What was middle class family life like in post-civil war Georgia?

What was middle class family life like in post-civil war Georgia?


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I'm researching middle class family life in Georgia immediately after the US Civil war. What was life like for middle class families? What were the common themes/experiences?


There is a brilliant Yale online course on the Civil War and Reconstruction instructed by David Blight. It gives a great modern historical perspective on the lives of Southern citizens during that period. It includes reading lists as well if you'd like to immerse yourself in the course.

You can start on just the Reconstruction period in the middle of the course and get plenty of insight as to how all classes of Southerners' lives were affected after the war. I recommend listening to the whole thing.

There was no middle class as we know it today in the South. You had the plantation/planter class, the slaves, and everyone else. The top 1% of Southern whites owned 27% of the wealth and the bottom 50% shared 1% of the wealth in the South. (I don't have a citation on this but it is mentioned in the above course).

As you can imagine, things were pretty bleak; and to do so, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the white Southern people. Sherman's Army had devastated much of the state, including the largest city burned to the ground. Sherman himself estimated that the campaign had inflicted $100 million (about $1.4 billion in 2010 dollars). This march was particularly remarkable because his army went deep into enemy territory without the usual supply lines. To achieve this, they took whatever they needed from farmers along the way, and it takes a lot of food to feed a marching army of that size, leaving farmers with little to no food. These were also mainly elderly men, children and women as the fighting age men were all conscripted, with exceptions of slave owners of 20 or more. The small railroad system was completely destroyed. Many of the young were either dead or mangled at a time when physical labor in the form of farm work was how you survived. Current estimates are that the South lost about 10% of it's white population to the Civil War. That would be around 32 million military casualties today. There were many widows and orphans also due to this. About half of the wealth in the form of slaves was erased, their currency became worthless, and their economy had to be rethought and rebuilt with little to no money. This lead to deep poverty that was only mitigated through the new deal in the 1930s. There are signs of this to this day.

The South was subjugated by the country they were just defeated by, each state with a Union General running things installed as governor (though not always a General). With the assassination of Lincoln (by a Southerner no less), the Radical Republicans weren't as welcoming of the Southern states back into the union and wanted to punish the region for their part in the war. The white Southerners lost all their voting rights as well as rights to hold office, so they were governed not only by the people who were subjugating them in the form of Carpetbaggers, but the people they believed were subhuman (former slaves). There was also a heated, deadly rift between pro-Confederate Southerners and Southerners who supported reconstruction who were labeled Scalawags. White Southerners were also greatly affected by losing the war, and were the only part of the country to have suffered a devastating loss in war at the time and up until Vietnam 110 or so years later. This held a deep psychological effect on many Southerners.

Georgia didn't have nearly as many war casualties as Virginia, Alabama, North and South Carolina which were the top four, but theirs were still significant. During the time of the civil war, soldiers from the same town served together in the same unit, so some towns could lose much more of their population than others, depending on what battles the unit served under. I would imagine PTSD was prevalent as it is in any war, but since it wasn't a known problem, it probably wasn't treated well if at all. Also, Andersonville Prison Camp was in Georgia, though I'm not sure as to the affect on Georgians there (additional shame, mass graves, etc).

This is a very complex question and I've only touched the surface of answering it. I'm sure many people will feel I've left things out like the rise of the KKK, and how former slaves did a pretty good job governing. The first public school in the South was funded by black politicians in South Carolina. The freedman's education was also a significant improvement to the freedman population that can't be overstated. I've also left out many of the specific effects to former slaves, which were of course significant. They finally got their freedom, but at great peril with the rise of the KKK and the general distain from white former citizens.

Here is an article specifically about Georgia during reconstruction.

This is a great question and Reconstruction is a lightly discussed but very significant part of our history often overshadowed by the war itself. I recommend anyone interested to study it more, as there is a lot more to it. Some of the worst brutality I have ever heard of happened during this period. I just barely touched the surface. There are also two perspectives, the Northern one (most common today) and the Southern one (popular by people raised in the South). I tried to be as neutral as I could, but I am from the South, so that perspective might have inadvertently bled into my response. I recall my mother being threatened that "Sherman is going to get you if you don't clean your room," in the 1950s, so it's effects and lore were felt years after the fact. It's an amazing period to study and I highly recommend a deep dive into it.

Diaries from Georgians during the period:

A Woman's Wartime Journal: an Account of the Passage over Georgia's Plantation of Sherman's Army on the March to the Sea, as Recorded in the Diary of Dolly Sumner Lunt (Mrs. Thomas Burge)

Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War: Electronic Edition Leigh, Frances Butler, 1838-1910

New Georgia Encyclopedia: History & Archaeology Civil War & Reconstruction, 1861-1877


Question:
I'm researching middle class family life in Georgia immediately after the US Civil war. What was life like for middle class families? What were the common themes/experiences?

The first common experiences in the South immediately following the Civil war were:

  • drought
  • flooding (see below)
  • starvation
  • Wave of terror targeting African Americans across the south leading up to the presidential election of 1868.

Famine conditions existed in significant parts of the South during the years 1866 - 1867 immediately following the American Civil War. This was a result of weather(first drought, then flooding ), the disruption of the southern economy during the war, and the shortage of manpower in the post war South.

