Urbanization as a Catalyst for Social Reform in the United States

Modern America is a product of several hundreds of years of rich history, abundant in discovery, progression, and corruption. Considered by many to be one of the major events in shaping the United States, the Industrial Revolution quite literally revolutionized the nation. A more developed economy, a growing middle class, and the rise of wage jobs were prevalent, but urbanization was one of the most influential outcomes of the Industrial Revolution. Urbanization is simply the migration of people to cities, and though perceived by many to be just one of the several products of industry, urbanization is a movement which should be considered entirely its own.

The necessity of early urbanization in the United States was insurmountable; the combination of industrialization and urbanization bred conditions that forced people to consider change. Urbanization and its aftermath contributed to by factors such as large populations of immigrants and the working class, health and safety consequences of manufacturing, and journalists exposing the horrors of lower class life were a major cause of the development of the Progressive Era and an overall theme of American social reforms that prevailed during the late-18th and early-19th centuries, despite the argument that it wasn’t truly a reform movement because certain groups, such as African Americans, were neglected and continued to face mistreatment for decades to come.

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American industry was born in 1790, as Samuel Slater created the nation’s first factory. A British-born mechanic, Slater moved to the United States, bringing with him the memorized blueprints for factory machinery.

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During this period, Britain was ahead of the rest of the world in its industrial development. Most nations, including the United States, were still reliant on agrarian economies. Individuals largely produced goods for themselves and members of their communities. As the economic superpower, Britain forbade the sharing of information on the textile mills’ technology. Aspiring to grow wealthy as a mill owner, Slater secretly committed the machine instructions to memory and traveled to Rhode Island where Moses Brown, a wealthy American merchant, funded the building of the first textile mill in the United States. Before the emergence of steam power, factories had to be powered by flowing water, so mills such as Slater’s were located near rivers. As he cultivated the birth of America’s industry, Samuel Slater, in turn, inspired a new type of urban life. He employed entire families who resided in his mill village, which was comprised of tenement homes, a company store and the mill, the focal point of the village. Though still technically rural, Slater’s milltown became the basis for urban living in the United States (‘Samuel Slater’).

The next major progression of industrialization and urbanization was brought about by Francis Cabot Lowell. Lowell reimagined the potential of American factories, inspired by British textile production. He decided to design a factory which was capable of the large-scale production of textiles from start to finish, in just one location. By 1814, this idea was a reality. As these factories grew in popularity, another mill town was established. The workers in the factories were young women, who lived in the town and did wage work, usually until leaving for marriage. These ‘Lowell girls’ were a part of an intensely strict system which guaranteed efficient production and a loyal workforce (Freeman 47-48, 54).

As urbanization grew, labor issues became increasingly apparent and were the largest part of the reform movement during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Reforms related to working conditions ranged from health and safety improvements to higher wages and fewer hours. Urban life was largely built around the factory, and for decades, little was done to advocate for workers. Changes came when leaders were truly given no choice, as corruption was broadcast across the country. Several journalists were at the core of these expositions, with Upton Sinclair as a major player. Having experienced the cruel poverty prevalent in New York City, Sinclair strived to use his writing abilities to document the unfair treatment of workers. He made his way to Chicago, where he observed mistreatment in the meatpacking district and wrote a fictional novel based upon the true situations which he had encountered (Arthur). A novel packed with shocking content, The Jungle contained such details as ‘the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one’ (Sinclair 136). Though one of the most impactful works of the decade, The Jungle did not affect Americans in Sinclair’s intended manner. Rather than raising awareness for worker rights, the book rallied attention for health and safety standards in food. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a set of acts into federal law; the Food and Drug Act was revolutionary in improving the safety of consumed products. The acts were numerous, but included one which forbid the addition of hazardous, decomposed, or any other clearly unhealthy substance (‘FDA’s’).

