The Rise of the City

The Rise of the City

The industrialization of America led to incredible population growth in urban centers; by 1900, 40 percent of Americans lived in cities.

Learning Objectives

Describe the effects mass urbanization had on American life

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • With the growth in population, crime and disease increased.
  • When more people moved into cities, architecture shifted to accommodate them, and the first skyscrapers appeared.
  • In 1870, there were only two American cities with a population of more than 500,000, but by 1900, there were six, and three of these—New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia—had more than one million inhabitants.
  • When public-transit systems grew, allowing people to move further away, wealthier families moved outside of the city, creating the suburbs.

Key Terms

  • mass transit: A large-scale transportation system in which the passengers do not travel in their own vehicles.
  • immigrant: A person who comes to a country from another country in order to permanently settle in the new country.
  • urbanization: The process of the formation and growth of cities.

The industrialization of the late nineteenth century brought on rapid urbanization. The increasing factory businesses created many job opportunities in cities, and people began to flock from rural, farm areas, to large urban locations. Minorities and immigrants added to these numbers. Factory jobs were the only jobs some immigrants could get, and as more came to the cities to work, the larger the urbanization process became.


Wainwright Building, St. Louis: The Wainwright Building in St. Louis, finished in 1891, exemplifies architect Louis Sullivan's ideas of form following function, which was a new principle in urban architecture of the period.

In 1870, there were only two American cities with a population of more than 500,000, but by 1900, there were six. Three of these—New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia—had more than one million inhabitants. Roughly 40 percent of Americans lived in cities, and the number was climbing. These large city populations caused crime rates to rise, and disease to spread rapidly. As a result of unsanitary living conditions, diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever struck urban areas with increasing frequency. Cities responded by paving streets, digging sewers, sanitizing water, constructing housing, and creating public transportation systems.

Not only did urbanization cause cities to grow in population, but it also caused buildings to grow higher and larger. Skyscrapers were being built in the cities and the idea of mass transit had begun to take root. Mass-transit systems allowed people to commute to work from farther distances. Suburbs were beginning to form as upper class families began to move out of the overcrowded cities.

The period between 1865 and 1920 was marked by the increasing concentration of people, political power, and economic activity in urban areas. New large cities, such as Denver, Chicago, and Cleveland, developed inland along new transportation routes. The first 12 presidents of the United States had all been born into farming communities, but between 1865 and 1912, the presidency was filled by men with backgrounds representing businesses and cities.

Tenements and Overcrowding

As the United States industrialized in the nineteenth century, immigrants and workers from the countryside were housed in tenements.

Learning Objectives

Assess the hazards of tenement living in the late nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Among the problems new city dwellers faced were the dangers of tenement living, as buildings were often overcrowded and filthy, and had limited access to clean water.
  • Because tenement houses were so overcrowded, fire safety was a constant concern.
  • Jacob Riis 's book, How the Other Half Lives, was a key step in raising public awareness about the poor living conditions in tenements.
  • The Tenement House Act of 1901 required a number of reforms to make tenements safer and cleaner.

Key Terms

  • Jacob Riis: A Danish American social reformer, "muckraking" journalist, and social documentary photographer known for using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the impoverished in New York City. He endorsed the implementation of "model tenements" in New York with the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller.
  • Tenement House Act of 1901: A reform of the Progressive Era, this 1901 New York State law was one of the first such laws to ban the construction of dark, poorly ventilated tenement buildings in the state of New York. Among other sanctions, the law required that new buildings must be built with outward-facing windows in every room, an open courtyard, indoor toilets, and fire safeguards.
  • immigrant: A person who comes to a country from another country in order to permanently settle in the new country.
  • settlement houses: Group houses in which volunteer middle-class "settlement workers" would live, hoping to share knowledge and culture with, and alleviate the poverty of, their low-income neighbors.

