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Industrialization and Urbanization, The Impact of Industrialization

common event, cotton mills, indoor plumbing, clerical workers, office world

Three decades of industrial progress transformed American life. By 1900 the United States had an advanced industrial economy, dominated by big corporations. The corporation harnessed ingenuity, created unprecedented wealth, and spurred the growth of new cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Dallas. It increased foreign trade. The value of exports doubled from 1877 to 1900; imports rose, too, but less rapidly. Industrial progress revolutionized the marketing of goods and transformed the office world, now filled with clerical workers, bureaucrats, and middle managers. It also transformed homes by introducing indoor plumbing, electric lights, and household appliances. Overall, industrialization made available labor-saving products, lower prices for manufactured goods, advances in transportation, and higher living standards.

Industrialization had liabilities as well. It brought about vast disparities of wealth and unreliable business cycles, in which overproduction and depression alternated. The economy lurched between boom and panic, as in the 1870s and 1890s; bankruptcy became a common event, especially among indebted railroads that had overbuilt. For laborers, industrialization meant competition for jobs, subsistence wages, insecurity, and danger. Children worked in coal mines and cotton mills; women labored in tenement sweatshops; workers faced the prospect of industrial accidents and illnesses such as respiratory diseases.

Industrialization also exploited natural resources and damaged the environment. Refiners and steel mills spewed oil into rivers and smoke into the atmosphere. Finally, industrialization brought a relentless drive for efficiency and profit that led to ever larger, more powerful businesses and gave the corporate elite undue power in national politics. In the 1890s business leaders’ need for yet larger markets led to pressure on the United States to expand overseas.

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