An increased focus on protecting the health of factory workers also became a prominent issue. Whether this was out of genuine sympathy or simply a need to keep workers healthy for labor, important reforms were undoubtedly being made. Documented in Scientific America, a 1898 article stated ‘In the manufacture of the ubiquitous match . . . the use of phosphorous entails many miseries and discomforts upon those engaged in the manufacture’ (qtd. by Derks 52). As reputable sources such as this one began to call into question the safety of manufacturing facilities and jobs, changes had to be made, and efforts to ban or impose a high tax on white phosphorous was under way.

Reforms were born out of the injuries and deaths of countless workers. The event which sparked a need for change was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Tragedy struck New York City on March 25, 1911 as the garment factory caught fire on several upper floors. The fatalities caused by this fire were easily preventable. The single fire escape was unusable, as it quickly collapsed, and rooms crowded with machinery made exiting nearly impossible. Doors opened inward and managers locked them during work hours to prevent workers from leaving to go to the restrooms because it disrupted production efficiency. The combination of these factors created an environment prime for hazard (‘Triangle’). Two years after the fire that killed 146 workers, almost all young immigrant women, New York state’s labor laws had been revolutionized. New requirements included automatic sprinklers, mandatory fire drills, doors that opened outward and were unlocked during work hours, and other laws which were largely aimed to help women and children. To ensure these laws were enacted correctly, the Factory Commission worked towards an improved Department of Labor for New York (Drehle 215).

The most recognizable journalist working for reforms in the living sphere was Jacob Riis. An immigrant from Denmark, Riis sympathized with the conditions he observed in slums throughout New York City. He began photographing his encounters, calling for reform to help the lower class. A quote which accompanied an image of the street below a tenement, completely overwhelmed by trash and filled with impoverished families, described:

Seventy-five years ago, there was no such thing as a tenement house in New York City. It is a modern invention of the devil. Here we are at the ‘cradle’ of the tenement [Gotham Court] . . . that alley has a bad record. A murder was committed there less than a week ago, and it was not the first by a great many (qtd. by Alland 84).

Additionally, the areas he photographed were disproportionately inhabited by immigrants. Slum living was largely uncommon for natural born citizens, while its was practically a rite of passage for foreign transplants. The awareness raised by Riis was incredibly influential, as Theodore Roosevelt became fond of him. Reforms began to take shape, such as those involving dangerous tenements, aid for families in poverty, and education for children. Riis was also involved in advocating for Prohibition, especially in relation to the poorer members of society. He described saloons as ‘downtown morgues,’ and felt that alcohol only catapulted the impoverished further into poverty. A major argument for Prohibition was that it endangered the families of drinkers, either through violence or loss of income, and Riis pushed for more people to engage in a similar mindset regarding alcohol.

Another less obvious change being made to benefit the working class was the building of public leisure spaces. In an effort to beautify urban spaces, green spaces such as parks were introduced into cities. One of the most notable was devised by the architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park in the 1870s. Formerly an area of utter wilderness within the center of Manhattan, Olmsted’s design included a zoo, a lake, skating, a concert space, carriage rides, and several other accommodations. Olmsted’s idea quickly caught on, and within a decade, twenty new parks were created in others cities around the nation (‘Prelude’ 166). While the intent of these spaces was not directly in the interest of the working class, the impact that was made on them was clear. The opportunity to escape from lives of poverty and back-breaking labor positively affected the poor, especially children. Additionally, beautifying the city created spaces which were much healthier than polluted factories or dirty tenements.

