on July 5, 2000
I wish I could give this book six stars. The Reshaping of Everyday Life took me on a delightful tour of America during its infancy and provided the sights, sounds and smells of yesterday. Each chapter unraveled the tightly wrapped threads of legend and myth that has muddied my view of our past to reveal the rich and varied layers which amazed, amused and amended my hindsight.
Since ordinary folk, doing their humdrum tasks, are both the audience and the participants in historic drama, I want to understand their ways and Reshaping has certainly helped in this quest. In this book, Jack Larkin has given me the details that will paint the scenery and add depth to my future explorations of the time period. Now when I think of Andrew Jackson, I can visualize the homes where his constituents lived and the games they liked to play and the places where they shopped. When I read about the great western migration that began in 1837, I can see the clothing the immigrants wore, the titles of the books they packed and the music that followed them west.
Jack Larkin accomplished this visual rendering of yesterday with a smooth writing style that never breaks an even and easy stride. "By the late 1830s cookstoves were coming into use among middling city families and in Northern commercial villages. In 1838, "the year we had a new cooking stove, the first one in town,' recalled Susan Blunt, who grew up in a bustling rural commercial center, `the neighbors said we would all be sick-taken off in rimmers as they called them."
In addition, the book offered many surprises that added new insight to time and place. "Phineas T. Barnum of Bethel, Connecticut, whose father was a middling farmer and tavern keeper, remembered that in the 1820s he and his brother customarily slept three in a bed with the Irishman who labored on his family farm." This kind of nugget adds texture to reading any history book.
Whether I am reading a biography of Jackson or a book on the opening of the Erie Canal, I consider this book a handy reference tool. However, the book stands alone as a fun read for anyone including the casual history buff or students who are tired of cramming bare names, disconnected dates and dreary military battles into their heads. I have recommended it to a high school junior, an elderly uncle, and a history teacher. All enjoyed it immensely. It is my favorite in the series of six entries from Harper Perennial.
on June 20, 2003
I am currently engaged in the effort of writing a family history and wanted to understand better the rythms of everyday life in New England in the early Republic.
I found Mr. Larkin's book insightful, extremely well researched, and a trove of rich anecdotes about life in this period.
I was surprised in my own research, for instance, to discover that my early ancestors had a child just five months after their wedding. I realized from Mr. Larkin's book that early births in this era were quite common. Sturbridge Village Society conducted exhaustive reviews of marriage and birth certificates in the 1780s and 1790s and calculated that fully a third of New England rural women were already pregnant when wed. This is the kind of meticulous research that enriches social history.
Equally interesting for me was his description of how TB destroyed entire families, as happened in a branch of my family in the 1870s. I was unaware tuberculosis was such a common and ferocious killer at the time.
The book proved invaluable in understanding the world of my ancestors.
A final pleasure is Mr. Larkin's confident and flowing prose. Works on social history can be ponderous, especially if well documented. Larkin achieves the rare combination of copious detail and elegant style.
on October 23, 2002
As Larkin bascially explains in his introduction: in early America, life was comprised of your existence, plain and simple. This book does an incredible job at making life, all of it, every detail, "back then" a tangible learning experience.
Meticulously researched, "Reshaping of Everyday Life" does a fantastic job of spanning all sections of America, and all facets of American life. It showcases a heap of information derived from diaries, letters, censuses, artifacts, news clippings, etc. etc. etc. It's a monumental deal of info that could easily calculate into a dry piece of reading, but it's not dry. It's very lively, and very interesting, shedding light on aspects of American life easily taken for granted today, but vitally important to their very existence. The book is wonderfully laid out in easy to access sections and index (sounds trivial, but when dealing with history books you don't know how helpful this is), with these fascinating pieces of information strewn about every single page in a humanistic fashion. But the best part of the book is it's ability to flow. It doesn't matter where you start reading, it moves quickly, with style and a sense of purpose. I must say, other than memoirs, I've never had such an enjoyable time, or felt like I immediately assimilated the material as I read it.
