Social changes in New England in the past fifty years (1900)

If some supernatural observer could have taken a bird's-eye view of New England in 1850 and again in 1900, he would read the story of change in plain characters. Approaching New England, as would become a Superior Intelligence, by way of Boston, he would find the region for some fifteen miles around the gilded dome on Beacon Hill so "filled in " as to form a continuous city with a million people, nearly half of them — figuring back for three generations — being Irish, about one-sixth "Old Americans," and the rest Germans, British, Scandinavians, Italians, Frenchmen, Chinamen, and citizens generally. [. . .] In Fall River, with 85 per cent, of foreign population, he might inquire his way half a dozen times before meeting a person who spoke English.

Having left a New England of full-blooded Yankees, which supplied its own wants and sent little abroad, he finds a population half foreign, dependent on others for its corn and grain and beef and mutton, but supplying half the nation with boots and shoes, making three-fourth's of its cottons and using half its wool.

Social changes in New England in the past fifty years

By Edwin Webster Sanborn

Fifty years ago the new order of things had made little change in the outward appearance of New England. It was still a compact community, peopled for the most part by direct descendants of the old Puritan stock. It was a land of farmers, and the type of New England life was the country village. Commerce and fisheries were important sources of wealth; but merchants and seafaring men, as well as the minister, lawyer, doctor, and mechanic, generally owned a little land, and helped to make agriculture the prevailing occupation. Factories had been slowly taking the place of household' industry, yet manners and way of living belonged to the homespun age. People continued to prepare, by the chastening of Fast Day, for the exuberance of May muster. The electric telegraph was a mysterious novelty. Stage-coaches still creaked and rattled over many routes of traffic. Railroad trains were drawn by small, asthmatic locomotives, having large smoke-stacks, shaped like an inverted volcano and pouring forth proportionate volumes of smoke. Delays were frequent, to stake the thirst of the engine and replenish the itinerant wood-pile which served as fuel. The cars had low, flat roofs and small, cinder-cemented windows, and were but little better ventilated than the drawing-room cars of the present day. The railroad system of New England has always been rich in "junctions," where, in the early days, the traveller awaited his "connecting train " for periods ranging from a fleeting hour to undetermined stretches of duration. It is a curious fact, noted by the late Professor Phelps in his poetic tribute to Essex Junction, that there was always a cemetery near, catering perhaps to such wayfarers as might sink under wasting afflictions or be suddenly stricken at the lunch counter. Beyond the reach of the railroads, wood and farm produce were carried to market by river boats and coasting schooners, which brought back the "W. I. goods and groceries" of the country store. It was still the day of large families and small travel, of near-by markets and local peculiarities.

The smallness of travel applied only to landsmen, and not to the farmers who ploughed the deep. Coves and harbors along the coast were lively with Down-East punkies and clippers, and with the curing and storing of fish. Daniel Webster, trying a case on Cape Cod relating to a small harbor in the South Pacific, found that seven of the jury had often visited the harbor and knew all about it. The commander of a Russian exploring expedition, engaged in one of the early attempts to square the arctic circle, became lost in a fog as he was about to secure his fame by surveying the terminal facilities of the earth. When the fog lifted, he found himself in the midst of a Yankee fleet and near a harbor which was their regular base of supply for cruises to the northward. The wives and daughters of Nantucket climbed up to the "whale-walks " on their house-tops to watch for returning husbands and fathers. Bangor was the largest pine-distributing centre on the continent, and the lines of the Gloucester fishermen had gone out through all the earth. The New England of the Puritans had reached the height of its prosperity and the golden age of its literature. It was making ready for its day of trial and sacrifice in the Civil War.

About the middle of the century the rapid extension of railroads brought the "rocky farm" into contrast and competition with the "rich prairie." The Walker tariff of 1846 and the opening of new markets stimulated the building of large factories and hastened the "rush to the cities." The discovery of gold on the Pacific coast aggravated the Western fever, while famine and disturbances abroad were starting a migration across the Atlantic. The growth of shore fishing and the canning of sea-food were beginning to affect the deep-sea fisheries, when the reciprocity treaty of 1854 opened our markets to Canadian fishermen. The surviving monsters of the deep were seeking discreet seclusion just as the introduction of mineral oils rendered their pursuit less profitable.

