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A major result of industrialization in the United States was the transformation of the rural, agricultural nation to an urban one. At the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), when the American colonists fought England to win their independence, 95 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, and most Americans were farmers. This was slowly changing by the time of the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery), when about 20 percent of the American population, or 6.2 million people, lived in urban communities, or towns with populations of 2,500 or more. Despite this there were still fewer than four hundred communities with populations of 2,500 or more in the entire nation, and in 1850 only seven cities had populations over 100,000. After the Civil War, the population of the country as a whole increased very rapidly, doubling by the turn of the century. By 1900 the population in urban areas comprised about 40 percent of the population, or about 30 million people. At that time there were 1,737 communities with populations of 2,500 or more, and thirty-eight U.S. cities had populations over 100,000. The trend toward urbanization never ceased. In 1920, for the first time, more people lived in the city than in the country in the United States, and in the early twenty-first century about 75 percent of the U.S. population was urban.

In the post-Civil War years, the rise of big industries, the expansion of railroads, and a tremendous inflow of immigrants led to the rapid growth of cities. As industries grew within a city, the number of laborers they needed rose beyond the supply of labor available locally. The promise of employment drew people from distant places. For example, in 1850 Chicago's population was only 29,963. The first railroad reached the city that year, and a dozen more connected to the city within the decade. By the 1870s Chicago was a center of railroad operations and railroad construction, and it was also a leader in the meatpacking industry and the home of agricultural machine manufacturing. Industries in the city employed hundreds of thousands of laborers. Some workers came from American farms, but the majority of new workers were immigrants from European countries, mainly Germany and Ireland, who had traveled great distances to find jobs. By 1900 Chicago was the nation's second-largest city with a population of 1,698,575.

Words to Know

The social process of being absorbed, or blending into the dominant culture.
A person who invests his or her wealth in business and industry.
infant mortality:
The percentage of babies born in a year that die before they reach the age of one.
A horse-drawn coach for hire.
settlement houses:
Places established and run by educated, and often wealthy, reformers to provide social and educational services to the residents of poor urban immigrant communities.
Severely overcrowded urban areas characterized by the most extreme conditions of poverty, run-down housing, and crime.
Urban dwellings rented by impoverished families that barely meet or fail to meet the minimum standards of safety, sanitation, and comfort.

The urbanization of the United States did not occur at the same rate among the nation's regions. The first large U.S. cities were all eastern seaports, such as Boston, Massachusetts; Baltimore, Maryland; New York, New York; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1860 about one-third of the population in the Northeast was urban, and it remained the most urbanized region of the nation into the twentieth century. The South, on the other hand, remained a largely rural area, though it did have some growing cities. Urban development began between 1820 and 1850 in the Midwest, as new towns and industries arose first on the accessible water routes and later along the paths of the expanding railroads that networked across the nation. The railroads made cities possible in areas where there was no water access, and were responsible for a great deal of the urbanization in the Midwest. Farther west, in the Rocky Mountain area and along the West Coast, most urban development did not begin until the 1880s. Many western cities were once part of Mexico; others were Indian communities. U.S. businesses eventually moved into the West, however, establishing industrialized agriculture, mining, and cattle ranching. As fresh populations moved in, earlier cultures were often enclosed in the new urban society.

The cities of the nineteenth century were as diverse as the people of the nation. New York City, the largest city and the financial capital of the nation, served as the port for nearly 70 percent of the nation's imports and 61 percent of its exports. Nearly half of the nation's largest industries had their headquarters in New York City. A vast garment industry and many smaller manufacturing businesses were located there as well. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had its steel mills; New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut, produced firearms; and Lynn, Massachusetts, made shoes. Some cities became known for certain products and companies. Hershey, Pennsylvania, became famous for its chocolate. Dayton, Ohio, housed the headquarters of the National Cash Register Company. Corning, New York, became known for its glass kitchenware. Memphis, Tennessee, produced cotton seed oil, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, gained recognition as the home of a number of famous German breweries.

The early cities

Before 1850 all large cities—those with populations over 100,000—were ports on the Atlantic Ocean. In these cities the harbor formed the hub of economic activity. Until the mid-nineteenth century there was little urban public transportation, so cities tended to be very compact. For example, about 85 percent of New York City's population lived within two miles of the city's center. In most early U.S. cities, residential and business districts mingled. Two-story factories, looking more like barns than industrial buildings, stood beside offices, stores, churches, and houses. The upper, middle, and lower social classes usually lived in the same neighborhoods.

