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Abstract

The Protestant ethic has been depicted as declining in America between 1870 and 1930, due to new consumer durables and less rewarding work. This study finds that the Protestant ethic did not so much decline as become transformed. The work ethic remained in force, while frugality weakened. This transformation is traced to three dynamic social forces: degradation in the quality of work due to industrialization, the decline of community with urbanization, and a dramatic increase in inequality. Consequently, social respect and social standing came increasingly to be sought through consumption, which became a proxy for hard work, entailing a weakening of asceticism.