1890s New York City
Urban industrial development, combined with mass transportation and urban growth, destroyed the old pedestrian city of the past. The physical expansion of the city attracted industry, capital, and people. By the early 1900s, the modern American city, with its urban sprawl and distinct districts, was clearly taking shape.
Cities grow in three ways: through physical expansion, by natural increase, and through migration and immigration. In the late nineteenth century, in-migration from domestic and foreign sources was the most important cause of urban growth, with native whites, foreigners, and African Americans being the three major migrant groups of the period. We consider why these groups moved to the cities, how they differed from and resembled each other, and, in the case of immigrants, how they differed from and resembled earlier immigrants.
American society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was, even more than today, a transient society. There was constant movement to and from geographic areas and constant movement within urban areas. Migration, in fact, provided one of the two paths to improved opportunity, with occupational change being the second path. Within the context of the discussion of paths to improved opportunity, we dispel certain myths concerning the availability and extent of upward mobility and look at the limiting impact of sexism and racism.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ethnic enclaves or immigrant districts emerged in America’s urban areas as migrants and the “new” immigrants poured into the country. Within these districts there was constant cultural interaction between foreign immigrants and American society. Therefore, as is stated in the text: “Rather than yield completely to pressures to assimilate, migrants and immigrants interacted with the urban environment in a complex way that enabled them to retain their identity while also altering both their own outlook and the social structure of cities themselves.” At the same time, we find the emergence of multiethnic neighborhoods, called urban borderlands, in such industrial cities as Chicago and Detroit. Some ethnic groups, most notably African Americans, Asian immigrants, and Mexicans, met with prejudicial attitudes and discrimination. Overall, however, we find that the city of the late nineteenth century nurtured the cultural diversity that so strongly characterizes modern America.
Rapid urban growth created and then intensified urban problems such as inadequate housing, overcrowding, and intolerable living conditions. This situation led to reforms that strengthened the hand of local government in regulating the construction of housing, but American attitudes toward the profit motive and toward private enterprise placed limits on the reforms enacted.
Although scientific and technological breakthroughs improved urban life, the burden of urban poverty remained. While some reformers began to look to environmental factors to explain poverty, traditional attitudes toward poverty—attitudes that blamed the victim—restricted what most Americans were willing to do to alleviate poverty. Even private agencies insisted on extending aid only to the “worthy poor” and on teaching the moral virtues of thrift and sobriety.
Urban areas also had to contend with crime and violence. Whether crime actually increased or was merely more conspicuous can be debated, but in many cases native whites blamed crime on those they considered to be “outsiders” in American society—foreigners and blacks. The ethnic diversity of the cities, combined with urban overcrowding and uncertain economic conditions, hardened antiforeign and white-racist attitudes and increased the incidence of violence in urban areas. Uneven, sometimes prejudicial, application of laws by law enforcement officials raised questions about the nature of justice, equality, and individual freedom in American society.
As America became a culturally pluralistic society, interest groups often competed for influence and opportunity in the political arena. This competition and the rapidity of change in the urban environment caused confusion. In the midst of this confusion, political machines and political bosses emerged to bring some order out of chaos. Eventually, however, a civic reform movement developed. Most reformers strove for efficiency and focused on structural reform in city government. Some concerned themselves with social reform and with city planning and city design. Whatever the goal, American attitudes limited and undermined these reforms. As noted in the textbook, “urban reform merged idealism with naiveté and insensitivity.”
Despite these limiting attitudes, there were technical accomplishments in solving problems such as sanitation, garbage disposal, streetlighting, and bridge and street building. In this respect city engineers, who applied their technical expertise to urban problems, became very important to city governments. Furthermore, engineers also had a tremendous impact on the home life of Americans.
In “Family Life,” the focus of the chapter shifts to a discussion of the family in American society and American life. Once distinctions are made between the household and the family, we identify the factors responsible for the high percentage of nuclear families. We also note the varying ways in which households expanded and contracted to meet changing circumstances. Changes in society changed family, as well as individual, lifestyles. Reduction in family size freed adults at an earlier age from the responsibilities of parenthood. Longer life expectancy increased the number of older adults. Childhood and adolescence became more distinct stages of life. As the authors state: “People’s roles in school, in the family, on the job, and in the community came to be determined by age more than by any other characteristic.”