By 1870 transportation by horse-drawn street railcars allowed residents to live farther away from their work. Cities spread out and divided into districts. As key financial institutions, retail shops, and entertainment facilities moved away from the residential and industrial areas, early business districts, with their clusters of tall buildings, began to emerge. Continued industrial growth and rapid population increases led to the crowding of laborers into congested areas surrounding the factories. Those who could afford it moved away from the industrial areas. A classic American urban pattern appeared. The heart of each city was its central business district. The business district was immediately surrounded by slums and working-class residential areas. Slums are severely overcrowded urban areas characterized by the most extreme conditions of poverty, run-down housing, and crime. Suburbs serving as residences for the wealthy were found farther away from the center. Many downtown residential areas fragmented into a series of neighborhoods divided by class and nationality or ethnic origin.


Even by the 1850s, it was clear to industrialists and railroad managers that the United States needed more laborers to build its railways and operate its factories. Many companies actively recruited for workers in Europe, promising land and jobs in the United States. Large numbers of Europeans and some Asian immigrants heeded the call. In the period between 1866 and 1900, over 13 million immigrants entered the United States. The majority of the earlier arrivals were from the western European nations of Germany, Ireland, Britain, and Scandinavia. These were called the "old immigrants," because they were the first wave. Immigration from Italy, Greece, Poland, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, and Russia became prominent by the 1890s, and these people were called the "new immigrants." Most immigrants left their homes seeking jobs and better financial opportunities in the United States. Some, like the Jews in Russia and Poland, left because of religious or political oppression. Most arrived with little money and no professional skills. Many immigrants were young males who intended to stay in the country only long enough to earn some money and then return home—and, in fact, many did return. Others settled permanently in the United States and saved money to pay for their loved ones to join them.

Although many immigrants came to the United States hoping to establish farms, the majority settled in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. In 1870 people of foreign birth made up about 33 percent of the populations of U.S. cities with populations of 25,000 or more, even though they only made up about 14 percent of the nation's population as a whole. Foreign-born people made up 40 percent or more of the populations of New York City; Chicago, Illinois; San Francisco, California; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Lawrence and Fall River, Massachusetts.

Not all immigrants came from Europe. In 1900 there were about ninety thousand people of Chinese ancestry in the United States, most of them men. Many young Chinese males had made the seven-thousand-mile trip to California to seek their fortunes in the Gold Rush of 1848, but few found much reward in the mines. (In early 1848 gold was discovered in California. By the end of the year about 6,000 miners had arrived there and obtained ten million dollars' worth of gold.) Though they intended to return to China, many stayed in the United States. A crew of more than twelve thousand Chinese laborers worked on the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s, building tracks across the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. In 1882 anti-Asian sentiments (due to prejudice and fears of job competition) in the United States spurred the country's first major immigration restriction, the Chinese Immigration Act, which prevented Chinese workers from entering the country for six decades. The act made it impossible for the male Chinese immigrants to bring wives or families to their new home. The men formed what became known as a "bachelor society" and Chinese urban neighborhoods called Chinatowns sprang up along the West Coast, with the largest neighborhood located in San Francisco. Most Chinatowns began with a temple, a cluster of stores, and gambling rooms for the entertainment of the single men.

The Chinese faced some of the worst discrimination as immigrants, but almost every group was met with hostility, suspicion, and prejudice. Assimilation (the social process of being absorbed, or blending into the dominant culture) was not easy for them. These immigrants had their own languages, religions, and histories, and they often lived in racial and ethnic ghettos in the cities where they could practice their own familiar traditions and preserve the cultures they had left behind in their native country. Their native customs would contribute to the diversity of culture in American cities in the years ahead.

Migrating from farm to city

Immigrants were not alone in moving into U.S. cities. In the post-Civil War years, millions of native-born European Americans moved from family farms to small towns, then to larger towns, and finally to the big industrial cities. Some relocated out of financial need. Economic depressions, often referred to at the time as panics, occurred during the 1870s and 1890s, causing many railroad companies to collapse. Without the railroads farmers were unable to get their crops to market, and many small farms failed. Additionally, people living on farms tended to have large families. As machinery reduced the need for labor, some farms could no longer support all of the family members. Young people from farming communities often left home to seek adventure, captivated by the stories they heard about the bright lights and prosperity of the big cities.