If some supernatural observer could have taken a bird's-eye view of New England in 1850 and again in 1900, he would read the story of change in plain characters. Approaching New England, as would become a Superior Intelligence, by way of Boston, he would find the region for some fifteen miles around the gilded dome on Beacon Hill so "filled in " as to form a continuous city with a million people, nearly half of them — figuring back for three generations — being Irish, about one-sixth "Old Americans," and the rest Germans, British, Scandinavians, Italians, Frenchmen, Chinamen, and citizens generally. Moving along the seacoast, his eye would be caught by the bleaching "whalers " labelled as curiosities at the New Bedford docks, by the villas and palaces at Newport, by the sagging wharves of Salem and Newburyport, and by huge hotels at every sandy beach from Narragansett to Old Orchard. In smaller harbors he might see a trim Yankee clipper lying idly in the mud at the head of the cove, while a splendid pleasure yacht rests at anchor within the point. An old weather-cured skipper, whose voice pierced the fogs of the Great Banks and rose above the blasts of the Horn, is perhaps taking out a party of land lubbers and lubberesses in his catboat to fish for scup or flat-fish. In river valleys the smoke of factory chimneys would draw attention to busy cities, wherever water power had fixed a site for manufacturing. In their suburbs he would mark the hard roads, with their maze of wires and buzz of trolleys and lines of thrifty dwellings. He would note that the forests had been thinned and shrinking back up the mountain ranges and toward the northern border. He would miss the flocks and herds which dotted the hill pastures, and would linger above the scrubby fields, tumble-down fences, and decaying houses of the abandoned farms. Less often he would come upon a deserted church, a ghastly hulk, weather-stained and crumbling, windows blind and glaring, ridge-pole sunken, lightning-rod loosened from the tottering steeple, and drooping like the bedraggled feather of a fallen outcast. In the streets of the cities he would be impressed by the large plate glass windows of the shops, with their display of attractions, and by the variety of fruit and produce offered for sale. He would be surprised at the large number of old and young wearing glasses, and would perhaps notice how rarely he met a person pitted with small-pox. He would wonder at the cleanliness of the street crossings, till he observed the trailing skirts of the ladies. In Fall River, with 85 per cent, of foreign population, he might inquire his way half a dozen times before meeting a person who spoke English.

Having left a New England of full-blooded Yankees, which supplied its own wants and sent little abroad, he finds a population half foreign, dependent on others for its corn and grain and beef and mutton, but supplying half the nation with boots and shoes, making three-fourth's of its cottons and using half its wool.

Early in the century, each farm, like the community, was selfsustaining, The "independent farmer" was indeed independent. Food and clothing are both grown on the farm. He made his own sleds, brooms, medicines, vinegar, soap, ox-yokes; sometimes his own tools, rope, shingles, boxes, barrels, and furniture. He drew sweetness from rock-maples and dipped light from tallow. He got his pins from the white-thorn bush in the pasture. He grafted trees and painted buildings. He would "like to see anything he couldn't do." The congenial practice of swapping helped him to be independent even of money. The homespun idea was the key to everything in life and character. Clothing being made at home, the flax grown and the sheep .raised corresponded to the number in the family. Little money was needed; and, there being little money and little knowledge of the outer world, there was small temptation to extravagance. Everything centred in the home. A hundred associations, now things of the past, solidified family life. A farmer setting out for church in his broadcloth coat might notice the very sheep whose greeting would remind him that he was wearing the wool at second hand. He would pass the fields where his straw hat and dinner basket had grown, and where the linen of his wife's go-tomeeting gown had blossomed. The leather of his boots had been grown and perhaps tanned on the farm. The striking of fire from a flint and drawing of water with a sweep were picturesque rites, a communion with the localized spirits of fire and water, which were cheapened as matches were carried in the pocket and pump handles bobbed in the kitchen.

The modern system of division of labor has brought the New England farmer many comforts and advantages, and mocks him with a vision of many more. Supplies and appliances better than were made at home are laid at his door, and many are wonderfully cheap. The Standard Oil Company has taken charge of candle-dipping. Factories at Lowell and Fall River maintain a continuous spinning-bee. The trouble is that they all want money. Before he thinks of buying comforts or luxuries, there are certain fixed charges to be met,— for taxes, labor, commercial fertilizers, and groceries, with demand for tools, machinery, harnesses, wagons, and a hundred other things. In the scheme of specialization where comes in the specialty which is to bring the New England farmers their share of the medium of exchange? Those who have not emigrated have answered the question to some extent by leaving the rougher lands for market gardens, poultry, fruit, and dairy farms; but the result of changed conditions has been the disappearance of the agricultural New England of fifty years ago.