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Drought, Flooding, Famine

Southern Famine Relief Commission in 1867

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Daily Alta California - April 17, 1867
“But in Northern Alabama, Georgia, the flooded district of East Tennessee, and Central North and South Carolina, where little cotton is raised, where there are few wealthy men, and where the drought of last summer, coming sharp upon the complete desolation left in the track of large contending armies, the distress and suffering are appalling. Their wheat was almost a total failure, and their corn amounted to just nothing at all. They were lacking in implements of husbandry and in horses and mules to propel the plough. Hence bad cultivation, concurring with a very bad season, caused the famine.”

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New York Times - April 29, 1866
We have already had accounts of lamentable destitution in Marshall and Blount Counties (Alabama). From this statement it will be seen that the suffering is yet more widely extended. It probably affects all the north-eastern and mountainous section of the state.… . The suffering of the destitute white classes of Cherokee County is becoming frightfully alarming. The disasters of war and adverse seasons of 1865 were the controlling causes of the present scarcity. The cry for bread is heard in all sections, and actual starvation is imminent.… .

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New York Times - February 26, 1867,
“No southern state is probably suffering so generally and so severely as South Carolina. Fully one-fourth of her population are in distress from want of food.… . A letter received yesterday from the Southern Relief Commission, dated Lancasterville, Lancaster District, Feb. 18 says: “This district owing to the disasters consequent upon the war, and the almost total failure of the crops is in a most deplorable state of destitution of the necessaries to support its people and live stock. The district contains about ten thousand population, and not more, perhaps, than twenty families of the whole number have a supply of food for the season. There are about 500 individuals in a very alarming state of want, and unless immediate relief is afforded, many of them must perish by starvation.”

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Western Democrat (Charlotte, NC) - April 30, 1867
“The corn crop in Union having completely failed last year, the most of the people are suffering for grain for man and beast. We know men who always had corn to sell heretofore, who are now dependent on charity or their personal credit for supplies for their families. Many cannot obtain corn on credit, and as the donations so far have not proved sufficient, we fear that there will be much suffering among the women and children.… . To make matters worse, the corn crop was almost a failure in those counties or the portion surrounding Union - such as Mecklenburg, Stanly and Anson; and in the adjoining Districts of South Carolina the distress is as great as anywhere. Therefore help must come from abroad.”

From memory, I remember reading in Col John Mosby's memoirs (Partisan Ranger, former Chief Calvary Scout for J.E.B Stuart) that after the civil war he and his family went through a time when they were starving in Virginia. Which is odd because they owned a farm. Mosby told of a tutor hired by his father when Mosby was a young man, a Miss Abby Southwick of boston, sent his family a wagon load full of supplies after the war, which Mosby credits with saving his life and that of his family. But I only have that in hard copy.

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Massive Relief Efforts organized in the North

The next common experience would be experiencing the mass relief efforts of the other Union States as they were.

Famine in the Post-War South
Relief from the disaster was provided first by the U.S. Army. Shortly thereafter the Freedman's Bureau was authorized to distribute food to all in need regardless of race within the constraints of their existing budget. Commissioner Oliver O. Howard was able to free about $500,000 for the effort. Private agencies began to spring up in the north, among the more prominent of which was the Southern Famine Relief Commission. By the end of 1867 the famine largely abated.

Wave of Terror

Grant, Reconstruction and the KKK At the time of Ulysses S. Grant's election to the presidency, white supremacists were conducting a reign of terror throughout the South. In outright defiance of the Republican-led federal government, Southern Democrats formed organizations that violently intimidated blacks and Republicans who tried to win political power.

The most prominent of these, the Ku Klux Klan, was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. Originally founded as a social club for former Confederate soldiers, the Klan evolved into a terrorist organization. It would be responsible for thousands of deaths, and would help to weaken the political power of Southern blacks and Republicans…
Across the South, the Klan and other terrorist groups used brutal violence to intimidate Republican voters. In Kansas, over 2,000 murders were committed in connection with the election. In Georgia, the number of threats and beatings was even higher. And in Louisiana, 1000 blacks were killed as the election neared. In those three states, Democrats won decisive victories at the polls.

Sources:

  • Starvation and Poverty in the South
  • Famine in the Post-War South
  • Southern Famine Relief Commission in 1867
  • How the end of slavery led to starvation and death for millions of black Americans
  • Causes and consequences of nineteenth century droughts in North America
  • Grant, Reconstruction and the KKK

It was certainly very different than pre or during civil war life. Widows that lost husbands to the war gave a kind of broken atmosphere, especially because Georgia was a confederate state which lost, and its loss was devastating to everyone except for union sympathisers. All around the south and the old confederacy there was a broken and lonely feeling as if someone had lost a loved family member, that member being the confederacy and a hope for a better future, but in comparison imagine what it was like for people in Richmond or Vicksburg; it would have been much worse as most of those once great cities had been destroyed and famine and sickness riddled the cities.


Georgia

Identification. The term "Georgian" does not derive from Saint George but from the ancient Persian Gurg or Gorg, meaning wolf, "supposedly a totemic symbol, or from the Greek georgios ("farmer," "cultivator of land").

