Ideology and urbanization: business response to social needs in late nineteenth century Wilmington, Delaware

Kerr, William Thomas
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University of Delaware
Wilmington, Delaware, emerged from the Civil War as an important industrial center, with the greatest part of its population earning its livelihood in the city's ubiquitous iron, leather, powder, shipbuilding, and carriage manufactories. Behind Wilmington’s industrial upsurge were a number of entrepreneurs who began modest concerns before the Civil War and nurtured them to large and complex industrial enterprises. Some new firms appeared in the period immediately after the Civil War, but the establishment of important new industries became increasingly rare in the late decades of the nineteenth century. ☐ As a result, the business elite of post-Civil War Wilmington was composed mainly of the "self-made men" who had begun their industrial careers previous to that conflict, the sons of these pioneer manufacturers, and the relatively few men who were able to organize successful companies in the years after 1865. Many of the leading businessmen were native Wilmingtonians and descendants of the Quaker community that had existed in the city since its founding in 1732. The business leadership of Wilmington in the late nineteenth century, then, had a stability stemming not only from the strength of old firms and the rarity of new ones but also from traditional ties with Wilmington's past. These characteristics of the late nineteenth century Wilmington businessmen are possible explanations of both their ability and willingness to deal with the social needs which arose as a result of the city's development into a complex industrial center. ☐ Evidence indicates that the Wilmington businessman embraced the prevailing business philosophy which tended to explain social problems in terms of individual weakness and consecrate the successful industrialists as a virtuous elite. The Wilmington. businessmen, however, supplemented the "gospel of wealth" by recognizing themselves as a leadership group whose responsibility and self-interest lay in making Wilmington a prosperous, attractive, and stable societal unit. Also, since they identified themselves with -- and were accepted as the leaders of -- Wilmington Society, it seems that notwithstanding their avowed motive of self-interest, "noblesse oblige" may have played a part in their ameliorative efforts. ☐ When the businessmen acted to improve Wilmington, and they did so often, they were always guided by their beliefs. To combat maladministration in city government, businessmen acted through the State legislature to create autonomous commissions (i.e., the Water Commission, Board of Park Commissioners, and the Street and Sewer Department) on which they served as appointees.: In this way they dealt with a problem · and, at the same time, circumvented the broils of local politics which they considered inherently nefarious and demeaning as well. 1he businessmen also served as the organizers and administrators of several welfare institutions. In this role they accepted public money for the support of the institutions but retained full control of the establishments, running them as private corporations. At every opportunity the businessmen kept public services from government control, guided by their belief in the efficacy' of severely limited public administration. ☐ In their approach to poor relief the businessmen utilized the Charity Organization program, by which they administered relief and influenced the doles of other ·charitable agencies without abandoning their concept of poverty as basically the result of individual incapacity. Ideology was also in evidence when the businessmen created a public library in the 1890’s. The arguments which served to actuate business interest in such an institution pictured the library as an instrument of self-help and a buttress of the "status quo." ☐ In sum, the business community often acted in the public interest and made a not insignificant contribution to Wilmington’s social progress in the late nineteenth century. A business ideology which if pushed to an extreme might have resulted in a supercilious disregard of urban needs was tempered with a recognition of the responsibilities of community leadership and the perception that a prosperous and stable city served the interest of the business fraternity. Still, the business creed shaped and influenced the businessman’s mode of dealing with urban needs, not by generating irresponsible rationalizations but by molding responsible action.