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In the beginning, Americans were farmers. Stories of the first English colonists at Jamestown and the Pilgrims of Plymouth are all about learning to grow corn or tobacco. Southern planters grew cotton, and western farmers built windmills to pump water out of the ground to water the dry land and grow the wheat that America is famous for.

But we are no longer a country of farmers. In fact, as of 2012, 80% of Americans live in cities. How did this happen, and when? Why did all those farmers give up on the land and move to busy, noisy cities? And what happened to the cities when everyone moved in?

We think of our cities as multicultural places. People from many different places mix together. The smells of foods from many homelands float through the air. The air is often polluted, the streets noisy, the subways crowded. Where did all these people come from? When did we become more than just a nation of White Protestants?

Was it good or bad that we became a nation of multicultural cities.


America is a country of immigrants, and the turn of the century was a time when the country was growing because millions of people were moving to America.

Beginning in the 1880s, the immigrants from southern and eastern European countries started to outnumber the immigrants coming from northern and western Europe. The older groups of immigrants from northern and western European countries like Germany and Great Britain usually came with some money and often moved to the West. However, the newer immigrants from southern and eastern European countries like Italy, Greece, and Russia were very different.

Many were pushed out of their countries by hunger, religious persecution, political problems, racial hatred, or war. They were also pulled by the promise of land, jobs, education, and religious freedom. Whatever the reason, these New Immigrants came without the education and money of the immigrants who had come before them. And they made their homes in the cities where they first arrived, rather than setting out for the West.

By 1890, over 80% of the people in New York City had been born in another country or were the first generation born in America. Ellis Island, a large immigration station, was in New York harbor and New York City’s reputation as a city of many cultures was confirmed at the turn of the century.

Primary Source: Photograph

The central building at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, photographed here in 1905.


Immigration was the largest between 1900 and 1910, when over nine million people came to the United States. So that they could take care of the paperwork for so many immigrants, the Bureau of Immigration in New York City opened Ellis Island in 1892. Another station opened in San Francisco Harbor at Angel Island where many immigrants from China arrived.

Today, almost half of all Americans have ancestors who, at some point in time, first arrived in America at Ellis Island. Doctors or nurses checked the immigrants, looking for any signs of diseases. Most immigrants were let into the country with no problem. About 2% did not get to stay in America because of a medical problem or criminal history.

Looking for a place that felt familiar in a strange land, many immigrants looked for family, friends, old neighbors, and countrymen who had already moved to America. This led to the start of ethnic neighborhoods inside large cities. Little Italy, Chinatown, and many other neighborhoods started in which immigrants could find everything to remind them of home, from local language newspapers to stores that sold foods from the old country. While these places provided a sense of community to their members, they made cities more crowded, most of all in the poorest slums where immigrants could find a place to live for very little money.


These newer immigrants looked and acted differently from the immigrants who came before them. They had darker skin, spoke languages with which most Americans had never heard, and had different religions. Many were Jews from Russia or Catholics from Italy. Even the foods they wanted to buy made them different. Because they seemed so different, new immigrants became easy targets for hatred and discrimination. If jobs were hard to find, or if apartments were overcrowded, it was easy to blame the immigrants.

Hatred toward immigrants is called nativism. This idea is that people born in the United States are somehow better than immigrants. And during the Gilded Age, a minister named Josiah Strong was the leader of nativists. He said that the new groups of immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe were going to ruin America. His followers got Congress to pass a law that required immigrants to pass an English test and in the 1920s, to stop almost all immigration.

In 1882, Nativists got Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stopped anyone from China from coming to America. 25 years later, Japanese immigration was also stopped. These two Asian groups were the only ethnicities to be totally stopped from coming to America.

But millions had already come. During the Gilded Age, America became a much more diverse country. Each new group of people carried some of their old culture and added to American culture. Although many immigrants said they would always hold onto their old ways of life, their children did not. Most had a better life, learned English easily, and liked American lifestyles. In that way, America was a melting pot.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

This cartoon celebrates the Chinese Exclusion Act, showing Uncle Sam washing America by expelling Chinese immigrants.


Urbanization, the process of cities growing as people move from away from farms, happened quickly at the end of the 1800s. New factories needed a lot of workers. New electric lights and new machines meant factories could run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Men had to work for 12 hours in a row, so they wanted to live close to the factories.

While the work was dangerous and difficult, many were willing to leave behind the old country where there was little hope of a better life, to take a chance in the cities and factories of America.

Cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York were not new. They had started during the Colonial Era. But they grew into the great cities we know today during the Gilded Age. At the beginning of the 1800s, factories had to be built near rivers and seaports for power and transportation. If there was not enough rain and rivers ran dry, there was no way to get power. If it was cold, the harbors froze and there was no way to move products. The invention of the steam engine changed everything. With steam power, factories could be built anywhere, and steam-powered trains could carry products to shoppers anywhere, at any time.

In the end, each city ended up with a unique personality, based on how it grew and the businesses that were there. In Pittsburgh it was steel, in Chicago it was meat packing, in New York there were clothing factories and banks, and Detroit was famous for its car factories. But all cities at this time, no matter what business made it grow, had the same problems that growing too fast caused. There were not enough places to live. It was hard to get around. There were big differences between rich and poor neighborhoods. Different ethnic groups didn’t get along, and politicians were corrupt.


As cities grew, a big problem was how to get around, from home to factories or shops, and then back again. Transportation systems that move many people at once are called mass transit. Mostly, transportation projects like railroads or canals were used to connect cities to other cities. Before the 1880s, people who wanted to get around inside of a city walked or rode an omnibus. This was a large, horse-drawn carriage, usually on a track in the middle of the street. Omnibuses were ok in smaller, less busy cities, they were not good for the large, busy cities that grew up in the Gilded Age. The horses had to stop and rest and horse manure became a pollution problem.

In 1887, Frank Sprague invented the electric trolley, which worked like an omnibus, with a large wagon on tracks, but it was powered by electricity instead of horses. The electric trolley could run all day and night, like the factories and the workers who powered them. However, as crowds continued to grow in the largest cities, such as Chicago and New York, trolleys were unable to move through the crowds of pedestrians. To avoid this problem, city planners moved the trolley lines to bridges above the streets, creating elevated trains, or L-trains. Leaders one step further to move transportation underground. Boston and New York City dug the country’s first subway systems, and other cities quickly copied this good idea.

Primary Source: Photograph

The Flatiron Building, one of the world’s first skyscrapers which graces Fifth Avenue in New York City. It was completed in 1902.

Once people could move around, smaller towns around the big city called suburbs started to grow. Boston and New York had the first large suburbs. New York had the best subway and train systems in the world in the Gilded Age, and it was the rail lines to Westchester from the Grand Central Terminal that helped Westchester grow. Here, people could live in quiet neighborhoods, far from the noise and pollution of the city, but still ride into work each morning, and ride home each night.

The last problem that was stopping cities from growing was that there wasn’t enough space. As land became more and more expensive, building up seemed like a good idea. Workers finished the first skyscraper in Chicago, the ten-story Home Insurance Building, in 1885. Strong steel meant that engineers could build even taller buildings, but it was a different invention that made true skyscrapers possible. In 1889, Elisha Otis came up with an idea for a safe elevator. This began the skyscraper craze, and soon tall buildings were being built in cities all over America.


Four inventions helped cities grow during the Gilded Age: electric lighting, communication improvements, transportation, and the rise of skyscrapers.

Thomas Edison patented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. This development quickly became common in homes as well as factories and changed how Americans lived. Although slow to arrive in farms, electric power became common in cities. When Nikola Tesla came up with the AC (alternating current) system for the Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing Company, electricity for lights and other factory equipment could be delivered far from where it was produced.

Gradually, cities began to light the streets with electric lamps and cities could stay lit all night. No longer did everything have to stop when the sun went down, the way it had in smaller towns. The cities, following the factories that drew people there, stayed open all the time.

The telephone, patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, was a huge change for communication. The telephone replaced the telegraph as the preferred form of communication. By 1900, over 1.5 million telephones were in use around the country.

In the same way that electric lights helped factories stay open longer and produce more, the telephone helped businesses. With telephones, instead of by mail, orders could come in faster. More orders meant more production, which in turn meant still more workers. And more workers meant that cities continued to grow.

Lights, telephones and skyscrapers were wonderful inventions, but they mostly helped the middle and upper classes. Most new immigrants never enjoyed these things. And for the poor of the cities, housing was the biggest problem. In 1878, a magazine offered $500 to the architect who could come up with the best design for mass housing. James Ware won the contest with his plan for a dumbbell tenement. This building was thinner in the center than on its ends to allow light to enter the building, no matter how close together the tenements were built. Unfortunately, these vents were often filled with garbage. The air that managed to get down between the tenements also allowed a fire to jump from one tenement to the next more easily.

The cities smelled terrible. The air smelled, the rivers smelled, the people smelled. Although public sewers were improving, getting rid of human waste was a huge problem. People used private cesspools, which overflowed with a long, hard rain. Old sewage pipes dumped the waste directly into the rivers or bays. And it was from these same rivers that the people got their drinking water.

