Tag Archives: history

How “Cheap Amusements” helped change women’s gender identity


The search for a “good time” is nothing new. Americans (all humans really, but for this post’s purpose we’ll be precise) across the centuries have sought a fun escape from the humdrum of everyday life. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists and sociologists have all looked at what drives us to do what we do.

Again, nothing new here.

But studying people’s pursuit of that fun and, in particular, studying how it changed American culture? That’s something else entirely, and it’s what Kathy Peiss does in Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, an engaging and enlightening look at the young wage-labor working women during the latter half of the Progressive era. She uses popular culture history, feminist thought and women’s labor history to show the emergence of leisure culture among young white (European immigrant and Anglo-American) working-class women. These women, she argues, were actively involved in reconstructing cultural notions of gender, as well as heterosocial versus homosocial interaction. She also shows that the “reorientation of American culture” began not with the “elite 400,” but with the single working-class women in urban centres.

Working-class women’s leisure choices re/constructed gender identities and helped to mostly destroy the cult of “true womanhood.” Commercial dance halls, for example, often offered far less regulation and more heterosocial behavior than their middle-class counterparts; they also had lower admission and hatcheck prices for unescorted women. This served as inducement to attend dances without an escort or companion. These young working-class women rejected the social patterns of the previous generation. They flouted middle-class expectations of respectable behavior and domesticity. Instead, Peiss argues, they indulged in a world that promoted pleasure and enjoyment.

However, their choices also lead to their commodification and the commodification of women’s sexuality in general. Because many of these women were economically dependent upon “gentlemen friends” for part of the entertainment, an unbalanced scenario of “treating” developed. Treating could be anything from buying a woman a drink to helping out with her rent, depending on the extent of the relationship, and a certain amount of reciprocity was implicit. These young women’s casual contact with male strangers and wild and carefree dancing had shattered Victorian notions of decorum and propriety, but their flashy dress and those relaxed attitudes, combined with treating, blurred the lines between respectability and prostitution. Sensuality and sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) became something that could be bought and purchased legitimately.

Rather than “trickling down,” this new socially proscribed female gender-identity moved outwards to embrace others of the working class at the same time it moved up into the middle class and elite. Peiss posits this heterosociality and relaxed deportment became accepted behavior via commercialized entertainment, which began to spread the idea to the population at large through movies, nickelodeons and tamer versions of the large commercial dance halls. Modes of dress and interactions between the sexes were circulated through commercial entertainment, and previously unacceptable behavior gained acceptability among the middle-class. And all this spread so rapidly and thoroughly that middle-class moral reformers — who may or may not have been genuinely concerned with the working woman’s plight — were forced to dilute their message of cross-class sisterhood to maintain relations with working-class women. This weakened an ideology already being challenged by more liberal thinkers.

Was this all part of a larger cultural transformation? Yes. Peiss’ point, however, is that the reshaping of women’s gender-identity and its prohibitions were due in large part due to the young urban working-class women in the early twentieth century. By exploring the genesis of commercialized entertainment, as well as early twentieth century women’s labor history, this study neatly shows how the two were intertwined and how the middle-class was already changing. While a more in-depth look at the differences in immigrant/second generation and multi-generation American women would be beneficial, the connections Peiss draws between women’s wage-labor, leisure time and commercial amusements cannot be easily dismissed.

60 Second Review: Gender and Jim Crow

Most histories are written as “top-down” or “bottom-up.” Glenda Gilmore, however, uses “bottom-up” and “middle-up” in Gender and Jim Crow, a study of middle-class black women in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. In particular, she focuses on Sarah Dudley Pettey, using her to explore the social construction of race and gender as it related to (and was affected by) the politics of white supremacy.

Gilmore’s conclusions, based on her research, are twofold:

1) that the disciplines and subfields into which historians have divided history obscure the way people actually lived, and have actually aided in the burial of black resistance from our collective past, and

2) that if southern history is to be revised to portray a more realistic vision of the past, historians must include and analyze new information about African-Americans and women; understand that race and gender are socially constructed; and reconceptualize notions of what is public and what is private.

The Good

Gilmore’s use of Pettey’s evolving life to argue that both race and gender took on new and different meanings is excellent and very well done. She clearly shows how, for the black middle class, the private was public, that one private decision or action, anything not a carefully considered strategic move, could spell doom for an entire race. The public body politic was inevitably tied to the personal lives of the black middle class, especially after the disfranchisement of black males and the enfranchisement of (white) women.