Streetcars Shape the Cities

The earliest urban transportation was the omnibus, or horse-drawn coach for hire, that bumped across the cobblestone streets of large eastern cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston beginning around 1830. By 1852 these streetcars were pulled along grooved rail tracks that lay flush with the pavement. This improvement increased speed and capacity, and decreased interference with other coach and wagon traffic. By the mid-1880s, hundreds of horse-car companies carried millions of passengers in many U.S. cities.

In San Francisco in 1874 a cable car railway system was introduced in which underground cables powered by steam engines were clamped to the trolley cars. Many cities followed suit and installed cable cars. Then, in the mid-1880s, the electric streetcar with an overhead electric wire was introduced. It could travel up to twenty miles per hour. Electric streetcars ran along street tracks like cable cars, but they were cleaner and cheaper to operate. By 1903 twenty-nine thousand miles of electric streetcar tracks carried 98 percent of the nation's urban passengers. As city streets became congested, large urban centers undertook expensive public works projects to build elevated tracks to run elevated streetcars or to dig tunnels to run subways. Boston opened the first American subway in 1897; New York's first subway line opened in 1904.

From 1861 to 1865 the American Civil War was fought between the Union (the North) and the Confederacy (the South). One of the main issues of the war was slavery; the North opposed slavery, while the South favored it. The South lost the war and all slaves were set free. For the most part, freed African American slaves in the South remained in the region for several decades after the Civil War, but a very slow northward migration was in its early stages. In 1870 about 68,000 southern blacks had migrated to northern cities. By the first decade of the twentieth century, that number had grown to about 194,000. African Americans faced prejudice in the northern cities and usually were forced to live in segregated (separate) neighborhoods. Many African Americans seeking urban opportunities tended to migrate to southern cities such as Savannah or Atlanta, Georgia, or Nashville, Tennessee.

The gap between rich and poor

During the period of the Industrial Revolution known as the Gilded Age (the era of industrialization from the early 1860s to the turn of the century in which a few wealthy individuals gained tremendous power and influence; see Chapter 5), large cities became centers of American high society. In New York the wealthy and powerful resided in elegant brownstone homes or fancy new mansions in uptown areas such as Fifth Avenue or Washington Square. People like Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (1830–1908), the "queen of New York society," and the Vanderbilts (heirs to railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt) lived in extreme luxury, with beautiful mansions fully staffed by uniformed servants. They wore the finest hand-tailored clothing and costly jewelry, and they hosted extravagant costume balls with lavish dinners and highly restricted guest lists.

The cities of America reflected the nation's economy in general, wherein the wealth was highly concentrated in the hands of a very small segment. In 1860, 2 percent of the U.S. population owned one-third of the nation's wealth, and fully three-quarters of that fortune was owned by the richest 10 percent. The workers, who labored long hours in the industries that made the capitalists (people who invest their wealth into business and industry) rich, owned practically nothing. They lived under miserable conditions, crowded into unhealthy tenements (run-down apartment buildings built for the poor) in the growing slums of the cities. At the turn of the twentieth century, 1.2 million people, or about 75 percent of New York City's population, lived in 37,000 overcrowded tenement buildings without adequate water, air, sewage, or garbage removal.

Indeed most large American cities during the late nineteenth century were overcrowded and dirty. Tenement buildings were hastily thrown together to house the exploding population of the working class. They were usually between four and seven stories high with several apartments on each floor, and most had cramped, dark, poorly ventilated rooms. In the absence of any garbage services, airshafts in the center of many tenements served as garbage dumps, creating a foul odor that spread throughout the building. Despite these conditions, rent in the tenements was high and tenants often found it necessary to rent part of their cramped quarters to other families.

Health and safety were in short supply in large cities. The streets in the slums were filthy as a result of inadequate drains and old sewers. Drinking water was often contaminated and epidemics of the deadly diseases typhoid and cholera killed thousands. Infant mortality (the percentage of babies that die each year before they reach the age of one) was very high. As many as one-third of all babies born in certain city neighborhoods died soon after their birth. Crime was rampant, and the murder rate soared in the large cities. Gangs forced slum residents and business owners to pay them for "protection" using thinly veiled threats of violence. (If the resident paid the gangs a certain amount of money on a regular basis the gangs promised to protect them against violence from other crime groups taking over the neighborhood, but basically this was just a way for the gangs to demand money.) Children in the crowded slums learned to steal at a very early age.

