Muncie as Middletown U.S.A.

Middletown Studies

Robert Staughton Lynd (September 26, 1892 – November 1, 1970) and Helen Merrell Lynd (March 17, 1896 – January 30, 1982) were American sociologists, famous for their study of Middletown. Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (1929) became a best-selling ethnography, after which the researchers wrote the less popular follow-up work Middletown in Transition (Lynd and Lynd 1937). The Lynds presented their investigation into the life of the people in Middletown as a complex unit of interwoven trends of behavior and social change brought about by the Great Depression, influenced by agriculture and advanced capitalism and industry. The Lynds pioneered the application of anthropological methods, particularly ethnography, to the study of a modern Western city, and their publications became classics in American sociology. Their initial research revealed significant change as a result of industrialization and the transformation from a predominantly agricultural lifestyle to one based on technology and industry.

Robert and Helen Lynd from the personal collection of their son, Staughton Lynd. Courtesy Staughton Lynd and found online: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/muncie/f1.html

The question of typicality has been at the center of Middletown studies from the start, which is why Robert and Helen Lynd chose Muncie, Indiana, as the site of their social investigation. Akin to many small Eastern and Midwestern cities, Muncie industrialized rapidly over the course of 50 years, particularly during and after the northeastern Indiana gas boom of the 1890s (Geelhoed 2004). However, Muncie’s distinguishing social characteristics and social composition was unusual for a factory town. It was home to families from both the upland South and the northeastern U.S., but it had relatively few immigrants compared to other urban settings outside of the South. While there were relatively few African-Americans compared to whites, proportionately, Muncie had a larger Black population than the average Northern city, one that the Lynds essentially ignored in their pioneering studies. In 2004, Luke Eric Lassiter, Hurley Goodall, Elizabeth Campbell, Michelle Natasya Johnson, and their team of Ball State faculty and students sought to rectify the decades-old omission of African-American from Middletown Studies in their own pioneering and award-winning study, The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie’s African American Community (2004).

Since the publishing of Middletown by the Lynds in 1929, thousands of people have contributed to the burgeoning field of Middletown Studies, an overview of which is beyond the scope of the Riverside/Normal City neighborhood project (for more, see Geelhoed 2004 on which the following is largely based). In what follows, we briefly describe what the Lynds sought to accomplish and provide an overview of Muncie’s early history that informs present-day economic, political and social norms and beliefs.

Early Muncie History

The pre-industrial stage of Muncie’s history spanned almost 60 years, from the founding of the community in the late 1820s until industrialization gained a foothold in the mid-1880s. In the pre-Civil War period, Muncie was predominantly rural and semi-rural, its economic livelihood closely tied to the local agricultural community. Muncie was also the seat of Delaware County and acquired some regional status and geographic advantage by virtue of that designation. Muncie was incorporated as a city in 1865 with a population of no more than 3,000 residents and its emergence as a factory city began on September 15, 1886, when a vein of natural gas was discovered near Eaton, Indiana. The availability of natural gas inevitably led to aggressive efforts to promote Muncie and attract numerous new enterprises to the city. Advertisements from that time described Muncie as the “Magic City,” the “Birmingham of the North,” and “Young Giant of Indiana” (Geelhoed 2004).

By the mid-1890s, the industrial face of Muncie changed dramatically as seven glass plants, 14 fabricators of steel or iron, two carriage works, four washing machine factories, two hub-and-spoke factories, a pulp company, and numerous other facilities were established (Geelhoed 2004). Several local banks and financial institutions had also been established.

By 1900, Muncie was recognized as a working-class community – a place where people made thingsthat contributed to a better life for everyone. During the twentieth century, its industrial profile expanded and population grew to 75,000 residents in the city, with another 50,000 living outside the city limits in unincorporated areas generally labelled as the county.” Significant contributions to local industry came from two families (between 1890-1920): the Ball family, who were manufacturers of glass for home canning and commercial packaging, and the Kitselman family, who manufactured woven wire fencing and other wire-related products. By World War II, Muncie’s industrial profile was identified as “jars and cars” with the establishment of General Motors Corporation for making transmissions and automobile batteries, and the Ball family’s jar factories (Geelhoed 2004:35). In the mid-1920s, following the death of Edmund B. Ball, the Ball family donated $2.5 million for the construction of Ball Memorial Hospital on a site near the Teachers College. Later, it was appreciated as a valuable facility for the advancement of medical practice in Indiana and gave recognition of a medical center to the community.

