During the late-nineteenth century, American cities grew drastically and rapidly. The introduction of technologies like the elevator and steel frame of skyscrapers blended together in a perfect recipe for expansion. Major cities beginning to develop and flourish during this time, including Chicago, New York City, and Boston, not only influenced the development of American society, but were also influenced by several factors of American life. The key areas of immigration, transportation, and popular culture influenced, changed, and developed American cities between 1865 and 1900.
A number of “new immigrants” arrived in America post-Civil War through the end of the nineteenth century and ultimately helped shape American cities. The vast majority of these 16.2 million immigrants came mostly from southern and eastern Europe, from nations like Italy, Greece, Croatia, Slovakia, Poland, Russia, and additionally, China. Most immigrants were impoverished and fleeing totalitarian governments, and therefore did not bring with them much wealth. Lack of wealth pushed most immigrants into the poorer neighborhoods of large cities like New York. This led immigrants to be forced to live in confined space trying often unsuccessfully to live comfortably, giving way to mass waste disposal issues that caught the attention of city officials and resulted in the introduction of the waste disposal routines cities continue to implement today. In addition to their poverty, their common illiteracy led to the establishment of settlement houses.
These settlement houses provided childcare services, English classes, and sponsored community events in order to help immigrants participate in and become involved with other city dwellers in their neighborhoods. The need to run and establish the settlement houses in turn provided many people, especially women, with jobs. In addition, many of the mostly-Protestant cities of this time period saw the growth and rising influence of Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Jewish communities, expanded by new immigrants and their cultural practices. Immigrants’ most significant contribution to U.S. cities was bringing with them their way of life and blending it with American culture to create a unique combination of old-world and new-world traditions. Places in New York City, like Little Italy and Chinatown, are proof that new immigrants’ culture has survived the hands of time and continues to influence city life.
With the influx of immigrants to American cities came the need for more advanced and common transportation. The development of a widespread, uniform railroad system across the country allowed for more people to travel to and settle in cities. Electric trolleys and subway and bus systems, introduced during the late-nineteenth century, also pushed people towards the cities. With the efficiency, inexpensiveness, and accessibility of trains and trolleys, many city residents could live several miles from their jobs and commercial areas and still maintain a steady lifestyle and household. In turn, advancements in transportation not only expanded cities themselves, but also developed middle and upper class suburbs just outside of cities.
By 1900, every major U.S. city housed thousands of residents and had fully developed suburbs surrounding them. In addition, transportation meant that one could experience the benefits of a city job without residing in the city’s slums; the wealthier individuals of this time period therefore expanded and enriched the affluent communities of the cities. Transportation developments and expansion also created jobs for many city residents; as transportation was constantly being changed and improved, there was always a demand for workers. Thus, transportation was a key, leading factor to the growth and reform of American city life.
Thirdly, popular culture impacted American cities during the Gilded Age, changing the way people amused themselves and contributing new ideas and aspects of recreational activities. Authors like Mark Twain, Henry George, and Edward Bellamy thrived between 1865 and 1900. Books like Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were not only beloved stories; they were testaments of the true lifestyles of individuals during this time period, particularly but not limited to rural lifestyles . Books like George’s Progress and Poverty and Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 called attention to the economic inequality/poverty, crime, greed, and other social issues of cities and proposed reforms and social resolutions.
Newspapers also began to take a different shape during this time; previously newspapers had published any news exciting or not, but as the late-nineteenth century progressed, society saw more “yellow journalism” and “sensationalism”. City news went from informational to commercial over a period of several years, adding to the increasing hubbub of city life. Additionally, sports like baseball, football, basketball, and boxing all became popular during this time period.
Sports games and matches became social events, drawing friends and family together for enjoyment, and later, even offered careers in playing a sport professionally. The emergence of circuses, variety shows, and Wild West performances also reflected the change in amusement and entertainment that would shape American cities for decades to come. City life offered excitement that the rural setting simply could not, continuously broadening people’s horizons and enriching American popular culture.
American cities would not be anywhere near what they are today without the crucial impacts of immigration, transportation, and popular culture from 1865 to 1900. With the arrival of millions of immigrants, transportation was crucial and quickly developed, and popular culture was enriched with the incorporation of new games, sports, literature, and more. The blend of foreign, ethnic culture with nativist, Americanized culture resulted in an explosion of social variety, a perfectly mixed melting pot. American cities became the epicenter of commercialism, consumerism, popular culture, religious and ethnic diversity, and the endless opportunity all are in search of.