In the decades following the Civil War, many Americans migrated from farms and small country towns to the growing cities. Immigrants from several countries, including Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland traveled to America in search of better working and living conditions for themselves and their families. Between 1870 and 1900, the population of U.S. cities tripled. By 1890, New York became the second largest city in the world with 3.5 million residents, while Chicago and Philadelphia claimed more than one million city dwellers each. By 1920, nearly half of the nation’s population lived in urban areas. The diverse needs of the swelling population forced drastic changes to the physical and social make-up of the American city.
As buildings filled city blocks, architects turned their attention upward to create the first skyscrapers. Advances in the development of steel and the introduction of electric elevators allowed engineers to construct taller buildings that could pack more people and businesses onto a piece of land. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan transformed the Midwestern city’s skyline with an assortment of state-of-the-art steel high-rise designs. Sullivan’s famous principle that “form follows function” created user-friendly buildings that allowed people to comfortably live and work high above the ground.
At the end of the nineteenth century, roads and bridges connected city to city, and more Americans started commuting daily between home and work. Automobiles and electric trolleys allowed people to move quickly from business districts to residential neighborhoods, which led to expanded city limits and the development of the suburbs. Many members of the new middle-class—doctors, lawyers, factory managers, legal assistants, and skilled craftsmen—chose to live just outside city limits away from the growing crowds. The suburbs offered affluent families the opportunity to enjoy privacy and home ownership without giving up the excitement of the city. The introduction of modern conveniences and technological marvels, including electricity, indoor plumbing, the telephone, and the Brooklyn Bridge also created a glamorous aura that attracted thousands to the city.
The heart of the city was generally considered the business district. Banks, insurance companies, and corporate headquarters clustered in financial centers within walking distance from each other. The increasing size of office buildings downtown aptly reflected the healthy and growing economy. Businesses of all types, including factories, steel mills, and railroads experienced increased profits.
As businesses thrived workers earned higher salaries, and shopping became a popular activity, especially for members of the new middle class. Urban retail shops and giant department stores, like Sears and Montgomery Ward, displaced the rural “mom and pop” general stores. The modern stores, which stocked a wide variety of competitively priced items, were strategically located in shopping districts near trolley stops for fast and convenient access. At first, the stores attracted primarily well-to-do shoppers. But as machines began to mass produce standardized merchandise, production costs decreased and goods became more affordable for those from many different social classes.
The development of large department stores with extensive inventories also provided a wealth of urban job opportunities, primarily for women. To provide expanded services and meet growing customer needs, store owners hired young women as sales associates. As more women ventured into the city they became more independent, seeking jobs in other expanding businesses. By the end of the 1890s, approximately one million women entered the workforce as secretaries, seamstresses, telephone operators, and bookkeepers. Although most working women were young and unmarried from the lower social classes, teaching and nursing were among the few socially acceptable vocations for middle and upper-class women.
When stores added sporting goods and hardware departments, they attracted males to the shopping scene generally dominated by females. The commitment to sell sporting goods also reflected the growth of recreation and leisure time in urban America. Sports like football, tennis, and basketball grew in popularity because they gave men the opportunity to test their athleticism and enjoy time with friends and business associates. Country Clubs built extravagant golf courses and tennis courts exclusively for men and women members. And bicycling became a popular leisure activity, primarily with the middle class who could afford to purchase the $50 bikes.
Baseball’s claim as the nation’s pastime and leading spectator sport began in the late nineteenth century when professional leagues established teams in major U.S. cities. Although the game had been popular for years, even during the Civil War when soldiers put down their rifles to pick up a bat and ball for a friendly game, it did not generate a great deal of attention from spectators until it became “fan friendly.” During the mid-1880s, league owners lowered ticket prices, hired beer vendors, and scheduled games on Sundays when working men could attend. The changes lured fans to ballparks by the thousands.
Another popular form of urban entertainment at the turn of the century was the amusement park. Single adults, families, bank presidents, and factory workers all enjoyed the thrills of the mechanical rides. One of the most famous parks, Coney Island in Brooklyn, attracted sightseers from miles around. Inexpensive public transportation allowed people from all locations and social tiers to experience the park’s affordable and entertaining music, lights, food, and fun.
