Living in the North

views updated

Living in the North


Urbanization. In 1800 America was a rural nation composed almost entirely of farms and small towns. People made their living working off the land or by manufacturing items in their homes to sell to the farmers who lived nearby. But as the economy changed in the 1820s and 1830s, the lure of steady work precipitated unprecedented growth in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and other cities, most of them in the North. New York, the nations largest city in 1810 with 100, 000 inhabitants, more than doubled in size in two decades. By 1840 its population was 312, 000. Overall, the nations urban population grew at a rate of 60 percent per decade. Although only one of every nine Americans lived in a city by 1840, the urban areas of the North had become important centers of commerce, industry, and manufacturing. They also changed forever the way people viewed their communities. Whereas people in small villages knew all their neighbors intimately, city dwellers were confronted with strangers every time they left their houses. The communal aspects of labor and leisure were fading. In a sea of unfamiliar faces people tended to pull back into smaller circles of friends, creating social islands usually defined by class. Distrust of those who were unknown or different marked the lives of city people in a way it never had before.


In Letters from New-York (1843) Lydia Maria Child, a member of the middle class, described the scenes of abject want that shocked wealthier Americans as they walked the city streets. On one walk Child first met a little ragged urchin, about four years old, selling newspapers, his voice prematurely cracked into shrillness, by screaming street cries. Then she encountered two young boys fighting furiously for some coppers while their mother, a ragged, emaciated woman, sat nearby and watched. As Child turned into the street where she lived, something lay across my path. It was a woman apparently dead. Those who gathered around, said she had fallen in intoxication, and was rendered senseless by the inforce of the blow. She waited until the woman was carried away, but when she arrived at home, she wrote, I hid my face in the pillow, and wept; for my heart was almost breaking with the misery of my kind. Many middle-class Americans felt as Child did, appalled at the vast differences between their secure, comfortable lives and the wretched conditions in which the poor lived. Their concern for those less fortunate helped fuel reform movements aimed at lifting the poor out of misery and degradation.

Source: Lydia Maria Child, Letters from New-York (Boston: Charles S. Francis, 1843).

Living Conditions. The rapid growth of Americas cities led to a crisis in living conditions that included the prevalence of contaminated drinking water, the lack of sanitary conditions for waste disposal, and the resultant spread of disease. Most urban dwellers did not have indoor toilets, so they used outdoor privies, the sewage from which often leaked into the water supply. In addition,

streets were filled with the manure produced by the many horses that were used for transportation, making an ordinary walk a dirty and dangerous proposition. Inhabitants also threw their refuse out of their windows and into the streets, where pigs, goats, and dogs roamed as the only method of trash removal. Improved living conditions came slowly to Americas cities, where they were enjoyed first by the wealthy, who began to build indoor water closets in their homes in 1815. They also lighted their homes with lamps that burned sperm oil from whales and kept themselves warm with coalburning stoves that were more efficient than fireplaces. In the 1820s some fortunate homes even received gas lighting. The urban poor, meanwhile, were lucky to have light at all in the evenings or a hearth to keep them warm in the winter. In 1815 slums began to appear in the largest cities, crowding the poorest inhabitants into cellars and ill-ventilated apartments. New Yorks Lower East Side housed more than eighteen thousand people who lived in the most unsanitary conditions.

Elites. Although America was founded as a republic and hence sought to discard the social stratification of the Old World, there persisted in the North a small aristocratic class that borrowed its notions of gentility from England. In the previous century many had believed that only those who were born into genteel families, and hence exhibited good breeding, could be considered part of this elite. But the Norths upper class came to differ significantly from its English counterpart in that its members valued hard work rather than leisure and saw themselves as shining examples of Americas work ethic. The new upper classes of the North were made up of the families of wealthy manufacturers, professionals such as lawyers or judges, and those engaged in real estate, finance, and commerce. They could be recognized by the fruits of their labor: their extensive educations, their fine clothing, their large mansions, and the elaborate furnishings within. In a climate of economic opportunity many of these families had risen to prominence in a single generation rather than inheriting ancient fortunes. Americans held dear the notion that anyone could strike it rich and rise in social status although only a small percentage achieved such a transformation in fortune. Equally important was the reality that a wealthy family, once it had arrived in the upper echelons, was not immune to fluctuations in the market and could be ruined at any time by an economic downturn. Membership in the elite was not as fixed as it was in Europe; the permeability of the boundaries between classes kept alive the notion that all were free and equal in America.

Middle Class. Between the rich and the poor, Northern society was increasingly dominated by a new middle class of merchants, artisans, factory managers, bankers, brokers, schoolteachers, and some farmers who were able to acquire enough money to provide reasonably comfortable lives for themselves and their families. They looked to the elite for measures of success and imitated their genteel manners, their fine dress, and their style of houses. Whole new industries arose that catered to the tastes of the middle class, producing items such as cloth and ready-made clothing, fashionable hats, cookstoves, iceboxes, and reading materials that could now be sold on a mass scale as the number of families who could afford them increased. Items that had previously been available only to the elite, such as Wedgwood china, carriages, carpets, and bookcases, came within reach. To some, such materialism and adoption of aristocratic standards stood in stark contrast to the democratic ideals of early America, but most saw the spread of wealth to more people us evidence of the nations progress.

