The Elite Class of 19th Century Boston

Created by: Lauren Garcia
Time Period: 19th Century
Topic: Community and Reform, Culture

The population of Boston grew from 25,000 people to a quarter of a million people throughout the 19th century.  As the population size changed, the number of elites in the city changed as well.  As the 19th century went on, the new generations of elites created more of a cultural and class effort than their earlier counterparts had done to stay on top and show their wealth and success by creating places for the public to go.

The elite class of the early 19th century was more focused on class solidarity and creating places that were solely for themselves and their own entertainment.   In 1807, a group of Boston elites created the Boston Athenaeum.  The Boston Athenaeum was a private library which was “both physical showpiece and cultural emblem.”  This library was private, so only the elites of Boston were able to enjoy and enjoy the benefits of it.

As the 19th century went on, a new generation of Bostonian elites began creating a cultural effort to show the public how wealthy they were and keep themselves on the top of the social ladder.  In order to do this, they began creating places not just for the elite class to go and benefit from, but also places for the public to go.

In 1870, the Boston Brahmins founded the Museum of Fine Arts, which was open to and enjoyed by the public.  In 1881, the elites opened the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the public.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra was a place where elites and non-elites alike could go and listen to live music.  Through the creation of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the elites of Boston were able to  not only benefit the public, but also remind the public that they were the wealthy class of Boston and were going to stay on top.

There were some elites, called “Proper Bostonians,” who found ways to legitimize their place on top.  Proper Bostonians believed that “those who accumulated riches did so…because they possessed personal merit, not hereditary advantage.”  So, although the Boston elites wanted to aid the public, they also felt that they themselves were the only people who deserved to be wealthy.  This quote illustrates their belief that only the people who were worthy of being elite were able to be on top of the social ladder.

The generation of Boston elites during the latter half of the 19th century aimed at making sure the public knew they were wealthy and on top.  Unlike the earlier generation, who created the Boston Athenaeum as a private place for their own enjoyment, the later generations created public places such as the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a class effort to make sure the public knew of their wealth and power, and to ensure that they kept their place at the top.



DiMaggio, Paul. “Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston: The Creation of an Organizational Base for High Culture In America.” Media, Culture and Society, no. 4 (1982): 33-50.

Story, Ronald. “Class and Culture in Boston: The Athenaeum, 1807-1860.” American Quarterly 27, no. 2 (June 1975): 178–99.

Goodman, Paul. “Ethics and Enterprise: the Values of a Boston Elite, 1800-1860.” American Quarterly 18, no. 3 (Autumn, 1966): 437-451.


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