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Industrialization and the Gilded Age: 1816–1900

Urbanization and Immigration during the Gilded age

Causes of Urbanization

Industrialization and modernization of city infrastructure led to rapid urbanization in the United States.

The second half of the 19th century was marked by rapid urbanization, the process by which towns and cities grow larger and become more centralized because of population shifts from rural to urban areas. After the Civil War, Americans began moving to cities in ever-increasing numbers. By 1900 nearly 40 percent of all Americans lived in cities. They flocked to urban areas in search of employment in factories. Agricultural work and other land-related jobs, such as ranching and mining, were difficult and subject to forces outside people's control, such as the weather. In addition, the use of new technology in farming meant fewer workers were needed to grow abundant amounts of foodstuffs. Factory work, however, was steady and seemingly never-ending. Factory workers were paid for the number of hours they worked rather than for the number of products they produced. In this way companies funneled profits away from workers and to investors and top executives.

Rapid urbanization of the United States was also facilitated by improvements in technology that took root in the 19th century but greatly expanded during the 20th century. The development of strong building materials, such as steel and cast iron, enabled architects to build tall, thin, multistoried skyscrapers. With electrification, factories, homes, and city streets could be lit by light bulbs instead of hazardous gas lamps. Electricity also powered factory machinery and the elevators that carried people to a building's highest floors. The invention of radiators meant buildings could be heated by steam rather than by wood-burning fireplaces.

The development of mass transit also made urban life more convenient. Vehicles powered by electrical cables—such as streetcars, trams, and trolleys—soon replaced animals as the main sources of transportation within a city. With the development of subways and the building of bridges, people living in cities could conveniently travel to the places where they lived, shopped, and worked.

Immigration and Urbanization

The population growth in America's cities in the 19th century was fueled by waves of immigrants mainly from Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

Two waves of immigration fueled population growth in American cities during the 19th century. The first took place from 1820 to 1860. Most of the immigrants during this period were from northern European countries such as Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia. They were predominantly Protestant, although some were Roman Catholic, and most were literate. Most passed through the cities on their way to other opportunities.

The second wave of immigration overlapped the first, bringing millions of people from southern and eastern Europe, mostly Italy, Greece, Armenia, and Poland. They were predominantly Orthodox Christians or Jews, and many were illiterate, poor, and unskilled. Many were fleeing famine, revolution, religious persecution, and poor economies in their home countries. These immigrants tended to remain in the city they arrived in, settling in ethnic neighborhoods named after their home country, such as Little Italy. Hundreds of thousands arrived each year. In 1882 alone, nearly 800,000 people immigrated to the United States. As a result, in 1890 over 42 percent of New Yorkers were foreign-born. In 1893 there were more Czechs living in Chicago than anywhere else in the world. By 1900 a third of the people living in American cities and 14 percent of the nation's population had been born elsewhere. A great number of Irish immigrants also entered the United States as part of the second wave. They were forced to leave Ireland because of a devastating potato famine in the 1840s, which caused the death of over a million people. Most Irish immigrants ended up settling on the East Coast.

Most immigrants who made it to the West Coast of the United States in the second half of the 19th century were from China and Japan. Thousands of mostly unskilled workers arrived in California. There, Chinese laborers found work on the railroads and in gold mines. The influx of Chinese was so steady that by 1880 one in every nine Californians was Asian.

Attitudes toward immigrants changed dramatically in the 19th century. During the first wave, the American economy was expanding rapidly and required workers. To fill jobs, Congress approved the Contract Labor Act of 1864, which allowed people to pay the fares of immigrants so they could work in the United States. By 1880, however, native-born Americans began to call for restrictions on immigration. Beginning in 1882 Congress passed laws barring certain groups of immigrants, such as convicts, criminals, and the poor. That same year the federal government also passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law closed the doors specifically to Chinese immigrants for a period of 10 years and was made permanent after that. It was the first law to halt immigration from a particular nation and would remain in effect for over 50 years. Likewise, the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 required the Japanese government to stop issuing passports to Japanese citizens headed for the United States.

