Introduction to Life in Industrial America

A crowded New York City street with many shops and crates of fruit.

“Mulberry Street, New York City,” ca. 1900, Library of Congress

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.”

A busy Chicago street.

Wabash Avenue, Chicago, c. 1907. Library of Congress.

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.

Cows in fenced areas.

Stereoscopic view of the Great Union Stockyards in turn-of-the-century Chicago. The stockyards were the epicenter of the American meat-packing industry for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The yards were made possible through the joint purchase of over three acres of unusable swamp land by railroad companies, who then turned it into a hugely profitable centralized meatpacking district. In the Great Union Stock Yards [stockyards], Chicago, U.S.A., c. 1890. Wikimedia.