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When British author Rudyard Kipling visited Chicago in 1889 he described a city blinded by greed and consumed by a hunger for technology. He described a rushed and crowded city, “that huge wilderness” and its “scores of miles of these terrible streets” and their “hundred thousand of these terrible people.” “The show impressed me with a great horror,” he wrote. “There was no color in the street and no beauty—only a maze of wire ropes overhead and dirty stone flagging under foot.” He took a cab through the city “and the cabman said that these things were the proof of progress.” Kipling visited a “gilded and mirrored” hotel “crammed with people talking about money, and spitting about everywhere.” He visited extravagant churches and spoke with their congregants. “I listened to people who said that the mere fact of spiking down strips of iron to wood, and getting a steam and iron thing to run along them was progress, that the telephone was progress, and the net-work of wires overhead was progress. They repeated their statements again and again.” Kipling said American newspapers report “that the snarling together of telegraph-wires, the heaving up of houses, and the making of money is progress.”
Chicago embodied the triumph of American industrialization. Its meatpacking industry was a microcosm of sweeping changes occurring in American life. The last decades of the nineteenth century, a new era of big business, saw the formation of large corporations run by salaried managers doing national and international business. Chicago, for instance, became America’s butcher. The Chicago meat processing industry was a cartel of five firms that produced four-fifths of the meat bought by American consumers. Kipling described in intimate detail the Union Stock Yards, the nation’s largest meat processing zone, a square-mile just southwest of the city whose pens and slaughterhouses linked the city’s vast agricultural hinterland to the nation’s dinner tables. “Once having seen them,” he concluded, “you will never forget the sight.” Like other industries Chicago was noted for—agricultural machinery and steel production—the meatpacking industry was closely tied to urbanization and immigration. In 1850, Chicago had a population of about 30,000. Twenty years later, its population had increased by a factor of ten to nearly 300,000. A fire in 1871 leveled 3.5 square miles and left a third of Chicago’s residents homeless, but the city recovered and resumed its spectacular growth. By the turn of the twentieth century, the city was home to 1.7 million people. Chicago’s explosive growth mirrored national trends. In 1870, a quarter of the nation’s population lived in towns or cities with populations greater than 2,500. By 1920, a majority did. But if many who flocked to Chicago and other American cities came from rural America, many others emigrated from overseas. Mirroring national immigration trends, Chicago’s newcomers had at first come mostly from Germany, the British Isles, and Scandinavia. However, by 1890, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and others from Southern and Eastern Europe made up the majority of new immigrants. Like many American industrial cities, in 1900 nearly 80% of Chicago’s population was foreign-born or the children of foreign-born immigrants.
Industrialization remade the United States. Kipling visited Chicago just as new modes of production revolutionized the country. The rise of cities, the evolution of American immigration, the transformation of American labor, the further making of a mass culture, the creation of vast wealth, the shock of vast slums, the conquest of the West, the growth of a middle class, the problem of poverty, the triumph of big business, widening inequalities, battles between capital and labor, the final destruction of independent farming, breakthrough technologies, environmental destruction: industrialization created a new America.
II. Industrialization & Technological Innovation
Republican dominance over national policy and subsidization of business development during the Civil War and Reconstruction accelerated American industrialization. It was the railroads that signaled the new American order.
The railroads created the first great concentrations of capital, spawned the first massive corporations, made the first of the vast fortunes that would define the “Gilded Age,” unleashed labor demands that united thousands of farmers and immigrants, and linked many towns and cities. National railroad mileage tripled in the twenty years after the outbreak of the Civil War, and tripled again over the four decades that followed. Railroads impelled the creation of uniform time zones across the country, gave industrialists access to remote markets, and opened the American west. Railroad companies were the nation’s largest businesses. Their vast national operations demanded the creation of innovative new corporate organization, advanced management techniques, and vast sums of capital. Their huge expenditures spurred countless industries and attracted droves of laborers. And as they crisscrossed the nation, they created a national market, a truly national economy, and, seemingly, a new national culture.
The railroads were not natural creations. Their vast capital requirements required the use of incorporation, a legal innovation that protected shareholders from losses. Enormous amounts of government support followed. Federal, state, and local governments offered unrivaled handouts to create the national rail networks. Lincoln’s Republican Party passed legislation granting vast subsidies. Hundreds of millions of acres of land and millions of dollars’ worth of government bonds were freely given to build the great transcontinental railroads and the innumerable trunk lines that quickly annihilated the vast geographic barriers that had sheltered American cities from one another.
As railroad construction drove growth, new means of production spawned new systems of labor. Many wage earners had traditionally seen factory work as a temporary stepping-stone to their own small businesses or farms. After the war, however, new technology and greater mechanization meant fewer and fewer workers could legitimately aspire to economic independence and stronger and more organized labor unions formed to defend the rights of a growing permanent working class. At the same time, the growing scale of business operations meant owners became increasingly disconnected from employees and day-to-day operations. To handle vast new operations, they hired managers. Educated employees swelled the ranks of an emerging commercial middle class.
Industrialization remade much of American life. Rapidly growing industrialized cities knit together urban consumers and rural producers into a single, integrated national market. Food production and consumption, for instance, was utterly nationalized. Chicago’s Stock Yards seemingly tied it all together. Between 1866 and 1886 ranchers drove a million head of cattle annually overland from Texas ranches to railroad depots in Kansas for shipment by rail to Chicago. After travelling through modern “disassembly lines,” the animals left the adjoining slaughterhouses as slabs of meat to be packed into refrigerated rail cars and sent out to butcher shops across North America. By 1885 a handful of large-scale industrial meatpackers in Chicago produced nearly 500 million pounds of “dressed” beef annually. This scale of industrialized meat production fueled massive environmental transformations across the Midwest and Great Plains. Landscapes of buffalo herds, grasslands, and old-growth forests became landscapes of cattle, corn, and wheat as new settlers produced goods for the ever-expanding market. Chicago became the Gateway City, a crossroads connecting American agricultural goods, capital markets in New York and Europe, and consumers from all corners of the United States.
