America in 1870

Although America, by 1870, was still not one hundred years into its life as a country, it had the blessings and curses of an industrialized nation—some inherited from the British but others uniquely American.[i] Among the blessings was widespread prosperity: the United States then had “74 percent of British and 128 percent of German per-capita income.”[ii] Although many Europeans had come to see America as a country filled with “little more than amiable backwoods-men not yet ready for unsupervised outings on the world stage,” those Europeans had erred in reaching that conclusion as was evident at the London Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 when Americans showed their latest inventions in their “outpost of wizardry and wonder” with machines that “did things that the world earnestly wished machines to do—stamp out nails, cut stone, mold candles—but with a neatness, dispatch, and tireless reliability that left other nations blinking.”[iii] But that presentation of the United States to the world lacked the nuance that was evident to those who toured the country; prosperity may have been widespread, but it was not equally distributed and it was not without hardship.

It was an age where candles and oil lamps served as light sources and “steam engines, water wheels, and horses” were sources of power, but it was also an age where—with the country’s population at approximately 40 million—cities became increasingly filled with immigrants and Americans who had left their rural lifestyles behind.[iv] Families were large: the fertility rate for whites had fallen to 4.6 and stood at 7.7 for blacks.[v] The population’s distribution was also striking for 35 percent resided in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, 35 percent in and around the Midwest, 26 percent in the eleven states of the former Confederacy, and just four percent in the “Mountain and Pacific states.”[vi] With around 75 percent of Americans living in a rural environment and therefore making their own food and clothing, the consumer culture that would come to define American life a century later was nascent and scarcely measurable: the average American spent almost all of his or her money on the necessities—“food, clothing, and shelter”—with discretionary items being created, not bought.[vii]

Other necessities, as a modern American would define them, were scant. This was particularly true in urban environments as there was no electricity and little indoor plumbing and central heating.[viii] City living required “chamber pots and open windows and backyards to dispose of their waste in addition to the universal outdoor privy.”[ix] Cooking and lighting required open fire or open-flame gas or lamps all of which—when combined with wood being the ubiquitous building material—made the danger of fire one of the most prevalent of not only 1870 but the Nineteenth Century.[x] In cities throughout the country, by 1870, it was becoming increasingly common for dwellings to be “ill-ventilated urban tenements” with small, windowless rooms being crowded (often because families could not cover rent alone), and that trend would continue to grow for the remainder of the century and into the beginning of the next.[xi] Cities themselves were crowded not only with people but horses and streetcars: in Boston, 250,000 people and 50,000 horses competed for space, and in New York, “horses killed four pedestrians per week” in 1867.[xii] Although the creation of the steam engine had made long distances more easily traversed and “covered the ocean with great steamers,” horses remained crucial for transportation whether in the cities—for one to commute from one’s home to one’s work—or loading and unloading cargo from those “great steamers.”[xiii]

The rhythm and longevity of life was strikingly different than modern day America. Leisure was rare, and depending on where one resided, it was monotonous. For families in the city, traveling by horse or street car to places like Brooklyn’s Coney Island amusement park could provide a day’s entertainment for working-class folks, but in rural environments, escapism was not so easily accessible.[xiv] Even with horses, traveling for leisure was prohibitive. Leisure for many men included reading the increasingly prolific newspapers but also could have included drinking at the local saloon, and for most women, this meant that there would be no leisure of that sort.[xv] Regardless of leisure time, families were likely to see tumult: life expectancy was 45 years, and the mortality rate was extraordinarily high for infants and adolescents.[xvi] Small pox, yellow fever, cholera, “influenza, pneumonia, typhus, scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough, and, above all, tuberculosis” had no effective treatment.[xvii] Medicine, or the lack thereof, was not the only factor in the higher death rate. With more industrial jobs in cities and safety protocols largely unknown, accidents at work were not only frequent but commonly fatal. With an American diet “heavy on meat and starch, and light on fruits and vegetables,” conditions such as scurvy and rickets weakened the health of families.[xviii] With window screening not common, a city-dweller’s home could not only be “too hot or too cold, poorly ventilated, smoky from coal and wood fires and gas or oil lighting” but also insect-ridden: insects were free to fly “between human and animal waste outside and food on the table” or water.[xix] These conditions worsened as one went south into a warm, humid climate, and southern cities’ epidemics in the late 1800s illustrated that higher risk.

Despite the hardship, with southern states building their industry to match that of the burgeoning North, the American economy was imminently to become the biggest economy in the world—and it would continue to hold that title for at least the following 120 years. The trends in 1870, such as corporations becoming more ubiquitous and populations increasing in cities, were only beginning. In a few short decades, there would be steel and oil monopolies, automobiles, electricity, and airplanes, but with those developments came growing pains—pains that would deepen and manifest themselves in issues that would continue into not just the Twentieth Century but also the Twenty-First Century.

[i] See Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, 27.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id. at 28.

[iv] See id. at 30-31.

[v] Id. at 35.

[vi] Id.

[vii] See id. at 36-37.

[viii] See id. at 44.

[ix] Id. at 44-45.

[x] See id. at 44.

[xi] See id. at 45-46.

[xii] Id. at 48.

[xiii] See id.

[xiv] See id. at 49.

[xv] See id.

[xvi] See id. at 50.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] See id. at 51.

[xix] Id.

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