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  • Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890–1920 by David Huyssen
  • Thomas Bender
Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890–1920. By David Huyssen (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2014) 378pp. $39.95

Progressive Inequality is an important, a deeply researched, and an altogether impressive examination of interclass contact and relations in New York City between 1890 and 1920. It is not a new topic; the 1970s saw a cycle of such studies. But this work revises the topic significantly, advancing well beyond the “social control” arguments of that scholarship. Huyssen reveals the elitist disdain at the nexus of the charitable relation, blind and unaware though it be. This cultural history is attentive to language as well as to “robust, often unilateral exercises of power” (16). Huyssen favors a “cooperative” spirit linking the classes, and he is particularly harsh, sometimes even contemptuous, of the language and politics of the leading philanthropists of the 1890s.

In the second half of the book, which purports to engage givers who have a better sense of the poor and understand themselves better than their predecessors did, Huyssen makes a category error by eliding Gilded Age reformers and actual Progressives. He misses a generational shift. Those whom he criticizes—Robert W. DeForest, Richard Gilder, and Josephine Shaw Lowell—were all born in the 1840s, whereas the later reformers whom he sees in a more positive light—Lillian Wald, Jane Addams, and Mary Simkovitch—were born in the 1860s; Mary E. Dreier was born in 1875. Hence, the philanthropies of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era ought to be distinguished, even though his conclusion notes that neither was democratic in a cultural or political sense.

Yet generation is not destiny. Regrettably, Huyssen declines to follow Lowell into the Progressive Era, when she began to condemn manufacturers and middle-class consumers for exploiting the poor. The later Lowell was moved by the Haymarket riot, the Homestead strike, and the Henry George campaign for mayor in New York to bring together poor women (“shop girls”) and middle-class women (consumers) in the National Consumer League to collaborate in the name of justice rather than charity: What the “poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food.”1

Huyssen admires Wald’s settlement house work, as well as Jacob Schiff’s support of it, adding, however, that Wald’s aid to the poor unavoidably “reflected, rather than subverted, the inequality upon which it rested” (183). The early parts of the book are prosecutorial in tone, whereas the latter chapters are marked by restrained celebration. The alliance of women with money (notably Alva Belmont) and women without money (the seamstresses and various union leaders) become Huyssen’s focus. The great shirtwaist strike of 1909/10 ended inconclusively; a year later, the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire followed. By that time, interclass mobilization was coming apart. [End Page 592]

The book ends on that sad note; indeed, the poor, the vulnerable, and the exploited are still with us. Yet the tragedy that paralyzed one generation of New Yorkers mobilized another one—Al Smith, Robert F. Wagner, and Frances Perkins—who brought the state into play in a way that strengthened labor, thus tilting the polity toward more justice, though still not enough.

Thomas Bender
New York University


1. See William Rhinelander Stewart (ed). The Philanthropic Work of Josephine Shaw Lowell (New York, 1911), 130.



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