Technological innovation accompanied economic development. In 1878 the New York Daily Graphic ran an April Fool’s Day article, a fictitious interview with the celebrated inventor Thomas A. Edison. The accompanying article described the “biggest invention of the age”—a new Edison machine that could create forty different kinds of food and drink out of just air, water, and dirt. Edison promised that “meat will no longer be killed and vegetables no longer grown, except by savages.” The machine, he said, would end “famine and pauperism.” And all for $5 or $6 per machine! The story was a joke, but Edison still received inquiries about the food machine from readers wondering when it would be ready for the mass market. Americans of the era had already witnessed startling technological advances that would have seemed fictitious mere years earlier. In the midst of onrushing technological advances, the food machine seemed entirely plausible.
In September 1878, Edison announced a new and ambitious line of research and development—electric power and lighting. Thanks to the pioneering experiments of British physicist Michael Faraday, electricians had been familiar with the principles of the electric dynamo and motor since the 1830s. In the most basic terms, a dynamo is a device that converts mechanical work to electrical power by rotating copper conductors at high speed inside a magnetic field. A motor does the opposite—it converts electrical power into useful mechanical work. Between Faraday’s research and Edison’s announcement, many electricians had introduced various designs for dynamos and rudimentary forms of electric lighting.
Two general characteristics set Edison apart from other inventors and engineers working on electric generation and lighting. Unlike the commonly held image of the genius lone inventor gripped by inspiration (Samuel F.B. Morse or Alexander Graham Bell, for example), Edison believed that tough problems could be best tackled through collaboration. Edison was the forerunner of the research-and-development managers who guided innovation for most of the twentieth century. And just as importantly, Edison was as much entrepreneur as inventor. He regarded his inventions as successes only to the extent that they engendered successful businesses. He regarded his Menlo Park laboratory as an “invention factory,” famously declaring that it would turn out “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” The facility boasted a fully equipped machine shop and a laboratory stocked with every conceivable electrical device and chemical substance, and employed many skilled machinists and experimenters. Edison’s work on electric light and power over the next several years exemplified these two characteristics. He brought the full power of his Menlo Park laboratory and staff to bear on the many problems associated with building an electric power system and commercializing it. Edison set to work on electric power and light almost immediately, and put aside other lines of research to devote himself fully to the massive undertaking.
By late fall 1879, Edison was satisfied that he had a system of electrical power and light ready for public exhibition. At the end of December and beginning of January, he festooned his Menlo Park laboratory with several hundred incandescent lamps and invited reporters, potential investors, and the merely curious to see his system in operation. For the remainder of 1880 and into 1881, Edison continued to refine his dynamo design and to scale up lamp production. From the business perspective, he conceived of two markets for his electrical power system, “isolated” installations for factories and mills and central stations that transmitted power to homes and businesses in cities. Since these isolated plants were of varying sizes, he and his staff developed several dynamo models capable of powering installations as small as 15 lamps or as large as 250. By the middle of 1883, he had constructed about 330 isolated plants powering over 60,000 lamps in factories, offices, printing houses, hotels, and theaters around the world
As successful as these isolated plants were, Edison’s main goal was to build central stations that sent power to large geographic areas. To achieve this goal, he harnessed the power of publicity. In order to get permission to lay cables under the streets of Manhattan, he invited the New York city council to his Menlo Park laboratory in late December 1880. There they witnessed an impressive display of the Edison electric lighting system and were treated to a lavish banquet catered by the famous New York restaurant Delmonico’s. At around the same time, he decided to set up a demonstration of his central station concept at an international electrical exhibition held at Paris in late 1881. This display showcased his largest dynamo yet built, capable of powering over 1,000 lamps and nicknamed the “Jumbo.”
By the end of 1881, Edison saw his goal in sight. He had begun construction of his first commercial central station in the heart of New York’s financial district, and had set crews to work laying electrical cable. He officially opened the Pearl Street central station on September 4, 1882. The installation sent power to about 1,000 buildings in an area covering about a square mile of downtown Manhattan. Finally, after four years spent perfecting his system of electric power and light, a relieved Edison exclaimed to a reporter, “I have accomplished all I promised.”
Economic advances, technological changes, social and cultural evolution, and demographic transformations remade the nation. The United States was a nation transformed. Industry boosted productivity, railroads connected the nation, more and more Americans labored for wages, new bureaucratic occupations created a vast “white collar” middle class, and unprecedented fortunes rewarded the owners of capital. These changes were not confined to economics. They transformed the lives of everyday Americans and reshaped American culture.
III. Immigration and Urbanization
Economic transformations and technological advances moved ever more Americans into cities. Industry advanced onward and drew millions of workers into the new cities. Manufacturing needed large pools of labor and advanced infrastructure only available in the cities, where electricity kept the lights on and transported ever growing numbers of people along electric trolley lines and upward in elevators inside the towering skyscrapers made possible by new mass produced steel and advanced engineering. America’s urban population increased seven fold in the half-century after the Civil War. Soon the United States had more large cities than any country in the world. The 1920 U.S. census revealed that, for the first time, a majority of Americans lived in urban areas.
