Muncie as Middletown, USA: Distinct for Being Average

Muncie entered the spotlight in the 1920s when Robert and Helen Lynd studied the city as a “typical” American community affected by industrialization. They dubbed it Middletown, and Muncie became emblematic of the “true America.” 

James ConnollyJim Connolly speaks at the internationally attended Print Culture Histories Beyond the Metropolis Conference,” hosted by the Center for Middletown Studies, in March 2013.

“It really gives the town a distinctiveness, ironically, that draws the attention of a lot people,” says Jim Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies since 2004. 

The idea has always fascinated people around the world and Ball State University established the Center for Middletown Studies in 1980 in response to continued interest from sociologists, journalists, and the public. It became a permanent academic unit at Ball State in 1984. The center promotes research on Muncie, small and midsize cities in general, the socio-cultural impact of large-scale economic change, and on other themes and issues brought out by the Lynds. “We sponsor visiting scholars of various sorts, both from universities around the U.S. and overseas,” Connolly says. “Right now we have a researcher from Shanghai Normal University in China who is here for a year doing anthropological research.” 

Middletown, USA, has changed drastically since the 1920s. The Lynds came to study the effects of industrialization, but “the flipside of that is the case now. It’s a great place to study the consequences of deindustrialization, the loss of manufacturing and manufacturing jobs, especially the particular set of arrangements around manufacturing that existed in the middle of the 20th century in the United States,” Connolly says. 

“You could go to lots of different places to understand and study this. The advantage you have here is that you can see it and put it into the context of what came before more thoroughly because we have all this research about what came before. We have a baseline. We have a really good assessment of the impact of industrialization at ground level. And so now we’re trying to take advantage of that and to try to develop ground-level assessments of the impact of deindustrialization.” 

What Middletown Read

One of the biggest projects the center has undertaken was inspired by the discovery of some of the Muncie Public Library’s records dating from 1891 to 1902. Frank Felsenstein, the Reed D. Voran honors distinguished professor in humanities and professor of English, found a box of ledgers while researching in the downtown Carnegie Library. 

“The ledgers provided this really unprecedented level of detailed documentation about borrowing choices,” Connolly says. 

Finding these ledgers in Muncie, where so much study had already been done on that time period, was serendipity. “We had this body of material that nobody else had,” Connolly says. 

What Middletown Read Banner What Middletown Read is a database and search engine built upon the circulation records of the Muncie Public Library from November 5, 1891 through December 3, 1902.

Connolly and Felsenstein decided to create a database cross-referencing the library records with public records. This expansive, cooperative project involved the Center for Middletown Studies, University Libraries, the Muncie Public Library, and faculty from many other university departments. It was partly funded through a collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities

Staff and students entered the names and addresses of 6,000 patrons and searched for more information about each in the city directory and the 1900 census records - where they were born, where their parents were born, their occupation, whether they owned or rented a house, and various other traits in an effort to build a substantial demographic portrait of each borrower. In total, 4,000 individuals checked out at least one book, and 2,600 of those were found in the census. 

Next, University Libraries helped provide bibliographic details about each of the 11,000 books recorded by the library. Finally, building on the data already entered, the book loan transactions were entered – close to 180,000 of them. 

“That involved lots and lots of students - graduate students, honors students - sitting at computers and interpreting these handwritten records, which is very difficult. The handwriting was often a real challenge. It was a real bear to just make sense sometimes of what was written on the page and then to enter that into the computer,” Connolly says. 

What Middletown Read LedgerA page from the ledger that was used to create the What Middletown Read database.

“All told it took us about six years from entering the first item in the database until we had a workable, searchable online resource. If you look at the acknowledgements page of the project, there are 70-odd people listed on it because we had an enormous amount of help across the whole university, from other institutions, and scholars from other places who helped us in a variety of ways.” 

One insight that came from the project is in what was most popular with Munsonians around the turn of the last century. “There’s a very pronounced interest in what we would think of as bestsellers - books that we have long forgotten that were the popular fare of the day,” Connolly says. “They weren’t reading Shakespeare, they weren’t studying engineering so much, although that happened, but what they were most often doing was coming in and getting the latest bestseller or the most popular children’s book of the moment and reading those things.” 

Horatio Alger’s stories were the most popular, totaling 5 percent of all book loans during the period. “The classic way to describe them is ‘rags to riches’ stories,” Connolly explains. “They’re stories of young, poor boys who, usually through hard work and good character, become successful.” 

What Middletown Read has caught the eye of scholars and pop culture alike. “The response has been terrific,” Connolly says. “Just last December a history blog on Slate.com listed us as one of the most exciting digital humanities projects of recent vintage. We were profiled and reviewed in The New York Times, we were featured in other online forms, including another article on Slate when the database first launched in 2011.”  

