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Between 1815 and 1900 the nation fought wars that protected its independence, expanded its continental frontiers, and subdued Native Americans; it survived a bloody Civil War; and it won a "Splendid Little War" against Spain that created an empire that included Cuba and the Philippines. These wars, especially the Civil War and Spanish-American war, occurred while the United States was becoming an urban, industrial, and multicultural nation. By the end of the nineteenth century, industry and technology, such as steam-driven ships and the machine gun, had transformed warfare. To understand the impact of war upon American society and culture requires an understanding of the underlying changes, such as urbanization, that were modernizing the nation.

During the nineteenth century, cities in the United States grew significantly. Factors such as large-scale immigration and rapid industrialization contributed to this process of urbanization. By the end of the century, instead of moving to frontier areas, Americans as well as immigrants settled in the country's larger cities. Between 1880 and 1900, the proportion of the urban population of the United States grew from 28 percent to 40 percent. Urbanization also brought with it important political, social, and cultural changes. In addition, the Civil War had an impact on the growth of American cities.

immigration and industrialization

The nineteenth century saw massive waves of immigrants arrive in the United States. The majority of these immigrants came from Europe, although there were also significant numbers from other countries such as China. Immigration was especially high in the second half of the century. Most immigrants settled in the largest American cities, thus promoting urbanization. Approximately 70 percent of immigrants lived in urban areas. All of the country's largest and fastest-growing cities had large immigrant populations. In 1890, for example, 80 percent of

the population in New York City was either foreign-born or first-generation children of immigrants. New York had more foreign-born residents than any city in the world. The large number of immigrants living in cities led to the development of immigrant neighborhoods and ethnic ghettos. Immigrant life was often very difficult. Immigrants were subject to a variety of types of exploitation and often remained poor. In 1860, 86 percent of New York City's paupers were foreign born. In response to the large number of immigrants in cities, nativist political movements emerged in the United States, reflecting growing hostilities toward foreigners. Immigrants were subject to discrimination and violence, as seen in the anti-Asian riots of western cities in the 1870s and 1880s. Anti-immigrant legislation also began to appear.

In addition to immigration, industrialization also contributed to urban growth. Many industries were located in cities, as urban areas possessed more workers and better transportation facilities. Led by the iron and steel industries, industrial production grew significantly in the post-Civil War period, doubling in the last two decades of the century. In Midwestern cities, meatpacking, flour milling, brewing, and production of farm machinery all contributed to industrialization and urbanization in cities such as Chicago. In the post-Civil War South, mill towns grew at a rapid rate as cotton mills became the symbol of the New South. Thus, by the late–1800s, more and more people moved to urban areas to find industrial jobs.

war and urbanization

The Civil War had a negative effect on a number of cities, especially those along the Mississippi River. The disruption of trade along the river hurt cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis. New Orleans was the fifth largest city in the country in 1860 but fell to fifteenth by 1910. Further to the north, St. Louis also suffered from reduced river commerce. Slow to innovate and believing its favorable position would always be an advantage, St. Louis fell behind Chicago in importance after the war.

In the North, draft riots occurred in a number of cities. The most significant of these draft riots took place in New York City in 1863. In particular, Irish immigrants in the city resented the draft, resulting in much violence and destruction, much of it aimed at New York's African-American population. The immigrants resented the city's black population, who often worked for lower wages. Furthermore, the rioters also were upset that wealthy residents could purchase substitutes to fight for them. In response to the rioting, the federal government sent in troops to quell the violence.

social, cultural, and political changes

One major problem associated with the rapid growth of cities in the nineteenth century was a housing shortage. By the time of the Civil War, large cities in the eastern United States had lost their open character as more people crowded into the cities. Population density grew dramatically, as urban residents moved into any space available, including basements, attics, and lofts. A defining characteristic of this housing problem was the presence of the tenement building. The term tenement came to be used to describe any residential building in a slum area. At first, the urban poor crowded into older buildings that had been divided into smaller units. During the 1850s and 1860s, many of these old buildings were torn down and replaced with new tenements with extremely small rooms that lacked heating and plumbing. These buildings could house hundreds of urban poor. Other problems included poor design, landlord neglect, and lack of governmental control. By the 1870s, the "dumb-bell" tenement appeared, which provided some light and ventilation. Whatever type of structure the urban poor lived in, problems such as disease, poor ventilation, and lack of basic services were common. As the number of tenements grew, slum areas such as New York's infamous Lower East Side appeared in all large cities.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the vaudeville house emerged as an important source of entertainment in cities, becoming the dominant form of theater in urban America. Earlier in the century, variety shows generally were seen as too risqué and seedy for most city dwellers. By the later part of the century, such shows had been "cleaned up" and transformed into mass entertainment acceptable to most people. The shows included comedy routines, gymnastic acts, and sentimental songs. While most plays and operas did not appeal to a wide range of people, the vaudeville acts were not aimed at a specific group or class. Furthermore, vaudeville reflected many aspects of the urban experience, so city dwellers saw themselves in the show. Furthermore, the shows were often seen as more egalitarian, as they were inexpensive. There was no reserved seating at the "continuous shows," and spectators could move about the theater during the performance.

Another characteristic of the nineteenth-century city was the rise of the department store. Growing cities possessed an expanded retail market. Many urban residents sought a lifestyle of comfort and luxury, demanding goods that included furnishings, clothing, and toys. Department stores emerged that conveniently sold all these items. Women especially flocked to the downtown department stores on public transportation. They were attracted by the stores' great variety, convenient displays in large, impressive buildings, and constant advertising in the metropolitan press. Like the vaudeville house, the department store has often been described as egalitarian, as all customers were treated the same, service was first come, first serve, and all women were referred to as "ladies."

By the late-nineteenth century, a major development in urban politics was the emergence of political machines led by bosses. The growth of cities led to increased demands on local government for services. The political machines met this demand. By responding to the needs of urban dwellers through charity and patronage, bosses then built up a voting organization. These loyal voters then helped bosses and their machines to win elections. Once in office, politicians then distributed government spoils to their supporters. The most well-known of the political bosses was New York City's Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall organization. Sometimes, the bosses and their machines acted illegally, breaking laws and resorting to bribes to win elections. However, they also built parks, schools, roads, and sewers, all to the advantage of urban residents. The machines also aided recent immigrants to the city, providing them with housing and jobs.


Barth, Gunther. City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Chudacoff, Howard; Smith, Judith F. The Evolution of American Urban Society, 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Glaab, Charles; and Brown, A. Theodore. A History of Urban America, 3d edition. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Monkkonen, Eric. America Becomes Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities and Towns, 1780–1980. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Schuyler, David. The New Urban Landscape: The Redefinition of City Form in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Ronald Young