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America moves to the city

The industrial boom of the late nineteenth century led Americans and immigrants from the world over to leave farming life and head to the city. 


  • Americans increasingly moved into cities over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a movement motivated in large measure by industrialization.
  • Eleven million people migrated from rural to urban areas between 1870 and 1920, and a majority of the twenty-five million immigrants who came to the United States in these same years moved into the nation’s cities.
  • By 1920, more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas for the first time in US history.

From farm to city

Today most Americans live in cities or suburbs, but from colonial times into the early twentieth century a majority of Americans lived in the countryside and worked on farms. Only two percent of Americans live on farms or ranches today, but in 1790 ninety percent of the population did. What caused this shift?
The movement of populations from rural to urban areas is called urbanization. Urbanization in the United States increased gradually in the early 1800s and then accelerated in the years after the Civil War. By 1890, twenty-eight percent of Americans lived in urban areas, and by 1920 more Americans lived in towns and cities than in rural areas.1

The Second Industrial Revolution and urbanization

The principal force driving America’s move into cities was the Second Industrial Revolution.
In the United States the industrial revolution came in two waves. The first saw the rise of factories and mechanized production in the late 1700s and early 1800s and included steam-powered spinning and weaving machines, the cotton gin, steamboats, locomotives, and the telegraph. The Second Industrial Revolution took off following the Civil War with the introduction of interchangeable parts, assembly-line production, and new technologies, including the telephone, automobile, electrification of homes and businesses, and more.
The businesses and factories behind the industrial revolution were located in the nation’s towns and cities. Eleven million Americans migrated from the countryside to cities in the fifty years between 1870 and 1920. During these same years an additional 25 million immigrants, most from Europe, moved to the United States—one of the largest mass migrations in human history—and while some settled on farms, most moved into the nation’s growing towns and cities.2

City life

Cities in the Gilded Age were studies in contrasts. The wealthy lived in urban mansions while the poor crowded into tenement houses, apartment buildings with tiny rooms, no ventilation, and poor sanitation. Not until journalist and reformer Jacob Riis published his eye-opening photoessay How the Other Half Lives in 1890 did cities begin passing ordinances to make tenement housing safer.3
Chicago's Home Insurance Building is considered the world's first skyscraper. At 10 stories tall, it seems small by modern standards, but it was the tallest modern building in the world from 1884-1889. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Second Industrial Revolution also changed the physical composition of cities. The invention in the 1850s of the Otis elevator and Bessemer steelmaking process (an inexpensive process for the mass production of steel) created the material means for the rise of tall city buildings, some so tall they were said to scrape the sky—skyscrapers. The advent of trolleys and subways also allowed city dwellers to move about with ease on public transportation, encouraging developers to build new suburbs, allowing people to live outside the city center and commute to work.
Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American cities were energetic centers of culture and community, rich with ethnic enclaves such as “Little Italy,” places in which people of different backgrounds and worldviews lived and worked in close proximity. With museums and public libraries, colleges and universities, churches and synagogues, clubs and organizations, saloons and dance halls, shops and street life, cities were vibrant and diverse places. But America’s cities could also be geographically concentrated areas of poverty, disease, and violence.

New York City in the Gilded Age

The diversity of the nation’s cities was nowhere more on display than in the nation’s largest city, New York. At the turn of the twentieth century, New York City was the national capital of finance, industry, shipping and trade, publishing, the arts, and immigration, a magnet that drew to it much of the best and most avant-garde in art and literature. With a population of more than three million in 1900 and 4.7 million by 1910, New York was more than twice as populous than Chicago, the nation's second-ranked city, three times as large as third-ranked Philadelphia, and six to nine times as large as St. Louis, Boston, Baltimore, and Cleveland, all urban centers of immigrants.4
Photograph of Mulberry Street in New York City, 1900. The street is very busy, full of people and carts and vendors.
Mulberry Street in New York City, c. 1900. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
By 1910, New York’s millionaires had built palatial mansions along much of Fifth Avenue, while, at the same time, many New Yorkers lived in poverty. The Lower East Side was the most crowded neighborhood on earth, housing tens of thousands in ill-lighted, overcrowded tenements, many without running water, flush toilets, or electricity. An 1893 observer in this section of the city wrote of the "fermenting garbage in the gutter and the smell of stale beer" and the sight of exhausted sweatshop workers toiling away, sewing clothes for the garment industry.5

What do you think?

What drew Americans and immigrants to move into the nation’s cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Do you think the city offered them a better life?
What were some of the contrasts in life between the rich and the poor in cities such as New York at the turn of the twentieth century?
Historians reach for words like “revolution” and “world-historical” in describing big historical changes. Would you consider the movement from farms to cities, from colonial times to today, to be revolutionary? Why or why not?