The Not-So-Bad

(Or, why Gilmore’s chief failing doesn’t make the book a failure)

Gilmore’s one failure is not including true class analysis. However, she does explain how white supremacists — among them Furnifold Simmons, Josephus Daniels and Charles Aycock — used class divisions among whites to promote their disfranchisement rhetoric. The triple whammy of African-American men holding public office (effectively “holding dominion” over white males), rapid industrialization and urbanization, she argues, cemented in their minds the idea that black men rose to prominence only to seek out the white women. This allowed them to portray the black middle class not as progressive, industrious citizens striving for a better life, but as dangerous degenerates who sought to destroy the white race. It also allowed them to politicize working-class whites, destroying any possible biracial class alliance that might have emerged through the Populist Party or among cotton mill workers.

The Takeaway

The “limits of the possible” is the crucial theme of the book. “What is possible?” and “what is not?” are questions she asks throughout the narrative when discussing those who stepped out of the carefully constructed idea of race and/or gender. She also raises the controversial question of how to judge those men and women whose roles were to mitigate circumstances instead of working to correct injustice. In this respect Gilmore is certainly on the “road to Memphis,” following in Jacquelyn Hall’s footsteps in trying to understand the roles southern women and African-Americans played in southern politics in the years before 1960. Most of all, however, she shows that only by studying the “politics of the oppressed” will historians be able to understand the full breadth and scope of southern history.

Phillip English & the Identity Politics of Material Culture

The home of Phillip and Mary English was built in 1685 on Essex Street in Salem, Massachusetts.
(Image from University of Missouri)

Material culture is fascinating. It can be as simple as a flint arrowpoint or as elaborate as hand gilded furniture, as beautifully functional as a Wedgwood teacup or as ridiculously simple as a copper kettle — the pieces available for interpretation are varied and many. Understanding how it shapes identity, how it alters and creates cultural identity, is more challenging.

The story of Phillip English (or Philippe L’Anglois), a Jersey merchant who immigrated to Salem in the seventeenth century, is an excellent example. A merchant who brought foreign goods to New England, he also forced the insular Puritan community to cope with those unlike themselves — and in the process created a new cultural identity. He prospered in his given profession as an Anglicized Frenchman in a British colony, forcing his contemporaries to acknowledge not only the necessity of his presence, but his intrinsic worth as well. In the interim, however, by creating and maintaining an identity separate from the other Salem merchants, he occupied a psychological and cultural borderland. This created tensions with his Puritan neighbors, true, but the psychological space in which they met and conducted their business gave rise of the “polite consumer culture” of the eighteenth century.

That Phillip English was partially responsible for the rise of a polite consumer culture that eventually modeled itself on Georgian gentility is not surprising. Much of what he imported were goods popular among the gentility. His actions, coupled his very existence in that time and place, contributed to the transition away from Puritan homogeneity to commercial homogeneity. The interplay between commerce and culture transformed the social universe, because “polite culture” was concerned more with outward symbols of success than it was eternal salvation. Once gentility became a sign of economic and social prosperity, your appearance became everything. To be part of this imagined community required purchasing its trappings.

This meant people were not only purchasing an identity, they were altering culture through the acquisition and display of new and exotic goods. A New England origin for the idea of “keeping up with the Jones,'” perhaps?

Of course, the meaning given to material goods can change and, subsequently, change culture. Those who believed that the luxurious possessions they owned reflected their worth identified as Georgian gentility. At the same time, others who were resistant to capitalism and the new culture unfolding, and those of the lower classes, saw those objects quite differently. This difference of interpretation became more evident as the eighteenth century wore on. The culmination of this reinterpretation was the result of the Patriots, who created new meanings for material goods and the connection between them and a person’s character.

By altering those meanings, the Patriots (and earlier, those opposed to the polite consumer culture) distinguished themselves and their politics from everyone else. This began to alter culture. With their emphasis on purchasing domestic goods as opposed to foreign imports, the Patriots created an “American” identity that endures to this day.

Isn’t it interesting how what we choose to buy, or not buy, reflects our culture and cultural perceptions? Material goods can alter or even create culture and culture alters and creates material goods.

For more on this topic, and to learn about Phillip English’s brush with the Salem Witchcraft Trials, read Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World by Phyllis Hunter.

“… having never a word to answer for myself”

Mid-seventeenth-century England was a time of turmoil and chaos. Political strife and religious unrest were rampant. The Age of

Anna Trapnel, here misidentified as a Quaker

Enlightenment was decades away, but people were already beginning to stop, look around, think and speak out.Sects, some of them radical, formed, each with their own agenda. One of these groups, the Fifth Monarchists, were devoted to the belief that the four kingdoms described in the book of Daniel had passed and the time of the fifth kingdom — that of the returned Jesus Christ — was at hand. They believed they were saints living on the cusp of a new millennium. Several were high-ranking members of Oliver Cromwell’s government after the English Civil War; two even signed the death warrant of Charles I.