Immigrants also came to the United States from Latin America. After the Mexican-American War, Mexicans who chose to stay in what was now U.S. territory were offered the opportunity to become naturalized citizens. Shortly afterward, the California Gold Rush attracted still more immigrants from Mexico. In the 1880s and 1890s Mexicans came to the American Southwest to find work on farms, in mines, and on infrastructure projects, especially building and maintaining railroads. Mexicans were viewed as strong, reliable workers who were likely to remain only temporarily. As a result, they did not meet with the resentment that confronted Asians and some other groups. But Mexicans made up only part of the over 90,000 Latin Americans who migrated to the United States between 1870 and 1900. Others came from Central and South America and from the Caribbean, including Cubans who came to work in cigar factories in New York, Florida, and Louisiana.

Immigration to the United States, 1820-1900

Except for a dip just before and during the Civil War, immigration to the United States increased dramatically between 1820 and 1900, peaking at over 8,000,000 in 1900.

Effects of Urbanization

Urbanization led to numerous social problems, including overcrowding, the spread of disease, and a rise in criminal activity.

With millions of people moving into America's cities, housing became a major issue. To accommodate the growing population, urban planners designed tenements. Tenements were narrow housing units of six or eight stories built in rows, often just feet apart. Few rooms in tenements had windows. Those that did faced onto the two-foot-wide air shaft that divided the buildings and provided the only ventilation. Tenements were poorly heated and had one or two toilets at most on each floor. The buildings were overcrowded, noisy, dirty, smelly, and dark with no green spaces or places for children to play.

With demand for living space outstripping supply, tenements designed to house around 30 families became home to thousands of people. In 1900 New York City's borough of Manhattan had nearly 43,000 tenements housing 1.6 million people, or 4,000 people in each tenement.

Given that thousands of people were living on top of one another in poorly maintained housing units, tenement living conditions were largely unsanitary and often dangerous. Fire was a constant hazard. Even buildings with fire escapes were firetraps. There was no garbage collection, so waste and trash were tossed into the street. The buildings were infested with vermin, and there was little access to clean water. As a result, outbreaks of infectious disease were frequent, and child mortality was higher among urban tenement dwellers than it was for other Americans.

Crime was another problem faced by people living in urban tenements and ethnic neighborhoods. Because these places housed mostly immigrants and the poor, they were largely unsupervised by city police forces. The lack of policing left residents vulnerable to crime, such as theft and fraud. Many of the criminals who perpetrated these crimes were themselves immigrants who had come to the United States as young, single men. Poor, overworked, and far from home, these young men became involved in illegal activities, such as robbery, gambling, or prostitution. Criminal organizations were often formed in immigrant communities to offer needed protection the local police force failed to provide.

Family Life in American Cities

Men, women, and children living in cities often worked long hours for little pay, but the availability of free public education offered city dwellers a chance to improve their lives.

Urban families felt the strain of living in the city. Many young people living in American cities worked to support their families still living in their homeland. When they married, the husband and wife often continued working in order to make a decent wage. In most cases, their children worked as well. Child labor was legal during the 19th century, and children were expected to earn their keep. As a result, children as young as 10 worked full-time in factories alongside adults. Full-time meant they worked an average of 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. It was normal to see small children on the streets selling newspapers, shining shoes, selling food, and running errands for pay. Some children labored at home assembling products, such as brushes and pieces of clothing, to sell to local businesses.

The cost of living in a city forced many couples to limit the number of children they had. As a result, birth rates dropped. Many women chose to delay marriage and child-rearing in order to work. In the 1890s about a million young, mostly unmarried, women joined the workforce. With their newfound economic independence, many began to demand their right to vote.

Thanks to the work of Horace Mann, a social reformer and advocate of free public education, and others in the mid-19th century, many cities began to build schools. Political leaders and social reformers believed educating immigrants would help Americanize them and prepare them for citizenship. Mandatory grade school education would not only help curb child labor but also provide American children with a basic education. Between 1870 and 1920 the number of children attending U.S. public schools more than tripled from 7 million to 22 million. As a result, illiteracy rates fell by nearly half, from 20 percent in 1870 to 11 percent in 1900.

Immigrants and women migrating to cities from Southern states pursued education at vocational schools. Training in a specific trade, such as teaching, nursing, or skilled labor, helped them find better-paying jobs and escape tenement life.
Sociologist Lewis Hine traveled the country documenting the conditions faced by immigrant and child laborers. In a cotton mill in Macon, Georgia, he saw children climbing the spinning frame to mend threads and replace bobbins.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-nclc-01581