U.S. Tenement Housing in the 1800s and early 1900s

As the United States became more industrialized during the 1800s, immigrants and workers from the countryside increasingly lived in former middle-class houses and other buildings such as warehouses, which were bought and divided into small dwellings. Additionally, beginning as early as the 1830s on the Lower East Side in New York City, people lived in jerry-built three- and four-floor "railroad flats" (so called because the rooms were linked together like a train) with windowless internal rooms. The adapted buildings also were known as "rookeries," and were particularly concerning as they were prone to collapse and fire. Mulberry Bend and Five Points were the sites of notorious rookeries that the city worked for decades to clear. In both rookeries and purpose-built tenements, communal water taps and water closets (either privies or "school sinks," which opened into a vault that often became clogged) were squeezed into what open space there was between buildings. In parts of the Lower East Side, buildings were older and had courtyards, which were generally occupied by machine shops, stables, and other businesses.

Such tenements (or "walk-ups") were particularly prevalent in New York, where in 1865, a report stated that 500,000 people lived in unhealthy tenements, whereas in Boston in 1845, fewer than a quarter of workers were housed in tenements. One reason New York had so many tenements was the large numbers of immigrants; another was that the grid pattern on which streets were laid out and the economic practice of building on individual 25-by-100-foot lots combined to produce extremely high land coverage, including back building.

How the Other Half Lives


A photo by Jacob Riis: Lodgers in a Bayard Street tenement.

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) was an early publication of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future "muckraking" journalism by exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle classes. Immediately after publication, this work inspired many reforms of working-class housing, and it continues to make a lasting impact in today's society.

In January of 1888, Jacob Riis bought a detective camera and went on an expedition to gather images of what life was like in the slums of New York City. This not only involved Riis taking his own photos but also his using the images of other photographers. On January 28, 1888, Riis presented "The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York" using his images on a projection screen and taking the viewer on a journey by describing the images. In February 1889, Riis wrote a magazine article based on his lectures in Scribner's Magazine, which was a resounding success. The book version of Riis' work was finally published in January 1890 as How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.

The following is an example of Riis's description of the New York City tenements:

Enough of them everywhere. Suppose we look into one? No.--Cherry Street. Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children pitching pennies back there. Not that it would hurt them; kicks and cuffs are their daily diet. They have little else. Here where the hall turns and dives into utter darkness is a step, and another, another. A flight of stairs. You can feel your way, if you cannot see it. Close? Yes! What would you have? All the fresh air that ever enters these stairs comes from the hall-door that is forever slamming, and from the windows of dark bedrooms that in turn receive from the stairs their sole supply of the elements God meant to be free, but man deals out with such niggardly hand. That was a woman filling her pail by the hydrant you just bumped against. The sinks are in the hallway, that all the tenants may have access—and all be poisoned alike by their summer stenches. Hear the pump squeak! It is the lullaby of tenement-house babes. In summer, when a thousand thirsty throats pant for a cooling drink in this block, it is worked in vain. But the saloon, whose open door you passed in the hall, is always there. The smell of it has followed you up. Here is a door. Listen! That short hacking cough, that tiny, helpless wail--what do they mean? They mean that the soiled bow of white you saw on the door downstairs will have another story to tell--Oh! a sadly familiar story--before the day is at an end. The child is dying with measles. With half a chance it might have lived; but it had none. That dark bedroom killed it.

The "Old Law"

The Tenement House Act of 1867, the state legislature 's first comprehensive legislation on housing conditions, prohibited cellar apartments unless the ceiling was one foot above street level; required one water closet per 20 residents; required fire escapes; and began to delineate space between buildings. The Tenement House Act of 1867 was amended by the Tenement House Act of 1879, also known as the "Old Law," which required lot coverage of no more than 65 percent. The New York City Board of Health declined to enforce the regulations, and as a compromise, the "Old Law" tenement became the standard. It had a "dumbbell" shape, with air and light shafts on either side of the center, usually fitted to the shafts in the adjacent buildings, and typically covered 80 percent of the lot. James Ware is credited with the design; he had won a contest the previous year held by "Plumber and Sanitary Engineer" magazine to find the most practical yet profitable improved tenement design.

