51: Paul Boyer’s Urban Masses and Moral Order in America

In Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920, Paul Boyer argues that between 1820 and 1920, urban reform shifted from voluntary efforts concerned with individual morality to professionalized/ institutionalized concern with environmental factors.  With this shift, reformers’ values and programming shifted as well, from nostalgic, rural, and religious to urban and secular.  This transition tracked a larger shift in American society from rural to urban culture, even as both the reform movement and the larger culture retained elements of earlier generations’ religious millenialism.

Boyer’s book is solid, well-documented, modernist history that works to dissolve divides between rich and poor, urban and rural, and old and new reform movements.  He traces four stages of American urban reform between 1820 and 1920:

  • Jacksonian era: evangelical leaders, funded by businesses and professional groups, use Bible societies, tract societies, and Sunday schools to recreate rural values and community for displaced urban dwellers
  • Mid-19th century: new institutions, like the Children’s Aid Society and the YMCA focus on the city in the belief that cities contained the resources for their own reform
  • Gilded Age: the reform community splits; new groups like the Charity Organization Society and early settlement houses are divided over whether they should focus on individual morality or environmental issues and whether they should pursue ‘coercive’ or ‘assimilative’ reform
  • Progressive Era: reformers push aside their differences and focus on reforming the urban environment. Crusades to reform municipal government, abolish saloons and organized vice, establish local parks and playgrounds all proliferate to instill ideals of citizen loyalty and virtue

Social reform dies down in the 1920s, as people finally see the city not as a threat to the social order but as the new social order itself.  They then start to celebrate diversity, cultural pluralism, and the city’s resources for both pleasure and reform.

Boyer makes several claims about the causes and implications of this trajectory.  First, urban reform gets institutionalized in large part because unlike in rural towns, where a single rowdy drunk dude could easily be stopped by a few capable townspeople, the huge numbers of people in cities seem to necessitate large reform apparatuses; with urbanization, individual problems became social problems.  Further, although he documents many reform movements that crossed social classes, he suspects – as do I – that the people who benefited most from voluntary urban reform movements were the reformers themselves, who found in the reform community a refuge from the alienation of their new urban homes.  While the book could certainly use more voices from the urban masses themselves (if only to see what the reformers were up against), and while it pays surprisingly little attention to the missionary mind (a la Bob Abzug), it provides a solid history of reform movements and would be in good company with Levenstein or Roediger’s studies of the same time period.

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