Self-identification is based mainly on linguistic tradition, and population groups that belong to different ethno-linguistic groups, such as Ossetians, Abkhazians, Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds, are not considered Georgian. There are some exceptions, such as Jews, who speak Georgian as a native language and have surnames with Georgian endings, but historically have had a distinct cultural identity. Georgians are subdivided into smaller regional ethno-cultural entities. All that have specific traditions and customs, folklore, cuisine, and dress and may speak a different language. Ajarans, unlike the Eastern Orthodox majority, are mostly Sunni Muslims. All these groups preserve and share a common identity, literary language, and basic system of values.

Location and Geography. Georgia is on the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountains, forming a natural border with the north Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation. The country, occupying approximately 27,000 square miles (69,900 square kilometers), stretches along the Greater Caucasus ridge, bordered by the Black Sea to the west, the Armenian and Turkish highlands to the South, and Azerbaijan to the east. The topography is varied. The northern region is characterized by high mountains, and the central and southern parts, while mountainous, are much lower and are covered with alpine fields and forests. In the east, the rivers all join the Mtkvari (Kura), forming the Caspian basin, while in the west, the rivers, of which the Rioni and Enguri are the largest, run into the Black Sea.

The climate is temperate and is more mild and humid along the western marine coast. Mountains create temperature zones that vary with elevation. The eastern plains and highlands, which are isolated from the sea, have a continental climate, while year-round snow and glaciers are found in the highest mountains. Climatic zones range from moderately humid Mediterranean, to dry-continental Arab-Caspian, and to cooler mountainous regions. Almost half the land is in agricultural use, with much of the remainder consisting of forests and high mountains. Land use varies with local climatic and soil patterns.

Tbilisi, the capital, was founded by King Vakhtang Gorgasali in the fifth century, and continues to be the most important political and cultural center of the country. Tbilisi is located in the culturally dominant eastern region, Kartli, on the banks of the Mtkvari (Kura), on the ancient crossroads of one of the great silk roads between Europe and Asia.

Demography. In the 1990s, the population was estimated to be from five to five and a half million, but reliable figures are not available because of extensive uncounted emigration. Just over half the population lives in urban areas, including 1.6 million in Tbilisi. Ethnic Georgians form the great majority of the population in most regions, though there are settlements of Armenians and Azeris in the south and the south-east, respectively Ossetians in the north-central area Abkhaz and Armenians in the northwest Greeks in the southeast and small numbers of Batsbi, Chechens, Ingushes, and Lezghs in the northeast. Russians and smaller ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Ukrainians, Jews, and Assyrians are concentrated mostly in urban areas. In the 1989 census, ethnic Georgians accounted for seventy percent of the population Armenians 8 percent Russians 6 percent, Azeris 6 percent, Ossetians 3 percent, and Abkhazians, under 2 percent.

This proportion has changed as a result of emigration among ethnic minorities, especially Russians, Jews, Greeks, and Armenians. Most ethnic Georgians were distributed throughout the country, while Abkhazians moved mostly to Russian cities and Ossetians took refuge in Northern Ossetia.

Linguistic Affiliation. The majority language is Georgian, which belongs to the Kartvelian (South Caucasian) language group. However, some subgroups speak other languages in the same linguistic group. The literary language comes from the Kartlian dialect spoken in the historically dominant eastern kingdom of Kartli. Georgian is the only Kartvelian language that is written and taught, and is the literary language used by all Georgians.

The principal minority languages are Abkhazian, Armenian, Azeri, Ossetian, and Russian. Abkhazian is, along with Georgian, the state language in Abkhazia. Most ethnic minorities in urban areas speak Russian rather than Georgian as a second language, but bilingualism and trilingualism are common, and Russian continues to be understood in most of the country. Russian, Armenian, and Azeri are used in schools and as official languages locally.

Symbolism. The competing impact of Asian and western cultures is most prominently expressed in Byzantine and Persian influences. Another overlap is between Christian and pagan, with a much weaker influence from neighboring Muslim patterns. Today, much cultural symbolism reflects a mythologized interpretation of tradition that is influenced by self-perception as belonging to European, Christian contemporary society.

Mythical symbols include the Golden Fleece of the Greek myth of the Argonauts' journey to Colchis and the mythical ancestor of Georgians, Kartlos. Other important mythical figures include Saint George, and Amirani, a noble hero analogous to Prometheus. Mythical symbols of the Abkhazians and Ossetians are both dominated by a mythical cycle dealing with the semidivine people of Narts.

The numbers seven and nine have symbolic meaning, as does the number three, which reflects the Trinity. The snow leopard and lion symbolize noble valor and vigor. The vine symbolizes fertility and the Dionysian spirit, and dominates medieval architectural ornamentation. A very important ornamental symbol is the fire-wheel swastika, a solar symbol traditionally used both as an architectural ornament and in wood carving as well as on the passport and currency. The Cross plays an equally significant role.

