|A Distant Mirror: The Late Nineteenth Century
|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
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
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.
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