Chapter 19 toward an urban society, 1877–1900

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• Skyscrapers and Suburbs

• Tenements and the Problems of Overcrowding

• Strangers in a New Land

• Immigrants and the City

• The House That Tweed Build


• Manners and Mores

• Leisure and Entertainment

• Changes in Family Life

• Changing Views: A Growing Assertiveness among Women

• Educating the Masses

• Higher Education



• Progress and Poverty

• New Currents in Social Thought

• The Settlement Houses

• Crisis in Social Welfare






As the United States moves deeper into a “post-urban” society, we can see that the urban experience in America was an historical phenomenon that lasted a discernible period of time. It can be argued that Americans never developed an urban culture and have never felt comfortable with their cities. William Jennings Bryan, in his famous Cross of Gold speech, made the remarkable claim that all the nation’s cities could burn down without fundamentally hurting American society. Bryan spoke in 1898, when the modern city was just evolving in the United States, but students today may look at cities as the fossils of a dead past.

Cities did not grow at an even rate, nor did their growth keep pace with the population increase in the nation as a whole. The Census Bureau in earlier days defined as “urban” any incorporated area with a population of more than twenty-five hundred. It is not a definition that most of us today would accept, but even so, the urban population actually decreased as a percentage of total population after 1890. In that year, 56.7 percent of the nation lived in urban areas; in 1910 only 39.3 percent did so. It is further worth noting that city dwellers did not reproduce themselves. Their birth-rate was below zero population growth. Without immigrants from Europe and from rural America, the cities would have shrunk in actual numbers, but the immigrants did come, and they came in hordes.

As immigrants poured into the cities, city populations increased and population densities became massive. The seven largest cities in America around the turn of the century (with their approximate populations in the year 1900 in parentheses) were New York (nearly 5 million), Chicago (1.7 million), Philadelphia (1.3 million), St. Louis (600,000), Boston (560,000), and Cleveland and Baltimore (about a quarter of a million each). By 1910, fifty cities in the United States had more than one hundred thousand persons. Everyone was astounded at the crowding that city people endured. The tenth ward on New York’s Lower East Side, with a population density of 747 persons per acre, was probably the most crowded spot in the world in 1900. Some of its blocks housed nearly three thousand persons. Traffic jams were common, and civic leaders appealed to the populace to behave more politely on the subways.

Although New York consolidated its position as America’s first city, it was Chicago that captured the nation’s imagination at the beginning of the twentieth century. Starting as a small trading post and having a mere 350 persons as late as 1833, Chicago lifted itself above the plains to become America’s eighth largest city by 1860. Then, in 1871 the city burned to the ground and had to begin anew. The effort called forth the creative enterprise of architects and engineers.

Louis Sullivan, the most noted architect of the “Chicago School,” greeted the opportunity to devise an architecture that owed nothing to the past. He well expressed the city’s spirit in urging that a building “must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it.”

In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition and demonstrated in the “Great White City” what an ideal urban environment would be. Chicago, however, never did become a quiet place of classical temples; its citizens took pride instead in the city’s sweat-soaked image as “Hog Butcher” and “Freight Handler” of the world.

To house its teeming masses, the city grew vertically as well as horizontally; the skyscraper became the symbol of the new city. Once architects realized that they could use an internal skeleton of steel and iron beams instead of masonry walls to support upper floors, there was no limit to how high a building could go. If we accept the Guaranty (now the Prudential) Building in Buffalo (completed in 1895) as the first skyscraper, the pace of progress seems astonishing. That building was only thirteen stories high. In 1913 the Woolworth Building in New York was completed; it was fifty-eight stories high. People, however, did not live in skyscrapers. It is in the rise of drab five-story tenements and barbell apartment buildings that the history of urban housing is written. These prosaic buildings, which seemed to become slums the moment they were inhabited, quartered the armies of people needed to work the commercial and industrial wheels that kept the cities moving.

Urban slums became notorious in the late nineteenth century, and anyone who could escape, did so. Even when the only convenient form of transportation was a pair of shoes, there had been a flight of the wealthier to the outskirts of urban settlement. That process was speeded somewhat by the horse-car, but it accelerated rapidly when the electric trolley came into use. In 1850 the suburbs of Boston lay only three miles from city hall. In 1900 streetcars pushed the suburban radius to ten miles, bringing more than thirty cities and towns within Boston’s sphere.

