What do big-screen TVs and pianos have in common? How the things we buy define social class.

By Cynthia Resor posted 02-16-2018 08:02:00 AM


How we live and what we do demonstrates socio-economic position. Today, huge televisions and the newest home electronics are not just for entertainment; they also demonstrate a family’s income and social status.  In the late 19th century, a piano or reed organ in the parlor was a symbol that a family was a part of the new middle class. An organ or piano demonstrated the family could afford to purchase a large musical instrument, had the leisure time to enjoy it, and the culture and education to play it.  

Nineteenth century parlors and their contents were symbols of the middle and upper class. Working-class homes were often too small for a parlor, but the larger, newer homes of the growing middle class had the space for special rooms. Today, the same is true. Larger homes represent large incomes and more specialty rooms – home theaters, craft rooms, game or play rooms, or man caves.

 Special rooms require special furnishings. Nineteenth century parlors also required upholstered chairs and sofas, decorative prints on the wall, curtains, carpets, and a carte de visit album and stereoscope on the side table.  Twenty-first century home theaters need big-screen televisions and sound systems, movie-theatre chairs, and bars or small kitchens for snacks and drinks.

Social stratification, social ranking based on wealth, occupation, or prestige, is a key concept in the study of history and our modern world.  Different words and expressions have been used through time to describe the grouping of people in hierarchical social categories—estates, rank, order, social class, socioeconomic class. Different categories have been recognized in different eras — bourgeoisie and the proletariat; upper, middle, and lower; white and blue collar; elite and working class, are just a few examples. Today, the word socioeconomic status is most commonly used. One’s socioeconomic status is based upon income, wealth (economic assets), education, occupation, and usually broken into high, middle, and low levels. Everything we do and buy has social meaning and helps to define our social position. 

In the classroom

               If addressing modern socioeconomic class differences is uncomfortable or difficult in your classroom, examine social class and status in the past first and ask students to compare and contrast to the 21st century. A compelling question for this inquiry might be How did socio-economic status impact the homes in the late 19th century? How does socio-economic status impact the homes today? Students can explore how daily routines and purchasing choices in the past were responses to economic realities and social expectations and assess what has changed and what has stayed the same.

For more about 19th century parlors and more primary source images, see Hall Stands and Parlor Organs: Status Symbols in the 19th Century Home


Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies

About the image below:  The stylishly dressed women in this 1909 advertisement are admiring a self-playing piano. The text encourages the reader to trade in the old piano for this new technology everyone in the family could enjoy.

Advertisement, Angelus Player-Piano, McClure’s Magazine, (December 1909): 118.
Advertisement, Angelus Player-Piano, McClure’s Magazine, (December 1909): 118.