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Article Life in Nineteenth-Century Cincinnati

Just Moved
Just moved. Original by H. Mosler ; chromo-lithographed & published by A. & C. Kaufmann, 1870.

Family life in Cincinnati, as elsewhere in mid-nineteenth-century America, was fundamentally different from traditional family life in the eighteenth century. Whereas the eighteenth century assumed continuity between generations, nineteenth-century life, socially more heterogeneous and economically less predictable, required a more flexible family structure and fostered a more loving family environment. Cincinnati was a microcosm of these changes. These mid-nineteenth-century songs vividly re-create the social, economic, and religious values of the population's majority of white native-born Protestants. Since the songs were designed for home performance, they give special insight into the domestic context in which these values were forged.

A border city on the Ohio River through which commerce flowed in four directions, Cincinnati in the 1850s contained as diverse a population as that which passed through it. To the New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Southerners (both black and white) who arrived in the 1830s, a sizable population of German immigrants was added in the 1840s. The mixture was potentially explosive, and conflicts between native-born Protestants and Catholic immigrants, between blacks and whites, and between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists frequently disrupted the city's peace and prosperity. Civic or public life reflected competing interest groups, and although social harmony was the goal of the town's leading Whig politicians, social strife was often the reality.

Cincinnati was as economically volatile as it was socially diverse. Writing there in 1841, Catherine Beecher in A Treatise on Domestic Economy described the social and economic mobility of the times:

Persons in poverty are rising to opulence, and persons of wealth are sinking to poverty. The children of common laborers, by their talents and enterprise, are becoming nobles in intellect, or wealth, or office; while the children of the wealthy, enervated by indulgence, are sinking to humbler stations.

Traditional family life existed in a context of hierarchical social controls and predictable economic status, mid-nineteenth-century family life in a context of democratic individualism and economic change. The songs sung in Victorian parlors show us how family life responded to these new conditions.

In "You Never Miss the Water Till the Well Runs Dry" we have an excellent depiction of the new and more flexible structure of nineteenth-century family life. The song's protagonist leaves home as a young adult to make his own way in life, establishes his own economic base, and chooses his own marriage partner. The transition he makes from the family in which he was born to the family in which his own children are born is one that he, rather than his parents, controls. They provide him with maxims and training, but he is responsible for his own economic success.

In the past ten years historians have reinterpreted the difference between traditional and modern family structures. Using more accurate measurements drawn from census records and vital records of marriages, births, and deaths, they have concluded that this difference is not one of an "extended" versus a "nuclear" family structure, since Anglo-American families had always been "nuclear" in the sense that they had consisted of husband, wife, unmarried children, and occasional other unmarried kin, and since they had never been "extended" to include more than one married couple under the same roof. Historians now see the difference between traditional and modern family structures as consisting in the degree of control parents exercise over the transition their children make from the families in which they were born to the families in which they themselves have children. Parents exercised a great degree of such control in the eighteenth century, because a young adult's ability to establish himself or herself in life depended on his or her access to the means of agricultural production--land, tools, livestock, and household goods--and these were more likely to be obtained through inheritance or parental gifts on marriage than by striking out on one's own. Typically a traditional family would depend on the labor of sons and daughters in their teens and early twenties to contribute sufficiently to the family's economy to provide a beginning stake for each of them, with land going to sons and movable goods to daughters (Greven).

These economic links across generations eroded significantly between 1750 and 1800, as parents were no longer able to provide their young adult children with economic resources superior to those they could obtain on their own. The result by 1850 was a participant-oriented, rather than a lineage-oriented, family structure. In this new structure young adults assumed responsibility for establishing their own economic base and choosing their own marriage partners, and child rearing was designed to prepare offspring for economic independence of, rather than dependence on, the families in which they were born. Child rearing changed from an effort to break the will of the child and bring it under parental control to an effort to cultivate the ability of children to think for themselves, especially with regard to their own self-interest. Thus the protagonist of "You Never Miss the Water" was not only trained in traditional habits of thrift but also encouraged to develop an untraditional aptitude for calculated risk-taking in pursuit of self-advancement. Besides learning "waste not, want not," he also learned: "Do not let your chances like sunbeams pass you by." Although he "speculated foolishly" and his "losses were severe" when he first "embarked on public life," the maxims of his childhood by which he practiced "strict economy" and "grasp'd each chance" eventually increased his "funds," allowing him to marry and have children of his own. These he then instructed to do as he had done.

With intergenerational hierarchies based on economic dependency less a factor in marriage formation, romantic love increased as a factor in courtship and in marital life. The affective aspects of family life grew increasingly important in the early decades of the nineteenth century and were extravagantly idealized by 1850. The insight, which the twentieth century shares with the nineteenth, that autonomous "character" in children is best built through love, reinforced this emphasis in Victorian family life.

