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The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paycheck, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies.

In The Social Meaning of Money, Viviana Zelizer examines the ways in which the popular classes in the United States have resisted the "flattening" of social relations by money that Georg Simmel predicted. Zelizer uses three case studies - the domestic use of money, money and gifts, and poverty and charity - to examine the complex relationship of economic and social worlds and the ways in which money and power are embedded in everyday action.

From an historical standpoint, Zelizer had already won her point before she gets to her case studies. Through an examination of the complex history of currency and politics from the Civil War until the Federal Reserve Act, she demonstrates that even within the official economy, the meaning of money - whether it was the "cross of gold," greenbacks, or the vast array of semi-official currencies or scripts used by Americans - remained a decidedly unflat affair. Thus, even as Simmel was writing, Zelizer concludes: "the real world of money in the United States belied his claims concerning its homogeneity and qualitative neutrality." (p. 17)

Zelizer's core concept is "earmarking" - the idea that money has "no single uniform, generalized meaning," but specific forms and uses tied to particular settings. From the idea of "earmarking," she spins out a phantasmagoria of settings in which the role of money takes on a particular meaning. She discovers, for example, that Jewish culture has no less than seven hundred different types of socially or religiously distinct types of monies. Earmarking indeed.

The agenda of the book is set, then, by Zelizer's engagement with Simmel. Each case study explores the attempt of (what in the 1960s we would have called) "forces of modernization," to use money to standardize human relations. In each case, human attempts to resist the standardization ultimately triumph.

The first case study - of domestic monies - explores the relationship of gender and class. Within the middle-class household, Zelizer finds, women battled throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries for any control of money. Custom, law, and everyday practice suggest that until well into the present century, middle-class women were virtually "penniless" - every purchase had to be cleared with their husbands. As the consumer economy increased women's need for interactions in the marketplace - as a wise consumer - the absence of any control of money became a problem which was duly noted by intellectuals and in the popular press. Zelizer charts the slow progress to the "allowance" as a provisional solution to the problem. The women would be given a fixed sum, which would provide her the means and incentive to wisely manage her expanded consumer role. Yet, Zelizer remains unclear about how far the allowance and its even more "feminist" alternative - the joint bank account - progressed. Husbands appeared to fight a protracted battle to resist this incursion into their privilege.

In the working class, the shoe appeared to be on the other foot. There, the normative pattern had the husband turning over his paycheck to his wife who then would hand over an "allowance" to the husband. This portrait - Zelizer admits - may have idealized the economic clout of women. First, not all husbands followed the practice. Second, in the context of low-wages and few choices, working-class women were not given the "autonomy" to decide what to buy, but rather what not to buy. In the 1970s, for example, Lillian Rubin discovered that working-class women were responsible for the purchase of necessities, while husbands retained decision-making authority over major discretionary spending.

Men's resistance to sharing their paycheck, then, was one impetus for women's entry into the paid labor force. Gender ideology worked in favor of women here. Because their paycheck was not serious, but simply "pin money," women were able to retain greater control over its use. It was only in the past several decades - if even then - that the moral equivalence of men's and women's wages affected family relations.

Money as a gift went through a torturous history. Considered too "vulgar," money gifts required that active advocacy of commercial interests and the popular press. Only slowly did the use of money for gifts to those outside the kin group gain currency. The forces of modernization here developed their own forms of earmarking - gift certificates, Christmas clubs, and money orders - to facilitate this transition.

Poor people's money occupies the bulk of the book. Here, Zelizer uses her conceptual lens to reorder our understanding of some well-known facts. During the bulk of the 19th century, middle-class reformers fought a long battle to restrict the availability of cash relief. They campaigned against the granting of public (or "outdoor") relief and tried to coordinate private charity to assure that the needy had little discretion over what they would consume. By the early twentieth century, the bulk of professional opinion had swung around; social workers and home economists supported the need for expanded cash relief for the poor and destitute and acquiesced to the expansion of public relief efforts, most notably in the case of "mothers'" or "widows'" pensions during the 1910s.

Zelizer argues that one reason for this transition had to do with the expansion of consumer ideology during the early 20th century. Social workers and home economists argued that - as with the case of the "middle-class" women's allowance - if poor women were ever to become competent consumers they would need to be instructed in the proper use of cash. The development of the "cost-of-living" studies and standard budgets - what eventually became our "official" poverty line - was one of the tools reformers used to regulate this limited autonomy.

Yet, even as they argued for greater autonomy, social workers and the poor engaged in battles over the proper use of this new autonomy. In a section reminiscent of her Pricing the Priceless Child, Zelizer traces the battle over the use of insurance money to pay for funerals. This was one battle, it appears, the social workers lost. By the 1920, expenditures for burial insurance found their way into family budget studies.

Zelizer has given us a study of historical and social theoretical importance. As social history, The Social Meaning of Money breaks new ground in exploring the role of money in redefining the nature of public and especially private social relations during the social transformations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As social theory, she contributes her explication of how families and individuals resisted the "flattening" of social relations by the cash economy. The compromise she describes - in which impersonal forces made greater incursions into the private sphere, but were overlaid with new sets of personal meaning - is particularly relevant in the contemporary world. The tendency toward the globalization of the economy and the dominance of abstract systems is everywhere forced to come to terms with new (and sometimes old) ideas of what life should be. Thus, the dialectic that Zelizer describes is one of even greater relevance as modernity spreads its net wider and wider.

Mark J. Stern University of Pennsylvania
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Stern, Mark J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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