However, they soon fell from favor, horrified when Cromwell set up his Protectorate. They tried and failed, twice, to overthrow the regime.

They or any other sect, when caught by authorities, could be charged with witchcraft or any similar offense, including public prophesying. Occasionally these crimes were tantamount to sedition and those accused were either jailed or executed.

One interesting exception was Anna Trapnel. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she knew how to manipulate the social, political and religious constructions that defined English society. She not only prophesied publicly, she dared to write. In her famous Report and Plea — which is fascinating and should be more widely read — she says she seeks only to tell the truth and claims to have merely acted as a conduit for God.

That was clearly not the case. Her subtle use of political commentary is too frequent to believe this to be anything other than, well, political commentary. Still, it allowed her to disclaim any responsibility for her actions, thus theoretically making her innocent of any and all charges the law would bring against her. This is extremely important; because she continually impressed upon her audience that she was only a vessel, what she said while “under the influence” are God’s words and not the opinion of the Fifth Monarchists — of which she was a member.

Trapnel was tried and acquitted of witchcraft in 1654. A great deal of her Report is her first-person chronicle of her trial. Her Fifth Monarchist agenda can be seen throughout, but is exceedingly clear in her arrest. While relating how the constables and other town officials arrived at her lodgings to take her before a magistrate, she casually mentions that one of the justices that arranged for her warrant, Launce, was “now a Parliament-man”. This references the dissolution of the Barebones Parliament, which the Fifth Monarchists supported, and the institution of the Protectorate. Through her writing, Trapnel was confronting a fierce political rival.

Likewise she also identifies other areas of popular concern in her narrative, such as Church corruption. When speaking about her initial encounter with the law, when some tried to brand her a witch, she recalls the priest arrived with the officers of the law, because “one depends upon another, rulers upon clergy, and clergy upon rulers”. During her trial she mentions a particular priest with the justices, who had aided in the construction of the indictment against her. She noted “his pulpit wanted him … it being a fast day … which he broke without any scruple that so he might keep close to the work of accusation”. In both instances she attacks the symbiotic relationship between the Church of England and Cromwell’s government, using it to prove that the corruption was due to the lack of an earthly king. Indeed, it is her visions of an England ruled by “King Jesus” that most troubled Cromwell’s political order.

The way Trapnel constructs her text also lends credence to the idea that she was writing political commentary. No doubt drawing on popular crime literature and the rich and varied assortment of theatrical plays available, Trapnel turns her “report” into a drama complete with a heroine, villains and a chorus. At the heart of it all is Anna Trapnel, who portrays herself as naïve and guileless, while at the same managing to withstand when faced with the evil officials of a corrupt and immoral government. She frequently presents herself as an innocent; her characterization of herself is that of a martyr, even becoming Christ-like times. When taken into court, she says the spectators “mocked and derided me … but I was never in such a blessed self-denying lamb-like frame of mind as then”. Immediately, she has set herself up as the heroine who must “endure many trials” in order to “vindicate God’s word”.

Part of her “trials” is the trial itself; allegedly, she expected they would charge her as a “taciturn witch,” so she was as vocal as possible in the courtroom. Trapnel shows herself doing verbal battle with the justices who question her. She alludes to herself as a vessel throughout the proceedings and engages one justice in a theological debate over who has the right to judge another. This witty “judge not” repartee is intended to make Trapnel appear righteous, that she does not judge her fellow human being — God does. This dramatic scene reaches its climax when the “false witnesses” the court “procures” are presumably struck with the “error of their ways” and flee the courtroom. Trapnel goes on to recall more verbal sparring with her accusers, but the final result is an acquittal on the charge of witchcraft, although the court admonishes her to pray only in the place where she resides.

As she leaves the court, she very purposely mentions that the crowd outside was “very loving” and that they were convinced that she was “no witch … for she speaks many good words which the witches could not”. The crowd, then, is her Greek chorus. Their emotions are intended to mirror that of the reader’s, and to provide a vantage from which to view Trapnel’s case.

Anna Trapnel very clearly set out to write the story of her trial with personal vindication and politics in mind. Had done any one thing and not the others, her innocence would not be as questionable as it is. However, she evidently knew how to make her points without putting herself in too much danger — and it can be assumed that she had more motivations in writing and “prophesying” than she ever admitted in her lifetime.

For more on the Fifth Monarchists, see this entry on English Dissenters.

A PDF version of Report and Plea is available from Norton.