As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
Industrialization, Urbanization, and Immigration in the Gilded Age

Introduction: Today, our story continues with a new chapter - a chapter that coincides with the "closure" of the American frontier which we have discussed over the past two days - and focuses on the rapid industrialization, urbanization, and immigration that occurred at the end of the 19th Century. This is an era that often is not taught in the schools but is essential to an understanding of contemporary American history - and era known as the Gilded Age.

So, how did this era get labeled "The Gilded Age?" In 1872, two wealthy men and their wives were having dinner together in Hartford, Connecticut. The men carried the conversation, talking about the "shameful corruption" of American politics. As their criticisms mounted, their wives dared them to write a book exposing such "shameful corruption." Thus, Mark Twain and his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner wrote, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, in which they satirized the business and politics of their day. The novel eventually gave a name to the historical period between 1860 and 1890 - Cover of "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today"The Gilded Age. The name suggests both the golden gleam of a gilded surface on top of the cheap base metal underneath.

The Gilded Age period, then, is yet another example of one of the course themes - Progress is not always progressive. Indeed, I will argue that we cannot discuss the Gilded Age without addressing both the gold and the base metal - both the progress and the underlying problems it created.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To take an introductory look at urban poverty at the end of the 19th century.
  2. To define relevant terms related to industrialization
  3. To discuss the factors that contributed to rapid industrialization during the Gilded Age.
  4. To examine the consequences of rapid industrialization during this period.
  5. To understand the growth of corporations and corporate personhood throughout the last 150 years.
  6. To examine the relationship between labor and management during the Gilded Age.
  7. To understand more about the urbanization and the huge wave of immigration that occurred during the Gilded Age - and in so doing, demonstrate the relationship between industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

Discussion Goal #1: To take an introductory look at urban poverty at the end of the 19th century

At the end of the 19th Century when the American frontier and rural America were undergoing tremendous change, urban America was also experiencing tremendous social, political, and economic transformations. We are lucky because we can view primary documents from the period through the eyes of a Swedish immigrant by the name of Joseph Riis who spent his career taking photographs of the consequences of industrialized and urbanized America during the Gilded Age, In 1890 he published them in his book How the Other Half Lives - and his book became famous as the first effort Jacob Riis Photographto use photography to bring the plight of the urban poor to the attention of upper and middle class Americans.

But Riis was not the first person to bring the plight of poverty to Americans. In Henry George's essay, "The Crime of Poverty" - an excerpt from which you were supposed to read for today's discussion - published in 1885, he states in his first pages:

"Long ago it was said that 'one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.' ... The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate, of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat ... I propose to talk of the Crime of Poverty ... Nine tenths of human misery, I think you will find, if you look, to be due to poverty ... And it seems to me clear that the great majority of those who suffer from poverty are poor not from their own particular faults, but because of conditions imposed by society at large. Therefore I hold that poverty is a crime - not an individual crime, but a social crime, a crime for which we all, poor as well as rich, are responsible ... I hold, and I think no one who looks at the facts can fail to see, that poverty is utterly unnecessary. It is not by the decree of the Almighty, but it is because of our own injustice, our own selfishness, our own ignorance, that this scourge, worse than any pestilence, ravages our civilisation, bringing want and suffering and degradation, destroying souls as well as bodies."

Urban poverty, then, was a common problem during the Gilded Age. And poverty, as we shall see, was linked to the rapid industrialization that accompanied this era.

Goal #2: To define relevant terms related to industrialization

Industrialization occurs when a nation's economic system decreases its reliance upon producing goods by hand and increases its reliance upon producing goods by machine.

Boott Cotton Mill in Lowell, MassIndustries arise when huge markets of capital and labor are combined to lower production costs, raise each worker's output, and subsequently, create large amounts of consumer goods.

The First Industrial Revolution occurred between 1820-1869 when New England textile mills employed thousands to turn the raw materials from the South into finished products. You can see an example of this early textile industry with the photograph of the Boott Cotton Mill in Lowell, Massachusetts. Outside of the growing textile industry, however, most Americans considered a large business to be one that employed 100 workers. Cities gradually grew in the North, while the South and the growing western regions remained primarily agricultural. By the end of this Revolution, most people still worked on farms.