There was no organized way to pick up trash. Trash was dumped in the streets or in the rivers. Better sewers, water purification, and trash removal were some of the most pressing problems for city leaders.

Primary Source: Photograph

An example of a tenement building at the turn of the century. They were overcrowded, with many more people, and sometimes families, living in a single unit than the designers ever intended.

Because they were so crowded and dirty, disease was common in the cities of the Gilded Age. Cholera and Yellow Fever epidemics swept through the slums often. Tuberculosis was a huge killer. It was the worst for infants. Almost 25% of babies born in late-1800s cities died before they turned one. Sewer systems and the development of clean water delivery were some of the most important technological changes of the time.

Crime and gangs were also new problems in the growing cities. The old system of having one sheriff for town was not going to work in the big cities. The idea of a professional police department comes from the Gilded Age. Along with police forces, fire departments grew to meet the needs of city life. While small towns might be able to use a team of volunteer firefighters, cities needed firefighters on duty day and night.

As more and more people ended up living closer and closer together, some reformers started to wonder if it was healthy to have people living in an entirely built environment. Was it wise to live in a world without trees, without lakes, rivers, or anything green?

Frederick Law Olmsted started the City Beautiful Movement to bring nature back to the cities. Olmsted designed Central Park in New York and the grounds of the Columbian Exposition in 1893. He told city leaders to think about keys to good city planning. First, create larger park areas inside cities. Second, build wide boulevards to cut down on traffic congestion and allow for lines of trees and other greenery between lanes. And third, add more suburbs in order to keep the city centers from becoming too crowded. For many years, city leaders used Olmsted’s ideas as they planned, and many American cities bear the mark of his influence.

Primary Source: Photograph

The Polo Grounds, the first home of the New York Yankees baseball team. Professional baseball provided an inexpensive form of entertainment for the masses.


Americans in cities wanted something to take their minds off of the challenges of daily life, and America’s entertainers rose to the challenge. One form of popular entertainment was vaudeville, large stage shows that included everything from singing, dancing, and comedy acts to live animals and magic. The traveling vaudeville shows gave rise to several famous performers, including magician Harry Houdini. In the end, movies would replace vaudeville, but in the Gilded Age, vaudeville is what many Americans turned to for entertainment.

Another popular form of entertainment was professional baseball. Club teams changed themselves into professional baseball teams, starting with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, now the Cincinnati Reds, in 1869. Soon, many cities had professional teams. Baseball games were a cheap form of entertainment, where for less than a dollar, a person could enjoy a game, two hot dogs, and a beer. But most of all, the teams became a way for people in the cities, who might be very different from one another, to have a shared sense of community as they all cheered for their team. Other popular sports during the Gilded Age included boxing, and college football.

As is clear, the turn of the century also turned Americans into people who live in cities, and that change was not easy. Overcrowding, pollution, poor sanitation, not enough transportation, crime, fire, and racism all challenged the Americans who made our cities. But, as we know, those who stuck it out solved those problems with creative solutions. They built skyscrapers, streetcars, sewers, and suburbs. They learned English, became citizens, and gave us new foods, music, art and entertainment.

Never again would Americans be tied to the land. We would be a country of people who lived among streets, brick buildings, and electric lights instead of being guided by the four seasons and the rising and setting of the sun.

What do you think? Was it good or bad for America to become a country of cities?



BIG IDEA: The late 1800s and early 1900s was a time of enormous immigration and internal migration. For the first time more Americans lived in cities than on farms and inventors and leaders had to deal with the problems of growing cities.

Beginning in the 1880s, America experienced about four decades of massive immigration. These people are called the New Immigrants because they were different from earlier immigrants in important ways. First, they were poor and didn’t come with many skills. They left their homelands to escape poverty, war, famine and persecution. They came in search of jobs, religious freedom, and opportunities for their children. Most came from Southern and Eastern Europe. They were Italian, Greek, Romanian, Polish and Russian. Also, Chinese immigration increased.

New York City’s Ellis Island was a major immigration station and the city grew and expanded its reputation as a multicultural melting pot.  Immigrants tended to settle into neighborhoods with support systems in place that they could rely on.  The growth of ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown or Little Italy was a hallmark of urban growth at this time.

Some Americans did not like these new immigrants. Nativism once again was common. Efforts to make English the official language expanded. Anti-Semitism grew. Eventually, the KKK embraced these anti-immigrant ideas. The Chinese Exclusion Act officially banned all immigration from China, a victory for nativists. In contrast, the Statue of Liberty stood as a sign of welcome and symbol of all that immigrants hoped for in their adopted country.

Immigrants and migration from the countryside drove urbanization. It was around the year 1900 that America became a nation where more people lived in cities than on farms. As cities grew, so did problems associated with urban areas. Garbage and polluted water, crime, fire, poverty, and overcrowding were issues. In response, city leaders created professional police and fire departments.

