AP World History: Teaching the Industrial Middle Classes

If I had to pick a favorite set of units in AP World, it would be 5 and 6. For the last several years I have used a set of images from French artist Honoré Daumier entitled “les bons bourgeois” as a part of my lessons on topics 5.8 and 5.9. I like to use image sets when I can, especially when lecturing the content might otherwise become boring. Image analysis breaks up the routine of text-based documents, is easily accessible for students at multiple reading levels, is a great way to introduce topics, and can be used as a great hook into more difficult content.

I originally came across this image set when I was watching Professor John Merriman teach one of Yale University’s open courses on European history. He used several lithographs from Daumier to illustrate his points about the changes that occurred within French society in the 19th century. His lecture was interesting, insightful, and funny – everything I hope my own classes are. I have enjoyed showing the lithographs to students and leading them through the same process that Merriman modeled in his course. In terms of the logistics of the lesson, I explain my favorite image as a model, and then ask students to explore the other images on their own, collecting their thoughts on what they see prior to a larger class discussion. I should note students come to class having already done some background reading…well, whether they did or not can be debated, but background reading was at least assigned.

The full PPT of all the images I use can be found on my AP World resources page, but a few of my favorites are copied below along with the insights I want students to get by the end of the lesson. Even though the images only directly cover a portion of the content referenced on the AP World CED for topics 5.8 and 5.9 they offer great opportunities for complex thinking and discussion. All together, I spend about 45 minutes with these sources in class.

By the end of the activity I want students to understand that:

  1. Class becomes a primary way of analyzing society with the rise of the Middle classes.
  2. The Middle classes begin to think of themselves as a separate identity, which was socially constructed around unique values, expectations, and norms. This identity could be emulated, gained, or lost.
  3. The rise of the Middle classes is inextricably linked with the rise of consumerism and material culture. However, part of middle class identity is also based in non-material culture.

Contextualizing the Activity

Before introducing the image, students read background from Strayer’s “Ways of the World” that relates to the topic. I also use the activity as an opportunity to introduce the following topics that relate to both the activity and the CED.

Big Bourgeoisie vs Petty Bourgeoisie

  • Big Bourgeoisie – These are the really rich individuals, the bankers, factory owners, entrepreneurs, etc. They begin to rival the nobility in terms of wealth even though it takes more time for their political strength to emerge.
  • Petty Bourgeoisie – These are the lower or middle middle-class people who include professions like teachers or lawyers, small merchants or businessmen, shop owners, or other people looking to gain wealth. They are not “wage earners” in the sense that the factory workers and laborers are.

The “Greasy Pole”

I believe it was Benjamin Disraeli who used the term “greasy pole” to describe his political ascent to the position of Prime Minister in 1868. Professor John Merriman uses this term as an economic analogy to describe the attempts of Disraeli’s 19th century contemporaries to ascend into the bourgeoisie or upper-classes. What I like about the term is that it clearly suggests that economic ascension, once gained, is not permanent. That is, 19th century economic life can be seen as a very competitive endeavor where the petty bourgeoisie are not only trying to move up, but they are desperately trying not to slip back down. This begins to help explain the rise of material culture around the middle classes and the desire to always look the part or be seen as a successful member of the bourgeoisie. This is part of the rise of modern capitalism and is a phenomenon of consumer culture that has never really gone away since. The analogy helps students build historical empathy and get into the minds of 19th century actors.


The context of the early Industrial Revolution would be incomplete without getting into the reactions against it. The most significant of these is arguable Marxism. I use this as an opportunity to introduce Marx’s concept of base vs. superstructure and how he uses it to explain the changes that industrialization brings. From this it is an easy jump to progressives, industrial reformers, utopian socialists, and others.

Image 1: A Difficult Position

This is my favorite of the Daumier prints. I enjoy asking student why they think the gentlemen in the image (let’s call him Pierre) is in a “difficult position” and then hearing the usual answer about how he does not have a free hand to grab his hat. At least one student usually makes some comment related to the fact that Pierre is holding not one, but two bottles of wine, and is of course, French. I usually then ask students why is his face painted with such a look of consternation? What is the cost of a hat for a successful bourgeois?

I really like Professor Merriman’s explanation. He states that the look of frustration is because when Pierre gets home, his wife is going to be quite angry with him over the lost hat. The hat is, after all, a symbol of his social and economic status and Pierre is going to have to go out first thing in the morning to buy a new one, lest neighbors and friends think less of him. It is likely Pierre and his wife are struggling near the bottom of the “greasy pole” and can not really afford a new hat, but will have no choice but to spend the money to buy the trappings of their desired social status.

Pierre is in a very difficult position. On the one hand he has purchased wine to celebrate a successful moment in his business career, but is faced with the loss of the outward symbol of his success. What good is his achievement if he is not recognized as a fellow bourgeois by his social equals? The loss of the hat and its significance is far greater than the cost of the wine, no matter the vintage.

Is this all a stretch? Maybe, maybe not. Much of Daumier’s art was satirical and had a lot to say about 19th century french society. At a minimum, the image creates fun discussions that humanize 19th century actors and help students make connections to many of the same issues of identity they are familiar with today. If your students are similar to mine, they will easily make a connection to something they own.

Image 2: A Middle Class Family

The text at the bottom translates to “A young man who is the hope and pride of the family Badinguet.” There is a lot that can be unpacked from this image; the importance of clothing to middle class status, the smaller family size and changing family norms of the 19th century middle class, and the significance of patriotism and military virtue at the time.

What Daumier notices in France is common across Europe and in North America. Just like in the earlier image, the themes return to class identity and how it is defined and constructed over time.

I have found students are able to discuss the abstract topics of class identity when discussed alongside topics that relate to them such as clothing, behavior expectations, and material culture.

Image 3: The Banker

When students describe the banker in the image they use words such as arrogant, self-absorbed, smug, money-hungry, self-centered, etc. It was a common enough middle-class action to count your money, or at least to be aware of your current wealth. However, this image transposes all of the negative stereotypes of the property owning bourgeoisie onto a single figure. Unlike the previous two images, this is the one character who could arguable be a “Big Bourgeoisie,” thus giving the opportunity to discuss not only the economic role of entrepreneurs and investors, but also their role as the progressive/reform movement’s foil.

Check out the AP World Resources Page for more lessons and resources that I am uploading throughout the year. You will find the PPT for this lesson under the Unit 5 section. It has many more images to help students visualize the changing identity of the new 19th century middle classes.

Leave a Reply