Making Ends Meet: Clerical Workers, Consumption, and Class Location in the 1920s

Paul Taillon, University of Auckland

Drawing upon and extending Susan Porter Benson’s work on interwar family economies in the United States, this paper takes up the question of the “collar line” through an examination of letters written by railroad clerical workers to their union in April 1920. Generated as part of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks’ wage case before the Railroad Labor Board, these letters offer a window onto clerks’ family consumption choices, strategies, and aspirations. What is clear is that in the years following World War I, railroad clerical workers struggled to participate in the mass consumption marketplace and enjoy the material trappings usually associated with middle-class lifestyles. Given the gap between their income and needs (and desires), this paper suggests that railroad clerical workers’ families practiced a “white-collar working-class culture of family consumption,” making the kinds of marketplace choices and engaging in the kinds of household survival strategies usually associated with the blue-collar working class. At the same time, these clerks strove to achieve “white-collar” patterns of “observable” consumption, investing in forms of social and cultural capital which might distinguish them from the manual working class (to draw upon Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “distinction”). What is more, even though most of these clerks, the majority of whom were men, failed to achieve the breadwinner ideal, the terms in which they described—and lamented—their failure worked to reproduce the ideal discursively. Taken together, viewed from the perspectives of gender, class, and consumption and articulated in their own words, railroad clerks’ letters highlight the ambiguity and permeability of the “collar-line.”

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 102. The Boundaries of Class: Where Proletarians and Bourgeoisie Meet