The late nineteenth century showed a marked change in the social geography of cities. Before that, most Americans lived in rural areas where they mainly practiced farming. Between the year 1865 and the early twentieth century, the country experienced one of the most significant immigration in history. About twenty-five million people moved into the United States with the majority of them coming from Europe (Mauk & Oakland). Most of these immigrants settled in the cities, further swelling the numbers. At the start of the twentieth century, the country had more people living in urban areas than in rural areas. The Industrial Revolution is the main reason for mass migration into the cities.
Many people moved to the cities in search of employment opportunities to be found in industries concentrated in urban areas. Some of the industries at the time included the clothing industry powered by the cotton gin, locomotives steamboats, and the telegraphs. Technology also grew fast at that time, leading to rapid growth in the telephone, automobile, and assembly industries. The city thus promised a life of prosperity compared to farming in rural areas. Many people found a steady job in the newly mechanized industries and thus they could afford to fend for their families. The wealthy also set up businesses and homes in the cities. Aside from the financial gains that came with moving to the cities, there was also a lot of diversity and vibrant life. Many of those living in the cities were immigrants from other countries and regions; hence, the cities became a melting point of cultures. People could meet to experience different cultures and activities foreign to them.
Despite the rosy picture that urban life presented to many Americans, there were many challenges in the cities. The poor and the rich lived very different lives, starting from the neighborhoods, social amenities, security, among others. New York City was the largest American city, with a population of roughly three million people at the end of the nineteenth century. The city had many activities, such as industries, finance, trade, and shipping. The very wealthy set up their homes in neighborhoods such as Fifth Avenue, while the poor thronged the Lower East Side (Mauk & Oakland). Conditions in the poverty-stricken neighborhood were appalling, with poor sanitation, lack of clean water, tiny rooms, and inadequate garbage disposal. The situation was the same in the poor neighborhood of the Near West Side in Chicago, the second-largest city after New York.
The mob bosses were the leaders of organized crime in the cities. They led gangs that terrorized the cities’ residents, and some of them enjoyed protection from the politicians and the wealthy in society. The cult of domesticity refers to the notion that women were meant to be homemakers while the men were the breadwinners. This idea developed in the nineteenth century, where the women had little say outside of the home and the family. Some of the principles underlying this cult of domesticity include submissiveness, piety, domesticity, and purity. Studies into life in nineteenth-century America are quite intriguing and led to many reforms in the social, economic, and political spheres to make the country what it is today.
Mauk, David, and John Oakland. American civilization: an introduction. Routledge, 2017.