Much of America’s urban growth came from the millions of immigrants pouring into the nation. Between 1870 and 1920, over 25 million immigrants arrived in the United States. At first streams of migration continued patterns set before the Civil War but, by the turn of the twentieth century, new groups such as Italians, Poles, and Eastern European Jews made up larger percentages of arrivals while Irish and German immigration dissipated. This massive movement of people to the United States was influenced by a number of causes, what historians typically call “push” and “pull” factors. In other words, certain conditions in home countries encouraged people to leave and other factors encouraged them to choose the United States (instead of say, Canada, Australia, or Argentina) as their destination. For example, a young husband and wife living in Sweden in the 1880s and unable to purchase farmland might read an advertisement for inexpensive land in the American Midwest and choose to sail to the United States. A young Italian might hope to labor in a steel factory for several years and save up enough money to return home and purchase land for a family. Or a Russian Jewish family, eager to escape European pogroms, might look to the United States as a sanctuary. Or perhaps a Japanese migrant might hear of fertile farming land on the West Coast and choose to sail for California. There were numerous factors that pushed people out of their homelands, but by far the most important factor drawing immigrants to the United States between 1880 and 1920 was the maturation of American capitalism. Immigrants poured into the cities looking for work.
Cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and St. Louis attracted large number of immigrants eager to work in their factories. By 1890, in most large northern cities, immigrants and their children amounted to roughly 60 percent of the population, and reached as high as 80 or 90 percent. Some immigrants, often from Italy or the Balkans, hoped to return home with enough money to purchase land. But for those who stayed, historians have long debated how these immigrants adjusted to their new home. Did the new arrivals mix together in the American “melting pot” and assimilate—becoming just like those people already in the United States—or did they retain—and sometimes even strength—their traditional ethnic identities? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Immigrant groups formed vibrant societies and organizations to ease the transition to their new home. Examples included Italian workmen’s clubs, Eastern European Jewish mutual-aid societies, and Polish Catholic Churches. Newspapers published in dozens of languages. Ethnic communities provided cultural space for immigrants to maintain their arts, languages, and traditions while also facilitating even more immigrants. Historians label this process chain migration. Recently arrived immigrants wrote home and welcomed more immigrants that arrived in American cities knowing they could find friendly communities and live near other immigrants from their home country and, often, even from their home regions.
Cities and the people that populated them became the targets of critics. Many reformers criticized American municipal governments as corrupt institutions that did little to improve city life and much to enrich party bosses. New York City’s Democratic Party machine, popularly known as Tammany Hall, seemed to embody all of the worst of city machines. In 1903, journalist William Riordon published a book, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, which chronicled the activities of ward heeler George Washington Plunkitt. Plunkitt elaborately explained to Riordon the difference between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft:” “I made my pile in politics, but, at the same time, I served the organization and got more big improvements for New York City than any other livin’ man.” While exposing the corruption of New York City government, Riordon also revealed the hard work Plunkitt undertook on behalf of his largely immigrant constituency. On a typical day, Riordon wrote, Plunkitt was awakened at 2:00 AM to bail out a saloon-keeper who stayed open too late, was awakened again at 6:00 AM because of a fire in the neighborhood and spent time finding lodgings for the families displaced by the fire, because, as Riordon noted, fires like this were “considered great vote-getters.” After spending the rest of the morning in court to secure the release of several of his constituents who had run afoul of the law, Plunkitt found jobs for four unemployed men, attended an Italian funeral, visited a church social, and dropped in on a Jewish wedding. He finally returned home to bed at midnight.
As Riordon’s account makes clear, Plunkitt and other Tammany officials had direct and daily connections to the needs of their largely immigrant constituents. Although corrupt urban officials like Plunkitt did little to solve the root causes of urban vice and poverty, they did what they could to relieve its effects. Plunkitt and his ilk thus left a mixed legacy—on the one hand responsive to their constituents’ needs, on the other doing little to solve the underlying issues that created these needs.
Tammany Hall arose in the eighteenth century as a working-class alternative to elite fraternal organizations such as the Society of the Cincinnati that formed after the American Revolution. The “Society of Tammany or the Columbian Order in the City of New York” was established in 1786 by a group of artisans and mechanics for social and philanthropic purposes. Like fraternal orders of any age, Tammany was born with peculiar rituals: members were “braves” who elected a board of thirteen “sachems” who picked a Grand Sachem who led the whole “wigwam.” Members donned Indian regalia for national holiday parades, which ended with ample dining and drink. But then politics intruded. Tammany support for the French Revolution alienated Federalist members, tilting the society toward the emerging Democratic Republican Party by the mid-1790s. Soon Tammany affiliated with such leading Democratic politicians as Aaron Burr and promoted immigrant (especially Irish) rights, universal male suffrage, abolition of imprisonment for debt, public education, and other rising populist causes.
By the time Tammany opened its first hall (after meeting in a succession of taverns and rented spaces) on Nassau Street in 1812, it was a full-fledged political organization, dominant in city politics, influential in state politics, and a player in national politics. In 1868, it moved uptown to an ornate new hall near Union Square where it hosted that year’s Democratic National Convention. Tammany Hall entered into the peak of its powers.
