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The life stories of undistinguished Americans as told by themselves

This is the title of a compilation of biographical pieces published in The Independent between 1902 and 1906. Hamilton Holt was the editor of the left-leaning magazine and force behind the project. Apparently seventy-five of these were published in the magazine. The initial compilation was published in 1906 and contained sixteen of the pieces.

There have been several other compilations printed more recently, none sharing all the same stories. Making Our Way was published in 1975 and includes the story of a New York policeman who explains the ins-and-outs of petty graft. Plain Folk was published in 1982 and includes an appendix which lists all the original stories. A later version that uses the original title was published in 2000 and has twenty-seven. For those wanting to read them online, I've assembled a hyperlinked index.

These are written in the first person. Some use vernacular, but the language generally seems to be that of the editors. I'm not sure if this was a purposeful decision in order not to expose the lack of education of many of the subjects. They tell of immigrant experiences, what it was like to be an African-American in the South (and North), work a farm, etc. Some give details of expenses, like the girl who works in a sweatshop and lives with a friend. They spend a combined $3.92 for food and rent per week. She says she goes to the theater "quite often" and could live more cheaply, but is "fond of the good things."

There are all sorts of surprising tidbits mixed in with the fascinating historical details.

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