Last updated: February 19, 2019
Topic: ArtBooks
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From the post bellum decades to the early twentieth century, the popular notion of typical American life is no longer the exclusive territory of the traditional stoic, indistinct European.  The American way of life and the Americans who live it are as varied as the list of periodicals, rhetorical speeches and biographies of famous Americans existing in that time period.  “This notion of thought is reinforced by the generally held opinion that the powerful speakers and writers who shaped the fabric of American life ought to be distinguished, white men.” (Johnson, 2002, p. 14)

It follows that genuine interest about generic “American Life” offers debate regarding extreme opportunities to abstract and extrapolate. Such concerns are prompted by personal passionate feelings about one’s ethnic or religious identity and how the element of one’s own history was played out.   For example, distinct camps of opinion have staked claim to exhibiting the critical need of demonstrating multiculturalism in 1900’s American life. This exposure and new approach parallels the timeless pattern in 1900’s American life; as group bids for incorporation and inclusion— Germans, Women, Catholics, African Americans, Irish, Jews, etc—coexist with the individualism of the formal ideology.

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As early as the 1850s the Irish had control of a few labor organizations in Massachusetts and New York. By the early 1900’s unions among longshoremen, construction workers, and miners emerged, some providing, as we have seen, the base for protest.   In the early 1900’s the center of the Irish Catholic community in numerous cities was a large-scale church and parochial school system, attached to which were hospitals and charitable organizations.  There was extensive Italian involvement in unions as members and leaders. Italians have been among the strongest union members for several decades.

For African Americans, after emancipation, expecting to own land and claiming rights to it combined to form one of the great descriptions of African American life.  “It was, in substantial part, in rural Tennessee, outside Alexandria. That was where he first got to know the people whose lives and songs gave him the basis for his conclusions about the ways Sorrow Songs might help transform.  Du Bois twice used the same term—“primitive”—that he used to describe the rural people he first met on his trips into the Tennessee countryside.” (Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 268, 271) Adding to that promise were religious notions that God’s chosen people would reach the Promised Land some day.

“As the black population increased, so did white anxiety and fear, resulting in increasing racial restrictions in the Jim Crow racial caste system. Although the early twentieth century was a significant period of reform in most areas of American life, historians have long recognized that “race,” the blind spot of the Progressive movement, was the major exception to this generalization.” (Howard et al. 1994, p. 1)

In the early 1900’s, Jews have been considered by some non-Jews to be a biologically inferior “race.  In the last century Jews have been regarded by some non-Jews as a religious group, a racial group, and an ethnic group. They have been socially defined on the basis of real or alleged physical characteristics or cultural characteristics. (Sidorsky, 1973, p. xix)

The political-economics of the cities and urban areas compounded the economic competition generated between groups.  With public riff regarding racial and ethnic difference to increase the negative conditions that shape people’s views of others. Not being able to understanding how groups work together only placed barriers and built poor inter-group relations.   Neighborhoods played an important role in mediating social relations. Nevertheless, old sentiments and affections linger on, though shorn of their one-time menace to the federal government. Pride of state and pride in one’s own state are still familiar and powerful forces in American life.

The most interesting aspect of American life is succinctly presented in the Irish- American community also “…was part of the most sickening aspect of Irish-American life in those days: the assumption that if you rose above an acceptable level of mediocrity, you were guilty of the sin of pride. You were to accept your place and stay in it for the rest of your life; the true rewards would be given to you in heaven, after you were dead. There was ferocious pressure to conform, to avoid breaking out of the pack; self-denial was the supreme virtue … it was arrogant, a sin of pride, to conceive of a life beyond the certainties, rhythms, and traditions of the Neighborhood. Sometimes the attitude was expressed directly…. More often, it was implied. But the Neighborhood view of the world had fierce power. “(Jensen, 2002, p. 405)


Since its inception, “Early American Life has worked to preserve the practical and artistic skills that helped build this country. Guided by their “hands to work, hearts to God” philosophy, members of the Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming created elegant yet functional furnishings prized for their clean lines and superb construction.” (Crafts, 2005, p. 40)  Because most people in the 1900’s were biblically literate, when writing his classics, John Steinbeck American literary icon whose turns of phrase have influenced generations with classics such as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men,” made many allusions to the Bible to convey his points. “East of Eden,” for example, which is about the history of California’s Salinas Valley, is told through the struggle of Cain and Abel. (Times, 2004, p. A02)  Clearly, it is apparent that the presence of more religion in 1900’s American way of life than the Constitution would seem to suggest. However, it is probably true that the tacit agreement of the document upon the whole matter, and its understatements, were the price which had then to be paid for a vindication of the principles of toleration and liberty in matters religious.