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Austin Stutts
    Why did mark twain think that the gilded was a bad time period a lot off good ideas were created steel oil railroad. I think that it was a good time period.
    (6 votes)
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    • marcimus pink style avatar for user allie  kendall
      Underneath all of the good stuff, like creating steel, oil, and railroads, there are many problems such as a corrupt government, monopolies, working conditions and much more. Businesses and corporations basically ran the government. In fact, JP Morgan loaned the US Government money. The big corporations dominated the markets, creating monopolies. With no competition, they were able to set prices as they wished. Working conditions for immigrants and the lower class were terrifying. Here is an excerpt from a book called The Jungle written by Upton Sinclair to bring awareness to the higher classes about what was really going on inside factories. "-Let a man so much as scrape his finger pushing a truck in the pickle rooms, and he might have a sore that would put him out of the world; all the joints in his fingers might be eaten by the acid, one by one. Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb; time and time again the base of it had been slashed, till it was a mere lump of flesh against which the man pressed the knife to hold it. The hands of these men would be criss- crossed with cuts, until you could no longer pretend to count them or to trace them. They would have no nails, – they had worn them off pulling hides; their knuckles were swollen so that their fingers spread out like a fan. There were men who worked in the cooking rooms, in the midst of steam and sickening odors, by artificial light; in these rooms the germs of tuberculosis might live for two years, but the supply was renewed every hour."

      Hope this helps!!
      (68 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Theo
    But why did they move to the cities? can there be like examples of why they moved from the farms and decided to go to the city
    (11 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user weber
      Much of the "farmland" opened to homesteaders after the Civil War was borderline productive and could not support a family. It was really better suited to grazing and a homestead allotment of 160 acres just wasn't enough. My grandfather, the son of a Nebraska homesteading family, taught himself the rudiments of electrical work from books and counter-migrated east to Chicago to find jobs in all those buildings they were putting up. There was no living to be made on the even more marginal land that was left out west by the 1890s
      (12 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user chhuon.menglin
    Regarding the article, the American and immigrants moved into the cities because of good living conditions in terms of economic and cultural conditions. As the second industrial revolution emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth century, job explosions also appeared, so people could easily

    find jobs in the city. As ever-lasting rumors spread, life in the city equips people with much better thing. We can get access to needs rapidly. The most crucial thing is the financial conditions that people need as subsistence. As the turning time in the early twentieth in New York city, there was a wealth gap and social barriers between the poor and the rich. Regardless of the sophisticated modernity and advancement in the NY city, people seemingly lived in two remarkably distinct areas, for instance, the millionaires built palatial mansions for their luxurious lifestyles, yet not for the poor. In particularly, the poor, in fact, dwelled in dilapidated areas such as tenements where garbage, smell of dirty things came to exist along the area they resided. Admittedly, the words" world historical" and "revolution" sound different, but the intention of each one is parallel. We can think about the moments of colonial time of the British empire in America. The Britons wanted to gain benefits at the expense of the American people. It dramatically increased the economic and political dominance in world history during the 1800s, which was construed to a revolutionary moment. By the same token, the exodus of farmer who migrated to urban areas had similar purposes. They wanted to have better living conditions so they took the mass migration to cities.
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user L. E.
      One could also, though, argue that working hard on a farm but having a comfortable house and lots of land was preferable to living, as you said, in a tiny filthy tenement and working just as hard in a factory all day.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Maria p.
    what was the reason for the industrial revolution before the Civil War?
    (2 votes)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user rupema
    How did the industrialization of the Gilded Age transform cities & immigration in America?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user sheyenne.russell
    From the article Americans and immigrants lived in the city because it was cheaper and more convenient. With it being more convenient it is easier to get time doing stuff you want. The rich were stupidly rich enough to get a mansion back then. The poor however were so poor that they could not even get a room with enough space for a family. Farms to cities are a significant change and they could easily trade and buy stuff for the family, so it's easier to do stuff. I think so.
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Kate
    The article says 25 million immigrants was one of the largest mass migrations. Why?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user taylorp37.stu
    They went to the city to work, and to also find better living, but who promised these people better living conditions where there were none?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user dgibbs
    What are the key moments in this rural to urban migration
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user marissaestrada
    What drew Americans and immigrants to move into the nation’s cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Do you think the city offered them a better life?
    (1 vote)
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    • leafers sapling style avatar for user Velociraptor105
      I would actually say that as the population increased and farming technology improved, people couldn't make money farming anymore. It's not that the cities were providing good jobs, they were providing the only jobs. Farming technology made food easier to grow, which decreased food prices. Price competition between farmers caused some to go into debt, and others to succeed. The successful farmers could then buy the land that those who'd failed left to increase their farms. Those who couldn't afford to continue farming then left to get jobs in the city. It wasn't really the plumbing that attracted them, especially as the poor usually did not have access to it. Instead, as in early Chicago, they got their water from dirty rivers full of sewage (from those lovely flush toilets).
      (2 votes)