The hymn "Thou Art the True Vine" is the most important sacred song. National symbols often refer to language, motherland (national territory), and Confession (Christian Orthodoxy). The ideas of loyalty to kin, honor, and hospitality are held in high esteem. The characteristic metaphor is that of a mother. Other metaphors are linked to the sun, which is interpreted as a source of beauty and light, brotherhood, supreme loyalty, and victory.

State symbolism dates back to the Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918–1921). The most respected national festival (26 May) is linked to the declaration of independence in 1918. The national flag of black and white stripes against a dark crimson background and the state emblem, White George on horseback framed by a septagonal star, repeat the imagery of that period.


What Income Level Is Considered Middle Class in Your State?

What is considered middle class? It might take more money than you think to reach this income tier. The Pew Research Center defines middle class, or middle-income households, as those with incomes that are two-thirds to double the U.S. median household income.

However, because the cost of living and average income varies so widely from state to state, the income needed to be “middle class” in one state could be much more or less than what it takes to be middle class in another. Using Pew’s definition of middle class, GOBankingRates analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey to determine how much two-, three- and four-person families need to earn in every state to qualify for this classification.


Activity 1. Life Before the Civil War

In the decade-and-a-half prior to the Civil War, the United States saw dramatic changes in industrialization in the North, and a rapid increase in transportation (rail and steamship) all over the country. It was also a time when the country was absorbing new territorial acquisitions, and lifestyle differences and attitudes between North and South were becoming more pronounced.

Students interested in extending the comparison between North and South can compare the Northern community of Franklin, Pa., and the Southern community of Augusta, Va., by exploring the documents in the Valley of the Shadow. Both communities were in the greater Shenandoah Valley, yet had pronounced differences as well as some similarities.

Compare newspaper articles from the two communities:

  • Entrepreneurship: New businesses are developing and many items formerly made at home are now imported from other states and sold in stores.
    • "New Enterprise," Augusta County, VA, September 16, 1859, p. 2, c. 1
      "Messrs. Sicher have opened a new store exclusively for ladies in Staunton. This will allow women, who may now, without being exposed to prying masculine eyes, purchase numberless little unmentionable 'fixins,' which they are shy of calling for at a counter beset with the horrid men." This story reflects female purchasing power if not female liberation.
    • "Ladies' Oyster Saloon," Franklin County, PA, November 30, 1859, p. 5, c. 2
      "Mrs. Susan Seibert has opened up an Oyster Saloon for ladies, directly opposite the courthouse." This story reflects female purchasing power if not female liberation.
    • "Gone Again," Franklin County, PA, May 9, 1860, p. 5, c. 2
      Advertisement: "J. L. Deehert, the Hat man, has gone to New York to lay in a stock of Straw Hats, &c., for Summer wear. Look out for a splendid assortment, in a few days." New York is regarded as the source of goods unobtainable locally.
    • "Lighting Up the Town," Augusta County, VA, July 22, 1859, p. 2, c. 2
      Gas is being introduced to light the city streets.
    • "First of the Season," Augusta County, VA, May 11, 1860, p. 2, c. 6
      The proprietor of the American Hotel was able to get fresh strawberries for his guests. This delicacy will become more common at Staunton hotels now that they can be transported from Richmond in only eight hours. The continuing proliferation of trains is revolutionizing commerce and travel. Richmond is regarded as the source of goods unobtainable locally.
    • "Franklin Railroad," Franklin County, Pa., November 30, 1859, p. 5, c. 1
      Train lines are being built in the Northern countryside.

    Students interested in learning more about how people made a living in 1860 can analyze the following images (all are available through the EDSITEment resource American Memory). If desired, search by title to locate a lower resolution image for each.

    • Occupational portrait of a blacksmith, three-quarter length, facing front, holding a horseshoe with pliers in one hand, and a hammer in the other.
    • Occupational portrait of a latch maker taken between 1850 and 1860. (Background information) standing on a hand-propelled railroad cart, between 1850 and 1860. (Background information)
    • Photo of a stonecutter taken between 1850 and 1860. (Background information)
    • Image of a watchmaker from the period between 1840 and 1860. (Background information)
    • Photo of a woman using a sewing machine taken circa 1853. (Background information)

    Students interested in finding out what people did for fun in the 1850's might be interested in the documents in the following list:

      Baseball and Chess:
        July 1-2, 1859.
        using the keyword "cartomania" for background information on the card collecting craze that started in France in the early 1850s.

        (Note: The creator of this image was David Strother, also known as Porte-Crayon, an illustrator for Harper's Weekly. During the 1850s, he traveled throughout the Shenandoah Valley, and described his journey in Virginia illustrated: containing a visit to the Virginian Canaan, and the adventures of Porte Crayon and his cousins. Strother's drawings are very much in the "local color" vein -- stock characters associated with a locale -- but they are still interesting representations.