In the manufacturing towns which have become the centre of characteristic life, changes have -been chiefly in the way of growth and expansion. Before 1850 factory work had been done by young people from the farms. In summer the factory bell aroused the town at half-past four in the morning for a day's labor of thirteen hours. Wages were low, but board could be had at $1.00 to $1.50 by the week. Native labor was soon displaced by foreign, the early immigration being Irish; and thr Irish have been succeeded by the incursion of French Canadians, beginning twenty years later. At present these latest arrivals, in a solid body of half a million, compact in language and intact in religion, are testing the digestive powers of New England.

Manufacturing industry, along with its growth, has passed through a process of evolution. Many small local factories found themselves unable to compete with the resources of the larger centres, and have dropped out. The location of factory towns was fixed at first by water power, but of late the mills have become largely independent of water. The advantage of cheap transportation and the effect of competition have been shown in the concentration of cotton mills around Narragansett Bay and Buzzards Bay.

The church and school of Puritan New England have been differently affected by these fundamental changes. The division into sects had occurred in the first half of the century, the Baptists, Universalists, Methodists, Unitarians, etc., separating from the Congregational order and the Episcopalians and Presbyterians coming in. The breaking up was natural in a time of mental and spiritual ferment, though the causes affecting individuals were doubtless varied. In the case of Zephaniah Cross the going over to the Baptist communion was due to the Eastman auction. A bellows-top buggy was sacrificed at such figures that Mr. Cross was constrained to bid it in. The lofty "bellus-top" would not turn back, and on arriving at his stall in the orthodox church sheds he found himself unable to drive under the roof. The horse sheds of the Baptist society were built upon more liberal lines, and after a season of earnest deliberation he became a convert to the doctrine of immersion. [. . .]

Education has no story of decay except in decreased attendance at rural schools and disappearance of many of the unendowed academies. The strength of the old district school was in the close relationship of teacher and pupils. The school like the home was full of local associations and individual character. The school-boy of fifty years ago remembers the noonmark on the window-sill, the crack in the floor where classes toed the mark, the raspberry bush inciting to tardiness, and the birch provided in the compensation of nature as a corrective.

The learning of a few books "by heart" fostered exactness of knowledge, with freedom and accuracy in giving it expression. If written examinations had prevailed in those days, the scholars would have compared favorably with those of the present day in preciseness of definition and in ability to tell what they knew.

Children went barefoot in summer. In winter the boys wore home-made caps with flapping ear-laps, home-knit comforters, and copper-toed cowhide boots, periodically greased to exclude the elements. It is a strange but true story of the force of early habit that an honored and well-known scholar, sitting at a formal dinner and becoming abstracted during the brilliant monologue of another distinguished guest, was seen anointing his boots with the oil of the salad cruet.

After spinning-wheels and looms were carried to the attic, few families could afford to buy store clothes. They made up the cloth at home, allowing liberal margins to growing boys, some of whom never attained the full standard of their sleeves and trousers. Children in the old times were so numerous that like silver in the days of Solomon they were nothing accounted of. It is certainly a change to the present age when the child is father of the man, and of the grandparent and of the whole community. One sympathizes with the man mentioned by Mr. Emerson who felt it a misfortune to have been born when children were nothing and to have lived until men were nothing.

As late as 1850 all the colleges of New England were "seats of learning" of the old-fashioned sort. At the opening of the academic year the country colleges welcomed the candidate for matriculation mounted on a farm wagon, drawn by the horse which could be most easily spared from farm work, and bearing the blessing of his mother and the seed-cakes of his grandmother. Chapel exercises were held before daylight in midwinter, in chapels lighted by candles and heated by the Aurora Borealis. A chronic form of suicide, known as "boarding one's self," was not uncommon. The lack of amusements and of rational forms of exercise led to such laborious forms of pleasantry as gathering the blinds and gates of the village upon the campus or the elevation of a horse or cow to the college belfry.

Higher education has not merely become higher, but broader,— too broad, as old-fashioned people think, to be deep. Wealth has increased at the old centres of learning. Wisdom could not fail to accumulate when, as has been remarked, so much is brought in by successive classes of Freshmen and so little is carried away by Seniors.