Americans reacted to their cities so strongly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because they were something new to the American experience. Their power and their attraction could not be denied. What would ever pull a young man or woman back to the farm once he or she had seen St. Louis? There was danger and there was sin, but there was life and excitement. Already in the late nineteenth century, people were speaking of the cities as America’s new frontier. They still are.


The author begins this chapter with an account of the tragic death of a young woman in an awful slum as a prelude to his description of the overcrowding and horrible conditions that characterized America’s largest cities around 1900. Reformers felt almost hopeless in face of such monstrous problems.


Between 1870 and 1900, the city became a symbol of a new America.

1. Skyscrapers and Suburbs

The use of steel beams allowed architects to raise buildings to previously impossible heights, and the streetcar allowed those with sufficient wealth to move from the crowded city centers. Skyscrapers and suburbs became the defining characteristics of the American city.

2. Tenements and the Problems of Overcrowding

To house the enormous numbers of people crowding into the central cities, a new form of structure, the tenement, was created. Inadequate sanitation, air and water pollution, the stench of factories and human wastes, made the cities dangerously unhealthy. In addition, cities suffered high rates of juvenile crime, suicides, and alcoholism.

3. Strangers in a New Land

The cities were populated by the millions of immigrants who came to the United States in the late nineteenth century. By 1900 the vast majority of people who lived in New York, Boston, and Chicago were foreign-born or were the children of immigrants. Nativism again became a strong force, especially in the 1880s, when a new wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe brought millions of Italians, Slavs, Greeks, and Jews into the country. Organizations such as the American Protective Association tried to limit immigration, but without success.

This topic is discussed in the Feature Essay; see below.

4. Immigrants and the City

European peasants faced the difficult task of becoming American factory workers, but while doing so, they retained much of their traditional way of life and shaped the city as much as the city shaped them. Immigrants tended to marry within their own ethnic group, to marry at earlier ages, and to have more children than did native-born Americans. Immigrant associations helped preserve the language and customs of the old country, while aiding the process of adjustment to a new country. All immigrant groups started their own newspapers, their own churches or synagogues, and their own schools, all of which institutions helped preserve traditions.

5. The House That Tweed Built

Political power in the cities was shared by various institutions, including party machines headed by “bosses.” Some of these men, like William Tweed of New York City, were notoriously corrupt, but most merely traded services for votes and improved conditions in their cities.


American life seemed much the same in 1877 as it had been a century earlier. Most Americans were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who owned their own homes and led quiet, generally healthy lives. But urbanization and industrialization were changing all aspects of American life.

1. Manners and Mores

The late nineteenth century was Victorian in its morals. Middle-class men and women dressed and behaved “properly.” Religious values were still strong and underlay many of the reform movements aimed against alcohol, pornography, and political corruption.

2. Leisure and Entertainment

In general, Americans spent their free time at home playing cards or other parlor games. The general taste in music favored sentimental ballads, but ragtime was becoming popular. Outside the home, the circus was immensely popular, and organized baseball, football, and basketball began to attract fans. Street lights and streetcars changed Americans’ leisure habits. Evenings became time for entertainment and pleasure.

3. Changes in Family Life

Family relationships changed dramatically under the impact of urbanization and industrialization. Among the poorly paid segments of society, where everyone had to work, family life virtually disappeared. In middle-class families, the move to suburbia meant that the father commuted to work in the morning and was gone all day. Many middle-class women, who no longer earned an income, concentrated upon making their homes a domestic refuge from the outside world, but domesticity was never fully honored and it became almost shameful to be “just a housewife.”

4. Changing Views: A Growing Assertiveness among Women

“New women,” those who established themselves in successful careers and who could support themselves, increasingly demanded the elimination of laws that discriminated against them, and spoke openly about topics, such as menstruation, that had long been considered forbidden subjects.

5. Educating the Masses

Even though the states required young people to attend school, few students reached the sixth grade. Until the view of reformers like John Dewey became accepted, most teaching was unimaginative and routine, and students were not usually encouraged to be active in the classroom.

The educational problems of the South were compounded by segregation and rural poverty. In 1896 the Supreme Court allowed “separate but equal” school systems, thus condoning racial discrimination.

6. Higher Education

Colleges and universities flourished, thanks to aid from private sources and the federal government. There was greater emphasis on practical subjects such as medicine and nursing, and great research institutes such as Johns Hopkins were opened.