As city populations exploded, public education became a priority. Americans realized that ignorance would slow the social and economic advancement of their cities and nation. Education, they resolved, would create a more knowledgeable and productive population. Many people also believed that the opportunity to receive a formal education was the birthright of every citizen. The need for tax-supported elementary schools was recognized by political leaders before the Civil War, but it did not gain popular support until the 1870s. By 1900, more than six thousand high schools existed across the country with free textbooks available to all students.
The influx of immigrants played a major role in shaping the U.S. school system. As people from various countries moved to America, they brought with them different traditions from their homelands. German settlers established kindergarten classes for their young children, and Catholics, primarily from Ireland and Germany, stimulated growth of the private parochial schools.
While the school systems in the cities expanded to include young children and teenagers, millions of adults were excluded. In 1874 near Lake Chautauqua in New York, the Chautauqua movement was launched to offer adult education. Organizers offered courses for home study and staged public lectures, often held in tents, by some of the era’s most prominent speakers, including Mark Twain. By the early 1890s, more than 100,000 adults were enrolled in Chautauqua classes.
The improved urban education system generally offered better facilities and more resources than those provided by rural one-room schools. Public education helped decrease the illiteracy rate from 20 percent in 1870 to just below 11 percent in 1900. Free education, cheap transportation, and the conveniences of modern life successfully lured more and more people from farm fields and foreign countries to the growing American city.
The population explosion and modern inventions turned the city, once friendly and familiar, into an impersonal megalopolis that segregated Americans by race, ethnicity, and social class. City residents discovered that with growth and advancement came grim consequences. Between 1866 and 1915, more than 25 million foreigners left their homelands for the United States. Millions of newcomers had little money, a limited understanding of the English language, and no friends, family, or acquaintances to greet them upon their arrival. Unlike the highly literate immigrants who bought land and started businesses in America decades earlier, the new immigrants were largely illiterate and willing to accept low paying industrial jobs in the city.
To survive in the new and unfamiliar country, people who shared the same nationality often congregated in common sections of the city. Ethnic neighborhoods like Little Italy, Little Poland, and Chinatown soon sprang to life and served as transitional communities to help ease the shock of trying to blend into a new society. Churches and synagogues, along with ethnic newspapers, theaters, and schools, allowed newcomers to experience the freedoms of America and still maintain their native language and traditional culture. However, as more and more people crowded into these small neighborhoods, living conditions worsened.
Builders used every foot of space to pack in as many housing units as possible. The most common tenement plan, called the “dumbbell” because its design resembled a dumbbell weight, crowded thirty-two four-room apartments on a plot no larger than 25 by 100 feet. Some buildings featured communal toilets on each floor, while others required residents to use an outhouse in the alley. Typically, only one room in each apartment included a window and an air vent, so tenement dwellers had to leave the building to find sunshine or fresh air.
City sewer and water facilities could not meet the quickly expanding needs, and the tremendous amount of waste strained sanitation systems. Garbage piled up on porches and in the streets, creating an overwhelming stench and attracting hordes of disease-carrying rodents. By the late 1870s, New York City leaders passed laws regulating city housing and established minimal standards of plumbing and ventilation. The regulations, though, were rarely enforced.
The substandard living conditions led to an outbreak of health problems. Infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, were prevalent among the residents of the lower-class tenements. By 1900, three out of five babies in Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods died within their first year.
The harsh living conditions drove some to the city streets where they joined gangs like the Rock Gang and the Hell’s Kitchen Gang. Slum gangs typically relied on petty theft and shoplifting to survive, but many members moved on to more serious crimes, such as burglary and even murder. During the 1880s, the number of homicides in American cities tripled, and the prison population in the United States increased by 50 percent.
The rapid growth of urban areas also created a frenzied and confusing atmosphere that fostered corruption. As large numbers of poor immigrants moved to the city, middle-class residents, who previously filled management and leadership roles in the city, sought refuge in the suburbs. The void in leadership allowed the political machines created by neighborhood organizations to control the uneducated city masses.
City and ward bosses, like New York’s “Big Tim” Sullivan and Chicago’s “Hinky Dink” Kenna, often secured jobs or bought food and clothing for poor members of their districts. In exchange for their services, the bosses expected full and unquestionable political support from their followers. At the polls, the political machines instructed large groups of uneducated city dwellers how to vote. The people often helped the bosses elect corrupt politicians or pass liquor and gambling regulations. The immigrants typically had little vested interest in the future of the city because they frequently moved from place to place in search of their next job.
