Middle-class occupations

The occupations that characterized the American middle class included many jobs that predated the market revolution as well as a few that were created as a result of it. A list of middle-class occupations would include physicians, lawyers, educators, merchants, and ministers. But it would also have included new kinds of businessmen, whose jobs resulted from the decline of artisanal production. In general, middle-class occupations were defined by nonmanual, or what came to be called "white-collar," work. Over the course of the antebellum period, these jobs, available mostly to Euro-American men, were increasingly associated with upward mobility, proprietorship, and respectability.

Early-nineteenth-century city directories reveal few new job titles. But new forms of business organization and, to a lesser extent, technological innovation transformed the component tasks, status, and cultural meanings of older occupations. By the 1820s many successful artisans were no longer master craftsmen, working alongside journeymen and apprentices on shop floors. Instead, they had abandoned the practice of their crafts to become businessmen who concentrated on supervising employees and monitoring increasingly complex accounting systems. Many of these men continued to identify with their artisanal origins, describing themselves as tailors or cabinetmakers in city directories. Still, the nonmanual work they performed, and the opportunities it afforded, served to increase their social and economic distance from the laborers they employed.

This distance was reflected in several ways. As early as the 1820s, some firms created specialized retail spaces, whose clean, well-lit interiors and architectural embellishments marked a sharp contrast to the noise, smells, and dirt of artisans' shops and factories alike. White-collar work environments conferred a status that was underscored by salaries: in general, nonmanual proprietors and salaried employees in the early nineteenth century enjoyed higher incomes and accumulated more wealth than did manual workers. The elevated status of white-collar work even extended to entry-level clerical employees—clerks, salesmen, and bookkeepers—who typically earned less than skilled journeymen and who often performed manual labor, including stocking shelves, sweeping the store, and distributing handbills. Focusing on the prospect of upward mobility, these young men identified themselves as future businessmen and proprietors. At the same time, they exaggerated the differences between themselves and manual laborers.

Perhaps most important, white-collar occupations derived social prestige and economic power from their association with proprietorship. By the end of the Jacksonian era, cities like Philadelphia witnessed a growing correlation between white-collar work and business ownership on the one hand and manual work and permanent wage labor on other. Small firms owned by manual laborers did not disappear, although proprietorship became more elusive and more precarious. But over the course of the antebellum era, especially in urban areas, they would be overshadowed by firms whose owners devoted themselves to management. Middle-class occupations thus derived their status partly from economic benefits, including income and proprietorship, and partly from their growing spatial, cultural, and economic distance from manual labor. By emphasizing that they worked with their heads, not with their hands, artisans who had developed into businessmen and their salaried employees aligned themselves with members of the nascent professions—lawyers, physicians, educators, and ministers.

The segmentation of labor markets by gender and race ensured that the majority of middle-class occupations were dominated by white men. Nevertheless, many middle-class women found themselves drawn into the labor market, despite the rise of a domestic ideology that relegated them to privatized, sentimental homes and that emphasized their roles as wives and mothers. Married women took in boarders and sewing. Single women most often found work as teachers. Although large numbers of middle-class women worked for money, if not for wages narrowly defined, their opportunities were restricted by domestic ideology. Women's occupations replicated the unpaid labor that they performed for their families; even teaching was cast less as a career than as an extension of child nurture. Many middle class women worked to pay for the educations and support the early careers of male kin who struggled to establish themselves in a white-collar world.

Racism all but prohibited free blacks from securing most of the nonmanual jobs that defined the northern, white middle class. Pervasive, deeply rooted prejudice undercut the respectability that might have been accorded to African American teachers and ministers by northern society at large. But some ministers, teachers, and entrepreneurs attained relative economic security and exerted considerable influence in their communities. Members of these occupations formed the core of the black middle class that would emerge after the Civil War.