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The Age of the City


In the late nineteenth century, America’s industrial success resulted in profound changes in working and living conditions for millions of people. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people left the rural areas of America and Europe for industrial jobs in American cities. Fueled mostly by southern and eastern European immigrants, American cities exploded in size and soon became colorful medleys of ethnicity and religions. While traditional values would persist, immigrants were unified by their desire to assimilate. But rapid growth quickly overwhelmed the available city resources: severe problems rapidly grew in housing, transportation, and health. The search for order would be long and difficult. Underdeveloped or nonexistent public services contributed to soaring rates of poverty, crime, and rampant political corruption characterized by “boss rule.” Private reform groups made some inroads, but they could not overcome the scope of the troubles or sometimes their own prejudices. While the poorest waged life-and-death struggles to survive, cities also became vibrant centers for profound cultural change. Mass culture grew, whether a department store, public park, or a professional baseball team. Work remained an everyday reality for most, but consumption and leisure activities began to claim a share of the city dweller’s money and time. At the same time, some Americans sought higher cultural accomplishments as well. By the end of the century, public libraries, museums, and concert halls proliferated in every large city. The nation’s intellectual status was pushed forward by compulsory public education, the founding of many universities, and new ideas in science and medicine. The problems of America’s new “mass” society would continue, but so too would the rewards.

A thorough study of Chapter 18 should enable the student to understand:

1. The patterns and processes of urbanization in late-nineteenth-century America

2. The new economic and social problems created by urbanization

3. The technological developments of this era and their effect on society

4. The reasons for the rise of “boss rule” and its relationship with both urbanization and immigration

5. The early rise of mass consumption and its impact on American life, especially middle-class urban women

6. The new leisure and entertainment opportunities and their effects on social customs and attitudes toward race, class, and gender

7. The main trends in literature and art during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

8. The impact of Darwinian evolution on American intellectual life

9. The profound new developments in American medicine and education


1. How the lure of the city attracted foreign and domestic migrants and how these newcomers and established Americans adjusted to the changes in urban life

2. How rapid urban growth contributed to government mismanagement, inadequate housing, and precarious health and safety conditions

3. How the urban environment served as the locus for new ideas, technology, fresh approaches to education, rapid expansion of journalism and marketing, and a new spirit of consumerism

4. How the new order of urban culture inspired serious writers and artists to render realistic portrayals of the seamy side of urban life, while many middle- and upper-class American city dwellers were engaging in expanded forms of leisure and entertainment


1. What factors combined to attract great numbers of people to American cities? What were the characteristics of these migrants? How did these migrants change once they were in the United States? How did they change America, cities or otherwise?

2. Describe the problems created by the stunning pace at which American cities were growing in the late nineteenth century. Why did the institutions of American urban life respond so poorly to these problems?

3. How did the demographics of immigration to the United States change in the late nineteenth century? What problems were created by these changes? How were those problems handled by the immigrants? What were the various responses by the American society to these immigrants?

4. What problems were created by overcrowding in American cities in the late nineteenth century? Discuss the various technological and social responses to those problems and assess their effectiveness.

5. Why were reformers generally not successful in dealing with urban problems?

6. Explain the rise and persistence of political machines in late-nineteenth-century American cities? What functions did they perform? Offer specific examples.

7. Discuss the causes and consequences of mass consumption in late-nineteenth-century American society.

8. Why did organized spectator sports and other forms of mass entertainment come into being in late-nineteenth-century America? Why did they retain their popular appeal? How did they change society?

9. Why did much of the serious art and literature of the late nineteenth century function largely as social criticism? Was this supposedly “realistic” criticism in fact realistic? Was it based on a balanced view of America’s burgeoning urban culture?

10. Analyze the impact of Darwinism on American scientific and social thought.

11. What long-term impact did the changing nature of the late-nineteenth-century American city have on American culture?

12. Consider the social, economic, and intellectual life of any large city of the late nineteenth century. How might rural Americans have regarded the city? How did the large cities affect those who remained on the farm or in a small town?

John M. Allswang, Bosses, Machines and Urban Voters (1977)

John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in America (1985)

Stephan F. Brumberg, Going to America, Going to School (1986)

Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (1998)

Howard Chudacoff, The Evolution of American Urban Society, rev. ed. (1981)

Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940 (2000)

Lori Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth Century United States (1990)

Clyde Griffen and Sally Griffen, Natives and Newcomers (1977)

Allen Guttman, A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sports (1988)

John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (1978)

Desmond King, Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of Diverse Democracy (2000)

William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (1993)

Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of a Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988)

New York, PBS documentary (1999–2001)

James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty (1981)

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America (1981)

Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (2001)

Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (1989)

Henry Yu, Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America (2001)
For Internet resources, practice questions, references to additional books and films, and more, see this book’s Online Learning Center at

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