David Wagner explores the lives of poor people during the three decades after the Civil War, using a unique treasure of biographies of people who were (at one point in time) inmates in a large almshouse, combined with genealogical and other official records to follow their later lives. Ordinary People develops a more fluid picture of "poverty" as people's lives change over the course of time.
“The poor are absent from our history books. David Wagner presents them to us in vivid Dickensian portraits as human beings to whom attention must be paid. He is writing about the poor in the late nineteenth century, but inevitably we are reminded of the invisible poor in our midst today. An important contribution to the social history of our country.”
“David Wagner has written a wonderful book. By focusing close on particular lives, he gives us a uniquely intimate and specific insight into the lives of these poor and marginal people of the late nineteenth century. And he also shows us that they were more than just victims, but people who asserted themselves and often managed to build their own lives.
—Frances Fox Piven, author of Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America
“This well-written and researched book follows in the tradition of C. Wright Mills … Ordinary People is based on meticulous archival research conducted at the Massachusetts State Almshouse at Tewksbury.”
—Journal of Poverty
“ … Ordinary People is an important contribution to the history of social welfare, particularly in its focus on the day-to-day stories of people who passed through the doors of Tewksbury. One could easily see this book supplementing a social welfare history class or being used in a research course as a skilled example of historiography and mixed-methods research.”
—Social Service Review
“Ordinary People is a remarkable examination of poverty from 1865 to 1895 during the Gilded Age … Wagner skillfully places his research within the context of changes in American social welfare. [He] gives us tantalizing insights into the lives of ‘ordinary’ people who needed community support in a time of rapid social change. His innovative research enriches understanding of how we have considered poverty and have chosen to deal with it.”
—Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare
Chapter 1: Ordinary People Chapter 2: The Context: Tewksbury Almshouse, Immigration and Industrialization Part I: Mobility: Geographic and Economic Chapter 3: The "Uprooted": Immigrants and Migrants Chapter 4: Falling Down: Yet a Surprising Resilience Part II: The "Family Crisis" of the Gilded Age Chapter 5: "Criminal Intimacies": Out of Wedlock Sex Chapter 6: Family Conflict and Desertion Part III: Age and Poverty: Children and the Elderly Chapter 7: Being "Put Out": Children in and out of the Almshouse Chapter 8: "We Can Do Nothing for Him": The Fate of the Elderly Chapter 9: From History's Shadows: Partial Views of the Poor