American Cities in the Early 1800s

Cincinnati Harbor in 1838. By: Josef Motschmann.

From the 1820s through the 1840s, America’s cities were changing rapidly due to the transportation revolution, technological advances, and world events.

With the transportation revolution, Americans and those from abroad were more mobile than ever. During the 1820s and 1830s, “more than 667,000 overseas immigrants entered the United States—three-quarters of them through the port of New York.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 527.

Then, with improvements in technology, agricultural productivity grew. Americans and Europeans both needed less help on the farms, and more children were living into adulthood. See id. at 526. These were prime candidates to move to cities to look for jobs. Id. citing Winifred Rothenberg, From Market-Places to a Market Economy (Chicago, 1992), 244; David R. Meyer, Roots of American Industrialization (Baltimore, 2003), 36.

Events around the world also impacted the growth of American cities. Europe had “dramatic crop failure[s],” and particularly the blight of the Irish potato crop in 1845 prompted mass migration into America. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 527.

In the first half of the 1800s, New York tripled in size, growing “twice as fast as Liverpool and three times as fast as Manchester.” Id. citing Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York, 1999), 735-37; Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class (New York, 1984), 109.

New cities blossomed along the inland waterways, like Cincinnati, Chicago, and Buffalo. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 527. Existing cities, like St. Louis and Louisville, grew and they were “places for the collection and shipment of staple commodities in exchange for provisions, equipment, and services.” Id.

Cities increasingly became the heart of activity, as businesses and individuals came in droves to be in the cities. See id. at 528. This put a strain on public services, such as police, firefighters, and sanitation. See id. Nonetheless, many workers chose to work in the cities and live in the cities, as they could earn a decent wage and the work was less intensive than the heavy physical labor that agriculture required. See id. at 531.

It was during this time that cities became the staple of American life that they are today. The confluence of the transportation revolution, technological advances, and mass immigration ensured that cities would become the hubs that we know today. While this put pressure on the cities to adapt themselves to a burgeoning population, which brought new problems like dealing with vices and crimes, it also made cities economic engines that would strengthen the American economy.


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