Women found it easier to get a college education, but African Americans and other racial minorities were usually confined to institutions like Tuskegee, only for blacks. African American leaders debated the future of higher education in a segregated society. Booker T. Washington argued that African Americans had to accommodate to racism and concentrate on practical, vocational education. W. E. B. Du Bois insisted that African Americans receive quality, integrated education.


Laws enforcing segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks in the South, which were informal after the Civil War, became more numerous and more stringent from the late nineteenth century to 1940. These laws, called Jim Crow laws, regulated everything from voting and education to public transportation and cemeteries. Lynching also became more widespread at the end of the nineteenth century. Prevailing attitudes in the North, including widespread racism and weariness after the Civil War, allowed these laws to continue unchecked in the South.

This topic is discussed in Law and Society; see below.


The dominant idea among many intellectuals in the period was Social Darwinism, which held that attempts at reform in society were useless and harmful. Nevertheless, some thoughtful people began to argue that conditions in the United States had to be changed.

1. Progress and Poverty

One of the most influential books of the era was Henry George’s Progress and Poverty. George convinced many Americans that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. His solution was to tax land, which he believed was the source of all wealth.

2. New Currents in Social Thought

George was not the only reformer. The “Social Gospel,” preached by liberal Protestant ministers, was an attempt to reform industrial society by introducing Christian standards into the economic sphere.

3. The Settlement Houses

Stanton Coit introduced London’s settlement-house idea to New York in 1886. The idea caught on and settlement houses, mostly staffed by women, spread around the nation. The best known, Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, offered classical and practical education to those who lived in the slums. The settlement-house movement inspired further reform and was influential in having a law passed in Illinois, in 1893, which limited the number of hours that children under the age of fourteen could work.

4. Crisis in Social Welfare

The depression of 1893 taught reformers that private charity was not enough. A new professionalism came into social work; attempts were made to study the conditions that created poverty; and reformers increasingly called for government intervention.


The United States was a society in crisis between 1870 and 1900. Great disparities in wealth were developing, racial tension and labor unrest reached frightening dimensions, and an economic depression raised doubts about the continued existence of the nation.


This essay provides background on and details of the immigrant experience, from arrival in New York Harbor through processing at Ellis Island.


Homer Plessy and the U.S. Supreme Court changed the lives of millions of black and white Americans. Plessy v. Ferguson was one of a series of court decisions that overturned Reconstruction and kept blacks socially inferior. Although Plessy was in essence overturned in 1954, the decision has a legacy that cannot be easily overcome.


Create a lecture that studies how national culture emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, characterized by mass leisure activities, standardized products, and mass advertising.

The chapter outlines the changing physical and social arrangements of the late nineteenth century and the varied living and working conditions for its different groups. In most cities, people were separated by class, ethnicity, and occupation, which often led to social distance, ignorance, prejudice, and sometimes even violence.
Compare and contrast the new immigrants with previous waves of immigration; specifically, address the themes of geography, economics, and culture. Additionally, identify which groups arrived as families versus single males and/or females. What problems did these groups face when they arrived in the United States? What was the nativist response to each wave of immigrants; how and why did it differ based on ethnicity? Identify the rate at which each group assimilated into American society.

DISCUSSION TOPICS (Broad Based/Theory)

Have students discuss the impact of urban poverty on nineteenth-century American social philosophy. Why has urban poverty been such a difficult issue for Americans to address?

a. Have students recall the Protestant work ethic as one of the earliest and yet one of the most lasting American philosophies regarding work, wealth, and social status. How did the new urban industrial society challenge this seventeenth-century philosophy that emphasized individual responsibility for wealth and that created a strong connection among work, wealth, and salvation (morality)? Did nineteenth-century urban middle-class Americans see in their urban industrial society examples of people who worked hard but reaped little reward, either financially or morally? How would that impact the strength of the Protestant work ethic as a social and moral philosophy?

b. How did the Gospel of Wealth and Social Darwinism address urban poverty? Do these social philosophies borrow anything from the Protestant work ethic? In what sense are they different from the Protestant work ethic?

c. Have students consider the debate regarding individual responsibility for wealth or poverty versus social responsibility for wealth or poverty. Have Americans resolved this issue yet? Invite students to share their opinions regarding the propriety or impropriety and the success or failure of modern-day entitlement, welfare, and social reform programs.


