America Comes of Age, 1876–1900
By Dr. David Jaffee
Professor and Head of New Media Research
Bard Graduate Center
City University of New York
In the three decades following the Civil War, a nation once predominantly agricultural became the world’s preeminent economic power. Between 1869 and 1899, the nation’s population nearly tripled, farm production more than doubled, and the value of manufacturing grew sixfold. While steel mills and oil refineries marked new industrial growth, older industries such as furniture and silver manufacture operated large workshops with numerous workers. Great fortunes were made in financing the railroads and other capitalist ventures; capital and labor alike experienced cycles of boom and bust. Working-class women (mostly between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four) were increasingly important to the industrial economy, filling jobs in textile factories and sweatshops.
The rise of the metropolis in the nineteenth century created a distinctive urban culture. Millions moved from the countryside and overseas to become city dwellers; the urban population grew from 6 million to 44 million between 1860 and 1910. A steadily rising number of migrants from southern and eastern Europe—Italy, Poland, Russia—settled in the cities. Popular entertainment venues such as amusement parks, vaudeville theaters, and traveling shows promoted an urbane cultural vision that was transmitted throughout the nation by popular periodicals. Department stores offering inexpensive goods at set prices and mail-order catalogue companies spread the promise of consumerism throughout the country. Cities grew into metropolitan areas with suburbs connected by mass transit.
Crowded downtown business districts grew upward as steel frame construction and mechanical elevators made possible the construction of skyscrapers along the skyline. Patrons promoted an American Renaissance to beautify the city with civic monuments, grand mansions, and public sculptures. New public institutions of higher culture were established in metropolitan centers; museums, libraries, opera companies, and symphony orchestras were built with the support of private individuals who sought to educate the new urban immigrant Americans. The art infrastructure matured with the establishment of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in 1870. Artists and architects struggled to create an American style no longer dependent upon European models.
The emerging corporate economy added to the ranks of the middle class with managers, accountants, engineers, salesmen, and designers. The nineteenth-century ideal of the parlor as the center of domestic culture began to weaken, under attack by a burgeoning feminist movement. Bright independent women rebelled against the strictures of subordination within the family. Numerous women’s colleges opened in the 1870s and 1880s. The “New Woman” of the 1890s often sported a college education and an independent identity.
Professional decorators took charge of the domestic interior, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), who later became known for his glass productions in the Art Nouveau style, and Candace Wheeler, who promoted art and design as paying careers for women.
A series of grand world’s fairs claimed an international stature for the United States and celebrated the latest advances in science and technology. Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 helped to revive interest in the arts and crafts of colonial North America. The proliferation of poorly designed mass-produced industrial goods in everyday life gave rise to the Aesthetic movement’s focus on the decorative arts and the Arts and Crafts movement‘s promotion of handmade products and artisan workshops. Both movements looked to medieval and Asian design sources and encouraged women practitioners.
Artists such as Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) flocked to Paris in the later nineteenth century to paint modern subjects in innovative ways. Some came away with depictions of landscapes and scenes of everyday middle-class life, painted with the bright palette and natural light of the Impressionists. In 1886, William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) became the first major American painter to create Impressionist canvases with a series of images of New York’s new urban parks.
A prominent group of architects, including Daniel H. Burnham (1846–1912) and Louis H. Sullivan (1856–1924), planned the White City of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, with its modern urban vision of Roman and Renaissance Revival architecture. Chicago seized control of the Midwest and sought to rival New York for innovative urban design. Led by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), founder of the Prairie School, Chicago’s architects strove to shake off the European roots of Beaux-Arts and looked to the American landscape for inspiration.
The western landscape provided significant inspiration for artists and scholars alike, such as the painter and sculptor Frederic Remington (1861–1909) and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932). Vast tracks of western wilderness were set aside for national parks, often after coming into public notice through the work of painters and photographers such as Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) of the Rocky Mountains and Yosemite Valley. San Francisco’s leaders staged the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 to celebrate their city’s rise from the 1906 fire and the realization of a continental empire over the course of the nineteenth century by the United States.
Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, April 2007, under the terms of a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.