City Political Machines

Post-Civil-War city politics were among the most corrupt in U.S. history. Many American cities were run by political machines, power structures identified with political parties that were led by a boss and his associates. The political machines often had tremendous power over elected officials in the city and the state. Political machines ruled the city neighborhood by neighborhood. Each neighborhood was overseen by a ward captain, or heeler, who could deliver the votes of his district to the political boss. In turn he could win favors for the neighborhood's people, such as jobs, licenses, and contracts. Because they manipulated the voting system by granting favors, political machines were engaged in illegal practices, with some resorting to threats and intimidation, and others cheating government agencies out of a great deal of money. The extent of criminal activity varied.

Political bosses often had a better understanding of the needs of cities' immigrant populations than did social workers and reformers. Urban political machines provided many services, such as feeding hungry families, posting bail, giving families hams and turkeys at holiday time, and fighting to protect native customs. Many historians believe some city bosses played a vital role in developing city governments and services.

New York City was one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. In the 1860s its political machine, Tammany Hall, was led by William Marcy "Boss" Tweed (1823–1878). Tweed made sure that the governor and state legislature of New York were under his control. Tweed stole an estimated $100 million from New York, mainly by instructing all the city's contract workers to pad their bills, charging more than a particular service was worth. The surplus, or padding, was then turned over to Tweed and his gang. For example, in May 1870 a city commission authorized more than $6 million as payment for the building of a new county courthouse. Of this sum only about 10 percent went to the actual construction. When New Yorkers protested, Tweed is reported to have replied, "What are you going to do about it?" Eventually the elected governments recovered power. For Boss Tweed, the end came in 1872 when he was jailed on corruption charges. He escaped and fled to Spain, but Spain returned him to the United States and prison in 1876. Hoping that he might secure release from jail in return for his testimony, he supplied considerable information to the state, testifying frankly about many of his crooked transactions. He died in jail in 1878 before the court ruled on his case.

City reform

Social Darwinist theories promoted the idea that the gap between the classes was the unavoidable outcome of natural human competition (see Chapter 7). Social Darwinists believed it was wrong to help the poor, as it might upset the natural course of things. But as the century drew to a close, significant reform movements developed.

Jacob Riis

Danish-born journalist Jacob Riis (1849–1914) was responsible for forcing many upper-class New Yorkers to open their eyes to the misery of the working poor in their city. Appalled by conditions in the slums of New York, he began to photograph the poor and write about their problems. In his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives, Riis depicted dreadful living conditions and called for reform. He wrote newspaper articles that probed every aspect of city life for the poor: sanitary conditions, family life, and the fate of women and children. His pictures showed filthy children dressed in rags, overcrowded apartments crawling with rats and insects, and alleys full of garbage.

Jane Addams and the settlement movement

In 1884 a group of English social reformers established the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall, in London. The idea behind settlement houses was for well-educated reformers to live in the neighborhoods of the poor so that they could truly understand their needs. Settlement houses were centers of education for working people to provide knowledge to help them fight against their harsh living conditions. After visiting Toynbee Hall in 1888, American Jane Addams (1860–1935) decided to establish her own settlement house, Hull House, in Chicago.

Hull House residents and volunteers provided programs to help their immigrant neighbors. Educational programs included kindergarten classes, adult education classes, lectures, concerts, a nursery, a museum that emphasized the ethnic traditions of immigrants' homelands, and courses in cooking and housekeeping. There were also classes to teach recent immigrants to speak, read, and write English. Settlement residents also worked with their immigrant neighbors to seek solutions to the difficult social and economic problems. Hull House residents fought for and achieved many of their goals, which included building parks and playgrounds for children, providing clean and well-lit streets, improved health care, and better working conditions. The settlement house movement was the seed from which grew child labor laws, urban sanitation, juvenile courts, and public education. By 1900 there were more than one hundred settlement houses nationwide.

Improvements in the cities

It was not until the years between 1880 and 1899 that many middle- and upper-class homes were connected to city services supplying water, heat, light, and sewage systems. During the 1870s hauling fresh water into the house and carrying wastewater out was a daily chore for many women and children. By 1880 most cities of more than ten thousand people had some sort of municipal water supply for certain neighborhoods. People in tenements might get water from street hydrants or water taps in hallways. Most urban dwellers prior to 1870 heated their homes with stoves fueled with coal. By the end of the nineteenth century, middle-class Americans had begun to install central, coal-burning furnaces in their cellars that provided heat through a system of ducts and vents to the entire house. Working-class families generally continued to heat with stoves, being unable to afford the installation of a new heating system.

