The Big City: 1820-70
No period of our history has surpassed the first half century of industrialization in its rate of change. Never again did the rate of urbanization climb so sharply. Not only did Americans conquer and settle the continent in these five decades, but their way of living on the land underwent a complete metamorphosis in which a national system of cities mobilized scattered villages and farms into a network of regional commercial and manufacturing centers. This sudden reorganization of American life, the forcing of a rural society into an urban mold, exacted a terrible toll
in everyday life. Nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization inflicted punishment and suffering on city dwellers and tore at the fabric of society in the same ways that today's neglected cities do. Never were conditions more exploitative and dangerous to human life, but they were experienced in such a scattering of small factories, stores, and houses that no sustained labor movement could be organized to cope effectively with the new discipline. Yet cities of every size boomed with the possibilities that flowed from new resources, new methods of transportation, new ways of doing business, and new ways of making things.
Technological innovations, simple machines and inventions, were directed toward the products most basic to an agricultural society. The essence of industrial design in these years lay in perfecting simple, cheap products that could be sold in quantity to farmers: clocks, food mills, stoves, oil lamps, wagons, buggies, sewing machines, and the like. Such was the proliferation of devices and techniques turned out by trained engineers and scientists, as well as by gifted mechanics and tinkerers, that the foundations for the fully mechanized economy of the future were securely laid down.
Inventions of the first era, then, attacked the basic concerns of food, clothing, housing, and transportation. In agriculture, tools like axes, scythes, and shovels reached a high level of perfection, taking on the enduring forms in which we use them today. Similarly our alarm clocks, as well as the coffee mill and food grinder, eggbeater, metal spoon, and ice-cream freezer of our own kitchens, replicate designs of these inventive years. By harnessing horsepower to farm tasks formerly executed by hand, a great breakthrough was achieved in extending the scope of agriculture. Plows, mowing machines, hay rakes, reapers, and threshers broke the confines of the past which had tied armies of farm workers to the seasonal preparation of the land and to the harvesting of staple crops. Continuous, almost automated flour milling and an assembly-line process of butchering and meat packing slashed labor costs and permitted the large-scale production of these key farm items. The formerly ubiquitous icebox was also an invention of these years, and at the same time the technique of cooling chests and whole rooms by ice
was mastered. Methods providing for the safe canning of meats, fruits, and vegetables were introduced. By 1870 the United States possessed the basic components for a range of modern food products. Farm and city dwellers were alike freed from the limitations imposed by the short list of cheap all-year staples formerly available to them; to cornmeal, wheat flour, salt fish and salt meat, dried fruit and vegetables, and whiskey and beer were now added much more than merely local and seasonal supplements. One historian has underlined the change by noting that toward the end of this era the workingman could expect to find on his table such delicacies as fresh fish chowder and apple pie with some regularity.
The textile and clothing industries were revolutionized by the importation of British techniques and by further advances in American inventions, and the cost of these necessities was drastically cut for farmer and city dweller alike. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, fully integrated cotton mills, performing every operation from spinning and weaving to finishing and printing, came into production in New England and elsewhere in the Northeast. They were soon followed by woolen mills and by a parallel improvement in water turbines to drive the mills. In the same years the manufacturers of rifles—the most expensive tools purchased by the early nineteenth-century farmer—perfected what was then termed the "American system" of using interchangeable parts. In time the same methods enabled the machine shops of the East to invent and build milling machines and other metalworking tools which could turn out boxes of identical parts. Accordingly, when the practicable sewing machine was invented in 1846 these new techniques were at hand for its mass production and for its distribution for home and factory use. By the time the Civil War broke out, cloth and clothing were thoroughly modern machine-made products.
In construction, a succession of inventions for the manufacture of hardware, windows, doors, stair parts, flooring, and uniformly sized
lumber united with the balloon-frame pattern of nailed beams and boards to cut the costs of building.
