America Moves to the City: Urban Growth in the Late Nineteenth Century

Library of Congress, Public Domain

The industrial boom of the late 19th century led Americans and immigrants 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. / Library of Congress, 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]

Mulberry Street in New York City, c. 1900 / Library of Congress, Public Domain

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]


  1. See David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013), 539-540.
  2. On urban populations see, U.S. Department of Commerce, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1920 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1921), 50-53. For more on New York in this period see, John Louis Recchiuti, Civic Engagement: Social Science and Progressive Era Reform in New York City (New York: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).
  3. See Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (New York: Scribner’s, 1890).
  4. On Fifth Avenue, see Henry Hope Reed, “A Stroll up the Avenue in 1911,” in David G. Lowe, New York, N.Y. (New York: American Heritage, 1968), 21. On the Lower East Side, see Kenneth T. Jackson, “Lower East Side Tenement Museum,” in The Encyclopedia of the City of New York, 697.
  5. Helen Moore, “Tenement Neighborhood Idea–University Settlement,” in The Literature of Philanthropy, ed. Frances A. Goodale (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893), 36-48.

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