History 248 Reading Guide

Middle Class Families in the Northeast:  Urbanizing Families and “Provincial” Folks

  • C. Dallett Hemphill, “Manners and Class in the Revolutionary Era: A Transatlantic Comparison,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. Ser., 63.2 (2006), 345-372.  JSTOR
  • Catherine E. Kelly, “‘Well Bred Country People’: Sociability, Social Networks, and the Creation of a Provincial Middle Class, 1820-1860,” Journal of the Early Republic 19.3 (1999), 451-479.  JSTOR

Further reading:

  • Stuart M. Blumin, “The Hypothesis of Middle-Class Formation in Nineteenth-Century America:  A Critique and Some Proposals,” American Historical Review 90.2. (1985), 299-338.  JSTOR
  • C. Dallett Hemphill, “Middle Class Rising in Revolutionary America:  The Evidence from Manners,” Journal of Social History 30.2 (1996), 317-344.  JSTOR


  • According to Hemphill, what does the study of manners reveal about Americans of the “middling sort” during the revolutionary era? What mattered to them? How did they view and measure themselves? Who were the middling sort? What defined them and separated them from the upper and lower sort?
  • How does Hemphill characterize the shift in the literature on manners in England from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to the eighteenth century? What does that shift suggest about changes in the structure of the English social order?
  • How did the concepts and values of gentility change in the mid to late eighteenth century? In the manners literature that the middling sort of England and the American North read, what codes of conduct did authors detail and encourage? According to Hemphill, what were the implications of these, not only for individuals but for their social interactions?
  • How did the differing social and economic contexts of England, the American North and the American South shape the manners literature that they read? How does Hemphill complicate our understanding of the ways in which English, northern and southern middling folk “emulated” gentry manners? What did they emulate, and in what ways did they adapt gentry manners to suit their own needs?
  • How might Hemphill’s discussion of the market revolution and the revolution in manners alter our understanding of the revolutionary era and the social and economic changes which preceded, accompanied, and followed the political changes?
  • Kelly’s study of rural or provincial sociability offers a second look at manners and behavior, in a later period and for those folk of the “middling sort” who still lived in rural areas in the early to mid-nineteenth century. What kinds of gatherings characterized the “hybrid sociability” that rural men and women in northern New England developed during the first half of the nineteenth century?
  • How and why did the patterns of private sociability and associational life evolve? How did those changing patterns contribute to the reshaping of provincial women’s self-presentation and their identities?
  • What sense did provincial New Englanders make of their patterns of sociability? What meanings did they draw about themselves and their society from those patterns?
  • According to Kelly, how did that understanding and those meanings serve the needs of an emerging middle class in provincial New England as they “negotiated the transition from household economy to market society”?

Questions for the further readings:

  • What reformulation of the hypothesis of middle-class formation does Blumin offer?  How does his argument fit in the debate about the centrality of middle-class formation in the evolution of nineteenth-century American society?
  • What evidence does he examine?  What are the implications of that evidence?
  • What “convergences” of personal and social experience does he present?  Taken together, do these suggest the “formation of a new, relatively coherent, and relatively bounded” intermediate social group?
  • In contrast to Blumin’s hypothesis, Hemphill posits an earlier “expression” of middle class culture, middle class character, and the rising of the middle class.  Why does she focus on manners rather than occupation?
  • Which “manners” characterized the eighteenth-century culture that she examines?  Which manners were a continuation of traditional elite manners?  Why did the emerging middle class embrace them?  What kinds of conduct signaled the emergence of a new society?
  • What is the relationship between culture, awareness, and consciousness?