Changing Places in America ‒ An Emotional History

By Susan J. Matt (Weber State University)

Sitting on a plane last week, I spoke with the woman next to me. An American whose mother was Tongan, she had spent her childhood in Tonga. She missed the small island she’d lived on, noting that ‘everyone had their place there . . . everyone knew their place’. Eventually, however, she left, and went on to embrace a different lifestyle, working in a sales job that required her to travel across the US, visiting shopping malls. Although she ‘knew her place’ in Tongan society, and liked it, she had also left it.

This is a distinctively American pattern, for while we often are attached to places, be they geographic or social, we do not feel we must remain in them. This belief in the possibility of mobility ‒ across classes or across spaces ‒ has undergirded modern capitalism and individualism. However, this embrace of mobility is of relatively recent vintage, and required large-scale shifts in American emotional culture, for being able to move around is not just a physical journey ‒ it requires particular emotional sensibilities as well. While there are many different feelings involved in such patterns of mobility, I’ll focus on the two I am most familiar with, both of which affect one’s place in the social order: homesickness and envy. Homesickness can keep one rooted in place; envy may drive one to seek out new prospects.

Breaking Home Ties
Breaking Home Ties, Thomas Hovenden, American (born Ireland), 1840 – 1895. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Ellen Harrison McMichael in memory of C. Emory McMichael, 1942.


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Americans felt so attached to landscapes, houses and families that, when they left them, they sometimes perished from homesickness, or nostalgia, as it was frequently called. Many regarded mobility and separation from family as dangerous and unnatural; when they did leave home, they talked and wrote openly of their great sadness, and their dreams of return. They did not hide the emotion, for in nineteenth-century America, where home and mother were central symbols of morality, homesickness was the mark of an affectionate, stable and virtuous character. Indeed, sometimes migrants acted on the emotion and returned to the places they had left behind. John Albee, of Bellingham, Massachusetts, was apprenticed to his uncle who lived one town over. Sent there to learn the trade of boot making, Albee was profoundly unhappy.

I found myself cut off from all the objects and persons I had ever known, thrown into a strange world . . . A deadly homesickness at once seized upon me, of which I could not be cured . . . a kind of depression and melancholy took the place of my natural gaiety. I can readily believe . . . that one might die of homesickness.

He did not die; instead his uncle returned him to his mother. Adults behaved similarly, with pioneers, gold miners and missionaries all publicly expressing their homesickness. Like Albee, some acted on the emotion thousands of westering pioneers and gold miners abandoned their journeys and headed back east, towards home. The fabled Overland Trail to California had two-way traffic, for nineteenth-century Americans found the emotional toll of individualistic mobility to be high; too high for some.

By the end of the nineteenth century, as America urbanised and industrialised, some came to see such bonds to place and people as signs of provincial backwardness, as weakness. The homesick lacked the ability to adapt to new environments and were unfit for success in the modern world. Psychologist Linus Kline, in his 1898 treatise ‘The Migratory Impulse vs. Love of Home’ wrote, ‘The lover of home is provincial, plodding and timid. He is the world’s hod-carrier. His interests are identified with the conservative and microscopic affairs of society’. In contrast, ‘The migrant is cosmopolitan, has manifold interests, and finds profitable objects and kindred spirits in a variety of situations. He may be found in the commercial, speculative, daring, progressive, macroscopic interests of the world’.

Over the course of the twentieth century, as global capitalism and American empire began to require a mobile workforce, prohibitions against homesickness grew, for it was a disruptive emotion which could interrupt work and render labour less fungible. By the twenty-first century, homesickness has become an emotion that must be conquered in childhood; adults who express it publicly are seen as dependent and pathetic, unsuited to life in a fluid, fast-paced capitalist economy.

This perception, now widespread in the US, may explain the recent rash of worried editorials decrying the fact that, while Americans still move more than most other people on earth, the national mobility rate is in decline. Many today believe that a rooted population will cause economic stagnation. To economists at least, mobility and the repression of homesickness have become essential to American prosperity.

At the same time that Americans felt pressure to repress their homeward desires, they also found new encouragement to move upward and onward, to act on envy. Up through the late nineteenth century, envious Americans were chastised for committing a deadly sin, for to envy was to question God, who had ordained social position and material wealth. A writer in The Nation magazine told readers in 1897 that ‘the passion [of envy] is an evil one; twice cursed, injuring him that is envied and him that envies’. Admonitions against envy often emphasised the idea that God had put all people in the places he wanted them to occupy; therefore instead of wanting what they did not have, they should be content with what God had given them. As the editor of the Ladies Home Journal wrote in 1891,

‘If you do not possess all the things you would like to have, it is very poor policy to idly wish for them. A woman is happy just in proportion as she is content … Contentment is a wonderful thing to cultivate’.

By the early twentieth century, however, as the nation secularised, as mass production increased and modern advertising techniques developed, Americans forged new emotional rules. Increasingly, bourgeois men and women and children read in magazines, heard in sermons and lectures, and saw in glossy advertising copy that it was acceptable to envy, for envy represented not sin, but the admirable desire to raise one’s standard of living. One need not stay in one place; instead one should strive to move beyond it and pursue what one longed for. This transformation in envy’s meaning was visible in the account of an Alabama preacher printed in 1940. He reported, ‘a little girl in one of my church schools was asked the other day, “What was the Tenth Commandment?” The reply was “Thou shalt not covet”. When asked what covet meant, she replied, “not to want other folks’ things, but to get Sears, Roebuck Catalogue and buy for yourself”’. This has become the modern attitude towards envy today rather than being a sin, it is now an economic stimulant. Indeed contemporary economists believe that envy is an engine for spending, and were Americans to be less envious, the economy might decline.

Black Friday
Black Friday 2014, London. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Whereas once moralists worried about Americans not knowing their place, warned them against trying to leave their ordained position, and preached the virtues of contentment, today, in the fluid fast-paced market society, it appears that staying put, economically or geographically, is the new problem; contentment a new source of concern. In little more than a century, emotions that were once vices have become virtues, while feelings once considered virtuous have become vices.

Susan J. Matt is author of Homesickness: An American History (Oxford University Press, 2011), Keeping Up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890‒1930 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), and co-editor of Doing Emotions History (University of Illinois Press, 2013). She is currently co-authoring a history of emotions and technology, from the telegraph to Twitter. She is Presidential Distinguished Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Weber State University. She is also a member of the Society for the History of Emotions.


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