Mass transit was developed. Cities built the first subways and trolley systems. Mass transit made it possible for people to live in suburbs and commute to work, so cities expanded outward. Otis’s safety elevator made skyscrapers possible, and cities expanded upward as well. Edison and Tesla’s work on electricity resulted in electric lights both inside and out. Bell’s telephone also revolutionized American city life.

Tenements were built to help house the poor. These low-rent apartments soon became overcrowded and emblematic of the problems with growing cities.

Cities built sewer systems to combat disease. The City Beautiful Movement encouraged the construction of parks such as Central Park in New York City. Americans went to baseball games for fun. Vaudeville performers travelled from place to place in the time before movies to entertain the masses.



New Immigrants: The name for the immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  They were different from the “Old Immigrants” in that they were often from Southern and Eastern Europe, were Catholic, Orthodox Christian or Jewish instead of Protestant.  Unlike earlier groups of immigrants, they were also often poor and uneducated with few skills.

Josiah Strong: A leading nativist in the late 1800s.  He disliked the New Immigrants and argued for literacy tests.  He eventually helped end the waves of immigration that characterized the turn of the century.

Elisha Otis: Inventor of a safe electric elevator.  His invention made skyscrapers possible.

Thomas Edison: Prolific American inventor.  His creations included the electric lightbulb, phonograph (record player) and movie camera.

Nikola Tesla: Electrical engineer and inventor who developed alternating current that powers all of our electrical systems today.

Alexander Graham Bell: Inventor of the telephone and founder of the various Bell Telephone Companies.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Champion of the City Beautiful Movement and designer of many famous city parks including Central Park in New York City.

Harry Houdini: Famous vaudeville magician.


Push Factors: Reasons to leave a place.  In the time of the New Immigrants these included religious persecution, war, famine and poverty.

Pull Factors: Reasons to come to a place.  In the time of the New Immigrants these included jobs, religious freedom, education and land.

Nativism: A belief that people born in the United States are superior to immigrants.

Melting Pot: The idea that America is made up of a blending of many diverse cultural influences.

Urbanization: The process of developing cities.

City Beautiful Movement: A movement at the turn of the century to build parks in major cities.  It was driven by the idea that humans should not live in an environment built of stone and concrete.  Frederick Law Olmstead who designed Central Park in New York City was the most famous proponent of this idea.

Vaudeville: A form of entertainment popular in the early 1900s.  It featured groups of travelling performers who put on played music, acted, or performed magic and similar acts.  This form of entertainment died out as movies became popular.


Ellis Island: Major immigration station in New York Harbor.

Angel Island: Major immigration station in San Francisco Harbor.

Ethnic Neighborhoods: Areas in major cities where groups of immigrants concentrated.  They usually had restaurants, grocery stores, newspapers, support organizations and churches that served the neighborhood’s immigrant population.

Statue of Liberty: Symbol of the pull factors that attracted the New Immigrants.  It stands on an island in New York Harbor.

Suburbs: Cities built around a larger city.  These developed because mass transit made it possible to live far from where a person worked.

Central Park: Famous park in Manhattan in New York City designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.


Mass Transit: Any form of transportation in cities designed to move many people.  These include busses, subways, trolley cars and elevated trains.

Omnibus: A forerunner to the modern city bus.  It was a carriage that ran on railroad tracks that was pulled by horses.

Electric Trolley: A trolley that ran on electricity.

Elevated Train: Similar to a subway, these trains ran on tracks built on bridges above city streets.  The most famous is in Chicago and nicknamed the “L.”

Subway: A form of mass transit that has trains running in tunnels underground.  The first in the United States was in Boston, but the most famous is in New York City.

Skyscraper: Tall buildings in cities.  They made it possible for many more people to live and work in a smaller area.

Tenement: Public housing designed to provide inexpensive places to live in cities.  Designed by James Ware, they were usually overcrowded, dirty, and places where disease was common.

Cholera: A disease common in major cities at the turn of the century caused by drinking polluted water.  Sewer systems helped eliminate the disease.

Yellow Fever: A disease common in major cities at the turn of the century caused by the bite of mosquitos who bred in puddles of standing water.  Paved streets and sewer systems reduced both the mosquitos and the disease.

Tuberculosis: A lung disease that spread in overcrowded cities at the turn of the century.

Sewer Systems: Major public works at the turn of the century designed to clean wastewater and provide clean drinking water.


Chinese Exclusion Act: Law passed in 1882 ending immigration from China and preventing Chinese immigrants already in the United States from applying for citizenship.


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