This is a solid and excellent book for anyone who wants to learn a great deal of quality information quickly and easily. Highly recommended.
on February 26, 2000
The period of 1790-1840 was a time of maturation and growth for the new nation. It was an era of transition from revolutionary times to adulthood. This time saw a change in many social customs and regional ways of life. In 1790, America was a relatively small country which was mostly confined to the portion east of the Appalachians. Kentucky was the frontier. Agriculture was the occupation for most families and was done on a subsistence basis. Each farmer produced a little bit of everything that his family would need to survive. Homes were being carved out of the wilderness, and for the average family, survival was a struggle. Large families were the norm, as children were an asset to the farm. Many houses were little more than shacks. They provided little or no privacy. Travel was very slow and dangerous, and social visits were closely tied to economic negotiations. Barn and house raisings, along with haying and corn husking, were times for families to socialize, but also times to get things done. By 1840, many things had changed. The frontier was pushing westward. The people were spreading out, but at the same time growing closer together. The development of the railroad, steam boats, and canal system greatly sped up travel, although they did not necessarily make it any safer. These innovations drew the nation together and encouraged regional specialization. This was also a period of rapid industrialization. The manufacture of textiles was being consolidated under one roof and women were leaving home to work in the mills. Combined with better transportation, industrialization marked the beginning of the end for subsistence farming. Products could now be sold for profit. Family sizes began to decrease as women married at a later age and lengthened the period between births. The standard of living increased and more people had larger houses. Houses had more rooms and these rooms were arranged in such a way as to emphasize privacy. Social activity also began to separate itself from economic interests. Farmers looked more closely after their money and profit. While barn and house raisings were still necessary, the party atmosphere that surrounded them began to disappear. Corn huskings were looked upon as wasteful and they also disappeared. Geographically, the nation was separated into three regions. In the North, mainly New England, the people were known for their austere personalities. The region had poor soil compared to the "old northwest" and became primarily a dairy producer. On the western frontier the people generally lived in poverty and were more open in manner and expression of character. In the South, the people were known for being both gentlemanly and brutal. Plantation owners were a throwback to European aristocracy. They were still able to own slaves but could not import them. A work day on such a plantation would involve watching the slaves from dawn to dusk rather than directly participating in the farming. Southerners were known for horse racing, fighting, dueling, cockfighting, bull bating and other such violent pastimes. These practices were not unheard of elsewhere but died hard in the South. Larkin used a variety of sources in compiling this history. He began with an extensive list of secondary sources that gave him the broad foundation and understanding of the period. More importantly, however, he consulted a vast group of primary sources. The real meat and support for his work comes from journals, letters, and town histories. The unfortunate drawback to this is that we are not all prolific journal writers. This means that Larkin came across a handful of people whom he referenced repeatedly throughout the work. On one hand this method provides some continuity and structure for the book, but on the other hand it causes a little tedium as the reader sees the same names being drawn upon over and over. It is generally difficult to grasp the existence that most of the nation experienced. We look at the houses from that period and think that it couldn't have been all that bad. The truth is that the houses and other remnants of the common man's life have mostly disappeared. Only the best survived. Very little comparison can be made between that time period and our own. Two things are similar: New Englanders are still austere and the times are still changing. The industrial revolution of the early 1800s can be compared to the technological and communications revolution of the late twentieth century. The industrial revolution caused an enormous amount of change during the nineteenth century. The American people were drawn closer together by improvements in transportation. They were also tied together by commerce. Industry provided certain goods at lower prices and took some work away from the farms. Regional specialization led to co-dependency. This revolution was completed this century. We now live in an instantaneous world where even the fast and efficient postal system is not fast enough. Computers and airlines can take us anywhere and bring us anything we want with relative immediacy. These changes have caused as much change in our time as the industrial revolution did in theirs. Social reforms have greatly improved working conditions in factories and increased the standard of living. A vast middle class has been created. Family sizes have dropped as social, economic, and scientific conditions and advancements have conspired against them. Our sense of community has also decreased as we are far less dependent on each other and the family unit is spread out. Americans are less tied to their work and are very happy to break away to celebrate holidays. Education has not only improved, but it has become a necessity to survive in today's world. Jack Larkin not only gives us a good glimpse of the past, but he helps us appreciate the present.
on August 23, 2013
I'll start by saying that this book does include interesting and useful information about the everyday lives of the people of this time. But I'll also say that I had to kick in my internal "BS filter" on many occasions while reading this book. Several times I nearly stopped reading it. It's not that the book is blatantly inaccurate (although I would question a number of points), it's more along the lines of the author writing with a specific agenda or "message" in mind. That's not why I read history. I want the author out of the manuscript--I expect transparency on the part of the writer. Unfortunately, in too many places, it's simply not the case with this book.