The inventions that appeared between 1820 and 1870 saved an incalculable number of man-hours, skilled and unskilled, but by today's standards the cumbersome use of the tools still required a great deal of supporting labor. A farmer had to drive the team that pulled the new reaper; each machine tool needed an operator to feed and guide it; textile mills still depended on armies of women and children to tend the looms and spinning frames. Customarily the machine at this time performed only a single step in the total process; it stitched the seam but not the buttonholes, it sewed the soles but could not form the last, it cut door parts that had to be glued, assembled, and sanded by man. Flour milling was almost fully automated, but the frequently cited meat-packing assembly line was nothing more than a way to move the work past a row of skilled men. The partial introduction of machines and the partial redesign of products, together with the small and often seasonal scale of many markets, meant that in every shop from iron foundries to shoe factories there was a considerable volume of discontinuous handwork. There was much carrying of things from one machine to the next, of setting them up for one batch and then turning to the next, and short runs of products went back and forth from machine to hand to machine.
Innovations in transport resulted in the creation of two new networks that gave the inventions a revolutionary impact, and the networks had the effect of making each invention reverberate throughout the urban system. All the elements of the urban system were themselves transformed by the new transportation, and the changes were felt in urban markets, the structure of business, and the national economy. It was transportation that made the building of a national network of cities possible even while it revolutionized the social conditions within them by vastly enlarging the economic opportunities for thousands of small businessmen.
America built its canal system in two spurts, from 1815 to 1834 and from 1836 to 1854. In the first period more than two thousand miles of canals were built to connect the Atlantic port cities with each other and with the cities and towns of what was then the West. The river steam-
boat and the canal were complementary; the steamboat made upstream travel swift and reliable, cutting the time of the journey from weeks to days and hours, and canals flowed through land formerly accessible only by difficult overland pathways. By substituting an easygoing hitch of one to three horses or mules for the straining teams of the past, freight costs were cut by 90 percent. On the Erie Canal in New York, the most successful of them all, average rates for a ton-mile of goods moving from Buffalo to New York City fell from nineteen cents in 1817 to two cents and finally to one cent after some years of operation.
As the second canal boom went forward, extending existing lines and adding new Western ones, the railroad and its companion the telegraph stepped up the possibilities for high-speed travel and communications. The first railroads of the 1830s radiated from the old port cities like Baltimore and Boston to garner nearby trade. In the 1840s small cities like Albany and Binghamton in New York State made local efforts of the same sort, and big cities turned to the financing and promotion of long Western rail lines that added all-weather intercity routes to the canal connections. The railroads, unlike the state-financed canal routes, were very much the products of the cities themselves. Whether one thinks of giant projects like the Eastern Division of the Union Pacific and the Pennsylvania Railroad or of little local runs like the Albany and West Stockbridge, we find behind them Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Albany as prime movers as well as beneficiaries.
Compared to anything that had gone before, the railroad was a wonderfully versatile transportation invention. It could cheaply join a series of small coal valleys in Pennsylvania to a canal or a larger rail complex, or it could tie together the mill towns and cities of New England. It could as readily fan out over the prairies, as it did in Illinois, opening an entire state to market agriculture. In 1840 there were three thousand miles of rails and three thousand miles of canals; by 1854 one could travel by rail all the way from New York to Chicago and St. Louis. Fifteen years later the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific
joined to complete a transcontinental line; in a mere half century the country had undergone a thoroughgoing revolution in transportation.
The powerful effect of emerging transportation upon society and its economy stemmed precisely from its ability to widen the market opportunities of everyone it served. By widening the market, that is by increasing the number of potential customers, specialization was always encouraged. Why specialization? Because in almost all cases profits may be augmented by a concentration on those crops which grow best on a given piece of land, on those products which can be made most cheaply, or on those goods most easily bought or handled in volume. For example, New York merchants trading in general metal products turned to the importation of copper or tin or railroad iron, or they became dealers in blacksmith supplies or in simple hardware for country stores. The expanded grasp of the city in turn fostered rural specialization. Upstate farmers responded to the faster and cheaper transportation by switching from the few limited cash grain crops of the past to orchards, dairies, stock farms, and wool. In the process their prosperity swelled the market for manufactured goods and city services.
By myriad interactions a process of development stimulated by transportation had begun. Ease of transport led to more specialized and more efficient methods of agriculture which in turn extended the markets for farm products, and the increased prosperity of the farmers gave rise to cities to supply them with a rapidly lengthening list of comforts and necessities, such as loans, hand tools, farm machinery, pots and pans, food mills, furniture, pumps, clothing, and so on and on. In this interaction lay the workings of the urban system, the truth behind the bombast of railroad Congressmen, state canal promoters, and town and city merchants, all of whom habitually hailed every road, canal, rail, or telegraph line as an "improvement."