In an age so clearly intended for progress, the Progressive Era has been considered by many to be a narrow movement, focused only on particular groups in America. Those who have and continue to advocate for civil rights and racial equality, have viewed the Progressive Era as one which neglected to focus on every marginalized group, especially African Americans. Thomas Leonard, a prominent historian, voiced concerns that although the Progressive Era was supposedly about helping the people, only the already privileged groups were really aided. Leonard argued that natural born citizens were reaping the benefits of the reform movement while the government was doing the opposite for African Americans (Blanding). Jim Crow laws began to be put into place in the South in 1874. These laws prescribed for ‘separate by equal’ conditions for African Americans, but this was absolutely not the case. Blacks citizens endured vastly worse conditions in every aspect of life to whites. The most major law was the segregation of public facilities, such as schools, water fountains, bathrooms, and transportation. Education disparities between black and white children further fueled the divide between races, as the African American generations to come were being put at an unfair disadvantage. Jim Crow laws were upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which Homer Ferguson was arrested for sitting in a ‘whites only’ railroad car on a train in Louisiana. This marked an important point in American history, as it explicitly gave states the right to enact anti-black laws (Hansen). There is no denying that minimal progress was made on the issue of racial equality during the Progressive Era, proven by the occurrence of the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century. However, the root of the changes in this period was urbanization, and the South was at a clear disadvantage. Urbanization congregated hundreds of thousands of people within a single city, producing obvious signs of maltreatment, as was seen in Riis’ photography of slums or the numerous deaths in the Triangle Factory fire. The close quarters, large populations of lower and middle class citizens, and already prevalent history of reform movements pushed the North to make changes much more quickly. Though the South experienced some industrialization and urbanization during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they began decades after the North. Reforms did not come immediately to the cities of the North; years of suffering and corruption were a precursor to the eventual Progressive Era. So, it would not be unreasonable to see a similar trend followed in the South, where their ‘era of progress’ may have been shifted to decades later than the North. In addition, there were still pushes for racial equality reform during this period, though there was less improvement compared to what was seen in the North. Two organizations led the way in this fight; the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The National Urban League was created in 1910 to help African Americans transplanting into the North adjust to their new lives. The focus of the organization began with aid in educational and employment opportunities, and this revolved around factory work in cities. This can potentially be seen as a way in which northern urbanization began to impact black citizens in the United States as well (‘National Urban’). The NAACP has dominated civil rights advocacy since the beginning of the 20th century. Branch offices were established in cities across the eastern and midwestern United States. The organization worked as a legal advocate, working to make progress through court cases and the law (‘Nation’s Premier’).

The period marking the final decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, was iconic for the wave of reform movements which occurred. Titled the ‘Progressive Era’ in the United States, a defining feature of the turn of the century was a new eagerness to cause social change. The main catalyst towards the push for reforms was urbanization, which forced people to consider adjusting the treatment and conditions of city inhabitants, particularly the poorer working class. This was mainly prevalent in the North, because the South was still underdeveloped in industrial and urban processes. A lack of urbanization impeded the region’s ability to reform in the way the North was able. Though waves of reform have occurred other times, a major cause of the reforms during the Progressive Era can be attributed specifically to an growth in urbanization.


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  2. Arthur, Anthony. ‘Upton Sinclair.’ The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2008, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/ref/timestopics/topics_uptonsinclair.html.
  3. Blanding, Michael. ‘The Racism of the Progressive Era | Princeton Alumni Weekly.’ Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, 1 Mar. 2017, paw.princeton.edu/article/racism-progressive-era.
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  7. Freeman, Joshua B. Behemoth: a History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
  8. Hansen, John E. ‘Jim Crow Laws and Racial Segregation.’ Social Welfare History Project, 15 Aug. 2018, socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/civil-war-reconstruction/jim-crow-laws-andracial-segregation/.
  9. ‘National Urban League (NUL) (U.S. National Park Service).’ National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1 Apr. 2016, www.nps.gov/articles/nationalurbanleague.htm.
  10. ‘Nation’s Premier Civil Rights Organization.’ NAACP, www.naacp.org/nations-premier-civil-rights-organization/.
  11. Prelude to the Century, 1870-1900. Time-Life Books, 2000.
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  13. Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Buccaneer Books, 1906.
  14. ‘The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor, 2011, www.osha.gov/oas/trianglefactoryfire.html.


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Urbanization as a Catalyst for Social Reform in the United States. (2019, Dec 19). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/urbanization-example-essay

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