The Second Industrial Revolution occurred during the Gilded Age between 1870-1910 when new industries employed hundreds of thousands to produce items needed for America's growing industries and goods desired by American consumers. Most industrial businesses employed thousands of workers. Industrial cities grew rapidly, especially in the northeast along the Great Lake region. By the end of this Revolution, the U.S. had become a mature industrial society in which two-thirds of Americans worked for wages in city jobs.

So what were the factors that contributed to this Second Industrial Revolution and the resulting rapid industrialization in urban America?

Goal #3: To discuss the factors that contributed to rapid industrialization experienced during the Gilded Age

Industries have always been a part of American life - but prior to the Civil War, most were extremely small-scale and known primarily as cottage industries - small businesses carried out in homes and communities with 2-5 employees. In the South, money-making crops were huge industries - not only the production, but also the exportation. By the 1900s, most businesses had industrialized and most employed thousands.

In its earliest years, industrialization grew largely in the north and northwest. Why? Geography. If we look at this map, Map of U.S. showing riverswe can see that the proximity to water in the north largely supports the rise of cities and industrialization, while the southern geography is better suited for agriculture. Thus, geography will shape both the economics and politics of these regions.

After the Civil War, American industry changed dramatically.

What, then, were the factors that contributed to this dramatic change?

  1. Improved transportation and communication.
  2. The growth of capitalism and a growing number of capitalistic entrepreneurs.
  3. New inventions and technology.
  4. New advertising and marketing techniques.
  5. Plentiful natural resources.
  6. Plentiful labor.
  7. Government support

Improved Transportation and Communication

By 1890s, the U.S. had the most extensive railroad network in the world - railroads linked together cities in every state. By 1900, there were 193,000 miles of tracks in U.S.

Map railroads 1830, 1840, 1850

Map railroads 1860Map railroads 1870

Map railroads 1880Map railroads 1890

The growth of capitalism and a growing number of industrial capitalists (Robber Barons).

Capitalism is an economic and social system in which the means of production - capital - is privately owned by individuals. Under capitalism, labor, goods and capital are traded and the profits are distributed to owners and/or investors. The new industrial capitalists - men like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie - benefitted greatly from capitalism during the Gilded Age. And they benefitted themselves at the expense of their workers. Consequently, they have been referred to as Robber Barons. The two illustrations below indicate how capitalism influenced the U.S. during the era of the Robber Barons as well as how capitalism influences the U.S. today.

19th Century poster of Wobbly's Interpretation of capitalism20th century poster interpreting capitalism

Nineteenth Century Robber Baron industrialists gained and maintained their power by:

  1. Making secret pacts with other industrialists that allowed them to make huge profits and discouraged or eliminated competitors.
  2. Paying their workers very poorly with wages that were at best subsistence level (wage slavery) and with no benefits.
  3. Working the federal and state political systems to make sure there was no government regulations on their businesses.
  4. Framing their success by relating it to Social Darwinism and the American tradition of Calvinism - private property held greater value than individual interests; poverty was the fault of the impoverished and sinful; and the social classes were not equal - especially rich and poor, capitalist and laborer. 
  5. Promoting the "rags to riches" belief that anyone in America who worked hard enough, could be rich. Horatio Alger popularized this idea through his famous book, Raggedly Dick.
  6. Being protected by five very powerful institutions:

Let's take a look at the richest Americans throughout history. And how did these wealthy men, make their money - almost always through new inventions and technology.

New Inventions and Technology

During the Gilded Age, the number of new inventions skyrocketed: between 1790 and 1860, the U.S. Patent Office granted 36,000 patents, but between 1861 and 1930, it registered 1.5 million patents. Inventions were created in conjunction with the emerging new technologies - electricity replaced steam power; the assembly production line replaced individual production; and single machines with huge output capacities replaced single workers. For example:

New advertising and marketing techniques which increased consumer demands for goods.