Indeed, transportation did transform the national network of cities, changing it from a string of small commercial Atlantic coast cities into a
continental complex of trading centers to which were added a scattering of wholly new specialized manufacturing cities. In 1820 the nation possessed but five cities (New York, population of the present five boroughs 152,000; Philadelphia, 65,000; Baltimore, 63,000; Boston, 43,000; New Orleans, 27,000). Half a century later the leading commercial centers had grown into cities of more than a quarter of a million inhabitants. The placement of these cities reflected their functions as import-export centers joining Europe to the United States via the ocean and railroads, and as assemblers and distributors of goods through the continental United States (1870 population figures: New York, 1,478,000; Philadelphia, 674,000; St. Louis, 311,000; Chicago, 299,000; Baltimore, 267,000; Boston, 251,000). To support these six big cities, forty-five cities having populations ranging from twenty-five thousand to a quarter of a million had grown up along with them (Table 1 ).
The national network of six big cities and forty-five lesser ones reflected the extent of the organization of the national economy achieved
Population by Size Groupings
Note : All cities are assigned population according to their changing political boundaries except New York, which is listed as one city of five boroughs in all periods. The Towns category in 1970 includes unincorporated urban fringe areas of 2,500 or greater numbers of inhabitants. Calculations were made from US. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957 , Washington, 1960, p. 14; Fourteenth Census of the U.S. 1920 , 1, Population , Washington, 1921, pp. 62-75; Statistical Abstract of the U.S.: 1971 , Washington, 1971, p. 17. Some disagreement in detail exists among these sources, and in such cases the Fourteenth Census has been followed because it gave specific listings of city populations by name of city.
during the years 1820-70. All fifty-one cities constituted an integrated commercial interdependency, a hierarchy of trade governed by New York and supervised by the regional centers of Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore, and Boston. Banking and wholesale trade in farm staples and some manufactured goods were controlled by the market rates and prices in these national and international trading centers. Wheat, cotton, corn, banknotes, bonds, cloth, iron, books, and all manner of goods for which there were large markets were traded in the regional centers, but with an eye to New York and ultimately to Atlantic demand and prices. Regional bankers and merchant houses maintained correspondents and agents in New York to keep them posted and to negotiate for purchases and sales. In view of these financial and commercial linkages, the United States in 1870 could be said to be an integrated national economy organized around its major city markets.
The entire economy, however, was as yet only partially organized on a national basis because manufacturing had not yet settled into the pattern whereby each specialty located in its best site, and from such a single base or cluster of bases sold its products throughout the nation. In 1870 such common items as stoves, hardware, kitchenwares, farm machinery, steam engines and locomotives, carriages, wagons, clothing, and shoes were being manufactured in cities and towns all over the United States. The network of cities reflected this fragmented and overlapping placement. The six largest of them had added a wide range of manufactures to their commercial base and were producing an extraordinary variety of goods from fur muffs and gas lights to ships and steam engines. In the duplication of effort, Philadelphia's furniture mills made the same Windsor chairs as their Boston, New York, and Chicago counterparts, while the Philadelphia weavers made a line of goods from mosquito netting to muslins, repeating the line of the textile towns in New York and New England. Such repetitiousness reflected the mixed
tendencies of the times, for each big city was in part a market unto itself and produced for its own region, even while it was also a dealer in outside goods now beginning to be produced for national markets. It took perfection of the rail network and the organization of the large corporation to put an end to these anomalies.
