The expansion of the railway network and the massive migration of labor — which together initiated a transformative period of economic and industrial growth during the Gilded Age — contributed to the growth of American cities, especially those in the northeast and midwest.
Refer to the table below, which charts changes in rural and urban population in the U.S. between 1860 and 1920. It indicates increases in six major cities between 1860 and 1900.
Several innovations enabled American cities to become centers of commerce and population.
On the production side, plentiful supplies of coal in Appalachia and the Rocky Mountains fueled commercial coal-fired power plants. On the consumption side, Nikola Tesla invented the alternating current (AC) system, and Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb. Together, these developments revolutionized the ways in which Americans used energy.
Electric lights enabled factories to operate around the clock. Electric street lamps kept cities well-lit through the night.
Coal-powered electricity also transformed how Americans communicated. The telephone, patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, rapidly replaced the telegraph as the preferred form of communication. By enabling instant communication over greater distances at any time, telephone networks made "urban sprawl" possible. Just as electric lights enabled continuous factory production, the telephone initiated a system for order placement and fulfillment that outpaced the mail-order system.
Before the 1880s, the most common form of transportation in cities was the omnibus: a large, horse-drawn carriage that ran on tracks (for a smooth ride). The horses that pulled the omnibuses required food, care, and adequate rest. Their manure was an important pollution problem.
In 1887, Frank Sprague invented the electric trolley, which was a large wagon that ran on tracks (like the omnibus), powered by electricity instead of horses. Electric trolleys ran day and night, like the factories, providing workers with reliable transportation no matter what shift they worked.
As urban populations grew, city planners adopted new infrastructure strategies. They built trolley tracks above street level, creating elevated trains, or L-trains, in New York (1868), Boston (1887), and Chicago (1892). Subsequently, as skyscrapers soared ever-higher, another form of transportation grew underground: the subways.
Growing cities needed a way to meet ever-increasing demands for space. Adjacent municipalities and geographic limitations (e.g., rivers, coastlines) sometimes prevented horizontal expansion. City dwellers also needed to be close to urban centers in order to access their workplaces, stores, etc.
The first skyscraper — the ten-story Home Insurance Building — was completed in Chicago in 1885 (pictured below). Although it was possible to build a taller building, due to new steel construction techniques, another invention was required to make taller buildings viable: the elevator. The need was met in 1889, when the Otis Elevator Company, led by inventor James Otis, installed the first electric elevator.
(You won't be tested on this.)
Beneath the glamor of urban advances were important problems: congestion and pollution.
Living conditions for most working-class urban dwellers were atrocious. In the absence of local, state, or federal regulations, many lived in crowded tenement houses and cramped apartments with poor ventilation and substandard plumbing and sanitation. Residents threw their garbage outside, where it decomposed or was eaten by scavenging animals.
Running water (or any access to clean water) was not available in many locations. The combination of poor sanitation and impure water allowed disease to spread in many cities. Typhoid, cholera, and other disease epidemics occurred.
Poor living conditions and disease took a toll on city children.
EXAMPLEMore than half of the children born in Chicago in 1882 died before they reached the age of five.
EXAMPLEIn 1890, almost 25 percent of all children born in American cities died within a year.
By the late 1880s, a number of cities introduced sewage pumping systems to provide efficient waste management. This improvement was slow to reach working-class neighborhoods, which were overcrowded and unsanitary. Working-class districts contributed the largest share of the death toll when disease epidemics swept through cities.
The glittering lights, towering skyscrapers, and dilapidated working class neighborhoods of American cities provided the context for the first social reform efforts of the late 19th century.
Churches and religious organizations were among the most important institutions that provided relief to urban, working class residents. Church leaders were motivated to reform city life by the social gospel.
The social gospel stated that all Christians should be as concerned with the living and working conditions of city dwellers as they were with their salvation. Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden and Baptist clergyman Walter Rauschenbusch were among the foremost advocates of the social gospel. Both urged their congregations to pay attention to social ills, and to work with people of all classes to better society.
Rauschenbusch outlined the role of Christian churches in modern America as follows:
Rauschenbusch, Gladden, and other proponents of the social gospel highlighted the work that Jesus did on behalf of the poor. They repeated his mantra, “love thy neighbor", and insisted that all Americans must work together to help the masses.
Along with the social gospel, the settlement house movement provided relief to city inhabitants.
Pioneering women like Jane Addams in Chicago and Lillian Wald in New York led this secular movement, which was based on concepts provided by social reformers in England. They created settlement houses in cities to assist the working class, particularly working-class women. Their services included child daycare, evening classes, libraries, gym facilities, and free health care.
The settlement house movement not only provided assistance to working-class women, it also offered employment to women who had earned college degrees in social work. By living in settlement houses and interacting with working-class women, the graduates experienced a "living classroom", in which they applied what they'd learned and formed their own ideas about self-improvement. Female settlement house workers ultimately created a political agenda to solve urban social ills. It included fair housing laws, child labor regulations, and workers’ compensation reform.
Jane Addams recalled the role that settlement houses played in American cities as follows:
A group of journalists and writers, collectively known as muckrakers, provided another important component of urban social reform movements.
Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who moved to New York City in the late 19th century and became a police reporter, was among the most notable muckrakers. He spent much of his time reporting on the slums and tenements of New York. Appalled by what he found there, Riis spread the word by delivering lectures and writing a book: How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890.
Riis used photographs effectively to make his points, as evidenced by the two provided below:
Riis and a group of amateur photographers moved through the various slums of New York City, laboriously setting up their tripods and mixing the explosive chemicals (the precursors of flash bulbs) that were used to create enough light to take the photographs. When they were published, these photographs, along with Riis' text, shocked readers and made him a well-known journalist. By exposing the injustices that were part of urban, working class life, Riis’s work challenged his audience to solve them.