        This remarkable quilt top is unusual in its overall size, the large blue sashing that divides the piece into 64 small squares, and the variety of delicate and graceful patterns. It is inspired by the Baltimore album-type quilt of the period, but is a local and very personal interpretation. Several of the quilt blocks were signed you can view the signatures on the quilt.
      • Theme: We loved each other, but now she's dead
        "Ah! Yes, I remember. An answer to 'Ben Bolt' Original"
      • Theme: I love you, but I don't know if you love me
        "Do you ever think of me?" (H. De Marsan, c.1860)
      • Theme: I love her, but she loves someone else
        "The girl I loved best of all" (H. De Marsan, c. 1860)
      • "Orrin D. Vaughn," a song sheet epitaph of a young man killed on the Hartford Railroad.
      • "Dead rabbits' fight with the Bowery boys" (by the Saugerties bard, c. 1857)
      • Theme: Vote for Fremont!
        "Freedom's songs! For the Campaign of 1856! John C. Fremont. An Acrostic" (published by Higgins & Bradley, Boston)
      • "The Queen's telegraphic message, and President Buchanan's reply" (by the Saugerties bard, 1858)
      • "Festival song at the celebration of the laying of the Atlantic Telegraph" (1858)

      To culminate this lesson, ask students to demonstrate their knowledge of important technological innovations and social trends before the Civil War, and how they affected daily life in both the North and South. Students with sufficient access to technology can search for additional documents in the EDSITEment approved resources listed below. Here are some examples of activities that students may wish to undertake to express what they have learned through this unit (specific project ideas should always be pre-approved by the teacher):


      Beginning of a legend

      News of Brown's deed shocked the nation. Many praised him, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803�), who called him "that new saint who will make the gallows like a cross." However, many believed that his crime had been terribly evil. Seventeen of Brown's acquaintances sent letters on his behalf to Governor Wise of Virginia, but Wise ignored them.

      Brown was hanged at Charles Town on December 2, 1859, with four of his men, after handing a note to his jailer on his way to the gallows: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away but with Blood." The note predicted what was to come in the near future. In fact, the end to slavery in the United States came with the end of the Civil War (1861�). The Civil War was fought to decide whether or not slavery would be allowed in new territories and in an effort to prevent the southern states from leaving the Union and forming an independent nation. Many people throughout the North gathered to mourn Brown, and church bells tolled at the hour of his execution. He was buried in North Elba, a hero among abolitionists. By the time a song about him, set to the music of an old hymn and named "John Brown's Body," became popular in 1861, he was already a legend.


      Marriage and Childbirth

      Marrying a person for love was rare in the 1700s . Most married for money or status. Well-to-do women almost always married wealthy men and men always married upper-class women. Otherwise, they would face major humiliation from their families and social circles. Wealthy people believed that a poor woman wouldn’t possess the social graces necessary to fit in with their class.

      Although middle-class status was not common in the 1700s because most people were either wealthy or poor, middle-class individuals had more freedom to marry whomever they choose. Women of the middle class were expected to marry up, although they still had more choice of their own than a wealthier woman might.

      Sometimes, women of lower-class families were months pregnant before marrying because the families wanted to ensure fertility before the marriage was official. And even though childbirth was dangerous, most women became pregnant many times in their lives. Miscarriages and infant death were common but multiple children were expected regardless.

      The cost of having a baby was much different in the 18th century. Today, couples can expect to pay an average of $10,000 to $15,000 for the birth of their baby as long as no complications occur. It’s difficult to compare these numbers to what it might have cost the average parent in the 1700s to give birth, but there are other major differences to note.

      In the 18th century, any woman, rich or poor, had a midwife or birth attendant with her and most procedures and painkillers were rarely prescribed if even available to mothers. And wealthy mothers who could afford it would have a live-in wet nurse, which is another mother who recently gave birth and who feeds both babies.


      ‘The Luckiest Generation’: Teenagers in the 󈧶s

      In an aura of fun and well-being, students danced at weekly Sock Hops in a Carlsbad high school gyn. The music was provided by a 12-piece student band.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      Written By: Ben Cosgrove

      If there’s one thing humans like to do, it’s label ourselves and one another. Sometimes those labels, applied to vast numbers of people, are obviously laudatory (The Greatest Generation). Sometimes they’re pitying (The Lost Generation). Sometimes they’re duly withering (The Me Generation). And sometimes, at least in the moment, they’re just plain accurate.

      In June 1954, LIFE magazine published an article titled “The Luckiest Generation” that, revisited decades later, feels like an almost perfect snapshot of a certain segment of American society at a particular moment in the nation’s history. We’ll let LIFE set the scene:

      The morning traffic and parking problems became so critical at the Carlsbad, N.M., high school that school authorities in 1953 were finally forced to a solution: they set aside a special parking area for students only. In Carlsbad, as everywhere else, teenagers are not only driving new cars to school but in many cases are buying them out of their own earnings. These are the children who at birth were called “Depression babies.” They have grown up to become, materially at least, America’s luckiest generation.

      Young people 16 to 20 are the beneficiaries of the very economic collapse that brought chaos almost a generation ago. The Depression tumbled the nation’s birth rate to an all-time low in 1933, and today’s teenage group is proportionately a smaller part of the total population than in more than 70 years. Since there are fewer of them, each in the most prosperous time in U.S. history gets a bigger piece of the nation’s economic pie than any previous generation ever got. This means they can almost have their pick of the jobs that are around. . . . To them working has a double attraction: the pay is good and, since their parents are earning more too, they are often able to keep the money for themselves.