The lesser cities reflected the same lack of national specialization in manufacturing. In the list of forty-five stood commercial cities whose principal activity lay in trading with their rural hinterlands, as had Baltimore and Boston in previous years. Such cities as New Orleans, Memphis, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Portland (Maine), and Rochester served their local regions with imported goods and traded as well in the local specialties of sugar, cotton, corn, cattle, grain, and lumber in the traditional manner of commercial cities. Their rapid growth over a half century reflected the settlement of the continent and the impact of river, canal, and rail transportation on growth and diversification. Other cities on the list represented the new industrial specializations for large-scale production: Lowell, textiles; Reading and Scranton, anthracite; Providence, machine tools; Hartford, guns; Utica and Troy, textiles and machinery. In some cases an industrial specialty contributed to a commercial city's growth, as did ironworking in Pittsburgh, meat packing in Cincinnati and Chicago, and oil refining in Cleveland. To appreciate fully the contribution of early manufacturing to the urbanization of the United States, one has only to consider the case of the still largely rural South, which had only eight cities on the national list of 1870. Although scholars disagree concerning the reasons for the retarded urbanization and industrialization in the region south of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi River, its agricultural economy in 1870 resembled an underdeveloped eighteenth-century colony and had little in common with the boom conditions of the Northeast and Midwest. One can perceive the lineaments of the future growth of the two great manufacturing belts in the 1870 mixture of cities, factory towns, and commercial centers which had already grown up there.
Just as the national network of cities had transformed the lives of American farmers, so the sheer magnitude of these new cities radically affected the lives of city dwellers. The metropolises were after all five to ten times as large as the leading cities of half a century before, and it is not an exaggeration to maintain that in the years from 1820 to 1870 no
important facet of urban life was left untouched by the rapid change in scale. Yet the setting for these changes would now appear strange to us because the cities of the 1820-70 era were so different from our own. They were cities of storekeepers and small sweatshop factories, of businesses run by one boss or a few partners, of the scattering of shops and workrooms among residences, of mixed neighborhoods of rich and poor, native and immigrant, and of strong smells and slovenly habits coexisting with stiff and polished propriety.
The enlarged markets for the sale of goods within the cities worked in two ways to change the organization of business and the nature of urban jobs. First, as the city grew so did its needs, and residentiary industries such as little local bakeries spread through the neighborhoods of the city. Second, export industries were bound to multiply and expand when a city could sell to a broader region around it. For example, New York's cracker industry grew lustily to sell barrels of hard crackers far and wide to country stores and to ships' captains. In many cases local and distant markets overlapped. New York sold steam engines to shipbuilders and factories in the immediate environs even as it exported them to distant mills; it made the same line of clothing for local workingmen that it made for country stores or Southern plantations.
The new markets relentlessly favored a different kind of businessman, called in those years a contractor or capitalist, whom today we could perhaps best describe as a hustler. Inventions were important in the reorganization of business by small proprietors and partnerships, but since early machinery served at most as a substitute for a few hand tasks, the principal gains in production accrued to bosses who could organize their shopworkers for a steady production of uniform output. These emerging businessmen recruited labor from the old independent artisan shops where a complete product had been made by one man, or by a couple of men assisted by a boy or a family. They moved artisans, unskilled immigrants, women, and children into their own shops, where they could watch over them. Or they carried unfinished garments and products from shop to shop and tenement to tenement, issuing the strictest instructions for their completion. Instead of waiting for orders from individual customers to come in the door, these capitalists solicited
business from wholesale merchants and produced for the expanding anonymous urban market. By a combination of hard driving, strict supervision, and a certain amount of machinery, they transformed such cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston from artisan towns into hives of small factories and wholesale outlets (Table 2, page 93).
The transformation went forward even in the most ordinary and unmechanized activities. Often the old and the new existed side by side. In New York there was still work in 1870 for the carpenter who followed the ancient custom of bidding on a house or two each year and doing most of the work himself, for the tailor who measured and fitted each suit individually, or for the wood carver who carried his tools from shop to shop, following his own preferences in employers. But higher rewards than a commonplace living wage awaited the man who determined to expand. A carpenter could become an entrepreneur by transforming himself into a contractor and hiring a mixed crew of men—some skilled but many unskilled—to install the new factory-produced windows, doors, moldings, and stairs. By rushing from job to job he could manage to erect whole groups of houses by his own energy and by driving his workers, and so enjoy the patronage of speculators in the city's periodic real-estate booms. He could grow wealthy while his old crew of skilled artisans and day workers would be left behind. Similarly a tailor might break down the skills of his craft into its components of cutting, basting, buttonhole making, and the like and place his unskilled or semiskilled tasks in the homes of poor women, children, and immigrants. He could prosper in the urban market for workers' ready-made clothing and could sell as well to the country stores whose merchants came regularly to the big cities to buy stock.
