Remarkable Radical: Thaddeus Stevens, 1859-1868

Thaddeus Stevens was a fearsome reformer, who never backed down from a fight. In 1813, a young Thaddeus Stevens was attending a small college in Vermont. This was well before the time when good fences made good neighbors. Free-roaming cows often strayed onto campus. Manure piled up. Odors lingered. Resentment among students festered. One spring[…]

Medieval Enclosure: Wealth, Poverty, and the Road to the Industrial Revolution

Wealthy landowners enclosed (privatized) the commons for their own profits, impoverishing many villagers. By Jay Walljasper Medieval European agriculture was communally organized. Peasants pooled their individual holdings into open fields that were jointly cultivated, and common pastures were used to graze their animals.This system of village commons prospered for more than six hundred years at[…]

Lost But Not Yet Found: Medieval Foundlings and Charity in Northern France

By the end of the thirteenth century the social context for the abandonment of infants and children had changed in important ways. Introduction The High Middle Ages was an important period of transition in the care of France’s “miserable persons,” that is, the poor, sick, widows, orphans, aged, and infirm. By 1400, civic initiatives, parish[…]

Medieval Poverty, Wealth, and Gluttony

Two different perceptions of the sin of overeating in the Middle Ages. Gluttony—overindulging in food or drink—was one of the seven deadly sins of the medieval European church. In the medieval view, the story of Adam and Eve established gluttony as man’s original and worst sin. Tempted by the snake, they ate the forbidden fruit[…]

How Photographs of Poverty in the Americas Ignited an International Battle over Propaganda

Introduction In late July 1961, O Cruzeiro magazine—Brazil’s answer to the American magazine Life—sent photographer Henri Ballot to document poverty in New York City. Ballot’s assignment had been issued in direct response to “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” a photo-essay Life had published the month before featuring reporting, diary entries, and photographs by Gordon Parks about the[…]

Jacob Riis and “How the Other Half Lives”: Poverty in 19th-Century America

Riis as a writer, photographer, lecturer, advocate, and ally for reform to address the poverty many ignored. Biography Overview Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914) was born in Ribe, Denmark. He immigrated to America at age twenty with hopes of one day marrying his teenage love, Elisabeth Nielsen [Gjørtz]. Riis wandered through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New[…]

Social Class in the American Colonies

Social class was prevalent and largely property-based in the colonies. The Colonial Elite Overview In New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies, the elite were wealthy farmers or urban merchants; in the South, they were wealthy planters. British Americans’ reliance on indentured servitude and slavery to meet the demand for colonial labor helped give rise to[…]

It Begins Again: “The Flávio Story” Retold

An assignment for Life magazine about poverty in Brazil introduces photographer Gordon Parks to Flávio da Silva and one of the most complicated, compelling, and revisited stories of his career. It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, as Joan Didion aptly tells us in the opening sentence of her essay “Goodbye to All That,”[…]

Gluttonous Wealth and Desperate Poverty in the Middle Ages

The message in medieval manuscripts is clear: The rich are good, the poor are trouble. Gluttony—overindulging in food or drink—was one of the seven deadly sins of the medieval European church. In the medieval view, the story of Adam and Eve established gluttony as man’s original and worst sin. Tempted by the snake, they ate[…]