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The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities by Richard L. Bushman: A Review

Updated on April 23, 2012

The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities
Richard L. Bushman
New York, NY: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.
Pp 504; $18.95

Richard L Bushman has taught at multiple universities including Columbia where he published The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities in 1992. Bushman’s introduction claims that the book “…focuses on the material world that was created to sustain genteel life…” (p. xii). He divides the book into two volumes focusing on Gentility 1700-1790 and Respectability 1790-1850. Bushman’s goal is to prove that gentility was used to create a type of class division aside from finances.

Bushman begins his work by analyzing the building of ostentatious homes in Delaware during the late 18th century. These red brick, two-story structures were chiefly built to display the owner’s wealth and status in the community. Though the ordinary citizens could not afford such luxury there were other ways to become more genteel including obtaining small genteel possessions, learning manners, and studying the classic works (p. 28). Throughout the colonies courtesy books were studied in order to better the mind and body; gardens and fences were erected in order to show a separation between the home and the fields; cities were beautified and churches were made more aesthetically pleasing. This all culminated in a focused effort by the gentry to create a social class that could not be bought into with money alone. Gentility in fact supported class authority (p. 404).

The second volume deals with refinement and the trickle-down effect that gentility had on the slowly forming middle class. Bushman poses the theory that America was slowly becoming a three part society with those on top, those on the bottom, and those who were upwardly mobile (p. 209). Those who found themselves in the middle may not have had the very best possessions, but they often found very fine substitutes and installed decorative parlors into their homes as a showplace for such belongings. The infiltration of this middling sort into the gentry caused much contempt. “The confusion and intermingling of marks of social position that had once cohered in clear patterns, made the precise definition of class difficult to achieve” (p. 237).

The gentry strove to create a further boundary between themselves and the lower class instead they created a doorway for the less affluent to become more refined. If appearing well-polished translated to more status then self-improvement was paramount. If only possessions and manners mattered then one could move between classes, a radical notion for the time. Bushman concludes that gentility is still present today, engrained in American society (p. 447). Despite the pitfalls of putting on heirs 300 years later we continue to do so for the sake of refinement.

Bushman’s work is well-written but not for the casual historian. His work is detailed (drawing on journals, etiquette books, diaries, letters, and probate inventories) and intended for a professional audience (he dedicates it to the curators of America’s history museums) (p.xiii). The use of illustrations helps the reader understand and appreciate the complexity of the topic. This is an excellent source for anyone interested in early American material culture and class structure.

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