Well before sewing machines were invented, before tin ceilings or cast-iron store fronts were used, even before balloon-frame house construction had been popularized, the merchant capitalist and contractor came forward in the American city to reorganize its labor. These were the drivers of men who lengthened the workers' hours, abolished the holidays and self-determined comings and goings of independent artisans, broke down the craft traditions, and oriented the business of the city toward ever spiraling production and sales.
The cities of course had their inventors too, men who saw opportunity in the expansion of the day and made their fortunes by adding personal mechanisms and techniques to existing methods. In New York City, Peter Cooper (1791-1883), former wood carver, manufacturer of shears for the napping of wool cloth, and grocer, made the decision to compete with imported glue and gelatin. By careful attention to the details of manufacture and with the aid of a few inventions bearing on the processes, he was able to offer a cheaper and more uniform product than had been in use before. As New York and its markets grew, his glue boiling prospered magnificently. There were many inventor-manufacturers like Cooper in the big cities of this period, such as the shipbuilding Stevens family in Hoboken in the port of New York and the machine-making Sellers brothers in Philadelphia, but invention also flourished in mill towns over the whole East and Midwest. In this era of tinkering, wherever there were machines there were inventors.
The big cities, however, did tend to have a particularly encouraging effect on inventions and in time more or less concentrated the innovators within their bounds. This encouragement was compounded of the complementary suppliers and marketing firms that surrounded them in the urban districts. Cooper, for example, had set his glueworks near the slaughterhouse of Henry Astor, where hooves were abundant and cheap. In these days before dressed meat could be shipped in refrigerator cars and indeed before there were cattle cars on the railroads for the shipment of livestock, cattle were driven to the city to be killed, and New York City was the slaughtering capital of the nation. Furthermore, the city's users of glue—shoemakers, bookbinders, furniture manufacturers, and so on—were located near at hand as ready consumers of his product, and he was thus dealing with America's largest wholesale and retail market. Although the city of this period was made up of a multiplicity of small firms—smaller in most instances than Cooper's glueworks—the clustering of complementary businesses made expansion easy.
The swelling of urban markets into a partially integrated national economy and the consequent transformation of business into a swarm of small aggressive production and marketing firms had drastic and enduring consequences for urban workers. The explosive growth of cities created something like a labor vacuum into which were sucked thou-
sands upon thousands of rural migrants. A profound cultural shock ensued. Native workers had to face up to the reality of competing and coexisting with waves of foreign immigrants. To add to the difficulty of their adjustment, depressions and periodic mass unemployment now threatened their jobs for the first time in our history. The closer linkages of urban work to national and international sales made each city economy a captive of worldwide business cycles. Finally, the new stricter discipline and the growing size of shops and factories reversed the egalitarian trends of the early merchant-artisan city and instituted the deep class cleavages between hand workers and paper workers, between working class and middle class.
The nineteenth-century American city was a magnet for immigrants. From the 1820s onward, young men flocked to the city from American farms and towns as well as from European villages, towns, and cities. In the years before 1870, Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany supplied most of the immigrants (Table 3, page 168). Over and over, the story was repeated of the eager youth who, in seeking his fortune, accepted the heightened pace of work and the endless hours of labor as a challenge. He tried to work ever harder than his competitors, contributing his youth to the energy of the city. A tale of that period that speaks of boys from the New England countryside makes clear the standards of morality and behavior by which such newcomers were judged:
With a few dollars and a mother's prayer, the young hero goes forth to seek his fortune in the great mart of commerce. He needs but a foothold. He asks no more, and he is as sure to keep it as the light will dispell darkness. He gets a place somewhere in a "store." It is all store to him. He hardly comprehends the difference between the business of the great South street house, that sends ships over the world, and the Bowery dry goods shop with three or four spruce clerks. He rather thinks the Bowery or Canal street store the biggest, as they make more show. But wherever this boy strikes, he fastens. He is honest, determined, and intelligent. From the word "go" he begins to learn, to compare, and no matter what the commercial business he is engaged in, he will not rest until he knows all about it, its details—in fact, as much as his principals.
Another characteristic of the future merchant is this—no sooner has he got a foothold, than the New England boy begins to look for standing room for others. Perhaps he is the son of a small farmer who has several other children. The pioneer boy, if true blue, does not rest until one by one he has procured situations for all of his brothers. If he has