Again, there IS useful and fascinating info in the book--that's why I bothered to finish reading it. I think overall, the bulk of the book is useful and interesting. But this author clearly has an "angle" as he writes this book. I'm not going to get into the specific politics or "message," but it's clearly there if you know how to read critically. There is a clear social and political bias. The author mainly does this with two "tools": the first is that he overemphasizes certain aspects of social behavior at the time by using hyperbole (mainly). I can't count the number of times I rolled my eyes, and on more than one occasion I laughed aloud--yeah, funny... but then I'm not reading the book to be amused. At times it seems I was reading about a nation populated with reality show contestants or a bunch of vicious slobs. If some of what the author states were as commonplace as he leads us to believe, we wouldn't have a country today. He tends to take things or situations that did indeed exist in the "micro" and present it as widespread and common.
The second thing he does to bias the presentation is "cherry pick" his sources. On reading it, you'll notice that he quotes from diaries and writings of a very few individuals through the whole book (largely). Sure, those sources are probably worth including, but I contend that he picked them mainly to shape the views of the text (and thus the reader). I know for a fact that diaries and journals were not all that uncommon and that the literacy rate at the time was not so abysmal that we cannot find textual accounts of the time through different "lenses" than those presented. He most often presents famous writers or travellers of the time. Nothing wrong with that, but there needs to be far more "common man/woman" perspective, and far less social agenda perspective that certainly appears in the quotes he includes. It would be similar to including a history of today sourced mainly by political activists, Hollywood types, and politicians... while leaving out any perspective from the everyday citizen. Don't get me wrong, there IS some perspective from the everyday citizen, but it is highly stilted in the other direction. And at times, even the quotes from the average citizen are quotes from an activist of the time or someone writing to make a point rather than describing their lives or times in total.
So, overall, this book is a mixed bag. I think it's worth reading if you are interested in that time. Just be willing to filter it as you go, because if you've been taught to read critically at all on any level, the lens that Mr. Larkin is writing through is quite clear. I gave it three stars: fives stars for the actual unbiased information (and to be fair, there is some in there) and one star for the political/social posturing. Thing is, these people have been dead for two hundred years, so they can't come back and set the record straight. You can paint them any color you like, and I would have preferred a more transparent presentation.
on May 15, 2014
This is a 349-page, hardbound book in 6" x 9" format that deals with exactly what the name implies, namely, how everyday life changed in the period from 1790 when George Washington was President to 1840 when William Henry Harrison was running for President on a campaign of "log cabins and cider." It was written in 1988 by Jack Larkin who was then the 45-year-old Chief Historian at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. His occupation was an excellent background for writing this book, because he is able to reach into the rich resources of that historical village to describe the way ordinary people lived in that 50-year period.
He explains that it is his mission to uncover and write about the things that have been taken for granted in everyday life. For example, how did a person travel from Boston to New York in 1790 and how did that change? We learn that if one could afford it, they took the stage coach in 1790. It took 10 or 11 days and cost the equivalent of eight days' wages. Then he goes on to give a detailed description of a stage coach including the perils of such a ride. We read about the crowding of nine people in a small, dark space on three seats, the bumpy ride, the snow whipping through the curtains and the primitive lodgings along the way. The railroad would revolutionize such a trip.
The book is organized into seven meaty chapters, each of which focuses on a separate aspect of daily life from typical working conditions, to schooling, to travel and transportation, to simple pleasures and entertainment, to marriage and family customs, and housing arrangements. The book concludes with a rich bibliography of primary sources such as "Domestic Manners of the Americans" written in 1832 by the upper-class Englishwoman, Frances Trollope, as well as excellent secondary sources that the author used for each of his seven chapters. There is also an excellent index.