1 Discuss the issue of racial segregation in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Was racial segregation unique to the American South? Had it been a characteristic of antebellum southern culture? Why did southerners embrace segregation after the Civil War? What institution of racial order did it replace? How did segregation guarantee the preservation of white supremacy?

2 Discuss the impact of urbanization on American life. How did the development of cities impact the growth of slums, rising crime statistics, and sanitation and health? How did the growth of cities change local politics? Give examples.
3 Why did native-born Americans and older immigrants consider the new immigrants so difficult to assimilate? Were they correct in their beliefs? Discuss the impact of immigration on American public education. Identify the challenges that faced the public school system at the end of the nineteenth century. How did native-born Americans expect public education to support the assimilation of the immigrant population into American society?
4 Discuss the development of Booker T. Washington’s views on blacks and education. Would you consider his philosophy realistic, taking into account what was going on in the South at the time? How did other blacks criticize him?
5 Choose one of the ethnic and/or racial groups identified with nineteenth-century urban migration and explore the role of family in that culture.


Urban life and work in a factory or office made it difficult for increasing numbers of Americans to enjoy nature and outdoor exercise. Organized sports became an important way of overcoming the baleful effects of a sedentary way of life. In 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a teacher at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, invented basketball, an ideal urban game in that it did not require a large field. Naismith deliberately set out to invent a game in which there would be no physical contact. As he conceived it, there would be no dribbling, no dunking, no goaltending, and apparently, no rebounding. Nevertheless, because the game became popular among girls, it was attacked for its speed. Lucille Eaton Hill of the Boston Physical Education Society called for its abolition because “such excitement upon the emotional and nervous feminine nature” had a tendency to “unsex the player. . . .” For Naismith’s account of how he came to invent the game, see Frank G. Menke, editor, The Encyclopedia of Sports (New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1975).

Despite efforts to get urban Americans to participate in sports, most of them preferred to be spectators. Games of all sorts became organized and professional. By 1900 baseball had emerged as the national pastime, at least for males. Attendance for both leagues reached three and a half million in 1900, and almost six million by 1905. What is now recognized as the first World Series was played in 1903 between Boston in the American League and Pittsburgh in the National League. Fans could open to the sports page of the New York Times for October 14, 1903, and read about Bill Dinnen’s shutout of Pittsburgh in the concluding eighth game, and his strikeout of Honus Wagner in the ninth inning, “to the almost frenzied delight of 7,000 enthusiasts.”


1 Differentiate between the downtown district of metropolitan cities and the suburbs on the edge of these cities.

2 Describe the tenement and list the problems associated with the growth of large urban centers.
3 Describe the physical and social arrangements of the industrial city and neighborhood life.
4 Describe housing conditions in urban slums in the late nineteenth century, and compare these conditions to global norms in the early twenty-first century.
5 Describe the economic, religious, political, and technological factors that contributed to European migration at the turn of the century.
6 What was new about the “new” immigrants?
7 Identify Ellis Island and explain its social significance.
8 Explain the operation of urban political machines.
9 Discuss political factors of the era and describe a Mugwump.
10 Examine how technological changes improved urban life.
11 Describe the growth of popular amusements such as vaudeville and spectator sports.
12 Distinguish among the leisure activities associated with the wealthy, middle, and working classes of the late nineteenth century.
13 Explain the distinctions between downtown centers and residential suburbs at the turn of the century.
14 Describe the role of gender and the consumer-oriented lifestyle of the new urban middle class.
15 Explain the impact of social changes on education and the impact of education on social mobility.
16 How did the American educational system change to prepare children for their adult roles in the new industrial economy?
17 Define the term “segregation” and explain how this system of racial separation was implemented in the postwar South. Explain the Supreme Court ruling in the case Plessy v. Ferguson.
18 Identify Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Compare and contrast their approaches to black empowerment in the United States at the turn of the century.
19 Define the terms “The Gospel of Wealth” and “Social Darwinism” and explain how these ideologies served to discourage efforts to alleviate urban poverty.
20 Did “laissez-faire” really mean that the government did not intervene in the economy?
21 What was the Social Gospel?
22 Discuss the settlement house movement.
23 Discuss the roots and impact of institutionalized racism.
24 Describe the steps that stripped blacks of their political rights and the implementation of “Jim Crow” laws, and outline the various black responses.


