19th Century Shock Cities
What was it like? says a man at my elbow, who never saw it. Like nothing I ever saw before, or hope ever to see again. A crooked three-acre lot built over with rotten structures that harbored the very dregs of humanity. Ordinary enough to look at from the street, but pierced by a maze of foul alleys, in the depths of which skulked the tramp and the outcast thief with loathsome wrecks that had once laid claim to the name of woman. Every foot of it reeked with incest and murder. Bandits’ Roost, Bottle Alley, were names synonymous with robbery and red-handed outrage. By night, in its worst days, I have gone poking about their shuddering haunts with a policeman on the beat, and come away in a ferment of anger and disgust that would keep me awake far into the morning hours planning means of its destruction. — Jacob Riis, The Battle with the Slum (1902) describing Mulberry Bend; illustration from Harper's Weekly, Sept. 13, 1873
It was not until the 1920 federal census that the United States became an "urban nation," that is, that a majority of the population lived in cities and metropolitan areas. Even so, the process of urbanization was well underway by 1830. It was the transportation revolution, first in the North and then everywhere, that made the rapid growth of cities both possible and necessary. First the Erie Canal and next the railroads created regional, then national markets. The actual building of the Erie Canal provided on-the-job training to a whole generation of civil and mechanical engineers who went on to design and build the railroads.
Railroads made mass production possible. Agriculture provides a case in point. Farmers in Kansas could ship wheat to anywhere. This encouraged them to invest in new machinery to increase production. Demand for reapers and other farm machinery led to the growth of giant factories in places like Chicago. Thousands of migrants from all over the United States and Europe poured into the Windy City every year to work in its factories, meat packing plants, and steel mills, not to mention all those employed by the railroads. Chicago was the eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railway. It was also the headquarters of Sears, Roebuck whose catalogues reached those living in the smallest villages as well as the largest cities. You could buy almost anything from Sears, even an entire house in a kit with every piece labeled and with an instruction manual telling you what to do step by step. You could also buy the tools you would need. And the work clothes. And the furniture and the appliances. And the bedding and your own night clothes.
No matter where you lived, you could do your shopping in Chicago. Millions did. Millions also visited New York, Chicago, and other great cities. They wanted to see the sights, such as P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York.
And, as with the Sears Catalogue, if you could not go to Barnum's Museum, his Circus would come to you. So, via the Vaudeville circuit late in the nineteenth century and the first part of the twenieth, would the singers, dancers, and comedians who performed in New York. You still read your local newspaper. But in 1857 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly and Harper's Weekly began publishing in New York. Within months both claimed circulations in the hundreds of thousands, a number that undercounts their actual readership since whole families would read these new picture magazines.
America began, in sum, to develop a national culture, one based in the great metropolises. Yet, for all their attractions, cities also inspired fear, sometimes amounting to panic, and for good reasons. Throughout the colonial and early national periods American cities were basically provincial towns. But, with the opening of the Erie Canal, New York quickly became a metropolis, the financial and commercial capital of the nation. Americans in general, and New Yorkers in particular, were unprepared for the rapid expansion. Population grew faster than housing stock, leading to the overcrowding of old houses as owners subdivided properties and crammed as many tenants as possible into spaces far too cramped to permit healthful or safe living. Those who could not afford even the tenement rents turned to cellars or squatting on vacant land. Much of what became Central Park, for example, was the location of Irish shanty towns from the 1840s through the 1870s. Municipal services, for most of the antebellum period, were painfully inadequate. In 1857 the state legislature responded to accusations of corruption in the city police by creating an entirely new force. The old police refused to vacate the precinct houses and the two squared off in a riot in which the new police won out.
Other services were worse. There was no municipal fire department. Instead, volunteer companies competed, often violently. It was not unusual for one company to battle another while a fire burned itself out after destroying several buildings or even an entire city block. There were no parks. The public schools functioned only because upwards of half the students were truant on any given day. Had all of the eligible students actually showed up, the schools would have had to close due to the overcrowding. There was no sanitation department. Instead pigs, some wild and some owned by otherwise propertyless families, roamed the city devouring whatever they found edible. There were no building codes. Speculators put their land to whatever uses they thought would yield the highest profits.
Immense poverty, a flood of newcomers, and poor policing produced predictable but dismaying results — crime, prostitution, gambling, alcoholism, and opium dens along with vast wealth. Metropolises also seemed impervious to the vast revival in religion, the Second Great Awakening, that swept the rest of the country in the decades before the Civil War. It was not that there were no converts in New York. Charles Grandison Finney, the most influential of the Awakening's leaders, personally converted hundreds in the Broadway Tabernacle built especially for him. But for every convert there were others who did not heed the call, who visited brothels on Sunday, who frequented the theatre and (even worse morally) the opera.
This collection of resources affords several points of entry into the "shock" cities occasioned and the many responses thereto. For each source there is a brief introduction and several guiding questions, that is, questions to ask yourself as you read. As often as not, the questions involve comparing and contrasting one source with another. Others ask you how different types of evidence (eg., visual and literary) work or do not work to reinforce each other.
Projects contains ideas for follow-up work with the resources. Some can be done in a page or so. Others can turn into term papers and reports.
1) Sunshine and Shadows — the extreme contrasts of metropolitan life
2) Urban Mysteries — exposés of crime, vice, and suffering