The "New Law"

The 1890 publication of Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives stirred public concern about New York tenements. The New York State Assembly Tenement House Committee report of 1894 surveyed 8,000 buildings with approximately 255,000 residents and found New York to be the most densely populated city in the world, at an average of 143 people per acre, with part of the Lower East Side having 800 residents per acre, an area denser than Bombay. The committee used both charts and photographs in their report (it was the first official use of such photographs). Together with the U.S. Department of Labor, the committee published The Housing of Working People in 1895 , a special report on housing conditions and solutions elsewhere in the world. This publication ultimately led to the passage of the Tenement House Act of 1901. Known as the "New Law," this law implemented the Tenement House Committee's recommendation of a maximum of 70 percent lot coverage (with strict enforcement); specified a minimum of 12 feet for a rear yard; required six feet for an air and light shaft at the lot line or 12 feet in the middle of the building (these numbers increased for taller buildings); required running water and water closets in every apartment; required a window in every room; and instituted fire-safety regulations. These rules are still used today as the basis for New York City law on low-rise buildings.

Settlement Houses

In some cities, social reformers built "settlement houses" in poor urban areas, in which volunteer middle-class "settlement workers" would live, hoping to share knowledge and culture with, and alleviate the poverty of, their low-income neighbors. The settlement houses provided services such as daycare, education, and healthcare to improve the lives of the poor in these areas. The most famous settlement house in the United States is Chicago's Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889 after Addams visited Toynbee Hall within the previous two years. Hull House became, at its inception in 1889, "a community of university women," whose main purpose was to provide social and educational opportunities for working-class people (many of them recent European immigrants) in the surrounding neighborhood. The "residents" (volunteers at Hull were given this title) held classes in literature, history, art, domestic activities (such as sewing), and many other subjects. Hull House also held concerts that were free to everyone, offered free lectures on current issues, and operated clubs for both children and adults.



New York's Flatiron Building: The iconic Flatiron Building, New York, shortly after its construction in 1903.

Not all new urban architecture revolved around lower-class housing. Louis Sullivan became a noted architect for using steel frames to construct skyscrapers for the first time while pioneering the idea of "form follows function." One of his earliest works was the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri. Elisha Otis's introduction of safety measures on elevators also helped buildings reach newer heights.

Early on, Chicago led the way in skyscraper design, with many constructed in the center of the financial district during the late 1880s and early 1890s. Sometimes termed the products of the Chicago school of architecture, these skyscrapers— large, square palazzo-styled buildings hosting shops and restaurants on the ground level and containing rentable offices on the upper floors—attempted to balance aesthetic concerns with practical commercial design. In contrast, New York's skyscrapers were frequently narrower towers which, more eclectic in style, were often criticized for their lack of elegance. In 1892, Chicago banned the construction of new skyscrapers taller than 150 feet (46 m), leaving the development of taller buildings to New York.

Urban Politics

Many political machines in cities were affiliated with the Democratic Party, which recruited new immigrants, particularly the Irish.

Learning Objectives

Analyze developments in urban politics during the Gilded Age

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Politics during the Gilded Age were called "machine politics," which involved political offices being controlled by groups affiliated with parties.
  • Through the "spoils system," when a political machine won an election, it could remove all appointed officeholders, leading to major changes in the makeup of the organization as well as in the heads of government departments.
  • Political machines could provide lucrative opportunities for supporters, including choice offices and government contracts.
  • Support for political machines declined late in the Gilded Age, as they failed to recruit from among the new waves of immigrants.

Key Terms

  • political machine: A local organization that controls a large number of personal votes and can therefore exert political influence.
  • immigrant: A person who comes to a country from another country in order to permanently settle in the new country.

Machine Politics

During the Gilded Age, politics were characterized by "political machines." A political machine is a organization in which an authoritative boss or small group commands the backing of a corps of supporters and businesses (usually campaign workers), who then receive rewards for their efforts. The machine's power is based on the ability of the workers to get out the vote for their candidates on election day.

