While high cultural institutions strove to keep the poor
and unruly out, other entertainments were finding an audience
with the working class. Many minstrel shows, which often
featured blackface entertainers and were a precursor to
vaudeville, attacked iniquities in wealth during the 1870s
and 1880s. Historian Robert C. Toll writes: "Beginning in the 1850's minstrels,
speaking to urban audiences, protested a wide range of urban
problems: stage coaches that drove too fast and knocked women
and babies down, filthy streets that were never cleaned,
policemen who demanded bribes, people selling votes and buying
wives, manipulating politicians, high taxes, and continual
Theaters for the working class also developed during this
period. The New York theater audience had been split by the
Astor Place Riot of 1849; in an argument over whether an
American or British man should perform Shakespeare, troops
fired into a crowd of immigrants, workingmen, and nationalists
who were attacking the theater.2 Historian
Richard Stott has written that the split began forming as early as
the 1830s; concert saloons and the Bowery Street theater in New York, with its rough crowd, came to define working-class entertainment.3 Workers also identified with the urban hero "Mose" in A Glance at New York, produced in 1848.
Mose was so popular he was shown in other plays visiting
Philadelphia, California, and France, which were performed
throughout the 1850s.4 Popular
in part because of his working-class accent, Mose offered
an early Yellow Kid fantasy of the working class hero encountering cultural and upper-class habits and environments. Stott
notes that in the 1840s New Yorkers became aware that workers
spoke with different accents from middle-class New Yorkers;
early attempts to portray the speech came across as Irish
or "common" speech.5 Working-class
dialects also began appearing in literature, growing to be
a minor genre in the late 1840s.6 But "at the heart of working-class speech was profanity and
coarse humor," Stott noted. "One surprised Irish immigrant
described American cities in the 1860s as 'the most wicked
place[s] I ever saw for Cursing Blasphemy.'"7 He
adds, "When genteel Victorian culture was at its height
in America, profanity and humor were weapons to attack gentility
and aggressively assert equality; as in ethnic humor, any
assertion of superiority was ridiculed."8
1 Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. London/Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 181.
2 Snyder, Robert W. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. 4-5.
3 Snyder, see chapter 1.
4 Stott, Richard B. Workers in the Metropolis: Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.
5 Stott 257.
6 Stott 259.
7 Stott 261.
8 Stott 262.