It is impossible, however, to resist the conclusion that the framing of the Constitution of the United States coincided with the 1900’s drive of rationalism, and that the prevalence of enlightened religious concepts and beliefs among the classes. “In part responsible for the studied silences of the document as to the existence of God, and its unwillingness to commit itself, even in the most general terms, to any Christian ideas. One can only say that, given the history of colonial times and the subsequent record, the framers of the Constitution must be credited with religious understatement, rather than with overstatement.” (Lazzaro, 1946, p. 58)

To generalize, American life was steeped in religion. “The country was in colonial times diverse in its origins, and immigration during the subsequent years of national independence, so far from clarifying the situation, has only complicated it. Statements as to the predominant type of Church life and moral custom which might be true ‘at the North’ have less relevance in the South. The historic Congregationalism of New England, one of the major religious traditions in American life, means almost nothing below the Mason and Dixon line where the Southern Baptists are dominant.


The American Woman, circa 1900 has been described as “wondrously complex.” Both the verbal portraits and the visual images supplied by the early part of the 20th century required simple sorting. Distinctions made between the American Girl manifested as Beautiful Charmer and the typical New England Woman, and between the various perceptions of the “Girl” which superimpose the latter-day New England Woman upon the emerging image of the so called “New Woman.’ “To her admirers in 1900 the New Woman was like that earlier manifestation of the Charmer, the so called, Wellesley Woman. Both types were granted the traits of physical attractiveness, independence, strong-mindedness, and zest for the experiences of the world. To her detractors, however, the New Woman was all too like the legendary Charmer in her egotism, willful selfishness, and the calculation of her attempts to take command of men and society. “(Banta, 1987, p. 58) Overtime, authors focused on how the American Girl as the New Woman is placed in association with the Beautiful Charmer.

The 1900’s left no aspect of life untouched.  Even writers of the time were bestowed a special mantle; Muckrakers.  A name applied to American journalists, novelists, and critics who in the first decade of the 20th century who attempted to expose the abuses of business and the corruption in politics.  (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2004)






















Nan Johnson, 2002, Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910 Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press. Place of Publication: Carbondale, IL. Page Number: 14.

Virginia M. Howard, Walter T. Howard, 1994, Family, Religion, and Education: A Profile of African-American Life in Tampa, Florida, 1900-1930. Journal Title: The Journal of Negro History. Volume: 79. Issue: 1. Page Number: 1+.

Ralph Lazzaro, Willard L. Sperry, 1946, Religion in America. Publisher: Cambridge University Press. Place of Publication: Cambridge, England. Page Number: 58.

David Sidorsky, 1973,  The Future of the Jewish Community in America, ed ( New York: Basic Books,), pp. xix-xxv;

Richard Jensen, 2002, “No Irish Need Apply”: A Myth of Victimization. Journal Title: Journal of Social History. Volume: 36. Issue: 2. Page Number: 405+.

August 2005, Directory of Traditional American Crafts[R]. Magazine Title: Early American Life. Volume: 36. Issue: 4. Publication Date:. Page Number: 40+. COPYRIGHT 2005 Celtic Moon Publishing

Steinbeck’s Imprint; Icon Pens Lasting Tale of Success. Newspaper Title: The Washington Times. Publication Date: February 27, 2004. Page Number: A02. COPYRIGHT 2004 News World Communications, Inc.

Martha Banta, 1987, Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History. Publisher: Columbia University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Page Number: 58.

Muckrakers, The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Publisher: Columbia University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 2004.