But politics led to power and corruption followed. The most notorious of Tammany’s corruptions became the reign of William “Boss” Tweed, who became Grand Sachem in 1863. In the decades leading to Tweed’s ascension, Tammany had gradually gained control of the Common Council, the city’s legislative body, whose compliant members awarded government jobs, contracts, licenses, and franchises to the Tammany faithful, mainly tens of thousands of immigrant Irish. The first Tammany mayor was elected in 1854; the last left office nearly a century later. Tweed, as state senator and holder of various appointive city offices, made patronage and graft common practice. Entire branches of municipal, county, and state government—judicial, legislative, fiscal, and executive—became organs of Tammany power. By the time crusading journalists and politicians dispatched Tweed in 1871, his “Tammany Ring” had defrauded city government, through bribery, kickbacks, padded and fictitious expenses, bogus contracts, and other means, of upwards of $200 million ($8 billion today).
On the other hand, the copious public works projects that were the source of Tammany’s bounty also provided essential infrastructure and public services for the city’s rapidly expanding population. Water, sewer, and gas lines; schools, hospitals, civic buildings, and museums; police and fire departments; roads, parks (notably Central Park), and bridges (notably the Brooklyn Bridge): all in whole or part can be credited to Tammany’s reign. An honest government arguably could not have built as much.
Tweed’s fall (after civil and criminal trials and international flight, he died of pneumonia in a city jail in 1878) hardly spelled the demise of Tammany. While Tammany “reformers” cut back on the most outright and obvious crookedness, they also refined Tammany’s political machinery and managed another half century of less scandalous but more rigorous control of city and state government. An 1894 state corruption investigation dented Tammany’s power but at the turn of the twentieth century Tammany still controlled an estimated 60,000 government jobs. In the early 1900s, Tammany aligned itself with the Progressive and good government reform movements, later boosting the national profiles of four-term governor and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith and other Tammany politicians.
Beyond New York, Tammany Hall was a catch phrase for political corruption, and, although its corruption was legendary, it was also creature of its time, a cause of New York’ rise. Tammany Hall was a model of urban political organization and was useful in many ways for exercising power and building necessary improvements for a rapidly expanding city where weaker authority may have failed. Egregious in its excesses but effective in its purposes, it was perhaps much like nineteenth-century New York itself. All the while, conflicts over urban problems and city government dominate local politics, and pitting good-government reformers (typically affluent, educated Protestant Republicans) against the masses of urban residents (typically immigrant Catholics and Jews who voted Democratic).
Americans would become consumed by the “urban crisis,” and progressive reformers would begin in the exploration of urban problems and the promotion of municipal reform. But Americans also expressed increasing concern over the declining quality of life in rural areas. While the cities boomed, however, rural worlds languished. Many, such as Jack London in books like The Valley of the Moon, romanticized the countryside and celebrated rural life while wondering what had been lost in urban life, many American social scientists increasingly displayed a fascination with communal decay and immorality in rural places, indicative of a developing distaste towards rural culture as well as the cultural allure of city life among many urban elites. Sociologist Kenyon Butterfield, concerned by the sprawling nature of industrial cities and suburbs, expressed concern about the eroding position of rural citizens and farmers, noting that “agriculture does not hold the same relative rank among our industries that it did in former years.” Butterfield saw “the farm problem” as connected “with the whole question of democratic civilization” with rural depopulation and urban expansion threatening traditional American values. Others saw rural places and industrial cities as linked through shared economic interest which necessitated their preservation in the face of residential sprawl. Liberty Hyde Bailey, a botanist and rural scholar selected by Theodore Roosevelt to chair a federal Commission on Country Life in 1907, concluded that “every agricultural question is a city question, and every producers problem is a consumers problem,” noting the link between economic exchange and community development in rural places as they became less agrarian and more residential.
Many began to long for a middle path between the cities and the country. At the start of the twentieth century, newer suburban communities in the rural hinterlands of American cities such as Los Angeles defined themselves in opposition to urban crowding. Americans contemplated the complicated relationships between rural places, suburban living, and urban spaces. Certainly, Los Angeles was a model for the suburban development of rural places. Dana Barlett, a social reformer in Los Angeles, noted that Los Angeles, stretching across dozens of small towns even at the start of the twentieth century, was “a better city” because of its residential identity as a “city of homes.” This language was seized upon in many rural suburbs. In one of these small towns on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Glendora, local leaders were concerned about the reordering of rural spaces and the agricultural production of the surrounding countryside. Members of Glendora’s Chamber of Commerce reported their desire to keep “Glendora as it is” and were “loath as anyone to see it become cosmopolitan” or racially and ethnically heterogeneous like much of the surrounding countryside. Instead, town leaders argued that in order to have Glendora “grow along the lines necessary to have it remain an enjoyable city of homes,” the town’s leaders needed to “bestir ourselves to direct its growth” by encouraging further residential development at expense of agriculture. The citrus colonias that surrounded Glendora at this time, populated mostly by immigrant farm workers and their families from Japan, the Philippines, and Mexico would ultimately be destroyed as Glendora grew as a residential town in the following decades.
IV. The New South and the Problem of Race
“There was a South of slavery and secession,” Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady proclaimed in an 1886 speech to businessmen in New York. “That South is dead,” he said. Grady captured the sentiment of many white southern business and political leaders who imagined a New South that would embrace industrialization and diversified agriculture in order to bring the region back from the economic ruin that resulted from the Civil War. He highlighted the strengths of the people and the region as he promoted the possibilities for future prosperity for all through an alliance between northern capital and southern labor. Grady and other New South boosters hoped to shape the region’s economy to resemble that of the North, focusing not only on industry but on infrastructure as well. New South boosters were white, and they ensured that the innovations they sought conformed to the region’s racial status quo.
