- Kentucky Countryside in Transition: A Streetcar Suburb and the Origins of Middle-Class Louisville, 1850–1910 by Stephanie Bower
Much of the literature on class formation in United States has identified the mid-to-late nineteenth century as the period in which a distinctive American middle class began to coalesce. In her meticulously researched new work on Louisville, Kentucky, Stephanie Bower examines the roots of what she terms "a second stage of [middle-class] development" that remade the urban middle class between roughly 1890 and 1910 as a result of migration from the hinterlands (p. 1). Bower's work explores how postbellum economic development and familial resources, skills, and experiences gained over generations shaped the emergence of the new middle class and its growing orientation toward streetcar suburbs. Drawing from forty-two families who owned homes in Cherokee Triangle, a middle-class enclave constructed on Louisville's east side, Bower writes a "collective biography" that spans three generations and provides important evidence about how the middle class developed and defined itself spatially at the turn of the twentieth century (p. 19).
Bower's family case studies reveal a number of interesting patterns in the backgrounds of Cherokee Triangle residents, chief among them that they were not, by and large, the descendants of members of Louisville's midcentury middle class. Instead, the Cherokee Triangle residents whom Bower studies descended mostly from rural Kentucky smallholders who made their livings by farming. In the decades after the Civil War, the progenitors of Cherokee Triangle residents relocated to small towns, lured by the expanded commercial opportunities that industrialization and economic growth presented. After a period of residence in small towns, they, or their children, relocated to Louisville in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Bower's findings about Cherokee Triangle residents' migration patterns lead her to argue for the importance of small-town experiences in easing the transition from rural to urban life and in instilling the values and cultural knowledge necessary to pave the way for entrance into the urban middle class. Her findings also prompt her to reevaluate the impulses behind suburban migration. Bower does not discount push factors, such as perceptions that cities were disorderly, unhealthful, and populated by racial and ethnic others, that influenced families of sufficient means to move to suburbs. However, her narrative highlights pull factors, including a desire on the part of people accustomed to rural and [End Page 422] small-town life to reclaim aspects of county living that they left behind. White-collar workers and their families may have depended on urban commerce and industrialization for their economic and social status, but they drew on small-town customs and practices as they defined what that status meant.
Bower's book is the culmination of twenty-six years of painstaking and meticulous research in censuses, city directories, and land, property, and church records, among many other sources. The sheer amount of work that it took to compile the biographies of these individuals is impressive, and it has resulted in Bower's presentation of concrete evidence for elements of class formation and patterns of migration that were previously only speculated about or discussed in a general way. The strength of the book—its incredible volume of information—may also be its weakness in the eyes of readers who are drawn to the study for what it has to contribute to the historiography on the middle class more so than for the information it contains about Louisville. The level of detail contained in family stories that span multiple chapters is at times overwhelming. Nevertheless, Bower's work is a significant achievement, and it will undoubtedly appeal to local historians and genealogists as well as to scholars interested in the history of migration, middle-class formation, and the development of suburbs.