In the middle of the book are inserted a dozen glossy pages which offer excellent, high quality illustrations - maps and reproductions of period paintings.
What I found useful
My particular interest happens to be "everyday life" in all its richness. I wanted to learn how people dressed, what their houses were like, their courting customs, their religious lives, how they traveled from place to place and so on. The book was richly satisfying in these themes. The author has a gift for recreating a scene so that you feel you are there. For example, when the pianoforte (the precursor of the modern piano) first appeared in American homes around 1800, it caused quite a sensation. First, it was expensive. A good pianoforte cost about $600 or equivalent to the price of a small house in those days. It was a status symbol. Second, for a world accustomed to the simple sounds of a fiddle or flute or drum, the richness of the sounds and the chords was mesmerizing. Young boys would gather under the living room window in the evening to listen to the lady of the household playing this wonderful instrument. It is this recapturing of sights, sounds and smells that I found so enjoyable.
What was disappointing
Let me confess that I just loved this book. So, the only thing that disappointed me was that I wished the book were twice as long and presented twice as much material.
Who might like this book?
This is a very accessible, readable book. It is certainly aimed at the general reader. It might be refreshing background reading for a serious professional student of American history, but that is not its forte. Its strength is that it is a lovely read for the general reader who is curious about how everyday people lived when President Washington was in office and the remarkable changes that took place during the first half of the 1800's as American expanded fourfold in population and people began moving to the cities. I give it five stars.
on December 15, 2013
I have fallen for this book! If you like to learn how our ancestors lived and you never really got that knowledge from history class or from your older relatives, well, this book is for you. It was written ages ago, and it tells the way life was between 1790-1840 in the rural communities and in the small towns and cities. It truly gives you a different perspective of how difficult life was. Many people think that it was a simpler time, well in a way it was because there was no time in your life to be nothing more. It was a hard and difficult life, and there was no room for mistakes because that could leave to devastating consequences. This book truly opens your eyes to daily life and traditions of that era!
on June 22, 2007
History is not just about great men and wars; as this book astutely illustrates, it's also about the daily lives of the majority of the people. Dealing with the time period 1790-1840, a pre-industrialized era for the most part, Jack Larkin examines what life was like for most Americans at that time. Housing, occupations, entertainments, and family life are described; what it was like to travel, what happened when one got sick, the life of children, and how holidays were celebrated are also dealt with. Somewhat unique for a book like this, a long chapter concerns itself with the "private" lives of people: dating, marriage, sexual relations, pregnancies and child bearing, the role of the privy and chamber pot all get their due. Larkin's book is a compendium of facts and information regarding everyday life, including those for slaves, urban and rural dwellers, rich and poor - and is fascinating in that regard. It would be difficult to think of those times as "the good old days," though many old-timers of the day probably did, as, for example, "simple" chores (to most of us) such as washing clothes took all day and could exhaust many a hardy woman, not to mention the disease and filth that seemed to be everywhere. But by 1840 older citizens could detect changes (mainly new inventions and techniques) that reduced socializing and diminished craftsmanship, and mourned a way of life that was passing away. Progress has its penalties for every generation, and Larkin's book offers a glimpse at a way of life long since eclipsed by newer ways. There was actually life before TV (not to mention electricity and plumbing) - yikes!
on April 27, 2011
got this book for my daughter for christmas - as well as others in this series - she loved it and said it read like a novel but was very informative. She was humored by how many people who saw her reading it on her bus ride to work commented on it and asked about it - she has a list of folks who want to borrow it - my daughter is a public history grad student and was reading it to enrich her historical knowledge.
on January 18, 2014
What was the daily lives of Americans in the 1790's. The new nation's politics, economy, society, and culture underwent dramatic changes. This book touches upon birth to death occurrences during this period of time (1790-1840). The nation, with its new found independence was changing dramatically. What were their homes like. What kind of jobs were available. The change from a rural to more of an industrial economy had major effects upon society. What did their homes look like. What did people wear and eat? What about their food and even personal hygiene? What advances took place in medicine and medical care? What was the sexuality of the nation?
Read and discover for yourself the intimate facts of everyday American life during this dramatic period of time in our nation's development.