The need for a New South after Reconstruction was obvious. Southern states had lost prestige, property, and wealth during their failed insurrection. Before the war, the South had held the presidency for all but thirteen years and had consistently held a majority in Congress and on the Supreme Court. The cotton South was home to the twelve wealthiest counties in the country before the war. But defeat left the region in a state of despair. Thousands had died and the scars of loss were everywhere. Moreover, four million enslaved Americans had thrown off their chains. Slaves had represented the wealth and power of the South, and now they were free. Emancipation unsettled the southern social order. When Reconstruction governments attempted to grant freedpeople full citizenship rights, anxious whites struck back. From their fear, anger, and resentment they lashed out, not only in organized terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, but in political corruption, economic control, and violent intimidation.
But just how new was the supposed New South? The reestablishment of white supremacy, and the “redemption” of the South from Reconstruction, paved the way for the construction of the New South. White Southerners took back control of state and local governments and used their reclaimed power to disfranchise African Americans and pass “Jim Crow” laws segregating schools, transportation, employment, and various public and private facilities. White Southerners also acted outside the law to terrorize black communities: the number of lynchings—the murder of individuals accused of a crime or of otherwise violating community standards by groups of people acting together without legal authority—exploded in the 1880s and 1890s, as whites used extreme violence to secure their hold over the region. Lynchings had occurred throughout American history, but after the Civil War southern blacks became the target of a new and long-lasting wave of violence. Whether for actual crimes or fabricated crimes or for no crimes at all, white mobs murdered roughly five thousand African Americans between the 1880s and the 1950s. Lynching not only killed its victims, it served as a symbolic act, an intimidation of some and a ritual for others.
Victims were not simply hanged, they were tortured. They were mutilated, burned alive, and shot. Lynchings could become carnivals, public spectacles attended by thousands of eager spectators. Rail lines ran special cars to accommodate the rush of participants. Vendors sold goods and keepsakes. Perpetrators posed for photos and collected mementos. And it was increasingly common. One notorious example occurred in Georgia in 1899. Accused of killing his white employer and raping the man’s wife, Sam Hose was captured by a mob and taken to the town of Newnan. Word of the impending lynching quickly spread, and specially chartered passenger trains brought some 4,000 visitors from Atlanta to witness the gruesome affair. Members of the mob tortured Hose for about an hour. They sliced off pieces of his body as he screamed in agony. Then they poured a can of kerosene over his body and burned him alive.
At at the barbaric height of southern lynching, in the last years of the nineteenth century, southerners lynched two to three African Americans every week. In general, lynchings were most frequent in the Cotton Belt of the Lower South, where southern blacks were congregated and the majority worked as tenant farmers and field hands on the cotton farms of white land owners. The states of Mississippi and Georgia had the greatest number of recorded lynchings. From 1880 to 1930, over five hundred African Americans were killed by Mississippi lynch mobs; Georgia mobs murdered more than four hundred.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of prominent southerners openly supported lynching, arguing that it was a necessary evil to punish black rapists and deter others. In the late 1890s, Georgia newspaper columnist and noted women’s rights activist Rebecca Latimer Felton—who would later become the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate—endorsed such extrajudicial killings. She said, “If it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.” When opponents argued that lynching violated victims’ constitutional right, South Carolina Governor Coleman Blease angrily responded, “Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of South Carolina, I say to hell with the Constitution.”
Black activists and white allies worked to outlaw lynching. A pioneer in the fight was Ida B. Wells, an African American woman born in the last years of slavery who in 1892 lost three friends to a lynch mob in Memphis, Tennessee. Later that year, Wells published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, a groundbreaking work that documented the South’s lynching culture and notably exposed the myth of the black rapist. The Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP both compiled and publicized lists of every reported lynching in the United States, and the American Society of Women for the Prevention of Lynching encouraged white southern women to speak up against the violence so often perpetrated in their name. In 1918, Representative Leonidas Dyer of Missouri introduced federal anti-lynching legislation that would have made local counties where lynchings took place legally liable for such killings. Throughout the early 1920s, the Dyer Bill was the subject of heated political debate but, fiercely opposed by southern congressmen and unable to win enough northern champions, the proposed bill was never enacted.
Lynching was only the violent worst of the South’s racial world. Discrimination in employment and housing and the legal segregation of public and private life reflected the rise of a new Jim Crow South. So-called Jim Crow laws legalized what custom had long dictated. Southern states and municipalities began proscribing racial segregation in public places and private lives. Separate coach laws were some of the first such laws to appear, beginning in Tennessee in the 1880s. Soon, schools, stores, theaters, restaurants, bathrooms, and nearly every other part of public life were segregated. So too were social lives. The sin of racial mixing, critics said, had to be heavily guarded against. Marriage laws regulated against interracial couples and white men, ever anxious of relationships between black men and white women, passed miscegenation laws and justified lynching as an appropriate extra-legal tool to police the racial divide.
In politics, de facto limitations of black voting had suppressed black voters since Reconstruction. Whites stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated black voters with physical and economic threats, or bribed them with money and alcohol. And then, from roughly 1890-1908, southern states implemented de jure disfranchisement. States began passing laws that required voters to pass literacy tests (which were often judged arbitrarily) and pay poll taxes (which hit poor whites as well as poor blacks), effectively denying black men the franchise that was supposed to have been guaranteed by the fifteenth amendment. Those responsible for such laws posed as reformers and justified voting restrictions as for the public good, a way to clean up politics by purging corrupt African Americans from the voting rolls.