Painting of Cocaine Advertisement in 1885When production outstripped demand, industries turned to advertising to seduce consumers into wanting their products.

Industrial American also turned to new marketing techniques - especially by using ads that promoted certain brands - Quaker Oats - and using gimmicks that encouraged consumer loyalty - like Pillsbury’s Best flour "strongly recommended by Eminent authorities - Physicians and Chemists - as a powerful Brain Muscle and Bone forming food, particularly adapted for Brain workers, growing children, and those suffering from digestive debility and disorders." And then there were the ads that promised a cure - like this 1885 advertisement for Cocaine Toothache Drops.

Plentiful Natural Resources.

Plentiful Labor. As industries grew, millions of people flocked to the cities in search of plentiful jobs. Working in the city had become more popular than farming. As Eric Foner in Give Me Liberty tells us, "By 1890, two-thirds of Americans worked for wages, rather than owning a farm, business, or craft shop." And who were these new workers? Migrants, women, children and immigrants.

Government Support. Rapid industrialization would not have been possible without a great deal of support from federal and state governments, as well as the federal and state courts. In fact, as we already have learned, the Robber Baron industrialists gained a great deal of assistance and power with the help from Congress, the states, cultural and religious institutions, law enforcement and the military, and the U.S. Supreme Court. And remember, despite the fact that the federal government gave industrialists a great deal of support, there was virtually no government regulation of their industries.

Discussion Goal #4: To examine the consequences of rapid industrialization during this period

As you have read in Chapter 11 of Voices of a People's History, many people rebelled against the excesses of rapid industrialization and in so doing, they

  1. The nation grew faster than it ever had, bringing about great shifts:
  2. American social beliefs became intimately tied to capitalism and Social Darwinism.
  3. As workers rebelled against the excesses of industrialization, violent conflict arose between the industrialists/Robber Barons and American laborers (discussed below).
  4. For the first and only time in U.S. history, a significant minority of Americans turned to labor unions and the press to publicize and solve their grievances related to the excesses of capitalism - and some turned to socialism and anarchism as a substitute. We can clearly see this in the voices of August Spies, the anonymous witness at Thibodaux in Louisiana, Reverand Lyon in New Orleans, farmers who joined various alliances and the Populist movement, Mary Elizabeth Lease, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Edward Bellamy, and the Pullman Strikers - all found in Chapter 11 of Voices of a People's History.
  5. The nation became increasingly urban (discussed below).
  6. Corporations became increasingly dominant in the American economy (discussed below).

Goal #5: To understand the growth of corporations and corporate personhood throughout the last 150 years

By the late 19th Century, corporations began to grow both in size and in number. But before we can understand how this growth contributed to what is known in the 21st Century as corporate personhood, we need to define a few terms. B COrporation Declaration

Now let's get to some 21st century questions about corporate personhood

What are some other cost and effect factors of corporate personhood?

A full chronology of the history of corporations and the rise of corporate personhood can be accessed at

Goal #6: To understand the problems between labor and management during the Gilded Age

Background: The American Civil War was followed by a boom in railroad construction. Thirty-five thousand miles of new track was laid across the country between 1866 and 1873. At that time, the railroad industry was the nation's largest employer outside of agriculture, and it involved large amounts of money and risk. Speculators infused cash into the markets and thus caused abnormal growth in industry as well as overbuilding of docks, factories and related facilities.

Photo of J.P. MorganIn September 1873, the nation experienced the largest economic crash in its history. The crash was the consequence of over-speculation in the railroad industry which, in turn, brought down many of the nation's largest banks. A five year depression followed the crash - a depression that was especially devastating for the growing number of urban poor.