      A few things to point out here. First, and most disheartening, is the racial makeup of the “teenage group” that LIFE focused on, at least pictorially, in that 1954 article: there are no people of color.

      Second, the nature of the boon of the improbable and unprecedented good fortune that befell these kids is not that they’re spoiled rotten, or that every possible creature comfort has been handed to them. Instead, it’s that they have the opportunity to work at virtually any job they choose. “They are often able to keep the money” that they earn.

      So, yes, they were lucky and compared to countless generations of youth who came before, all over the world, white working- and middle-class teens in 1950s America were, for the most part, incredibly lucky. But unlike the entitled creatures that most of us would count as the “luckiest” (and the most obnoxious) among us these days, the teens profiled in LIFE in 1954 don’t look or feel especially coddled.

      They look secure. They look confident. They look, in some elemental way, independent. They’re learning, day by day, what it means to make one’s way in the world.

      In that sense, maybe they were the luckiest generation, after all.

      Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

      In an aura of fun and well-being, students danced at weekly Sock Hops in a Carlsbad high school gyn. The music was provided by a 12-piece student band.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      Cars of Carlsbad High students in their parking lot.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      An electrician, Jack Harris, 16, still in school, picked up good pay doing part-time repair jobs.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      A young sales girl holding up a blouse to a store customer.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      A young investor, David Lenske, 17, having bought four shares of A.T.&T., talked with a banker.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      The Luckiest Generation: 1950s Teenagers

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      The Luckiest Generation

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      The prosperous pay-off of after-school jobs brought Mike Sweeney and Harold Riley (right) with Pat Marsh (left) and Nita Wheeler, all 17, to Carlsbad’s Red Barn restaurant, a favorite party spot.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      Young couples at a formal dance dreamily swaying on the crowded floor of a ballroom lit by a chandelier.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      The Luckiest Generation

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      The Luckiest Generation

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      The Luckiest Generation

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      Pay in trade was taken by Margaret High, 17, who worked in a music store and spent her salary on records.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      Rada Alexander, 19, a bookkeeper, earned $200 a month in a job she got with an auto firm after graduation.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      Jere Reid Jr., 17, who bred chinchillas, held one valued at $3,000.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

      Sonny Thayer, 19, packed for a hunting trip.

      Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images


      6. The middle class have things, the rich have money

      &ldquoToo many people spend money they haven&rsquot earned, to buy things they don&rsquot want, to impress people that they don&rsquot like.&rdquo
      ― Will Rogers

      Back to the fancy cars and big houses. That&rsquos where much of the middle class spend their money. Drive through a middle class neighborhood and you will usually see brand new cars, expensive landscaping and high-dollar homes. The rich understand that to become wealthy, you have to want money more than you want things. If you keep buying things, your money will keep going with them. It&rsquos funny how that works. For example, Warren Buffett still lives in the same home he bought in 1958. And he only paid $31,500 for it.

      Stop buying things and start focusing on keeping, saving and investing the money you earn. If you are a shopaholic, start shopping for assets. Become interested in investing, then look for bargains on stocks and businesses instead of shoes and electronics. That being said, it&rsquos not all about saving your money.


      America in the Post War Period

      The end of World War II was not just the end of a war, but also the beginning of a tense and dynamic period that affected society on all levels. This &ldquopostwar&rdquo period, as it became known, shaped the world as we know it today likewise, the period was shaped itself both by the war that had preceded it, and the powerful forces that surrounded it. As the energy of fundamentally different ideologies&mdashCommunism and Democracy&mdashcollided with advances in science such as the nuclear bomb, a dangerous environment ensued that created an atmosphere of paranoia throughout the world and especially, within America.

      This atmosphere is known broadly as the &ldquoCold War.&rdquo While the Cold War played out step-by-step between the United States and the Soviet Union, it was simultaneously playing out in the everyday lives of the masses within their borders. Paranoia, nevertheless, was not an effect that followed immediately after the close of the War. In fact, the United States had enjoyed an extended period of economic expansion during the war, and following the war the U.S. economy continued with great strength for more than a decade. 1 Life in America, consequently, was arguably better than it had ever been. The middle class had swelled, unemployment rates were some of the lowest in history, and the &ldquoAmerican Dream&rdquo was for many families a reality. In addition to the positive economic situation, the United States had become the most powerful country in the world more importantly, America was the first and only country with the atomic bomb. 2

      This significant military advantage lasted for only a few brief years, however, until the Soviet Union successfully tested their first atomic bomb in August 1949. 3 This, at least, put a damper on the mood of post-war America. Tony Judt, author of Postwar, characterizes an arms race of unprecedented scale in the subsequent decade, writing, &ldquothe two Great Powers of the day were arming themselves to the hilt and preparing for the eventuality of a thermonuclear war.&rdquo 4 For Americans, the &ldquoparanoia&rdquo often associated with the Cold War began primarily on the day the Soviets announced their successful test.

