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Degraded Work, Declining Community, Rising Inequality, and the Transformation of the Protestant Ethic in America: 1870-1930

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  • Jon D. Wisman
  • Matthew Davis

Abstract

The Protestant ethic has been depicted as declining in America between 1870 and 1930, due to new affordable consumer durables and less rewarding industrial work. This article re-examines this period and finds that the Protestant ethic did not so much decline as become transformed. The work ethic component remained in force, while abstemious consumer behavior weakened. This transformation is traced to three dynamic social forces of the period: Degradation in the quality of work, the decline of community, and a dramatic increase in inequality. Industrialization degraded work as craft industries and independent farming waned, thereby making it more difficult for others to know the quality and intensity of ones work. However, the amount one consumed could serve as a proxy for hard work. Consequently, social respect and social standing came increasingly to be sought through consumption. Industrialization-driven urbanization also made it more difficult to find social certification not only in work but also in community. Growing inequality over this period prompted individuals to save less and become more indebted so as to be able to consume at the higher level necessary for maintaining their relative social standing. The durable goods revolution, although technologically driven, was also fueled by the degradation of labor, the decline of community, and rising inequality.

Suggested Citation

  • Jon D. Wisman & Matthew Davis, 2011. "Degraded Work, Declining Community, Rising Inequality, and the Transformation of the Protestant Ethic in America: 1870-1930," Working Papers 2011-08, American University, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:amu:wpaper:2011-08
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Christopher Brown, 2008. "Inequality, Consumer Credit and the Saving Puzzle," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 12877, September.
    2. Hatton, Timothy J. & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1991. "Wage gaps between farm and city: Michigan in the 1890s," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 28(4), pages 381-408, October.
    3. Robert H. Frank, 2005. "Positional Externalities Cause Large and Preventable Welfare Losses," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 95(2), pages 137-141, May.
    4. Jon Wisman, 2011. "Inequality, Social Respectability, Political Power, and Environmental Devastation," Journal of Economic Issues, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 45(4), pages 877-900.
    5. Alan Shipman, 2004. "Lauding the Leisure Class: Symbolic Content and Conspicuous Consumption," Review of Social Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 62(3), pages 277-289.
    6. Jon D. Wisman, 2008. "Household Saving, Class Identitiy, and Conspicuous Consumption," Working Papers 2008-19, American University, Department of Economics.
    7. Jon Wisman, 2003. "The Scope and Promising Future of Social Economics," Review of Social Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 61(4), pages 425-445.
    8. Mayhew, Anne, 1972. "A Reappraisal of the Causes of Farm Protest in the United States, 1870–1900," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 32(02), pages 464-475, June.
    9. Clarence D. Long, 1960. "Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number long60-1, January.
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    Cited by:

    1. Jon D. Wisman, 2013. "Labor Busted, Rising Inequality and the Financial Crisis of 1929: An Unlearned Lesson," Working Papers 2013-07, American University, Department of Economics.
    2. Jon D. Wisman, 2016. "Conspicuous Consumption and Darwin's Critical Sexual Selection Dynamic That Thorstein Veblen Missed," Working Papers 2016-03, American University, Department of Economics.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    social mobility; deskilling; loss of community; conspicuous consumption; social status;

    JEL classification:

    • N31 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913
    • N32 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - U.S.; Canada: 1913-
    • Z1 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics
    • B52 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - Current Heterodox Approaches - - - Historical; Institutional; Evolutionary

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