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The development of American cities radically altered the nation's social environment and problems.
The Lure of the City
In the late nineteenth century, the city became a symbol of American life and people flocked to it, drawn by the hope of economic opportunity and the promise of a more exciting life. By 1900, the U.S. had three cities with over one-half million and three more with more than one million people.
Skyscrapers and Suburbs
Between 1870 and 1900, cities expanded upward and outward on a base of new technologies including metal-frame skyscrapers, electric elevators, streetcar systems, and outlying green suburbs. Cities were no longer walking cities. As the middle class moved out, immigrants and working class people poured in, creating urban slums through overcrowding. The city produced what was an increasingly stratified and fragmented society
Tenements and the Problems of Overcrowding
Immigrants from abroad joined rural Americans in search of jobs in the nations cities. These newcomers to the city were often forced to live in hastily constructed and overcrowded tenement houses with primitive, if any, sanitation facilities. The dumbbell tenement was the most infamous housing of this type.
Strangers in a New Land
The new immigrants, mostly poor, unskilled, non-Protestant laborers between the ages of 15 and 40, clung to their native languages, religions, and cultural traditions to endure the economic and social stresses of industrial capitalism. Between 1877 and 1890, 6.3 million people immigrated to the United States, most from southern and eastern Europe. Much of mainstream society found these new immigrants troubling, resulting in a rise in anti-immigrant feeling and activity.
Immigrants and the City
Immigrant families were mostly close-knit nuclear families, and they tended to marry within their own ethnic groups. They depended on immigrant associations for their social safety net, native language newspapers for their news and political views, and community-based churches and schools.
The House That Tweed Built
Political machines provided some needed services for these immigrants while also enriching themselves by exploiting the dependency of the cities new residents. William Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall in New York was the most infamous of the political machines.
Social and Cultural Change, 1877-1900
The rapid development of an urban society transformed America. How people lived, what and how they ate, and how they took care of their health all changed.
Manners and Mores
Victorian morality, epitomized by strict rules of dress, manners, and sexual behavior, set the tone for the era, but adherence to such prescriptions often declined in the face of rapid social change brought on by industrialization and urbanization. There were vast differences in the manners and mores adhered to by the middle and upper classes and the lower socio-economic classes. These differences often caused social tension as the former tried to control the behavior of the latter.
Leisure and Entertainment
This period saw the rise of organized spectator sports, which supplemented traditional leisure activities such as concerts, fairs, the circus, and even croquet. Technology brought a variety of new forms of leisure and entertainment, and the use of gas and electric street lights ensured that fewer people stayed home at night.
Changes in Family Life
Economic changes also produced new roles for women and the family. Working-class families rarely toiled together, but did maintain the strong ties needed to survive the urban industrial struggle. Middle-class women and children became more isolated, and homemakers attempted to construct a sphere of domesticity as a haven from rampaging materialism. Families, especially White families, became smaller as the birthrate fell dramatically.
Changing Views: A Growing Assertiveness Among Women
Americans also began to change their views about women, demonstrating a limited but growing acceptance of the new woman. Important changes included a rise in working and career women, more liberalized divorce laws, an increasingly frank discussion of sexuality, and a growing womens rights movement.
Educating the Masses
With the development of childhood as a distinct time of life, Americans placed greater emphasis on education as the means by which individuals were prepared for life and work in an industrial world. Schools instituted a structured curriculum, a longer school day, and new educational techniques that varied according to the gender of the student. The South lagged behind in such educational changes primarily because of its Jim Crow laws.
Colleges grew in number, expanded in size, broadened their curriculum, developed the first American graduate schools, and provided more educational opportunities for women. They provided few prospects for African Americans and other minorities, however, forcing men like W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who differed in their methods, to develop independent schools to train Black students.
The Stirrings of Reform
In spite of the periods adherence to the beliefs of Social Darwinism, increasing numbers of Americans in fields that varied from religion and economics to politics, literature, and the law proposed the need for reforms.
Progress and Poverty
Henry George launched critical studies of the new urban America with his book Progress and Poverty. While his reforms were not adopted, many began to ask the same questions and recognize, as George did, the need for reform.
New Currents in Social Thought
Social thinkers challenged the tenets of Social Darwinism, arguing the importance of environmental influences on peoples behavior, the exploitation of labor by a predatory business class that was allowed by laissez-faire economic policies, and the societal value of cooperation over competition. Churches established missions in the inner-cities and began to preach the Social Gospel to encourage those with means to help those in need.
The Settlement Houses
New professional social workers, many of them middle-class women, established settlement houses in inner cities allowing them to experience the slum conditions of lower-class life firsthand. As residents they could then provide education, training, and other social services within their neighborhoods. Settlement house workers also tried to abolish child labor. The settlement house movement had its limits, mostly racial and ethnic. Best known among the settlement movement workers is Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago.
A Crisis in Social Welfare
In responding to the depression of 1893, professional social workers introduced new methods of providing assistance that would also allow them to study the poor in order to alleviate their condition. Such efforts approached poverty as a social problem rather than an individual shortcoming.
Conclusion: The Pluralistic Society
By 1920 most Americans lived in cities rather than rural areas. Almost half of the population were descended from immigrants that arrived after the conclusion of the American Revolution, creating a society that was a jumble of ethnic and racial groups of varying class standing. Social changes wrought by industrialization and urbanization created tension and often open conflict, initiating the beginning efforts at reform.