Muncie as Middletown

The Lynds first came to Muncie in 1924 with support of the Institute for Social and Religious Research, one of many nonprofit organizations established by the wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. (Lassiter et al 2004). Rockefeller expected the Lynds to conduct a small city study that would reveal how the influence of religion might help to alleviate economic, social and cultural tensions in a contemporary urban setting. Robert Lynd, however, wanted to conduct a more inclusive, urban anthropological study. After examining several small towns, Muncie met the Lynds’ criteria as it was economically diversified for a small city and well-suited for a study on the impact of industrialization (for example, the role of class conflicts and the potential for social revolution). The Lynds (1929) focused on six areas (anthropological categories) of community life:

  1. Getting a Living (business, commerce, and labor);
  2. Making a Home (family life);
  3. Training the Young (school and the local educational system);
  4. Using Leisure (recreation and social life);
  5. Engaging in Religious Practices (the church life of the community); and
  6. Engaging in Community Activities (the political world and the volunteer sector)

Their research highlighted Muncie’s division into two class relations: the business and working class. They defined the business class as those who worked with people, including businessmen, lawyers, physicians, educators, clergymen and others who required education and professional training to perform their work. By contrast the working class consisted of those who worked with things and served as the labor force for Muncie’s ever growing number of shops and factories. Social status or income were not necessarily the characteristics that differentiated the business class from the working class. Instead, David Kennedy, a historian, suggested that stability of employment (employment security) separated the two classes. Despite this class separation, the Lynds observed a prevalence of social harmony with physical segregation (e.g. housing of middle and working class and black families) in the city (cited in Geelhoed 2004). As the Director of Middletown Studies, Distinguished Professor of History, Jim Connolly explained to our class (2016), the segregation was not intentional, but rather engineered in a way that real estate became a tool to carry out de facto segregation. The Lynds also found that despite many changes brought about by modernization, such as class tension, there was a remarkable persistence of pre-industrial values and beliefs in the community.

While the city was undergoing advancements in industry, commerce, and medicine, the Lynds portrayed politics and sports to be depressing and inspiring, respectively. During 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan controlled much of the city’s government and political system, and their anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish biases led to boycotts of businesses owned by such residents, as well as discriminatory provisions in neighborhood housing covenants in the fashionable neighborhoods on the city’s northwest side. Though politics proved exclusionary for many of the city’s residents, the enthusiasm for high school basketball, especially for the Muncie Central Bearcats, united residents. The Bearcats won their first Indiana state high school basketball championship in 1928, which later led to the development of largest arena in the United States for high school basketball: the Muncie Fieldhouse on North Walnut Street.

A postcard photograph of Muncie’s Fieldhouse built in 1928, seating 7,500 people. Courtesy of: http://ddarchive.blogspot.com/2010_03_01_archive.html

Muncie Today

Muncie remains the symbol of a typical American community. In 2002, Muncie was close to national average in terms of divorce rates, robbery rates, and the number of books taken from the library, among other characteristics (Geelhoed 2004). Between 1989 and 1999, Muncie’s economic performance mirrored that of the nation as a whole. For instance, the increasing significance of consumption was revealed in the cost-of-living in Muncie, which was 99.5 % of the national average and per-family income paced both the state and the nation, rising by 13% by that time (ibid). Additionally, the Center for Middletown Studies has showed that voting in Muncie for presidential candidates was a predictor of the national result that holds true even today. For these reasons, in the weeks leading up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Gary Younge, a correspondent for The Guardian, chose Muncie for his twice-weekly, 10-part series on politics in the U.S. Entitled “The View from Middletown,” Young explored “what people might think, not just how they would vote” (Younge 2016).

Just as Muncie served as a typical industrial city from the 1920s through the 1960s, by the 1970s and 1980s, Muncie began, instead, to serve as an example of deindustrialization in the United States, which continues to the present (e.g. Connolly et al 2010). By 1985, the service sector had surpassed the manufacturing sector (in terms of total employment) to cater to the community’s need of diversifying its local economy in a postindustrial age, but such service sector jobs offered lower wages and fewer benefits than factory jobs once did. By the 1990s, most industries had left Muncie in search of cheaper labor, leaving Ball State University and Ball Memorial Hospital to became the two largest employers in the city.

For more information about Muncie and Middletown Studies, visit the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, located in Room 203 of the Bracken Library.


Connolly, James J., ed. 2010. After the Factory: Reinventing America’s Industrial Small Cities. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Connolly, James J. 2014. The Legacies of Middletown: Introduction. Indiana Magazine of History. Last accessed November 14, 2016.

Connolly, James J. 2016. Class Presentation of Middle Town Studies for Anth 459/559, September 8, 2016.

Geelhoed, E. Bruce. 2004. The Enduring Legacy of Muncie as Middletown. In The Other Side of Middletown. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2004. 27-47.

Lassiter, Luke Eric E., Hurley Goodall, and Elizabeth Campbell. 2004. The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie’s African American Community. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press,U.S.

Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1929. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.

Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1937. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York: Harcourt Brace & World.

Younge, Gary. 2016. “The view from Middletown“. The Guardian. last accessed December 12, 2016.