Light and electricity

After the Civil War, some homes were still lit by candles and oil lamps, but most used kerosene lamps that provided much better light. During the 1880s and 1890s, gas and electrical lighting replaced kerosene lamps. Most Americans first experienced gaslights at mid-century in public places such as city streets, department stores, schools, hospitals, and government buildings. If the homeowner could afford it and lived close to a gas supply, gas lighting offered a welcome alternative to the dirt and odor of the kerosene lamp.

In 1879 inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1939) and his colleagues at his laboratories in Menlo Park, New Jersey, demonstrated an incandescent lamp—an artificial light produced by passing electric current through a thin wire filament—that burned for thirteen-and-a-half hours. The lamp gave only a feeble reddish glow, but it was the first lamp that could be used economically for lighting homes. Edison used his new invention to light the town of Menlo Park, causing such a sensation that special trains ran from New York City so that people could view the spectacle at night. While Edison's early experimental lamps used electricity from batteries, he soon developed a generator capable of sustaining a large electrical system. He then began work on an underground electric-wire system for a generating station in the Pearl Street district of lower Manhattan. On September 4, 1882, the Pearl Street electrical station came on line, supplying power to four hundred incandescent light bulbs owned by eighty-five customers. In 1893 about five hundred households and one thousand businesses in the city had electricity. By 1907 about 8 percent of households nationwide had electric lighting.

Bathrooms and sewers

For most Americans during the Gilded Age the toilet was a privy (outdoor toilet) or a chamber pot tucked under a bed. People washed using a bowl and pitcher in a bedroom and took baths in a portable tub. Before 1880 drainage was managed by open ditches. Some cities began building sewage systems during the 1880s, but they were mostly for draining storm water, not wastewater. The result was that unpaved areas were likely to be muddy and dotted with foul-smelling and unhealthy puddles. It took decades before sewers were built to carry waste from individual homes. Even then it was difficult to convince landlords to install indoor plumbing and sewer connections. Indoor bathrooms with toilets did not come into general use until after the development of sewage systems and were not widespread in American cities until after 1910.

The cities blossom

Though their growth was too sudden to be graceful, American cities gradually improved in some respects. Libraries, parks, museums, churches, and a variety of shops became available to the public. Theatrical and dance performances, musical concerts, and art galleries were available to those who could pay the price of admission. Consumers were able to find a huge assortment of goods at the new department stores like Macy's in New York and Marshall Field's in Chicago. By the turn of the century, many cities had developed effective fire and police departments. Most of the nation's great institutions—universities, hospitals, and social programs—were located in the growing cities, drawing celebrated thinkers, activists, artists, and professionals from all over the world.

Chicago had an unfortunate, but unique, opportunity to redefine itself after 1871, when a fire destroyed much of the city. There had been very little rain that summer, so the wooden buildings of the city were vulnerable. When a fire started in a barn behind a DeKoven Street home, the surrounding buildings soon caught fire, as well, and the fire spread a distance of over three miles. The fire burned for two days, destroying thousands of homes and the entire business district. As Chicago prepared to rebuild itself from the ground up, architects from around the country arrived to participate. These architects concentrated mainly on office buildings, warehouses, department stores, and other commercial structures. Consequently, the style they developed came to be called the Commercial Style. They instituted major technological changes, including the widespread use of the elevator and central heating, which helped make tall buildings possible.

The rebuilding of Chicago led to a new age of skyscrapers. The father of Chicago's tall buildings was William Le Baron Jenney (1832–1907). His Home Insurance Building, built in 1885, is often regarded as the first true skyscraper. Jenney was the first architect to use steel framing and the curtain wall, a sheet of masonry that covered the frame instead of bearing the building's weight. Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) was the most influential of the Chicago school of architects. His modern skyscrapers set the stage for Chicago's soaring urban skyline. Though other cities did not have to start from scratch as Chicago did, they soon followed its example. The twentieth-century American city, with its towering steel and glass buildings, was born.

For More Information


Barrows, Robert G. "Urbanizing America." In The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America. Edited by Charles W. Calhoun. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1996.

Brogan, Hugh. The Penguin History of the USA. 2nd ed. London and New York: Penguin, 1999.

Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York and London: New York University Press, 1984.

Daniels, Roger. "The Immigrant Experience in the Gilded Age." In The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America. Edited by Charles W. Calhoun. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1996.

Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People's History of the Post-Reconstruction Era. Vol. 6. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Web Sites

"Urban Experience in Chicago: Hull House and Its Neighbors, 1889–1963." Jane Addams Hull House Museum, University of Illinois at Chicago. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

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