With white supremacy ever more secure, New South boosters looked outward. Many prominent white Southerners hoped to rebuild the South’s economy and psychology, to confront post-Reconstruction uncertainties, and to convince the nation that the South could be more than an economically backward, race-obsessed backwater. As they did, however, they began to retell the history of the recent past. A kind of civic religion known as the “Lost Cause” glorified the Confederacy and romanticized the Old South. White southerners looked forward while hearkening back to an imagined past inhabited by contented and loyal slaves, benevolent and generous masters, chivalric and honorable men, and pure and faithful southern belles. Secession, they said, had little to do with the institution of slavery, and soldiers fought only for home and honor, not the continued ownership of human beings. The New South, then, would be built physically with new technologies, new investments, and new industries, but undergirded by political and social custom. Grady might have declared the Confederate South dead, but its memory pervaded the thoughts and actions of white southerners.
Lost Cause champions overtook the South. Women’s groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy along with war veterans played an important role in preserving Confederate memory through Memorial Day celebrations and the construction of monuments. Across the South towns erected statues of General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals. By the turn of the twentieth century, the idealized Lost Cause past was entrenched not only in the South but throughout the country. In 1905, for instance, North Carolinian Thomas F. Dixon published a novel, The Clansman, which depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of the South against the corruption of black and carpetbagger rule during Reconstruction. In 1915 acclaimed film director David W. Griffith adapted Dixon’s novel into the blockbuster, groundbreaking feature film, Birth of a Nation. The film almost singlehandedly rejuvenated the Ku Klux Klan. This romanticized vision of the antebellum South and the corrupt era of Reconstruction held sway in the popular imagination until a new generation of historians successfully challenged it after about 1950.
While Lost Cause defenders mythologized their past, New South boosters struggled to wrench the South into the modern world. The railroads became their focus. The region had lagged behind the North in the railroad building boom of the mid-nineteenth century and postwar expansion facilitated connections between the most rural segments of the population with the region’s rising urban areas. Boosters campaigned for the construction new hard-surfaced roads as well, arguing that improved roads would further increase the flow of goods and people and entice northern businesses to relocate to the region. The rising popularity of the automobile after the turn of the century only increased pressure for the construction of reliable roads between cities, towns, county seats, and the vast farmlands of the South
Along with new transportation networks, New South boosters continued to promote industrial growth. The region witnessed the rise of various manufacturing industries, predominately textiles, tobacco, furniture, and steel. While agriculture—cotton in particular—remained the mainstay of the region’s economy, these new industries provided new wealth for owners, new investments for the region, and new opportunities for the exploding number of landless farmers to finally flee the land. Industries offered low-paying jobs but also opportunity for those rural poor who could no longer sustain themselves through subsistence farming. Men, women, and children all moved into wage work. At the turn of the twentieth century, nearly one-fourth of southern mill workers were children aged six to sixteen.
In most cases, as in most aspects of life in the New South, new factory jobs were racially segregated. Better-paying jobs were reserved for whites, while the most dangerous, labor-intensive, dirtiest, and lowest-paying positions were relegated to African Americans. African American women, shut out of most industries, found employment most often as domestic help for white families. As poor as white southern mill workers were, southern blacks were poorer, and many mill workers could afford to pay for domestic help in caring for young children, cleaning houses, doing laundry, cooking meals, and then leaving. Mill villages that grew up alongside factories were whites-only, and African American families were pushed to the outer perimeter of the settlements.
That a New South emerged in the decades between Reconstruction and World War I is debatable. If measured by industrial output and railroad construction, the New South was certainly a reality, if, relative the rest of the nation, a limited one. If measured in terms of racial discrimination, however, the New South looked much like the Old. Boosters like Henry Grady argued the South was done with racial questions, but lynching and segregation and the institutionalization of Jim Crow exposed the South’s lingering racial obsessions. Moreover, most southerners still toiled in agriculture and still lived in poverty. Industrial development and expanding infrastructure therefore coexisted easily with white supremacy and an impoverished agricultural economy. The trains came, factories were built, capital was invested, but the region was still mired in poverty and racial apartheid. Much of the New South, then, was anything but.
V. Gender, Religion, and Culture
In 1905, Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller donated $100,000 (about $2.5 million today) to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Rockefeller was the richest man in America but also one of the most hated and mistrusted. Even admirers conceded that he achieved his wealth through often illegal and usually immoral business practices. Journalist Ida Tarbell had made waves by describing his company’s (Standard Oil) long-standing ruthlessness and predilections for political corruption. Clergymen, led by the reformer Washington Gladden, fiercely protested the donation. A decade earlier, Gladden had asked of such donations, “Is this clean money? Can any man, can any institution, knowing its origin, touch it without being defiled?” Gladden said, “In the cool brutality with which properties are wrecked, securities destroyed, and people by the hundreds robbed of their little all to build up the fortunes of the multi-millionaires, we have an appalling revelation of the kind of monster that a human being may become.”
Despite widespread criticism, the American Board accepted Rockefeller’s donation. Board President Samuel Capen did not defend Rockefeller, arguing the gift was charitable and the Board could not assess the origin of every donation, but the dispute shook Capen. Was a corporate background incompatible with a religious organization? The “tainted money debate” reflected questions about the proper relationship between religion and capitalism. With rising income inequality, would religious groups be forced to support either the elite or the disempowered? What was moral in the new industrial United States? And what obligations did wealth bring? Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote in an 1889 article, “The Gospel of Wealth,” that “the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth” was the moral obligation of the rich to give to charity. Farmer and labor organizers, meanwhile, argued that God had blessed the weak and that new Gilded Age fortunes and corporate management were inherently immoral. As time passed, American churches increasingly adapted themselves to the new industrial order. Even Gladden came to accept Rockefeller’s donation and businessmen, such as the Baptist John D. Rockefeller, increasingly touted the morality of business. At the same time that many churches wondered about the compatibility of large fortunes with Christian values, others were concerned for the fate of traditional American masculinity.
