The Gilded Age : Urbanization

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Chapter 15, Section 2: Urban Life

American Cities Change

Before industrialization, cities were compact. Few buildings stood taller than four stories. Most people lived within walking distance of their workplaces, schools, shopping districts, and places of worship. But in the late 1800s, cities began to run out of build-able space. Instead of spreading out, they began to build up. Architects started using strong steel frames, which allowed them to build taller buildings than ever before. The safety elevator, invented by Elisha Otis, made taller buildings practical.

With the coming of mass transit, cities expanded as people moved farther away. Middle class and wealthy people could work in the city but leave the noises and smells behind when they went home. The working poor, however, could not afford to move from the city center.

As cities grew, some people began to fear that urban areas would no longer have any green spaces. The new field of urban planning arose to deal with this challenge. Urban planners and civil engineers tried to map out the best use of space in cities. Landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted designed city parks to provide city residents with a sense of the countryside. Olmsted designed New York City’s Central Park as well as a network of Boston parks known as the Emerald Necklace and other urban parks.

Class Differences

America’s booming cities provided bountiful opportunities for success in life. But the opportunities varied tremendously depending on one’s status in society.

The wealthy

The richest Americans in the late 1800s did not all come from old-money families with inherited wealth. Instead, they made their fortunes in industry and business. Many of these newly rich made a point of conspicuously displaying their wealth. Because of their excesses, the period from the 1870s to the 1890s is sometimes called the Gilded Age.

The well-to-do spent vast sums of money on housing. Affluent New Yorkers lined Fifth Avenue with grand houses resembling medieval castles and Italian Renaissance palaces. In the summer, they left their city homes for magnificent country estates. The oldest grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, for example, built a palatial summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. His “cottage” had 70 rooms.

High-society women read instructive literature that outlined proper behavior for ladies and gentlemen. The guides glorified the ideal woman as a homemaker. Her role was to organize and decorate her home, entertain, supervise a staff of servants, and offer moral and social guidance to her family. Most wealthy women stayed busy with these private activities. Some, however, lent their time and occasionally their money to social reform efforts.

The middle class

The growth of new industries resulted in an increase in the urban middle class. The rise of modern corporations also caused the middle class to swell as more and more people became accountants, clerks, managers, and salespeople.

Industry and business, as well as a growing population, created a need for educated workers such as teachers, engineers, lawyers, and doctors. Before the late 1800s, however, few standards existed to ensure that these workers had appropriate qualifications. During the 1870s and 1880s, schools and organizations began to standardize the skills and knowledge needed for certain occupations. This process became known as professionalization. It brought new respect to professions such as medicine, law, and education.

Few professions accepted women as members. But women found other opportunities to work outside the home. Businesses hired women as salesclerks, secretaries, and typists.

When young, middle-class women married, they usually stopped working outside the home. Yet managing a home now involved less labor than it had previously. Women could buy many of the items their mothers had formerly made themselves, such as clothing. In addition, many middle class households employed at least one servant to manage the housework.

With less time spent on housework, many middle class women had time for other activities. Some participated in reform movements. Others joined reading clubs and other social groups. By taking part in activities outside the home, middle class women began to expand their influence into the public world.

The working class

Many people in the cities lived in terrible poverty. As more people moved to the cities in search of work, the growing population kept wages low. Housing shortages meant that most workers lived in cramped conditions. In New York City, for example, about half of the population crowded into tenements, or run-down apartment buildings.

Tenements were usually within walking distance of the factories, stockyards, and ports where many of the urban poor worked. This meant that at home, as well as on the job, they had to endure pollution and filth. Sickness and untimely death were common.

Tenements lacked sufficient light and ventilation. Only the rooms facing the street and the back of the building had windows, and even these were a mixed blessing. They let in sunlight but also the stench from trash and sewage and the pollution from belching factories.

Housekeeping was laborious in a tenement. With no indoor plumbing, women and children had to haul water from an outdoor water pump for laundry, bathing, and cooking. Women washed clothes by boiling them on the stove and then hanging them to dry on lines strung between buildings or in the kitchen. On top of their difficult housekeeping tasks, many working-class women also labored in low-paying jobs outside the home.

Settlement House Movement

With poverty a desperate problem, some American reformers turned to Great Britain for inspiration. In 1884 London reformers had founded the first settlement house, a place where volunteers provided a variety of services to people in need.

Instead of just giving handouts, settlement houses taught immigrants many skills they could use to help themselves out of poverty. They offered English classes and job-training courses. They also provided social activities, such as clubs and sports.

Soon, settlement houses began appearing in U.S. cities. One of the first was Hull House in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889. The settlement house movement spread quickly. In New York City, Lillian Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement. Janie Porter Barrett established the Locust Street Social Settlement in Hampton, Virginia, the first settlement house for African Americans. By 1910 there were 400 settlement houses in U.S. cities.

Most settlement house workers were middle-class, college-educated women who lived among the people they served. In a society that barred women from working in many professions, the settlement houses gave women new opportunities to lead, organize, and improve life for others.

Many workers in the settlement houses held strong religious views. They believed in the Social Gospel, the idea that religious faith should be expressed through good works. They believed that churches had a moral duty to help solve society’s problems.

Social Darwinists, however, criticized the Social Gospel movement. Social Darwinists such as sociologist William Graham Sumner viewed existence as a competitive struggle in which only the fittest would survive. People were poor, Sumner said, because of their own deficiencies. Therefore, social reforms could not help them.

Holt American Anthem Reconstruction to the Present. Orlando, Fla.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 2009. Print.

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