In 1850, when the U.S. population was less than 25 million, farmers constituted the majority of the population, about 65%. By 1900, the farm population was 29 million, but the total population was up to 75 million, so farmers were down to less than 40%, although 60% of the population still lived in “rural” areas.
Nowadays, less than 20% of the population is rural and the farm population is down to less than 4 million, so it’s my guess that those millions of immigrant workers aren’t primarily picking lettuce.
The changes in the class structure in America follow the agricultural/rural trend. Those who left the farms for the towns and cities joined the immigrants who hit the cities and never left, mostly to fill the jobs in the burgeoning factories, and also to take up all the working class “service” jobs, dishwasher, mechanic, carpenter, bricklayer, etc., that the modern economy invoked. The next jump is into the true middle class, where the blue collar jobs become white collar. The growth of the middle class is one of the great demographic shifts that happened in the 20th century, a continuation of trends that got underway in the 19th. When the middle class grew, it could only come from the lower classes; there are enough people in the other classes.
For various reasons, many of them obvious, I’m interested in what happened to the bright ones who participated in the demographic migration.
For centuries, a bright lad born in humble circumstances would, if lucky, if he managed to catch the eye of a patron, become a clerk or a cleric. Originally, the job was called “scribe,” and he would spend his days copying manuscripts for the Church. With moveable type, that job transmogrified, but the Church was still the major employer, though “bookkeeper” became an option, as did some of the higher status professions, especially if the patron was of that profession and did not have a proper heir.
America opened up many opportunities. A good biography of Alexander Hamilton gives an indication of some of them, while a bio of George Washington can indicate how important a “surveyor” could become.
Then, in 1935, Samuel Morse invented a telegraph. A few years later, his assistant, Andrew Vail, visited a newspaper and realized that the relative size of the type bins constituted a good rough cut of the frequency of use of letters in English. From this observation, Morse Code was born.
For over a century thereafter, Morse Code was the ticket out for many a bright farm boy. Edison was first a telegraph operator, and his first inventions were related to the telegraph. Later, radio came on the scene, and spawned more generations of the burgeoning technical class. David Sarnoff, who founded RCA, first came to national and international fame as one of the amateur radio hounds who first heard the death throes of the Titanic and brought the news to the world. Sarnoff was only one of a populous breed.
My father was one of the last of that breed. He was born on a Montana ranch, and raised on a farm in central Illinois. When WWII broke out, he joined the Army Air Corps (later to become the Air Force), and when he scored high on the aptitude tests, he was trained as a radio operator. After the war he went to work for Eastern Air Lines, still working as a radio communications operator, before the modern air traffic control system.
But the long Morse code string was just about played out. Radio didn’t need code anymore, and air travel had become too big for individual companies to do their own air traffic control. The job moved a time or two, then more or less vanished, and my father first jumped to television repair, then he managed a couple of bowling alleys, and, after an impoverishing attempt to be a salesman, he got a job with General Electric that set him up for a nice retirement.
Morse code hung on as a requirement for the FCC First Class Radiotelephone License, required by radio stations of certain key personnel, and it was the bane of many a lad back in the day. Since you only needed a Third Class to sign a station on and off, most of us in college radio settled for the Third. In 1984, the rules changed, as I understand it, and most of the old First Class jobs now take a General License that doesn’t need a code test. But there are still jobs like ship’s communications officer that take a certificate with a code requirement.
Back when I was making my own break for freedom, Morse code had lost its magic, but other types of code had just been named, things like Fortran, Algol, Cobal, and Lisp. So my cohort had the computer to give us a ticket to the professional classes. I was second generation, of course, so I wound up in engineering and science (Engineering Science, as it happens), which is also a classic route for the bright children of working class families.
The “bright children of working class families” is a demographic marker for another group: science fiction fans. Engineers, programmers, science fiction fans, not quite the same group but the overlap is awesome. We moderns didn’t grow up on farms, but we did grow up in suburbia, and having lived in both, let me tell you: not that different when you’re a teenager. The escapees are often both radical and conservative, each a fitting response to being off the moorings, with only your trusty radiotelegraph to find your way back to port.