The economic and social changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including increased urbanization, immigration, advancements in science and technology, patterns of consumption and the new availability of goods, and growing protestations against economic, gender, and racial inequalities—challenged traditional gender norms. At the same time urban spaces and shifting cultural and social values presented unprecedented opportunities to challenge traditional gender and sexual norms. Many women vied for equal rights. They became activists, and launched labor rights campaigns and a renewed suffrage movement.
Urbanization and immigration fueled anxieties that old social mores were being subverted and that old forms of social and moral policing were increasingly inadequate. The anonymity of urban spaces presented an opportunity in particular for female sexuality and for male sexual experimentation along a spectrum of sexual orientation and gendered identities. Anxiety over female sexuality reflected generational tensions and differences, in addition to racial and class ones. As young women pushed back against social mores through pre-marital sexual exploration and expression, social welfare experts and moral reformers even labeled these girls feeble-minded, believing that such unfeminine behavior was symptomatic of clinical insanity rather than free-willed expression. Generational differences exacerbated the social, and even familial, tensions provoked by shifting gender norms. Youths challenged the gender norms of their parents’ generations by dawning new fashions and engaging in the delights of the city. Women’s fashion loosed its physical constraints: corsets relaxed and hemlines rose. The newfound physical freedom enabled by looser dress was mimicked in the pursuit of other freedoms.
While many women worked to liberate themselves, many, sometimes simultaneously, worked to uplift others. Women’s work against alcohol propelled temperance into one of the foremost moral reforms of the period. Middle-class, typically Protestant women based their assault on alcohol on the basis of their feminine virtue, Christian sentiment, and their protective role in the family and home. Others, like Jane Addams and settlement house workers, sought to impart a middle-class education on immigrant and working class women through the establishment of settlement homes. Other reformers touted a “scientific motherhood” and the science of hygiene was deployed as a method of both social uplift and moralizing, particularly of working class and immigrant women.
Women vocalized new discontents through literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” attacked the “naturalness” of feminine domesticity and critiqued Victorian psychological remedies administered to women, such as the “rest cure.” Kate Chopin’s The Great Awakening, set in the American South, likewise criticized the domestic and familial role ascribed to women by society, and gave expression to feelings of malaise, desperation, and desire. Such literature directly challenged the status quo of the Victorian era’s constructions of femininity and feminine virtue, as well as established feminine roles.
While many men worried about female activism, they worried too about their own masculinity. To anxious observers, industrial capitalism was withering American manhood. Rather than working on farms and in factories, where young men formed physical muscle and spiritual grit, new generations of workers labored behind desks, wore white collars, and, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, appeared “black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, [and] paste-complexioned.” Neurologist George Beard even coined a medical term, “neurasthenia,” for a new emasculated condition that marked by depression, indigestion, hypochondria, and extreme nervousness. The philosopher William James called it “Americanitis.” Academics increasingly warned that America had become a nation of emasculated men.
Churches too worried about feminization. Women had always comprised a clear majority of church memberships in the United States, but now the theologian Washington Gladden said, “A preponderance of female influence in the Church or anywhere else in society is unnatural and injurious.” Many feared that the feminized church had feminized Christ Himself. Rather than a rough-hewn carpenter, the Christ had been turned into someone “mushy” and “sweetly effeminate,” in the words of Walter Rauschenbusch. Advocates of a so-called “muscular Christianity” sought to stiffen young mens’ backbones by putting them back in touch with their primal manliness. Pulling from then-scientific developmental theory, they believed that young men ought to progress through stages similar that mirrored the evolution of civilizations, from primitive nature-dwellers to industrial enlightenment. To facilitate “primitive” encounters with nature, muscular Christians founded summer camps and outdoor boys clubs like the Woodcraft Indians, the Sons of Daniel Boone, and the Boy Brigades—all precursors of the Boy Scouts. Other champions of muscular Christianity, such as the newly formed Young Men’s Christian Association, built gymnasiums, often attached to churches, where youths could strengthen their bodies as well as their spirits. It was a YMCA leader that coined the term “body-building,” and others that invented the sports of basketball and volleyball. Muscular Christianity, though, was about even more than building strong bodies and minds. Many advocates also ardently championed Western imperialism, cheering on attempts to civilize non-Western peoples.
Gilded Age men were encouraged to embrace a particular vision of masculinity connected intimately with the rising tides of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Contemporary ideals of American masculinity at the turn of the century developed in concert with the United States’ imperial and militaristic endeavors in the West and abroad. During the Spanish American War in 1898, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders would embody the idealized image of the tall, strong, virile, and fit American man that simultaneously epitomized the ideals of power that informed the United States’ imperial agenda. Roosevelt and others like him believed a reinvigorated masculinity would preserve the American race’s superiority against foreign foes and the effeminizing effects of over-civilization.
