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Industrialization and Urbanization, Growth of Cities

railroad center, railroad hub, Urban political machines, Social Gospel, large department stores

As immigration exploded, the urban population surged from 6 million in 1860 to 42 million in 1910. Big cities got bigger: Chicago tripled in size in the 1880s and 1890s. By 1900 three cities contained more than a million people: New York (3.5 million), Chicago (1.7 million), and Philadelphia (1.3 million).

In the late 19th century, industry invaded the cities. Previously, cities had served as commercial centers for rural hinterlands and were frequently located on rivers, lakes, or oceans. Manufacturing occurred outside their limits—usually near power sources, such as streams, or natural resources, such as coal. As industry grew, cities changed. Chicago, for instance, had been a railroad center that served the upper Midwest as a shipping hub for lumber, meat, and grain; by 1870 it had taken the lead in steel production as well as meatpacking. Post-Civil War Atlanta, another railroad hub and commercial center, also developed a diverse manufacturing sector. Cities quickly became identified with what they produced—Troy, New York, made shirt collars; Birmingham, Alabama, manufactured steel; Minneapolis, Minnesota, produced lumber; Paterson, New Jersey, wove silk; Toledo, Ohio, made glass; Tulsa, Oklahoma, harbored the oil industry; and Houston, Texas, produced railroad cars.

Population changes also transformed the city. Urban growth reflected the geographic mobility of the industrial age; people moved from city to city as well as within them. The new transience led to diverse populations. Migrants from rural areas and newcomers from abroad mingled with wealthy long-time residents and the middle class. Immigrants constituted the fastest growing populations in big cities, where industry offered work. Urban political machines helped immigrant communities by providing services in exchange for votes. For immigrants, boss politics eased the way to jobs and citizenship. Most, but not all, city machines were Democratic.

Just as industrialization and immigration transformed the city, new technology reshaped it. Taller buildings became possible with the introduction of elevators and construction using cast-iron supports and, later, steel girders. The first steel-frame skyscraper, ten stories high, arose in Chicago in 1885. In 1913 New York’s Woolworth Building soared to a height of 60 stories. Taller buildings caused land values in city centers to increase.

New forms of transportation stretched cities out. First, trolleys veered over bumpy rails, and steam-powered cable cars lugged passengers around. Then cities had electric streetcars, powered by overhead wires. Electric streetcars and elevated railroads enabled cities to expand, absorbing nearby towns and linking central cities with once-distant suburbs. For intercity transport, huge railroad terminals—built like palaces, with columns, arches, and towers—arose near crowded business hubs.

Late-19th-century cities were cauldrons of change. In commerce, they became centers of merchandising with large department stores, which developed in the 1860s and 1870s. As city populations grew, the need for safe water, sanitation, fire control, and crime control also grew. These needs led to new urban services—water reservoirs, sewer systems, fire and police departments. Reformers attempted to enhance urban environments with parks and to improve poor neighborhoods with urban missions. Urban religious leaders of the 1880s promoted the Social Gospel, under which churches concerned themselves with social problems such as poverty, vice, and injustice.

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