Printable Version
A Distant Mirror: The Late Nineteenth Century Next
Digital History ID 3111


In the 1870s, a woman named Myra Bradwell did a most unladylike thing: She applied for a license to practice law.

A Vermont native, she had moved to Illinois in the mid-1850s, and after the ratification in 1868 of the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed all citizens equal protection of the law, she sued to become an attorney. After the Illinois courts rejected her petition, she turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in April 1873, said it was within the power of Illinois to limit membership in the bar to men only. Only one Justice dissented. One Justice wrote:

Man is, or should be, woman's protector of defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.... The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based on exceptional cases.

At first glance, late 19th century America might seem remote and even irrelevant. It was a society without Social Security, Medicare, health insurance, and government regulation, not to mention airplanes, antibiotics, automobiles, computers, radio, and television. The telephone had been invented, but there were only 9 in the entire country.

The government was tiny. There were only about 100,000 federal employees, and only 22,000 if the military and post office were excluded. There was no civil service system and no income tax. Government revenues were mainly raised through taxes on imports, tobacco, and alcohol.

It was a small, predominantly rural society. In 1877, the country's total population was just 47 million, just a sixth of what it is today. Only one city had more than a million people and just three others had as many as half a million.

Today, our birth rate is around the replacement level, but in 1877, 15 percent of married women had 10 or more children, and another 22 percent had between 7 and 9. As a result of the high birth rate, the population was very young. Half the population was twenty or younger; today the average American is over 30.

Perhaps most striking to us was the lack of formal education. Only about three in five children attended school in a typical year, and they only attended about 80 days a year, compared to 180 today. Most left school in their early teens. Only about two-and-a-half percent of the school-aged population graduated from high school. Advanced degrees beyond college were almost unheard of. In 1877, only one Master's degree was conferred in the whole country.

The other startling fact was how poor the average family was. The average income of an urban family in 1877 was $738, and two thirds of that was spent on food and heating. After clothing and housing were paid for, there was just $44 left over, to save for old age or to buy a house, to pay for medical care or simply to spend on entertainment. It was a society in which the average unskilled or semi-skilled worker toiled 10 hours a day for about 20 cents an hour. Of every thousand Americans, 939 died without any property to bequeath.

One might well ask: What does a society where women wore corsets and men wore top hats have to say to us? It would be easy to dismiss this era as irrelevant to the problems of our society. But this would be a mistake. In many ways, the late 19th century was an age not radically dissimilar from our own.

We are living through an era of unprecedented technological change. They witnessed the invention of the light bulb, the telephone, and the discovery of germs. Our society is undergoing a communication revolution. Their society did too, with the invention of the telephone and the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable and the appearance of the mass circulation newspaper and magazine.

Many think that our society is uniquely affected by globalization. But late 19th century America was also reshaped by global forces. Much as the contemporary United States has been radically reshaped by massive foreign immigration, so was late 19th century America. Late 19th century America became increasingly embroiled in foreign affairs lying well outside its borders. Other similarities include bitter partisanship in politics, disputed elections, deep worries about the corrupting influence of money in politics, and angry debates over morality and women's roles.

Many of the issues that we think of as uniquely modern were hotly debated during the late 19th century: corruption in business and government, ostentatious displays of wealth, the ruthless exploitation of natural resources, the growth of corporate power, and the gulf between the rich and the poor.

Even drugs, which we tend to think of as a modern plague, first became a problem during the late 19th century. By 1900, one in 200 Americans was addicted to opiates or cocaine. Many wounded Civil War veterans returned home addicted to morphine, a pain-killing opiate. The typical user became addicted during medical treatment. By the end of the 19th century, opiates could be legally purchased at corner drugstores. Laudanum, a form of opium, cost 28 cents for a three-ounce bottle from Sears, Roebuck.

In 1885, cocaine was introduced as an elixir for every ailment from depression to hay fever. A label instructed users: "For catarrh and all head disease, snuff very little up the nose 5 times a day until cured...." Advertisements urged mothers to give cranky children a dose of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, which was laced with morphine.

By the early 20th century, the human cost of drug addiction had become obvious, and the country enacted laws criminalizing the manufacture and distribution of addictive drugs.



Copyright 2021 Digital History