers during the late 1920s and 1930s. Imaginatively and with great precision and sophistication, Household Accounts aggregates the results of these studies in order to make sense of the overall patterns of their findings, revealing the overwhelming scarcity and insecurity of household economies in this period, the lesser importance of ethnicity and the greater importance of...