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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.


BIG IDEA: In the late 1800s, newspaper publishers competing for readers developed the Yellow Press style of sensational headlines and articles.  This led to misleading journalism, but also fueled the muckrakers who exposed corruption and scandal in politics and business.

The beginning of the 1900s was a time of growth in the print industry. Before the Internet, radio or television, most people got their news from newspapers, and even small cities had multiple newspapers that were printed twice a day. Two great publishers, Pulitzer and Hearst competed for subscribers and developed a style of sensational journalism that exaggerated the truth and used flashy headlines to catcher potential readers’ attention. Called Yellow Journalism, it was both good and bad.

The Yellow Journalists loved publishing stories that exposed wrongdoing by politicians and business leaders. These muckrakers did America a great service by showing the wrongs of city life, the meat packing industry, robber baron practices, and government corruption. Some of their work led directly to changes in laws that made American better. The best-known example is the connection between Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the passage of the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts.

This was a time period of growth in magazines as well. Weekly publications such as Puck, McLure’s, Collier’s, and the Saturday Evening Post grew in popularity and remained a staple of American life until after World War II when television replaced reading as a favored pastime.


BIG IDEA: Populists and Progressives tried to reform society around the turn of the last century. They focused on fair business practices, education, political reform, the income tax, aid to the poor, workplace safety, food safety, women’s rights and conservation.

Farmers in the West were upset with the railroad in the late 1800s.  They needed railroads to carry their crops to the East where they could be sold to hungry people in growing cities.  However, railroads were the only way to move these products, and they were charging enormous rates, so the farmers wanted government to take over the railroads and lower prices.  The farmers also wanted inflation which would make it easier for them to repay loans.  Thus, they wanted the government to start minting silver money.  These two key political goals led to the creation of the Populist Party.  A group of farmers led by Jacob Coxey even marched to Washington, DC to demand change.  William Jennings Bryan championed these ideas.  Although he never won the presidency, Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech captured the Populists’ grievances.  Government regulation of the railroads and free coinage of silver didn’t become law, and eventually, the Democratic Party took on these issues and absorbed the Populist voters.  

Other reformers around 1900 were more pragmatic. They looked for small changes they could achieve. These were the Progressives.

Some political reforms did become law. Initiatives, referendums and recalls became law, making it easier for the people to get rid of corrupt politicians and pass laws that politicians might be unwilling to vote for on their own. City commissioners became common as a way to stop political machines. The 17th Amendment provided for the direct election of senators. Before this, the state legislatures had elected senators.

Americans passed the 16th Amendment to made an income tax legal.  The graduated income tax required the wealthy to pay a higher percentage of their income than the poor.

Some progressives were inspired by religion. The Social Gospel Movement encouraged people to serve others the way they believed Jesus would have done. They created the YMCA and YWCA. They built settlement houses to help the waves of new immigrants. They opened the Salvation Army to serve the poor. This era of service-minded Christianity is sometimes called the Third Great Awakening.

Other Progressives tried to improve working conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire showed just how bad working conditions were. These reformers were especially concerned with children who had to work instead of attending school. Although the Keating-Owen Act that was passed at the time was later declared unconstitutional, the Fair Labor Standards Act still stands as protection against exploitation of children as workers.

Progressives worked to improve public education and the first free, public high schools were built.

The first environmentalists emerged. President Theodore Roosevelt helped launch the National Park Service as a means of protecting America’s natural wonders. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were founded, as was the Sierra Club.


BIG IDEA: Women had one of their greatest successes in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing them the right to vote. Women at this time had less success in their efforts to win workplace equality and access to birth control.

During the 1800s, Americans were very conservative about the roles of men and women and especially about how women could behave and dress. In the 1870s, Victoria Woodhull challenged these beliefs. She championed free love, the idea that she could love whoever she wanted and change her mind as much as she wanted. Her ideas were controversial, but she was an important early challenger to social restrictions.

Margaret Sanger believed that women couldn’t be free if they had no control over how many children they would have. She challenged the Comstock Act which prohibited the promotion of birth control. She went to jail multiple times for sending information about birth control through the mail and for opening a birth control clinic in New York City. Her organization grew and is now called Planned Parenthood. Although she wasn’t successfully able to change the law at the time, the government did become concerned about promoting reproductive health during World War I when American troops started contracting STDs. After the war, Americans continued to use condoms they had learned about while in the army.

Women suffered a legal setback in their quest for equality in the Muller v. Oregon Supreme Court Case when the Court ruled that laws that limited the number of hours women could work were constitutional. They reasoned that the primary role women played in society was to be mothers and that allowing women to work as much as they wanted might hurt society.

Women finally won the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Women had been working for this right since the early 1800s, but Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt succeeded in convincing men in government to approve the amendment. Many western states had already granted women the right to vote in state elections.