Buying Respectability: Philanthropy and Urban Society in Transnational Perspective, 1840s to 1930s.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Rodgers, Daniel T.
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Buying Respectability: Philanthropy and Urban Society in Transnational Perspective, 1840s to 1930s (Essay collection)
Persons: Reviewee: Adam, Thomas
Accession Number: 254405167
Full Text: Buying Respectability: Philanthropy and Urban Society in Transnational Perspective, 1840s to 1930s. By Thomas Adam (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009. 256 pp.).

In this loosely connected set of essays, Thomas Adam explores several patterns in philanthropy in Boston, New York, Toronto, and Leipzig in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The choices for comparison follow the transit of Adam's own career from the University of Leipzig, to the University of Toronto, to the United States, where he now plays an active role in the field of German-American historical relations. More than chance, however, connects these four cities. Networks of influence, Adam shows, helped to etch strikingly similar patterns in their elites' philanthropic enterprises.

The most interesting of Adam's essays reconstructs the seriousness with which elite urban philanthropists once took problems of low-cost housing for the poor and the working class. Almost entirely a field of tax-subsidized commercial enterprise now in the United States, low-cost housing construction once attracted the ambitions of moral reformers throughout urban Europe and the Americas. Advertising modest but safe returns on investments, moral policing of tenants, and the moral improvement of inhabitants, philanthropic housing endeavors sat uneasily between conservative and reform impulses. A striking example is Adam's sketch of the career of Leipzig's Therese Rossbach, whose life of philanthropic housing efforts culminated with the endowment of a rural school and estate for orphans and illegitimate urban girls to train them as agricultural workers and domestic servants, stemming (she hoped) further invasion of the German countryside by Polish immigrants. For all the nationalist inflection of this example, however, housing philanthropies were a genuinely transnational endeavor, amassing considerable capital and circulating their reports, as Adam shows, widely and influentially.

The other essays of the book hold fewer surprises. The field of philanthropy as an avenue of social advancement into the ranks of urban elites will be a familiar theme for most readers, though Adam makes the point particularly effectively in his sketches of two of Toronto's key early-twentieth-century philanthropists. Sir Edmund Walker was the WASP insider whose organizational energy made the city's elite philanthropies go; Sigmund Samuel was the Jewish outsider who, through Walker's patronage and his own exceptionally generous donations, eventually made his way in. Where urban elites were unified as in Toronto, Adam shows, boards of the major philanthropies showed considerable overlap in membership. Where the elites were divided, different forms of wealth gravitated toward different causes: older wealth toward the fine arts, new wealth toward museums of natural history (New York City) or the applied arts (Leipzig). A chapter devoted to women shows many of them, like Rossbach, to have been significantly more than silent partners.

In an analysis focused on the nexus between status and municipal beneficence, many other dimensions of these cities' philanthropy are neglected. Religious philanthropies fall outside these essays' field of attention, though they were certainly important. The heroic sums of money raised outside the dominant ethnic elites for Catholic and Jewish charities, schools, and places of worship are not explored. Hospitals come in for attention, but not the major medical and educational philanthropies that, starting with Rockefeller and Carnegie, were to set the models for many of the super-rich of the present day. The creation of the American foundation and the German Stiftung as distinctive entities in law and tax structure do not figure in his account. We are closer to the social register in these pages than to the new organizational history. Still, the patterns of city philanthropy that late-nineteenth-century urban elites constructed were striking creations of the age and, as he shows, they bore striking resemblances to each other.

The book's weakest essay is, oddly, its most explicitly transnational one The book opens with a strong argument for the German origins of the American art museum and library which will not leave most readers convinced. The Boston Public Library, famous as the first tax-supported city library to take as its mission the circulation of good popular reading to the masses, was "unthinkable without European models and examples," Adam writes. Had one of its key promoters, George Ticknor, not been so impressed by the freedom with which he could take home volumes from the Royal Saxon Library during his studies in Dresden, Adam writes, the Boston experiment in a circulating library "would never have been founded." But the volumes that so impressed Ticknor in the Royal Saxon Library, the maps, rare books, and fifty or sixty volumes of research material that Ticknor squirreled away in his lodgings, had nothing to do circulation of multiple copies of healthy popular books for the masses that Ticknor urged as the Boston Public Library's core mission. His goal was to compete with the commercial circulation of books by bookshop owners who rented cheap, unpoliced reading to the masses. The idea of the circulation library already existed in Boston and elsewhere, instantiated in commercial lending libraries, subscription libraries, and artisans' reading clubs. It took ingenuity to imagine a public institution that would compete directly with them through tax-financing, free borrowing, and large, circulating popular departments. But in that recombination of existing pieces, the Dresden model was almost wholly irrelevant.

The point in question is not the existence of transnational influences or the phenomenon of intercultural transfer, as the current German phase has it. Its existence in the field of housing philanthropies and elsewhere, as Adam shows, is unmistakable. But transnational history requires a multiplicity of tools: a sensitivity to local as well as to distant contexts; to networks of communication and the circulation of models but also to adaptations, departures, recombinations, structural similarities, simultaneous inventions, and structured differences. Transfer itself is never more than an aspect of it.

Daniel T. Rodgers

Princeton University
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