1 What were the main economic, social, and political characteristics of the new urban society?

Economic characteristics included long working hours, a growing labor movement, crime, poverty, and homelessness. This society was also characterized by women and children in the workforce, particularly in industrial production jobs.
One of the main social characteristics of this society was overcrowding. Tenements were large buildings in which large families occupied small apartments with poor sanitation and unsanitary drinking water. Most often these tenements were filled with non-English-speaking immigrants who clustered in ethnic neighborhoods. At the same time, the middle class moved out to the suburbs as a result of improved transportation that gave them the ability to commute to work. Additional social changes during this period included free and compulsory public schools that increased literacy and worsening Jim Crow laws in the South.
Political characteristics of the time were urban politics run by political “machines” such as that run by “Boss Tweed.” These political machines were characterized by graft and bribery of law and code enforcement officers.
2 In what ways did the social and cultural changes of urban society affect fundamental outlooks on the family, the role of women, and education, and lead to demands for reform?
During this period, urban women were increasingly entering the workforce, which took their focus away from their families. Children also entered the workforce at ages as young as eleven. As a result, family life was nonexistent for those who lived in tenements and worked in factories.
Such conditions led to reforms such as increased public schooling and social welfare agencies like settlement houses, which offered services such as English language lessons to those who otherwise would not have had a chance to learn. Additionally, the growing prohibition movement sought to curtail the alcoholism that plagued the working class of the time.
3 How did reform-minded critics try to meet the challenges of urban growth?
Sociologists developed data and insights to social problems. Utopianism, anarchism, and socialism grew in popularity. However, actual reforms focused on volunteerism rather than government. Settlement houses cared for children and supplemented public education, particularly by teaching English to immigrants.


Suggested Documentaries and Films:

Destination America, Discovery Channel, 30 minutes.

This program examines the history of American sentiment regarding immigration and asks whether Americans have historically regarded it as a right or a privilege.

Ellis Island, A&E Video, 150 minutes.

This video is a four-part chronicle of the gateway for immigration at the turn of the century, drawing heavily from interviews from the Ellis Island Oral History Project.

Far and Away (140 minutes), Imagine Films (1992). Directed by Ron Howard.

Irish immigrants caught in Boston and the Oklahoma Land Rush

W.E.B. Du Bois of Great Barrington, WBBY, Springfield, MA, 1992, 60 minutes.

This film records the life of Du Bois, an advocate of civil and political rights and one of the founders of the NAACP.


1 Have the students read the entire essay, the “Gospel of Wealth” at the website below and be prepared to compare and contrast Carnegie’s philosophies with the attitude toward wealth held by current entrepreneurs such as Donald Trump or Sam Walton’s heirs.
2 Have the students create a dialogue between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois (see also Chapter 21). Compare and contrast their family background and upbringing. How did they differ on the best way for African Americans to achieve prosperity and pride? Compare and contrast the writing and speeches of each; specifically Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Speech of 1895 and later writings by Du Bois in the NAACP’s publication The Crisis.
3 Propose the following assignment:
Imagine yourself to be an immigrant from Eastern Europe who has come to the United States for work. If you were to write a letter to relatives at home, would you tell them to join you or not? What would some of your comments be about housing, work, and opportunity?
4 Photographs of urban life by Jacob Riis and others can provide the basis for a slide lecture and in-class analysis of urban conditions, as well as for a paper. They offer an excellent opportunity for students to consider the photographer’s point of view.


  • Read the Document: Charles Loring Brace, “The Life of the Street Rats”

  • View the Closer Look: Group of Emigrants (Women and Children) from Eastern Europe on the Deck of the S.S. Amsterdam

  • Watch the Video: Ellis Island Immigrants

  • View the Map: Immigration, 1880–1920

  • Complete the Assignment: Ellis Island: Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears

  • Watch the Video: Democracy and Corruption: The Rise of Political Machines

  • Read the Document: The Morrill Act (1862)

  • Hear the Audio: Address at the Atlanta Exposition by Booker T. Washington

  • Read the Document: Edward Bellamy, from Looking Backward

  • Read the Document: Jane Addams, from Twenty Years at Hull House

  • Complete the Assignment: Law and Society, Plessy v. Ferguson: The Shaping of Jim Crow.

Copyright © 2013 Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458. All rights reserved.

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