      It is in this same period that the political forces of Communism and Democracy collide head-on. Judt claims, &ldquoit was in these post-war years, between 1947 and 1953, that the line dividing East from West, Left from Right, was carved deep into European cultural and intellectual life.&rdquo 5 The United States was clearly on one side of this divide, representing Western Democracy, with the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc planted squarely on the other side. The defeat of the Germans, although unarguably a success for both parties, had left the U.S. and the Soviet Union without a common foe and without an enemy to unite the two countries, their drastic ideological differences quickly established each as the other&rsquos ultimate enemy. 6 Despite the fact that Democracy&rsquos founding principals are fundamentally opposed to those of Communism&rsquos, after fighting a war against Fascism, American&rsquos viewed Communism as another radical ideology that would eventually pose a similar threat. These sentiments were reflected in George Kennan&rsquos Long Telegram, as he concludes, &ldquothe internal harmony of our society [will]be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.&rdquo 7 With this letter began the U.S. policy of &ldquocontainment,&rdquo and the overall fear of Communist spillover in politically unstable regions of the world.

      After the Soviet&rsquos obtained the nuclear bomb, new fears regarding the advance of Communism became inextricably intertwined with the threat posed by the bomb itself. In the film Atomic Café, released in 1982, archival footage of U.S. Senator Owen Brewster reveals him saying that the Russians obtained the atom bomb, &ldquonot through independent research, but from America, from traitors within our own ranks,&rdquo referring specifically to alleged Communists. 8 The more politicians talked about &ldquotraitors within our ranks,&rdquo the more frightened the public became of impending doom from the bomb. The paranoia, furthermore, was exacerbated by the fact that political figures, like Brewster and the notorious Joseph McCarthy, were suggesting we look not only overseas for our enemy, but also to our neighbors. William Douglas, a Supreme Court Associate Justice at the time, made a keen observation of this trend:

      &ldquoThe concentration on military means has helped to breed fear. It has bred fear and insecurity partly because of the horror of atomic war. But&hellip Fear has many manifestations. The Communist threat inside the country has been magnified and exalted far beyond its realities. Irresponsible talk by irresponsible people has fanned the flames of fear&hellip Suspicion has taken the place of goodwill.&rdquo 9

      Perhaps one of the great ironies of the time is that, in our fear of Communism, the environment in America during the height of the Red Scare took on an air of suspicion similar to that which existed within the countries on the other side of the &ldquoIron Curtain.&rdquo Heda Kovaly, in her memoir Under A Cruel Star, frequently describes the repressive environment of fear that existed in postwar Czechoslovakia. After Kovaly&rsquos husband was arrested on behalf of the later infamous &ldquoSlansky Trials,&rdquo she was immediately fired from her job because of her sudden poor standing within the Communist party. 10 Meanwhile, in the United States, a document titled Red Channels was published by a news journal whose stated goal was to &ldquoexpose the most important aspects of Communist activity in America each week.&rdquo 11 The document listed more than 150 radio and TV writers, producers, and actors rumored to be &ldquoanti-American&rdquo and supportive of Communist ideals. Consequently, nearly all those listed lost their jobs and were unable to get new work within the industry. In retrospect, one can draw parallels between the nervousness of Americans at seeming &ldquoanti-American,&rdquo and the fear of Czechs, behind the Iron Curtain, of seeming sympathetic to the West.

      Another element that helped to propagate paranoia was the U.S. Government&rsquos ongoing effort to promote nuclear preparedness. Scientists today would scoff at most of the suggestions laid out by the government on radio programs, in print, and on film they ranged from building family fallout shelters to the cartoon jingle that hums, &ldquoduck&hellip and cover!&rdquo The film Atomic Café shows clips of children as they practice hiding under their desks at school, diving for cover in the streets, and dropping quickly to the ground on a family picnic. This sense that &ldquothe Bomb&rdquo might explode at any moment permeated American culture. 12

      The relationship between the threat of Communism and the threat of nuclear war was, therefore, circular and self-propelling. Without the bomb, Communism did not present a physical threat to America this is highlighted by the fact that the true height of the Red Scare in the 50&rsquos did not occur until after the Soviet Union had obtained the Hydrogen Bomb and built a stockpile of nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, if it weren&rsquot for the deep divide that separated the &ldquoCommunists&rdquo of the East from the &ldquoCapitalists&rdquo of the West, the bomb itself would not have posed the same threat, and thus would not have induced the same degree of fear. The Cold War years&mdashand as a result, the environment of paranoia&mdashrepresented the mixing of incompatible social ideologies with weapons so powerful that using them was akin to self-destruction historically, it was the greatest game of Brinkmanship ever played.

      Endnotes

      1.) Jorgensen, Dale W. "Productivity and Postwar U.S. Economic Growth." The Journal of Economic Perspectives 2 (1988): 23-41.

      2.) Tony Judt, Postwar : A History of Europe Since 1945 , New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 2005, 117-18.

      3.) Tony Judt, Postwar : A History of Europe Since 1945 , New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 2005, 247

      5.) Tony Judt, Postwar : A History of Europe Since 1945 , New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 2005, 197

      7.) George F. Kennan, "The Long Telegram," letter to Secretary of State, 22 Feb. 1946, Moscow.

      8.) Atomic Cafe , prod. Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, 1982.

      9.) William O. Douglas, "The Black Silence of Fear," The New York Times Magazine , 13 January 1952.

