Conspicuous display and social mobility: a comparison of 1850s Boston and Charleston elites

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Pullum-Piñón, Sara Melissa

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This dissertation compares the conspicuous display of elites in Boston and Charleston during the 1850s. The analysis stems from an interest in the regional differences of the Northern and Southern United States in the years just prior to the Civil War. The two regions had many similarities, including a substantial and ongoing Atlantic influence. Yet at the same time, the differences engendered by the “peculiar institution” of slavery in the South ran deep. Members of the social and economic elite of both the North and South acted within unique belief systems and sets of personal behavior limits. The major questions of this work arise from the notion that a comparative approach can illuminate both similarities and differences. If the slave society of the South engendered a culture in which social mobility operated differently than it did in the North, what were the broader ramifications? Did Bostonians and Charlestonians understand class identity in the same way? How did individuals of those cities determine the social status of others and project their own? Did the South’s patriarchy, perhaps stronger than that of the North, influence the expression of power through display? And, finally, how did members of the elite use conspicuous display as an interface with lower classes, including slaves, servants, and the recipients of charity? This research examines five elite families in each city, using their habits of conspicuous display to illuminate regional differences and similarities. The social structure of each city was different, with varying criteria for membership in the uppermost class. However, for those families at the top of the social ladder, public presentation was an important component of identity. Through a comparison of elite families in each city, this study tests the theses of Thorstein Veblen and Eugene Genovese. It asks whether conspicuous display of wealth and style operated differently in the antebellum North and the South, as Genovese argues. It also tests the application of Veblen’s systems of social display of wealth as a means of class affirmation to an earlier era of American history than Veblen himself intended.