The lyceum was another power in education which brought the Mahomets of New England to the mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont, and the Berkshires. Newspapers now bring a larger world to the same hill country, but without the personal magnetism and touch of enthusiasm inspired when Emerson, Holmes, and Phillips lectured in the meeting-house and college students boarded 'round in the school district. There was also an agreeable reaction on the minds and pockets of the lecturers. Dr. Chapin used to say that he valued the fame derived from lecturing, F-A-M-E standing for Fifty And My Expenses. Mr. James T. Fields having given one of his charming lectures in the missionary spirit in a small place, where no amount had been agreed upon, his charges were discussed with the Lecture Committee. "We had calkerlated," said the spokesman, "to make it five dollars; but it wa'n't exackly what we expected, and we have conclooded that tew fifty would be abaout right!"

The railroads and newspapers have also robbed the tavern of its importance as a social club. In the stage-coach days the tavern-keeper was a person of importance and dignity. He gathered news from travellers and hobnobbed with public men. Neighbors dropped in with gossip, which, he was expected to broadcast. He was a combined bulletin board, club steward, Exchange, Board of Trade, and Associated Press. It is a tribute to the old New England tavern that a large proportion of the men who have made the reputation and managed the business of the great hotels of New York as well as in more distant cities served their apprenticeship in New England, and largely on main lines of stage traffic which ran from Boston up through New Hampshire. With the decrease of road travel taverns sank into a desuetude not wholly innocuous. In "wet" or semi-wet towns they became a "hang-out" for local sons of Belial. At arid cross-roads it became difficult to obtain nourishment except at stated times. An indulgent landlady might fry the wayfarer a few buckwheat cakes and a cup of tea, but eggs and meat were hard to find. The bicycle has not done all that was expected as a reviving force; but the general reaction of city on country is slowly awakening the country hotel. [. . .]

It has to be admitted that the praise of old-fashioned social life will hardly bear examination. The necessities of things had made the exaltation of "work" a sort of mechanical religion. Faces, even of the young, assumed a set, anxious, but determined expression. Their life was described by that long and dreary word "utilitarian." The farmer thought of the cloud-capped mountain as a convenient but unreliable barometer, and of the joyous cascade as a feature of the grist-mill. Economy was a fetich, and extravagance a sin. The good times which the young people managed to have stand out by contrast against the cold uniformity of the sombre background. The characteristic traits of the New England of fifty years ago were the natural outcome of such a life working upon such material,— versatility, "capableness," practical skill, shrewd common sense, with lapses into gullibility, close observation and quaint remark, earnestness, philosophic humor, craving for knowledge, ambition to "be something." They were close-mouthed and close-fisted, self-contained, and self-assertive. No other race of farmers " have had such acute intelligence, reverence for learning, and keen sense of the superior importance of spiritual things." For six generations they worked in their narrow training school, .without realizing that they were victims of special hardship. But, when a broader life was offered, they lost no time in going out to preach the sermons, teach the schools, edit the journals, make the laws, build up the business, and take charge of the purses and principles of the whole nation.

Their lives of patient self-denial were not without a craving for brightness and beauty. It seldom went farther among the men than to express itself in neat dooryards and trim fences and in the stately trees which lined the streets of every village. Our grandmothers loved the scent of lilacs and syringa and the cheeriness of hollyhocks and tiger lilies. In the days when carpets, except rag rugs, were an unheard of luxury, Mrs. Rowe has told us that a good sister secured a large square of sail-cloth, and with a few crude colors painted upon this canvas rude patterns of familiar flowers, chiefly blue roses and green lilies, covering the whole with a thick coat of varnish. Everybody came to see, and wonder and admire, Deacon Close among them. Turning his honest, weather-beaten face earnestly upon the erring sister, he exclaimed, "Do you expect to have all this, Sister Meiggs — and heaven, too?" [. . .]

As to the comparative advantages of the old way of life, if anybody wants to try for himself, as a native philosopher observed, "there ain't no law agin it." Only a few days ago a man went into a store in Fairfield, Me., and remarked that everything except the boots that he had on — namely, stockings, shirts, underclothes, outside clothes, and cap — were spun, woven, and made by his mother. The fact that we seldom hear of such cases confirms the general belief that the new order of things, from a material point of view, is an improvement.

The Puritan New England was like a mighty tree, which, after a slow, patient growth of two hundred years and sending its seeds to float upon the Western air, bowed before the storms of change.