      10.) Heda M. Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague , 1941-1968, trans. Helen Epstein and Franci Epstein, New York: Holmes & Meier, Incorporated, 1997.

      11.) &ldquoRed Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.&rdquo Counterattack (1950), 214

      12.) Atomic Cafe , prod. Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, 1982.

      1.) Jorgensen, Dale W. "Productivity and Postwar U.S. Economic Growth." The Journal of Economic Perspectives 2 (1988): 23-41.

      2.) Tony Judt, Postwar : A History of Europe Since 1945 , New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 2005, 117-18.

      3.) Tony Judt, Postwar : A History of Europe Since 1945 , New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 2005, 247

      5.) Tony Judt, Postwar : A History of Europe Since 1945 , New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 2005, 197

      7.) George F. Kennan, "The Long Telegram," letter to Secretary of State, 22 Feb. 1946, Moscow.

      8.) Atomic Cafe , prod. Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, 1982.

      9.) William O. Douglas, "The Black Silence of Fear," The New York Times Magazine , 13 January 1952.

      10.) Heda M. Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague , 1941-1968, trans. Helen Epstein and Franci Epstein, New York: Holmes & Meier, Incorporated, 1997.

      11.) &ldquoRed Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.&rdquo Counterattack (1950), 214

      12.) Atomic Cafe , prod. Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, 1982.

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      The Middle Class

      A family in front of its home in a new housing development

      "America's middle class is hurting," said Vice President Joe Biden last month when he announced the formation of a Middle-Class Task Force, which will meet for the first time on Feb. 27. The recession, with its job losses, mortgage defaults and stock-market tumbles, has threatened Americans' ability to make ends meet. "It is our charge to get the middle class — the backbone of this country — up and running again," the Vice President declared, and one could practically hear the cheers emanating from single-family homes with two-car garages. But what exactly is the American middle class?

      Class is an inherently nebulous concept, and although the U.S. government defines poverty (presently, it's anything under $22,000 for a family of four), it does not define what it means to be middle class. The U.S. Census Bureau says the median income in the U.S. is about $51,000 a year, but how far does the "middle" stretch? According to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, half of Americans self-identify as middle class. (See pictures of Americans at home.)

      Our modern image of the middle class comes from the post–World War II era. The 1944 GI Bill provided returning veterans with money for college, businesses and home mortgages. Suddenly, millions of servicemen were able to afford homes of their own for the first time. As a result, residential construction jumped from 114,000 new homes in 1944 to 1.7 million in 1950. In 1947, William Levitt turned 4,000 acres of Long Island, New York, potato farms into the then largest privately planned housing project in American history. With 30 houses built in assembly-line fashion every day — each with a tree in the front yard — the American subdivision was born.

      Then came the cars. And the backyard barbecues. And the black-and-white TVs. Ozzy and Harriet, Lucy and Ricky, Leave it to Beaver. In September 1958, Bank of America tested its first 60,000 credit cards (later named Visa) in Fresno, Calif. Within a decade, Americans had signed up for more than 100 million credit cards. Today, the number tops 1 billion. African Americans were able to pull themselves into the middle-class bracket through the social gains of the civil rights movement, though a disproportionate number still live below the poverty line. (Read the 1974 TIME article "America's Rising Black Middle Class.")

      Today, most middle-class Americans are homeowners. They have mortgages, at least some college education and a professional or managerial job that earns them somewhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a year. Although the suburban stereotype still holds, the middle class is just as likely to be found in urban centers (rural, not so much), and 70% of them have cable and two or more cars. Two-thirds have high-speed Internet, and 40% own a flat-screen TV. They have several credit cards each and a lot of luxury goods, but they still believe that others have more than they do. In 1970, TIME described middle America as people who "sing the national anthem at football games — and mean it."

      That might be because the middle class is slightly more conservative than liberal (over half oppose gay marriage). Yet they are split fairly evenly between political parties and can often swing an election because — duh — there are so many of them. They went for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008. When Ronald Reagan asked Americans in 1980, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" he was speaking to the middle class. A 1979 public-opinion survey found a rising number of middle-class Americans felt that their lives were getting worse, and it was with those people that his words resonated. In 1997, in the middle of the dot-com bubble but before Monica Lewinsky, middle-class optimism hit a record high — 57% felt they were moving upward — but it has been sliding back down ever since. A 2008 survey found that roughly half of Americans think they've made no progress and 31% consider themselves worse off than they were five years ago. (See pictures of crime in Middle America.)

      Vice President Biden attempted to define middle-class Americans as people who would find it difficult to miss more than two paychecks, and he wasn't far off with wage increases failing to keep pace with inflation, about 21% of middle-class Americans have spent themselves to the limit. Personal bankruptcies rose by a third last year and mortgage defaults — well, they're moving beyond subprime borrowers and hitting those with previously high credit scores. On Feb. 27, Biden and eight members of his task force, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, will meet at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss the rescue of the middle class. Their first task? Creating green jobs. The committee believes that building environmentally friendly homes will help decrease middle-class homeowners' electricity and heating bills. That is, of course, if they have a home they can still afford.


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