An excellent example of the idealization of the emotional dimensions of family life can be found in "Where Home Is." Here the material base sustaining the home is far less important than the "shrines the heart had builded" within it. Home is "where the heart can bloom," "not merely four square walls, tho' with pictures hung and gilded"; home is a world of dependable love, "not merely roof and room." It stands in implicit contrast with the public world of chance and competition. This contrast is explicit in "You Never Miss the Water," where the domestic "peace and harmony, devoid of care and strife" of the song's last stanza contrasts with the "rugged road, bestrewn with care and strife" of the "public life" of the third stanza.

Parallel changes can be found in American religious life, and these are superbly expressed in The Concordia and "Ives." Between 1776 and 1820 American religion changed from a hierarchically run to a participant-run activity, and revivals and competition among denominations replaced state-established religious orthodoxies. The Concordia shows the influence of Enlightenment ideas on this transformation. Here the natural world and the spiritual world are in essential agreement, and "God's handiwork" demonstrates His rationality and benevolence. The Puritans' inscrutable and angry God was replaced by the loving Jesus of "Ives." Here Jesus shares many of the qualities found in "Where Home Is." He is a "refuge" from "the storm of life," a "support and comfort" while "the tempest still is high." This loving God is also present in "The Blessed Bible," where "good cheer," rather than original sin, forms the song's main theme. These songs address human emotions rather than doctrinal debate. Their stress on the potential to be developed in human life, rather than the evil to be eradicated, was compatible with antebellum notions of human and social perfectibility as well as with nineteenth-century child-rearing practices.

The mid-nineteenth century's social ideal of autonomous individualism and its religious ideal of human perfectibility were contradicted by the inability of many individuals to achieve economic success or to find a "refuge" in Jesus. In the 1840s Cincinnati built a gigantic workhouse not far from the waterfront and manufacturing sites where many of its inmates probably had worked, and not far from the breweries that came with the city's German population. The proportion of the population that was propertyless grew each year as manufacturing increased the proportion that relied on wage labor for economic support. The protagonist of "You Never Miss the Water" relied on "funds," not lands, for his support, and although he managed to recover from his early economic reversals, many did not, and many more did not have the means to engage in economic investment or speculation in the first place. Although there was some truth to the myth that those born in poverty were exchanging places with those born to wealth, it was also true that many who were born poor remained poor and many who were born to wealth remained wealthy (Pessen).

The temperance movement, as exemplified in "Who'll Buy?," was a response to these economic realities. Seen as "foreign," and as the cause rather than the result of "human woe," drink manifested in negative form the marketplace virtues of "warranted," "not slow," "imported pure," and "competition"-defying. Its results were "larceny and theft," "beggary and death," "empty pockets," "tangled brains," "vice," "soul jet black," and "conscience slack." These probably pertained to many of the inmates of Cincinnati's workhouse, who probably found comfort in drink when they could. In the temperance movement and its self-imposed restraint from drink, Cincinnatians and Americans in general found a remedy for the plight of the poor and a means by which they themselves might avoid such a plight.

Songs sung in mid-nineteenth-century parlors looked outward on the world as well as inward on their own circumstances. Agrarian values were still strongly endorsed, as the lyrics of "The Jovial Farmer Boy" make clear. The freedom, "glee," and "fun" of the country far outshine the city's "lengthened streets of dusty brown and gloomy houses high." But the persistence of these rural values in the West was threatened by the course of economic development as it was depicted in O. S. Ingram's verses for "The West." The early Eden-like West "soon pass'd with the bustle still growing more rife" of increased population, "till never more ceasing with numbers increasing, its wide-growing borders were teeming with life," Even the "fair-prairied West" was beset by mechanical demons.

The benefits of economic progress were mixed with liabilities for mid-nineteenth-century American families, and their parlor music presented both sides of the question.

Selected Bibliography:

  1. Beecher, Catharine. A Treatise on Domestic Economy. New York: Harper, 1841.
  2. Greve, Charles T. Centennial History of Cincinnati. Chicago: Biographical, 1904. Library of Congress call number: F499.C5 G7
  3. Greven, Philip J. Four Generations: Population, Land and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970. Library of Congress call number: F74.A6 G7
  4. Pessen, Edward. Riches, Class, and Power Before the Civil War. Lexington: Heath, 1973. Library of Congress call number: HC110.W4 P47
  5. Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973. Library of Congress call number: HQ1413.B4 S54
  6. Smith, Daniel Scott. "Parental Power and Marriage Patterns: An Analysis of Historical Trends in Hingham, Massachusetts." Journal of Marriage and the Family, August, 1973. Library of Congress call number: HQ1 .J48

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