Although these elements are common to most political parties and organizations, they are essential to political machines, which rely on hierarchy and rewards for political power, often enforced by a strong party whip structure. Machines sometimes have a political boss, and often rely on patronage, the spoils system, "behind-the-scenes" control, and longstanding political ties within the structure of a representative democracy. Machines typically are organized on a permanent basis instead of for a single election or event. The term may take on a pejorative roll when referring to corrupt political machines.

When a political machine won an election, it could remove all appointed officeholders, leading to a change in the makeup of the body as well as in the heads of government departments. At that time, many political offices also were elected. Many officials were elected to represent their ward, and not by the entire city. This system led to the election of people personally known to their communities, as opposed to people voters had heard of but didn't know.

The machines in the cities tended to be controlled by the Democratic Party, which allied with new immigrants by providing jobs, housing, and other benefits in exchange for votes. This was a challenge to the power of the old elites, whose families had lived in the United States for generations. Political machines routinely used fraud and bribery to further their ends. On the other hand, they also provided relief, security, and services to the crowds of newcomers who voted for them and kept them in power. By doing this, they were able to keep the people's loyalty, thus giving themselves more power.

The political machines gave lucrative government contracts and official positions to supporters. One of the most well-known machines was that of Tammany Hall in New York, long led by William Tweed, who was better known as "Boss Tweed." In addition to rewarding supporters, members of the Tammany Hall machine saw themselves as defending New York City from the residents of upstate New York and from the New York state government, who saw New York city as a ready source of funds to benefit upstate New York.

Theodore Roosevelt, before he became president in 1901, was deeply involved in New York City politics. In the following quote, he explains how the machine worked:

The organization of a party in our city is really much like that of an army. There is one great central boss, assisted by some trusted and able lieutenants; these communicate with the different district bosses, whom they alternately bully and assist. The district boss in turn has a number of half-subordinates, half-allies, under him; these latter choose the captains of the election districts, etc., and come into contact with the common healers.
Larger cities in the United States—Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, etc.—were accused of using political machines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each city's machine lived under a hierarchical system with a "boss" who held the allegiance of local business leaders, elected officials and their appointees, and knew the proverbial buttons to push to get things done. Benefits and problems both resulted from the rule of political machines.

Before the 1930s, the Democratic Party in Chicago was divided along ethnic lines—the Irish, Polish, Italian, and other groups each controlled politics in their neighborhoods Under the leadership of Anton Cermak, the party consolidated its ethnic bases into one large organization. With the organization behind, Cermak was able to win election as mayor of Chicago in 1931, an office he held until his assassination in 1933. The modern era of politics was dominated by machine politics in many ways. The New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s gave the Democratic Party access to new funds and programs for housing, slum clearance, urban renewal, and education, through which the party could dispense patronage and maintain control of the city. Machine politics persisted in Chicago after the decline of similar machines in other large American cities. During much of that time, the city administration found opposition mainly from a liberal "independent" faction of the Democratic Party. Many machines formed in cities to serve immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth century who viewed machines as a vehicle for political enfranchisement. Machine staffers helped win elections by turning out large numbers of voters on election day. But even among the Irish, continued help for new immigrants declined over time. It was in the party machines' interests only to maintain a minimally winning amount of support. Once they were in the majority and could count on a win, there was less need to recruit new members, as this only meant a thinner spread of patronage rewards to be shared among the party members. As such, later-arriving immigrants, such as Jews, Italians, and other immigrants from southern and eastern Europe between the 1880s and 1910s, rarely saw any reward from the machine system. At the same time, most of political machines' staunchest opponents were members of the established class (nativist Protestants).


"New York's New Solar System": This political cartoon from 1899 shows people from all walks of life revolving around a political boss, Richard "Boss" Croker.

The White City, Chicago, and the World Columbian Exposition

The World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was an international fair whose grandeur symbolized emerging American exceptionalism.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the significance of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The exposition displayed and influenced art, architecture, science, and technology.
  • The exposition covered more than 600 acres; included canals, lagoons, and examples of neoclassical architecture; and attracted people from around the world.
  • More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run.
  • Many prominent American civic, professional, and commercial leaders were involved in the financing, coordination, and management of the exposition.