But as ordinary Americans suffered, the super rich - the Robber Barons - used the crisis as an opportunity to buy up foundering competitors. J.P. Morgan was one of these men who wanted to get rid of what he called "wasteful competition." For the the Robber Barons, the panic years were golden; they had enough capital reserves to finance their own continuing growth. For smaller industrial firms, the situation was desperate; as capital reserves dried up, so did their industries. The Robber Barons, led by the financial wizardry of J.P. Morgan, attacked free market competition by buying out their smaller competitors at rock bottom prices

Conspicuous consumption versus desperation. By 1890, over 1800 millionaires lived in the United States; half of them lived in New York City where their lives were marked by conspicuous consumption - thereby helping them to earn their label, the Robber Barons. An example of such conspicuous consumption occurred in 1883, when after the completion of their New York City mansion, the Vanderbilt's threw a party that showcased their immense wealth, 1883 photo of Mrs. Vanderbilt dressed as Electric Lightas well as the wealth of their millionaire friends. The picture is of Mrs. Vanderbilt as Electric Light. Her gown glitters with an unknown number of real diamonds.

As the panic deepened, ordinary Americans suffered terribly. Between 1873 and 1877, as many smaller factories and workshops closed down, tens of thousands of workers - many former Civil War soldiers - became transients. The terms "tramp" and "bum" became commonplace American terms. As both the wealth of robber barons and the unemployed soared, so did the resentment of the workers and their families. Relief rolls exploded in major cities, with 25 percent unemployment (100,000 people) in New York City alone.

Strikes. Unemployed workers demonstrated in Boston, Chicago, and New York in the winter of 1873-74 demanding public work. In New York's Tompkins Square in January 1874, police entered the crowd with clubs and beat up thousands of men and women. The most violent strikes in American history followed the panic, including by the secret labor group known as the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania's coal fields in 1875, when masked workmen exchanged gunfire with the "Coal and Iron Police," a private force commissioned by the state. A nationwide railroad strike followed in 1877, in which mobs destroyed railway hubs in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cumberland, Maryland.

But when the Depression was over in 1880, conflict between the Robber Barons who were richer than ever, and the urban poor, who were poorer than ever, increased rather than diminished. Working conditions were horrendous during the Gilded Age. In 1889 alone, 22,000 railroad workers were killed or injured on the job. Thousands of others died or were crippled in the nation's mines, steel mills, and textile mills. Not only were workers angry about poor working conditions and mistreatment, they were especially upset about losing their Photograph of 7 anarchists found guilty at Haymarket trialjobs to local or imported strikebreakers and increasing efforts of management to destroy their unions. As many employers shut down their plants and attempted "to starve" their employees out of the union, violent outbreaks occurred in the North, South, and West, in small communities as well as in large metropolitan cities.

Perhaps the worst, as well as the most famous of all riots occurred in Chicago's Haymarket Square on Tuesday, May 4, 1886. It began as a rally in support of striking workers when an unknown person threw a bomb at police as they tried to disperse the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. Consequently, eight anarchists were tried for murder. This engraving shows the seven anarchists sentenced to die for the death of a police officer. The eighth defendant, not shown here, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Four were put to death, one committed suicide in prison, and two had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. In 1882, Governor Atgeld commuted the sentence of the three remaining in prison.

While workers reacted to the denial of their rights to belong to labor unions and resorted to strikes when conditions became unbearable, the outcome of their violent behavior never changed the course of events - the owners won and the workers lost. Thus, America's Gilded Age witnessed deep and sometimes violent divisions over the definition of freedom in a rapidly industrializing society.

The battle continued into the 20th Century - a battle that pitted the Robber Barons who saw freedom as the opportunity to pursue economic interests without governmental regulation, against workers who believed freedom lay in collective efforts to create safe industrial opportunities for ordinary Americans.

Goal #7: To understand the relationship between industrialization, urbanization, and immigration

As industrialization grew in the late 19th century, more people came to American cities for jobs in the new industries. It stands to reason, then, that America became more urban. Just what does this mean?

Map of American cities in 1898By 1870, the nation had only 25 cities with more than 50,000 people - with a total population of 5 million. By 1890, there were 58 cities that size with nearly 12 million people; most were in the Northeast and near the Great Lakes. By 1898, cities were in great evidence in the east and mid east; but as the map shows, they were still quite scarce in the west. By 1900, New York City had 4 million residents!

