American Life in the Late 19th Century

 

Carnegie Steel Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by Detroit Publishing about 1907.

Carnegie Steel Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by Detroit Publishing about 1907.

In the decades following the Civil War, the United States emerged as an industrial giant. Old industries expanded and many new ones, including petroleum refining, steel manufacturing, and electrical power, emerged. Railroads expanded significantly, bringing even remote parts of the country into a national market economy.

Industrial growth transformed American society. It produced a new class of wealthy industrialists and a prosperous middle class. It also produced a vastly expanded blue collar working class. The labor force that made industrialization possible was made up of millions of newly arrived immigrants and even larger numbers of migrants from rural areas. American society became more diverse than ever before.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is powered up and ready to leave the Durango, Colorado, station. Photo by Carol Highsmith.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is powered up and ready to leave the Durango, Colorado, station. Photo by Carol Highsmith.

Not everyone shared in the economic prosperity of this period. Many workers were typically unemployed at least part of the year, and their wages were relatively low when they did work. This situation led many workers to support and join labor unions. Meanwhile, farmers also faced hard times as technology and increasing production led to more competition and falling prices for farm products. Hard times on farms led many young people to move to the city in search of better job opportunities.

Americans who were born in the 1840s and 1850s would experience enormous changes in their lifetimes. Some of these changes resulted from a sweeping technological revolution. Their major source of light, for example, would change from candles to kerosene lamps, and then to electric light bulbs. They would see their transportation evolve from walking and horsepower to steam-powered locomotives, to electric trolley cars, to gasoline-powered automobiles. Born into a society in which the vast majority of people were involved in agriculture, they experienced an industrial revolution that radically changed the ways millions of people worked and where they lived. They would experience the migration of millions of people from rural America to the nation’s rapidly growing cities.

State Street in Chicago, Illinois, by Underwood & Underwood, 1903

State Street in Chicago, Illinois, by Underwood & Underwood, 1903

City Life

Between 1880 and 1900, cities in the United States grew at a dramatic rate. Owing most of their population growth to the expansion of industry, U.S. cities grew by about 15 million people in the two decades before 1900. Many of those who helped account for the population growth of cities were immigrants arriving from around the world. A steady stream of people from rural America also migrated to the cities during this period. Between 1880 and 1890, almost 40 percent of the townships in the United States lost population because of migration.

Industrial expansion and population growth radically changed the face of the nation’s cities. Noise, traffic jams, slums, air pollution, and sanitation and health problems became commonplace. Mass transit, in the form of trolleys, cable cars, and subways, was built, and skyscrapers began to dominate city skylines. New communities, known as suburbs, began to be built just beyond the city. Commuters, those who lived in the suburbs and traveled in and out of the city for work, began to increase in number.

Tenement Housing in New York City, by Detroit Publishing, about 1900

Tenement Housing in New York City, by Detroit Publishing, about 1900

Many of those who resided in the city lived in rental apartments or tenement housing. Neighborhoods, especially for immigrant populations, were often the center of community life. In the enclave neighborhoods, many immigrant groups attempted to hold onto and practice precious customs and traditions. Even today, many neighborhoods or sections of some of the great cities in the United States reflect those ethnic heritages.

During the final years of the 1800s, industrial cities, with all the problems brought on by rapid population growth and lack of infrastructure to support the growth, occupied a special place in U.S. history. For all the problems, and there were many, the cities promoted a special bond between people and laid the foundation for the multiethnic, multicultural society that we cherish today.

Rural Life

The United States began as a largely rural nation, with most people living on farms or in small towns and villages. While the rural population continued to grow in the late 1800s, the urban population was growing much more rapidly. Still, a majority of Americans lived in rural areas in 1900.

Kansas Farming Mural in the U.S. Courthouse, Wichita, Kansas by Richard Haines, 1936

Kansas Farming Mural in the U.S. Courthouse, Wichita, Kansas by Richard Haines, 1936

Many of those Americans had settled on the plains in the 1880s. Abundant rainfall in the 1880s and the promise of free land under the Homestead Act drew easterners to the Plains. When dry weather returned, the homesteaders’ crops failed, sending many of them into debt, farther west, or back to the east or south. Farmers began to organize into groups called Granges and Farmers’ Alliances to address the problems faced by farmers. Some farmers tried to launch a new political party, the People’s Party, (or Populists), running a candidate for president in 1892. Unfortunately, their candidate did not do well, drawing only about eight percent of the vote.

New machines for use in farming were invented in this period, but horses, oxen, and people still provided most of the power that operated the machinery. While farmers now produced cash crops, they were still remarkably self-sufficient, often making or trading for nearly everything required by their own families. Perhaps it is that self-sufficiency that gives rural life a special place, even today, in the minds of Americans.

Work in the Late 19th Century

Kennecott Power Plant, Alaska by Neal Herbert, National Park Service

Kennecott Power Plant, Alaska by Neal Herbert, National Park Service

The late 19th-century United States is probably best known for the vast expansion of its industrial plant and output. At the heart of these huge increases was the mass production of goods by machines. This process was first introduced and perfected by British textile manufacturers.

In the century since such mechanization had begun, machines had replaced highly skilled craftspeople in one industry after another. By the 1870s, machines were knitting stockings and stitching shirts and dresses, cutting and stitching leather for shoes, and producing nails by the millions. By reducing labor costs, such machines not only reduced manufacturing costs but lowered prices manufacturers charged consumers. In short, machine production created a growing abundance of products at cheaper prices.

Mechanization also had less desirable effects. For one, machines changed the way people worked. Skilled craftspeople of earlier days had the satisfaction of seeing a product through from beginning to end. When they saw a knife, or barrel, or shirt or dress, they had a sense of accomplishment. Machines, on the other hand, tended to subdivide production down into many small repetitive tasks with workers often doing only a single task. The pace of work usually became faster and faster; work was often performed in factories built to house the machines. Finally, factory managers began to enforce an industrial discipline, forcing workers to work set hours which were often very long.

Labor Union by Dick DeMarsico, 1954

Labor Union by Dick DeMarsico

One result of mechanization and factory production was the growing attractiveness of labor organization. To be sure, craft guilds had been around a long time. Now, however, there were increasing reasons for workers to join labor unions. Such labor unions were not notably successful in organizing large numbers of workers in the late 19th century. Still, unions were able to organize a variety of strikes and other work stoppages that served to publicize their grievances about working conditions and wages. Even so, labor unions did not gain even close to equal footing with businesses and industries until the economic chaos of the 1930s.

Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, December 2018.

Also See:

American History

American History Photo Galleries

Industrial Revolution

Who’s Who in American History

Source: Library of Congress

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