But strong shoots are springing up in the old soil. There seems to be a feeling in many quarters that New England is in a bad way. Look through an index of periodical literature for the past ten years, and you find information grouped under such heads as the following: —NEW ENGLAND: Decline of; Decay of Rural; Decadence of Thought of; Problems of Churches of; Crisis in Industries of. If there has been any general decline in material prosperity, it is not a matter of record. The census of 1895 showed a gain in population in Massachusetts of 15 per cent., about the same as in Wisconsin, in the growing region of the West. The percentage of increase throughout New England for the past ten years will be found to be the largest for any decade since 1850. Eank clearings, railroad earnings, savings deposits, school appropriations, and other barometers fail to show any area of depression. In New England it is particularly true that social changes depend on economic conditions. During the general sluggishness of business the present advantages of cotton manufacturers in the South were brought into marked prominence. As was the case in New England fifty years ago, they are favored with an abundance of native labor at low wages, and are free from restrictions as to age of operatives and hours of labor. The wage-demanding element is nit yet organized. Southern manufacturing will increase to the benefit of the South and advantage of the whole country. Jobbers of boots and shoes in the West will become manufacturers. In these and other lines, local manufacturers will supply their own tributary country with many grades of goods. How far they will cut into New England business is not yet clear. Relations between labor and capital will in time be figured as closely as in the East. With materials like wool and cotton, which are compact in bulk and converted into fabrics with little waste, the question of advantage in freight rates depends upon nearness to the consumer. Iowa creameries can deliver butter in the New York market to better advantage than a farmer twenty miles away in Westchester County, because the bulky Western grown feedstuffs, the raw materials, freights on which are prohibitory to the Eastern farmer, are converted at home into a concentrated product. But there is no such difference between wool and woollens or between cotton and cotton fabrics, or even between leather and boots and shoes.

In New England, manufacturers have a large market at home which geographically belongs to them. The recent meetings of manufacturers in Boston were largely occupied with discussions of the growth of exports. We grow the cotton of the world and let others profit by its manufacture, standing fifth in the list of exporting nations and below the inland republic of Switzerland. Last year the United States produced 11,078,000 bales of cotton, out of a total world's product of 12,949,000 bales. New England manufactured about one-fourth as much as Old England. Yet the exports of Great Britain were to those of America nearly in the mystic ratio of 16 to i. Our sales of cotton goods in Latin America in the decade ending 1898 were less than 6 per cent> of their total purchases. With cottons and other classes of goods the problems of overproduction and home competition may perhaps be met by studying the tastes of foreign consumers, extending facilities for American banking and trading, and promoting reciprocal trade. It is possible that the time may come when all the cotton grown in the South, on both sides of the Mississippi, will be manufactured in the South. If the future deprives New England of the material to continue what is now her greatest industry, it is not too much to assume that Yankee ingenuity will by that time have found something to take its place. [. . .]

The friendly interest of the cities is a matter of policy for the future as well as obligation for the past. In the age of collectivism, votes are still distributed among individuals; and New England farmers in a crisis vote and act for order and stability. Our great statesmen, merchants, and soldiers come from the farm. While the present standard of our great men is phenomenally high, we must not allow the source of supply to deteriorate. Farmers lead a life which every son of Adam ought to lead. Many of pur millionaires would go back and run a farm if they could afford it.

The rural villages have also their social problems and sharp contrasts. There are many indications of the growing up of a landed aristocracy. Wealthy people spend more time each year in their country houses. The situation is full of problems, but problems are the New Englander's vital breath. Looking at the difficulties of the past, any future seems easy. Other portions of the country boast of their "resources,"— rich mines, fertile soils, soft skies, inexhaustible forests. As Preston, of South Carolina, said, New England has nothing to offer but granite and ice,— "nothing but rocks and ice "; and of late the factories are robbing her of even her homespun ice.

The modesty of New England in treating of the civilization which she built up and of her influence on other regions is proverbial. She might dwell with equal modesty and volubility upon what she has done at home in meeting the changes of the nineteenth century. For a single item, think of the social and sanitary problems involved in the sudden crowding of the cities and swarming in of a tenement population. Yet the death-rate in Massachusetts in 1890-95 was but little different from that in 1856-60. Scarlet fever and typhoid fever, which stood high in the list of causes of death in 1856, have disappeared from among the first ten causes. The improvement has kept pace with increase in public water supplies and growth of sanitary science.

The European peasant comes in with listless, sullen face, and clumsy walk. His dirty-faced children go to school under the flag. In ten years there is little to distinguish them from other Yankees. [A bit overly optimistic.] Their sons will deliver addresses in Faneuil Hall, and become members of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery.

It is a time of transition for New England at the end of the century as it was in 1850. One prophecy seems safe,— that nothing in the future will test her powers of adaptation and assimilation more severely than the changes of the past fifty years.

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