“It’s unique. There simply isn’t anything else quite like it anywhere. It would have been valuable in any town. But the fact that we can peg it to the Middletown research - particularly because the Lynds talk about reading in the 1920s and in the 1890s, in a sort of a comparison to what came before. Now we can flesh out this one set of observations that they make in very rich ways. It’s a resource that’s going to continue to inform scholarship for a long time. It’s exciting to have been able to create something like that, that’s going to have, I think, a lasting value.”   

Virtual Middletown 

The center’s latest initiative is Virtual Middletown, which is a three-dimensional digital re-creation of spaces and places from 1920s Muncie. “We use the great detail we have, as well as the terrific archival resources over here at University Libraries, to put together re-creations of specific places or institutions that were up and running in 1920s Muncie when the Lynds first came and observed the place,” Connolly says. 

“It’s like a living museum concept, but you select an avatar and go in and explore,” explains John Fillwalk, senior director of the Hybrid Design Technologies initiative and director of the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts (IDIA). 

IDIA is creating the massive multiuser online environment in the Blue Mars game engine. “We built it so you can walk inside of it, and it’s fully textured, much like a game.” Fillwalk says. “It looks really good. The game engine is just fantastic to work in. We built an interactive heads-up display so you can learn and navigate. You can always see where you are in relation to the environment and where other avatars may be.” 

Virtual Middletown WorkersAnimated workers give visitors to Virtual Middletown a feel for what the Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Co. was like in the 1920s.

The first piece of Virtual Middletown, the Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Co., is up and running. Visitors are greeted by Frank C. Ball, the Ball brother who was most involved in the daily operations of the factory. Behind him are animated men working at a massive furnace and glass molds. Parts of the virtual factory are interactive, indicated by a glow. Some items, such as a glass mold that was used to create jars, can be manipulated:  the user can examine it in three dimensions, opening and closing it to see how it works. 

“We link it to the archives, so it’s not just about going in and wandering around a digital space,” Connolly says. “We hope it will prompt people to go in and dig further into the original Middletown text and to other archival source materials that we use, and to really get a sense of how we went about interpreting the past. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with it.” 

“I’m very interested in the teaching and learning side too, as an educator, and seeing how these next-generation technologies can be engaged in the service of teaching and learning,” Fillwalk says. “I’m constantly investigating those edges and trying to deploy or engage whatever makes sense but is appropriate to the project.” 

The Center for Middletown Studies and IDIA are now seeking funding to build more of Virtual Middletown. Next they hope to include religion, home life, and education. They also hope to show how Muncie looked in different time periods - both the late 1800s and 1929. 

Virtual Middletown Archive While wandering Virtual Middletown, visitors can seamlessly access photos and other artifacts.

“The idea would be that you could have a walkable city - a portion of a city, like a condensed kind of microcosm. We’ll probably do a little Main Street, the Carnegie Library, a typical middle-class house, a worker’s house, maybe one of the Ball brother’s houses, a school, church, movie theater,” Fillwalk says. “We could show movies of the day, and you could sit and watch a movie. When it started it wasn’t a movie theater - it was a live theater. We could show those changes over time, too, so you could kind of scrub through time and see how the same building changed.”

What is next for Middletown?

The Center for Middletown Studies has several other projects in the works right now. Connolly is working on organizing a conference showcasing Chinese ideas about Middletown. “We’ve had a series of visitors from China over the past several years. I think it would be interesting for us to see what people from China, obviously a distinctly different society, see when they come to Middletown.” 

Also, a milestone anniversary is approaching for Middletown research. “I think the time for another in-depth study is coming. The obvious point to do it would be at the 100th anniversary of the first research, which was the middle of the 1920s.” 

The center is also looking beyond Middletown. “We’ve steadily broadened our focus to doing research on topics and issues that are not always specifically rooted in Muncie. They’re always related to the themes and ideas first explored by the Lynds, or developments explored by the Lynds, but we’ve really expanded our purview, particularly in the area of studying smaller cities,” Connolly says.

The center studies changing trends, and Connolly makes sure to use the most current tools to do so. “The other thing that we’ve done, particularly in the last several years, is really venture into the area of digital scholarship. The What Middletown Read project is an example of that; the Virtual Middletown project is an example of that. We’re trying to find other ways to use these new digital tools and techniques that are out there to both explore past experiences in this area and to pursue new ways of studying and preserving and documenting present experiences as well.” 

As life in America changes, the Center for Middletown Studies will be there to document it, Connolly says. “We always have our eye out for sets of experiences that help us really illustrate the changing character of contemporary American life.”