The leisure-time revolution brought about by labor-saving devices and by a shortened workweek changed the American way of life. As the average workweek decreased to forty-seven hours by 1910, individuals turned to croquet and bicycling as favorite leisure activities. Entertaining the public through spectator sports, show business, and motion pictures became a profitable business endeavor. Even news was transformed into big business and a mass commodity by the “yellow journalism” tactics of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
Mass entertainment and mass culture had a nationalizing effect; however, even though show business provided new opportunities for women, blacks, and immigrants, too often it reinforced prejudicial stereotypes—especially concerning black Americans. Furthermore, in an America that was becoming more culturally diverse, different groups pursued their own form of leisure. This often caused concern on the part of some reformers who tended to label individuals as un-American if their activities did not conform to the Puritan traditions of the nation’s past. These reformers wanted to use government to impose their values and lifestyles on immigrant groups. These attempts to create a homogeneous society led to questions concerning the role of government in society and in the life of the individual, questions that are as relevant today as they were in the late nineteenth century.
The cultural pluralism that resulted from the late nineteenth-century influx of immigrants, African Americans, and native white Americans into expanding cities is one of the dominant characteristics of modern America. This heterogeneity is one of America’s greatest strengths and has created the richness and the variety that is modern America. In large measure, this diversity is also a reason for the failure of attempts to enforce homogeneity, because the very presence of a number of competing cultural groups prevented any one group from becoming dominant. This has meant, overall, the continued protection of individual rights and the gradual inclusion of more and more groups under the protective umbrella of the Bill of Rights.
Politics and the State: 1876-1900
1866 National Labor Union founded.
1867 National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry founded.
1868 Fourteenth Amendment explicitly restricts suffrage to males.
1869 Knights of Labor founded.
1873 Congress passes the Coinage Act, terminating the minting of silver dollars.
1874 Greenback Party organized.
1875 Congress passes the Resumption Act. Supreme Court rules in Minor v. Happersett that right to vote is not inherent in citizenship.
1877 The Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Southern Farmers Alliance organized.
Supreme Court decides Munn v. Illinois.
1881 President James Garfield assassinated. Chester Arthur sworn in.
1883 Congress passes the Pendleton Act, creating a Civil Service Commission.
1885 First appearance in print of the word "unemployment."
1886 American Federation of Labor founded. May Day strike for the eight-hour workday. Haymarket Square bombing.
1887 Congress passes the Interstate Commerce Act.
1890s Southern states pass laws aimed at disfranchising blacks.
1890 National American Woman's Suffrage Association founded. Congress passes the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Congress passes the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
1892 Formation of the People?s Party. Grover Cleveland elected president.
1893 Congress repeals all laws authorizing federal supervision of southern elections. Panic of 1893 triggers severe depression. Sherman Silver Purchase Act repealed
1894 Pullman Strike.
1895 Supreme Court issues three decisions U.S. v. E.C. Knight, In Re Debs, and Pollack v. Farmers Loan and Trust Co. restricting state regulatory laws.
1896 William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan to win presidency.
1900 Congress passes Gold Standard Act.
Demographic Changes: The late nineteenth century witnessed an incredible growth in urban areas, fueled primarily by waves of immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world. Many of these so-called "new" immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe, gradually replacing the earlier patterns of immigration from northern Europe, known as the "old" immigration. In addition, a significant internal migration occurred following the Civil War, driven largely by men and women from rural areas and African Americans from the South who moved to cities in search of new economic opportunities.
Economic Transformations: The development of railroads and other forms of transportation and communication helped to facilitate the growth of a national market in the post1865 period. As more and more Americans came to reside in urban areas, the growing prosperity produced by the Second Industrial Revolution, particularly among the middle class, helped to create a mass consumer society. Large retail chains and mail order houses took advantage of economies of scale to drive out smaller competitors, making their goods available to people in all parts of the country.
Culture: Mechanization and greater efficiency of production changed how Americans used their time. The development of new American conceptions of leisure helped to produce greater emphasis on recreation and entertainment, especially in the areas of spectator sports, music and theater, and later, the movies. These new forms of recreation tended to have an intensely public character, although they often remained divided along racial, ethnic, class, and gender lines. In the intellectual realm, the growing popularity of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution produced an intellectual revolution in the United States, fueling the growth of the social sciences, but also creating a long running split between its followers and its opponents, a split that continues today.
Politics and Citizenship: Municipal governments, reflecting the period's individualist ethos, were unable to meet the growing needs of their largely immigrant populations. Urban political machines, which were frequently corrupt and dishonest but nonetheless provided needed services to their constituents, filled the vacuum. Middle-class Americans became concerned about this system, which they dubbed "boss rule," and gradually sought to replace these machines with more honest, efficient government, leading to the eventual emergence of the Progressive movement at the end of the nineteenth century.
American Identity: The growth of the city in many ways transformed Americans' conception of their nation's character. Urbanization challenged the longstanding Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of small, independent farmers. The Hamiltonian vision of an industrial republic triumphed in the Civil War and continued into the postwar period. While the growth of cities brought numerous benefits, it also forced the United States to come to terms with many of the social problems that had plagued Europe and other parts of the world, undermining the long-running belief in American exceptionalism.