Values. Although individual middle-class families remained vulnerable to the vagaries of an unstable economy (as reflected by the prolific advice that poured forth in the press for Americans to spend their money wisely and live frugally), the middle class continued to grow in numbers and influence. Its valuesthat education and self-culture were of paramount importance, that Christianity was necessary to maintain a moral society, that motherhood was a sacred duty on which the future of the republic rested, and that productivity was the sign of a moral lifewere widely accepted as the way to secure not only individual happiness but the progress of civilization, and many members of the middle class (both men and women) became active in reform movements that sought to extend these values to the poor, disadvantaged, or enslaved.

Urban Poor. In the cities of the North the gulf between the rich and the poor was so wide that many Americans questioned the efficacy of the burgeoning capitalist economy in spreading Americas wealth. In most large cities, only a few blocks from the opulent new mansions, elaborately decorated hotels, and fashionable boutiques, could be found hundreds of the poorest Americans living in the most wretched conditions. Lydia Maria Child, in Letters from New York (1843), vividly described the disparity of wealth in the city: Wealth dozes on French couches, thrice piled, and canopied with damask, while Poverty camps on the dirty pavement, or sleeps off its wretchedness in the watch-house. Many of these poor were newly arrived immigrants or the sons and daughters of farmers who had come to the city looking for jobs in the manufacturing and transportation industries. They were unskilled workers who performed heavy manual labor or monotonous tasks in factories for insufficient wages. Few men of this class could support their families alone, so their wives and children also worked as domestic servants or factory workers, contributing as much as one-third of the familys income. The labor required to keep a family fed, clothed, and sheltered was incessant, but the biggest worry was having no job at all. In an uncertain economy the working poor were the most at risk, and the threat of losing ones job due to a host of uncontrollable factors such as fluctuations in the market, illness, or injury was ever present. The streets of Americas major cities were filled with unemployed families who had no place to live or decent food to eat.

Immigrants. In the 1820s an estimated 10, 000 immigrants landed each year. Most were from England or Scotland and they had a relatively easy time fitting into their adopted country because they were Protestants and spoke English. In the 1830s immigration climbed to 60, 000 a year. In the late 1840s, when crop failures and political upheavals struck large sections of Europe, the figure reached 150, 000 per year. By far the largest group of immigrants to arrive in America in the first half of the century were the Irish, driven from their homes by famine resulting from the failure of the potato crop. Between 1845 and 1851 a million people traveled from Ireland to America hoping to find work and food. These new immigrants and other large contingents from Germany and Scandinavia were either Catholic, or non-English speakers, or both and had a more difficult time assimilating than had earlier immigrants. Most settled in Northern port cities, especially Boston and New York, where Irish immigrants would comprise approximately half of the population by the 1850s. Because they were unskilled, male Irish workers were relegated to menial jobs such as canal digging while Irish women worked in the textile mills or became domestic servants in upper-class AngloProtestant homes. Many Irish were unable to find work and filled the almshouses to overflowing. They also had to combat negative stereotypes that depicted the Irish as lazy, drunk, ignorant, depraved, and barely human. Nonetheless, because of the spread of universal white male suffrage, the Irish were able to establish themselves quickly in urban politics and would soon exert substantial political influence.

Nativism. Before 1818 there were no legal restrictions on immigration in the United States. Anyone who could afford passage was welcome, and no one paid much attention until the winter of 18181819, when America experienced its first wave of large-scale unemployment as a result of the countrys first banking crisis. Recently arrived immigrants were among the first to lose their jobs, but because it took a while for the news that there was no work available to reach Europe, immigrants kept coming in large numbers. When the scenario was repeated after the Panic of 1837 initiated the worst economic depression America had yet experienced, nativist (or antiimmigration) sentiment reached new heights. Many native-born Americans began to fear that the country was being overrun by the poorest and most degraded inhabitants of Europe, who because they would work for lower wages were taking jobs from American laborers. The dramatic rise in Irish immigration in the 1840s fueled these sentiments. Because the Irish were Catholic (a religion associated with despotic and monarchical governments in the minds of Americans with English ancestry) and quick to become involved in politics, nativist societies sprung up in an attempt to stem their influence. Samuel F. B. Morse wrote many articles on the subject, calling for an end to naturalization laws that allowed immigrants to obtain the vote after five years residence.


Gunther Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern-City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980);

David H Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (Chapel Hill: University of North Car-Una Press, 1988);

Stuart Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 17601900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989);

Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992);

Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

About this article

Living in the North

Updated About content Print Article