The U.S. Cities in the Late 1800’s: Major Problems and Their Solving

Last Updated: 07 Dec 2022
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The cities have played an important role in the development of the United States since the founding of the nation. Many historians agree that the Revolution itself and the rise of the Confederation of 13 independent states were nurtured exactly in the cities of America (Green, 1957, p. 2). Urban life in the late 19th century, perhaps more largely than today, when rural isolation has been broken down by the modern miracles of transportation and communication, formed the substance of American civilization (Light, 1983, p. 96).

City enterprise, backed by city money, looking for new products to sell and new markets to sell to, was a powerful force in peopling the country (Jackson & Schultz, 1972a, p. 6). The purpose of this study is to explore the major problems which the American cities faced in the late nineteenth century and how their dwellers resolved them. Toward this end we will discuss the tendency of fast cities’ growing in late 1800s and in what way it conditioned the urban problems, analyze the economical and social factors contributing to emergence of such problems, and consider the successful examples of their solving.

The city is justly regarded as the handmaiden of industrialization. By 1890, a century after the first national census, the number of city dwellers was 139 times larger than the 1790 figure, although the American population as a whole had multiplied only sixteen fold (Jackson & Schultz, 1972a, p. 1). The influence of cities on American life had been mounting steadily throughout the 19th century. With land everywhere available and transport the chief problem to consider, commercial centers had arisen where good harbors provided safe anchorage for ocean-going ships.

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Due to this tendency, in 1980s the cities scattered along the coast were necessarily the focus of national economic life (Green, 1957, p. 242). In 1890 the nation's population was already 1/3 urban and the population in the Northeast was well over 1/2 urban. With 2 million inhabitants New York was the 2nd largest city in the world, and Chicago and Philadelphia each contained about a million inhabitants. Places like Minneapolis, Denver, and Seattle, which hardly existed in 1840, had become major regional metropolises (Goodall & Sprengel, 1975, p. 2).

The enormous growth of American cities at that time is attributed largely to the quickening pace of the industrial revolution which harnessed technological innovation and scientific inquiry to more productive uses of energy and new uses of materials, but also to the political revolution which enshrined individual rights and democratic process in law, and the demographic revolution which increased the size of the population.

Organized means of production led to larger factory complexes and to larger urban centers; in turn, the building of homes and offices and streets and sewers in those centers fueled the industrialization trend (Jackson & Schultz, 1972b, p. 177). Such rash economic development and fast growing of urban population stipulated emergence of many serious problems in urban communities not known earlier. Poverty of the city-dwellers, overcrowding of housing, transportation and environmental pollution were among the most critical problems (Light, 1983).

Rising crime rates, increasing pauperism, and spiraling juvenile delinquency signaled a moral dislocation in cities undergoing commercial and industrial transformation. Swarms of foreign immigrants challenged their capacity to accommodate and assimilate newcomers, as did the influx of white and black native migrants from the countryside and small towns. Everywhere the orderly patterns of existence appeared interrupted; the cities seemed to be overwhelmed by the rush of social change (Ward, 1972, p. 164).

Cities lacking institutionalized systems of orderly government (police departments, fire departments, centralized governmental bureaucracies) had to forge new tools to hammer out an urban discipline (Schultz, 1972, p. 308). A growing and ever more diverse population; new industrial demands on the time and energy of citizens; cities bursting at the seams of their former boundaries; and social institutions like the family and the church dissolving in the heat of economic progress – all these disparate elements of urban life had to be adjusted and accommodated to each other.

Of the various disorders in urban life, the most evident was poverty. To resolve this problem many city leaders championed education to secure social order in a disorderly age. While American cities always had known the poor, urban leaders of the past had believed in the transience of poverty. But in the late 19th century, these attitudes shifted dramatically. City officials began to suspect, that urban poverty was not a passing phenomenon but a permanent condition.

A growing number of urban paupers presaged a day when cities might be divided sharply along class lines; when foreign indigents might threaten the hegemony of native Americans; and when public financial resources might be devoted more to charitable relief, to workhouses, and to prisons than to other needed public services. Many urban leaders saw in public education a form of social insurance against a possible tomorrow when the poor might dominate city life (Schultz, 1972).

The problems of poor city-dwellers were intensified by lack of sufficient habitation. During the three generations of sustained and heavy European immigration into the United States, which preceded the immigration restriction legislation of the early 1920s, congested ghettoes of foreign immigrants assumed substantial dimensions within the residential structures of American cities. Most immigrants settled near the sources of unskilled employment, and the majority of newcomers concentrated on the margins of the emerging central business districts. To solve this problem vacated houses were converted into tenements and rooming houses, while vacant lots and rear yards were filled with cheap new structures (Ward, 1972, p. 164).

One more solution for this housing problem was found in so called filter process that is creation of vacancies in standard housing for families of lower incomes. Filter process describes the way in which the normal housing market should work. As new housing is built, families who can afford to pay more vacate older units which then become available to families of a somewhat lower income who are on their way up the economic ladder and who in turn move out of still less desirable quarters (Green, 1957, p. 138).

Another vital problem was transportation. Associated with urban population rise was a nascent suburban movement; many wealthy families gave up residential locations close to the noisy and crowded marketplaces, opting instead for houses in smaller peripheral towns. These suburbanites maintained their connection with the larger population center by water ferry and steam railroad, or they assumed the expense of providing their own carriages to conduct business and friendships in the city. Thus the residential movement away from the city center and into suburban areas predates the development of mass transit (Green, 1957).

Out of the period of dynamic urban growth between 1820 and 1860 came the development of the omnibus, the first mass-transit innovation used in the U. S. At first, the conveyance was merely a long-distance stagecoach used within the city or an enlarged version of a hackney coach. Within a decade, though, it had taken a fairly standard form: a rectangular box on wheels containing two lengthwise seats for from twelve to twenty passengers (Jackson & Schultz, 1972b, p. 180).

The conducted study proved that whether a given city grew and prospered or stagnated depended on its locational advantages and on the foresight of its civic and business leaders. The speed growth of the U. S. cities was stipulated by the industrial revolution which encouraged cities’ prosperity, but at the same time conditioned the problems they faced such as overcrowding, poverty and lack of local transportation facilities. Anyway, technological innovations and wise ruling of municipal authorities allowed solving these problems and achieve sufficient balance in the cities’ development.


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  4. Immigration, Migration, and Mobility, 1865-1920. In K. T. Jackson & S. K. Schultz (Eds.), Cities in American History (pp. 177-184).
  5. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Light, I. (1983). Cities in World Perspective. New York: Macmillan. Schultz, S. K. (1972).
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