What happened was fairly simply and also quite remarkable - after the Civil War as new technologies encouraged the growth of new industries where many jobs were readily available, huge cities grew to house both the growing number of industries and the growing number of industrial workers. The vast majority of cities grew with only minimal, if any planning. Most choices about land use and construction were made by individual landowners, developers, and builders who wanted to make large profits. Thus, everyone built the most working and li\ving space for the least cost - leaving little room for pleasant or open space.

So what were the consequences of rapid urbanization during the Gilded Age? On the positive side, urbanization brought new jobs, new opportunities, new housing, and new transportation; but on the negative side, urbanization gave rise to widespread urban poverty, sub-standard housing, environmental degradation, increasing crime and violence, violent clashes between labor and management, and political corruption.

  1. Housing problems. Urbanization in the late 1800s was especially bad in New York City. You can experience a virtual tour of the New York City Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street at
  2. Crime: crimes against persons, crimes against property, crimes agains societal morality Photo of air pollution in Pittsburgh late 1800s
  3. Environmental degradation included smog, litter, toxic waste in rivers and on land, and deforestation.
  4. Political corruption, patronage, and the "well-greased" political machine
  5. Unparalled immigration and migration.

And what motivates people to move?

The U.S. is truly a land of immigrants - unless you are of American Indian heritage, someone in your family immigrated here at one time or another. By 1850, immigration really began to grow - and as it did, new immigrants contined to be a large percentage of the 19th century population.

Industrialization, Urbanization, and Immigration in the Gilded Age

  1. During the Gilded Age, two transforming experiences changed many aspects of American life – industrialization and urbanization.
  2. Such changes did little to alter the traditional political, social, and economic structure of American life - white men of European descent continued to control the political environment, the nation was still divided by class, and the rich got richer while the poor maintained their poverty or got poorer. Our economy was and still is directed by the "haves," but built upon the backs of the "have nots."
  3. Similar to the closure of the frontier, industrialization led to both positive and negative consequences, thus giving credence to the term, The Gilded Age.  Progress is not always progressive.
  4. Industrialization was accompanied by the rise of corporations whereby corporate leaders sought to control the markets for their products, the production of their products, their competitors, their workers, and their political environment.
  5. Seven primary factors contributed to the rapid industrialization of America: improved transportation and communication; the growth of capitalism and a growing number of capitalistic entrepreneurs; new inventions and technology; new advertising and marketing techniques; plentiful natural resources; plentiful labor; and government support. Technology fuels most political, social, and economic change.
  6. The primary consequences of industrialization were: the nation grew faster than it ever had; American social beliefs were intimately tied to capitalism; violent conflict arose between the industrialists/Robber Barons and American laborers; the nation became increasingly urban; and corporations became increasingly dominant in the American economy..
  7. The progress that accompanied urbanization came at a high cost to Americans. On the positive side, urbanization brought new jobs, new housing opportunities, modern building construction and transportation techniques, and more consistent wages.  On the negative side, urbanization gave increasing impetus to racial and class conflict, widespread poverty, environmental degradation, violent clashes between union workers and their corporate managers, inadequate housing, crime, and political corruption. Progress is not always progressive. Freedom is never free.
  8. The corporate industries of late 19th Century America were the first beneficiaries of the welfare state.  Through the help of legally obtained and generous governmental subsidies, hundreds of monopolies were formed that directly benefited corporate owners and directly harmed their workers. Our civil liberties require citizen maintenance and protection.
  9. During the Gilded Age,, the federal government largely defined liberty through the eyes of business entrepreneurs and corporate entities.  Federal officials believed that such unlimited economic freedom would benefit the nation as a whole and all Americans. To that end, the federal government played a big role in defining and protecting liberty in at least six capacities:
  10. At the end of the19th century, Americans were divided by two conflicting notions of freedom/liberty:
  11. Some contemporary scholars have argued that today, in the early 21st Century, we are experiencing another Gilded Age. To find some evidence of contemporary tenement housing conditions, click here.