Key Terms

  • prototype: An instance of a category or a concept that combines its most representative attributes.
  • 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions: The first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions from around the world.

The World's Columbian Exposition, also known as the "Chicago World's Fair," was held in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World in 1492. Chicago was selected over New York City; Washington, D.C.; and St. Louis to host the fair, which profoundly affected architecture, the arts, Chicago's self-image, and America's spirit of industrial optimism.

Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted designed the exposition as a prototype of their vision of an ideal city. Built according to Beaux Arts and French neoclassical principles of architectural symmetry, balance, and splendor, the exposition covered more than 600 acres and included canals and lagoons, and nearly 200 temporary buildings in the neoclassical style. The fair's unprecedented scale and grandeur became a symbol of emergent American exceptionalism in much the way that the Great Exhibition became associated with the Victorian-era United Kingdom.


The White City: The white buildings constructed for the exposition, in comparison to the Chicago tenements, appeared to gleam.

Most of the buildings of the fair were designed in the neoclassical architecture style. The area at the Court of Honor was known as "The White City." Facades were made not of stone, but of a mixture of plaster, cement, and jute fiber called "staff," which was painted white, giving the buildings their "gleam." Architecture critics derided the structures as "decorated sheds." The buildings were clad in white stucco, which, in comparison to the tenements of Chicago, seemed illuminated. It was also called "The White City" because of the extensive use of street lights, which made the boulevards and buildings usable at night.

Dedication ceremonies for the fair were held on October 21, 1892. The fair ran for six months, from May 1 to October 30, 1893, and drew more than 27 million people. On October 9, 1893, the date designated as "Chicago Day," the fair set a record for outdoor event attendance, attracting 716,881 people. While the fair recognized the 400th anniversary of Europe's discovery of the New World, it also demonstrated that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.

Prominent civic, professional, and commercial leaders from around the United States helped to finance, coordinate, and manage the fair. These leaders included the shoe tycoon Charles H. Schwab and the railroad and manufacturing magnate John Whitfield Bunn, both of Chicago; the banking, insurance, and iron products magnate Milo Barnum Richardson, of Connecticut; and many other figures.


The World's Columbian Exposition was the first world's fair with an area for amusements that was strictly separated from the exhibition halls. This area, developed by a young music promoter, Sol Bloom, concentrated on the Midway Plaisance and introduced the term "midway" to American English to describe the area of a carnival or fair where sideshows are located. The area included carnival rides, among them the original Ferris wheel, built by George Ferris. This wheel was 264 feet high and had 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 60 people.


The Original Ferris wheel: The wheel was 264 feet high and had 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 60 people.

The fair included life-size reproductions of Christopher Columbus's three ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. These were intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas. The ships, a joint project of the governments of Spain and the United States, were constructed in Spain and then sailed to America for the exposition. The ships were a very popular exhibit.

Eadweard Muybridge gave a series of lectures on the Science of Animal Locomotion in the Zoopraxographical Hall, built specially for that purpose on the Midway Plaisance. He used his zoopraxiscope to show his moving pictures to a paying public. The hall was the first commercial movie theater.

There was an Anthropology Building at the World's Fair. Nearby, "The Cliff Dwellers" featured a rock and timber structure that was painted to recreate Battle Rock Mountain in Colorado, a stylized recreation of an American Indian cliff dwelling with pottery, weapons, and other relics on display. Also featured were an Eskimo display and birch-bark wigwams of the Penobscot tribe.

The 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, which ran from September 11 to September 27, marked the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions from around the world. According to Eric J. Sharpe, Tomoko Masuzawa, and other scholars, the event was considered radical at the time because it allowed non-Christian faiths to speak on their own behalf; it was not taken seriously by European scholars until the 1960s.


The World's Columbian Exposition from above: Print of an aerial view of the exposition.

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