Perhaps the most notorious city boss was William Macy Tweed, a member of the corrupt Tammany Hall political organization that took control over the local Democratic Party. The 240-pound “Boss” Tweed used bribery, extortion, and fraudulent elections to steal almost $200 million from New York City. Although Tweed controlled many New York politicians, judges, and police officials, his luck finally ran out in 1871 when he was arrested in Spain by authorities who used political cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast to identify him. Tammany Hall continued to play a key role in New York City politics until voters elected anti-Tammany politician Fiorello La Guardia mayor in 1934.
Urban growth also sparked a new spirit of Manifest Destiny with many people calling for America to expand its territorial claims. Following Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory, certain intellectuals believed imperialism was the future for the United States. Both historian and lecturer John Fiske and Congregational minister Josiah Strong argued that the destiny of “Anglo-Saxons,” which they called the superior race, was to dominate the traditions, language, and blood of the peoples of the world. The men claimed there was no room for immigrants in the United States and directed American Anglo-Saxons to spread their Christian religion and superior ideals to the “backwards” peoples of the world.
As inferior living and working conditions, along with corrupt city governments, were creating a bleak future for many U.S. cities, reformist leaders emerged to fight for the rights of the urban masses. Social crusaders attempted to eliminate the violent crime, prostitution, unsanitary living conditions, and unsafe work environments that were plaguing the quickly expanding cities.
During the late 1800s, activists established settlement houses to provide guidance and services to poor members of the community. The workers who maintained the settlements, typically young, educated, well-to-do women, lived in the houses and actively participated in neighborhood issues. Settlement workers taught residents how to adjust to the American way of life and tried to educate them about morals and socially acceptable behavior. Unlike many members from the middle and upper-class societies who viewed charity work as their responsibility to help the needy, settlement workers hoped to benefit personally by experiencing different ways of life and learning first-hand knowledge that could not be taught in the classroom.
Although the settlement house model originated in London, it proved effective in America as well. The most famous American example was Hull House, founded in Chicago by Jane Addams. Addams was born into a wealthy family and became one of the first generation of college-educated women. With her job possibilities limited by her social class—teaching, nursing, and volunteer work were some of the few accepted careers for female members of the higher social tiers—she used her ideas and energy to help poor immigrants.
Opened in 1889 in a neighborhood filled with Greek, Russian, and German immigrants, Hull House offered English language instruction, health and nutritional education, childcare services for working mothers, and social activities to help ease the newcomers into the American lifestyle. In 1893, the women of Hull House, led by Florence Kelley, pressed for the passage of an anti-sweatshop law that protected women and children workers. A lifelong advocate for creating better conditions for women, children, blacks, and consumers, Kelley later moved to New York and served as general secretary of the National Consumers League. For years, Addams worked tirelessly to end war and poverty, and in 1931 her efforts were recognized when she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The second half of the nineteenth century marked an influx of crusaders fighting to improve social conditions in America. A farm girl from Massachusetts named Clara Barton spent countless hours gathering supplies and providing care for troops during the Civil War. In 1881, the “Angel of the Battlefield” secured financial support from John D. Rockefeller and founded the American Red Cross. The diminutive Barton directed the organization’s relief activities for 23 years.
Spiritual leaders played a prominent role in reforming the city’s poor. Preachers campaigned vigorously to persuade those living in slums to renounce their sinful ways. They warned that gambling, stealing, drinking, and violent behavior would keep the sinners trapped in the slums. Giving up the horrible vices, they preached, was the only way to escape the nasty, disease-filled environment. To support their dialogue, the evangelists founded school and recreational facilities in the slums to offer help and guidance to the unfortunate. These organizations eventually evolved into the American branches of the Young Men’s and Women’s Christian Associations (YMCA and YWCA).
The Salvation Army also became a formidable advocate in the fight against poverty. Members of the group dressed in military-style uniforms but carried musical instruments, not weapons. The band-playing Army became a regular attraction on street corners where poor, often unemployed, city dwellers gathered to listen to their messages of hope and to take advantage of free soup.As more and more people joined the fight for better working and living conditions, members of Congress began to feel pressure to become involved too. Lawmakers soon passed regulations to establish standards in housing and working conditions, wages and daily work limits, and labor involving women and children. However, landlords and business leaders fought back and, through legal actions, managed to have many of the laws thrown out.