But while many fretted over traditional American life, others lost themselves in new forms of mass culture. Vaudeville signaled new cultural worlds. A unique variety of popular entertainments, these travelling circuit shows first appeared during the Civil War but peaked between 1880 and 1920. Vaudeville shows featured comedians, musicians, actors, jugglers and other talents that could captivate an audience. Unlike earlier rowdy acts meant for a male audience that included alcohol, vaudeville was considered family friendly, “polite” entertainment, though the acts involved offensive ethnic and racial caricatures of African Americans and recent immigrants. Vaudeville performances were often small and quirky, though venues such the renowned Palace Theatre in New York City signaled true stardom for many performers. Silent film actor Charlie Chaplin, comedian Bob Hope, and illusionist Harry Houdini all made a name for themselves early on in vaudeville circuits. But if live entertainment still captivated audiences, others looked to new technologies.
By the turn of the century, two technologies pioneered by Edison—the phonograph and motion pictures—would revolutionize leisure and help to create the mass entertainment culture of the twentieth century. The phonograph was the first reliable device to record and reproduce sound. But it was more than that. The phonograph could create multiple copies of recordings, and soon led to a great expansion of the market for popular music. Although the phonograph was a technical success, Edison at first had trouble developing commercial applications for it. This was partly due to the unique origin of the phonograph. The phonograph had neither an existing market nor an incumbent technology that it could replace—it was a device that did entirely new things. At the time, he suggested possible future uses of the phonograph, like audio letters, preserving speeches and dying words of great men, talking clocks, teaching elocution, and so forth. He did not anticipate that its greatest use would be in the field of mass entertainment.
Edison continued his work refining and marketing the phonograph during 1878, but by the end of that year he began to devote nearly all his attention to electric power and lighting. He largely abandoned the phonograph until the mid-1880s, leaving it to others (especially Alexander Graham Bell) to improve it. He returned to it fully in 1887 and developed a dictating machine that met with limited commercial success. Soon Edison’s agents reported that many phonographs found use as entertainment devices, especially in so-called phonograph parlors where customers paid a nickel to hear a piece of music. By the turn of the century, Americans began to buy phonographs for home use, and entertainment had become the phonograph’s major market.
Inspired by the success of the phonograph as an entertainment device, Edison decided in 1888 to develop “an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear.” After taking out a patent in 1888 on the overall concept of motion pictures, Edison set out to make it a reality. He made a conceptual breakthrough in 1889, when he decided to shift to a design that used rolled film. By early 1891 he had a motion-picture camera, which he called a kinetograph, and a viewing device, which he called a kinetoscope, ready for public demonstration. In 1893 the kinetoscope was ready for commercial development. By 1894 the Edison Company had produced about 75 films suitable for sale and viewing.
In these early years, viewers watched films through a small eyepiece in an arcade or parlor. These films were short, typically about three minutes long. Many can strike modern audiences as trite or dull, but for Americans in the 1890s much of their appeal lay in their novelty. Many of the early films depicted athletic competitions like boxing matches. One 1894 title, for example, was a six-round boxing match that Edison’s company sold to arcades for $22.50 per round. The catalog description gives a sense of the appeal it had for male viewers: “Full of hard fighting, clever hits, punches, leads, dodges, body blows and some slugging.” Other early kinetoscope subjects included Indian dances, nature and outdoor scenes, recreations of historical events, and humorous skits.
In 1896 Edison and two rivals pooled their projection patents and marketed a projection system that they called the “Edison Vitascope.” After the development of a reliable projection system, film audiences began to shift away from kinetoscope arcades to theaters seating many people. At the same time, Edison’s film catalog grew in sophistication. He sent filmmakers to distant and exotic locales like Japan and China. Meanwhile, the shift to longer fictional films would soon have an important cultural consequence: it created a demand for film actors. The first “movie stars,” such as the glamorous Mary Pickford, swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, and acrobatic comedian Buster Keaton, appeared around 1910. These stars had enormous appeal to audiences of the day. Alongside professional boxing and baseball, the film industry helped to create the modern culture of celebrity that would characterize mass entertainment in the twentieth century.
In 1914, automobile manufacturer Henry Ford inaugurated the “five dollar day,” effectively doubling the pay of many of his assembly-line employees, and cut the working day from nine to eight hours. Ford’s primary goal was to reduce worker attrition, which had become a problem since he began assembling cars with a moving assembly line. Ford hoped that workers would tolerate repetitive, tiring work in exchange for better pay. And, too, blue-collar workers making five dollars a day might be able to afford Ford’s product, the basic Model T automobile, boosting his own business.
Attracted by high wages, thousands of immigrants flocked to Detroit to work in Ford’s plants. Ford’s innovations—affordable automobiles and better-paying jobs—bolstered the small but growing American middle class. Ford also coupled his five-dollar day with a sweeping and often intrusive supervision program. In 1914, Ford created a Sociological Department to provide immigrant workers with English tutoring and citizenship classes, and to visit to workers’ homes to ensure that wives kept clean homes, children attended school regularly, and families deposited money into savings accounts. Ford’s five dollar day and his Sociological Department epitomized new both positive and negative trends of the new America. On the one hand, principles of scientific management and rational factory design allowed the Ford Motor Company to produce cars cheaply in high volume, while paying workers high wages. Ford’s production process was a triumph of engineering and management skill. On the other hand, Ford’s desire to mold his unskilled, immigrant workers into ideal employees and citizens represented a well-intentioned but also coercive side of business management. In exchange for high wages, Ford’s workers were supposed to accept his vision of what it meant to be a good American and a productive member of society.
This chapter was edited by David Hochfelder, with content contributions by Jacob Betz, David Hochfelder, Gerard Koeppel, Scott Libson, Kyle Livie, Paul Matzko, Isabella Morales, Andrew Robichaud, Kate Sohasky, Joseph Super, Susan Thomas, Kaylynn Washnock, and Kevin Young.