America’s Urban Population Boom between 1866 and 1915

America’s front door was wide open, and people poured in. Between 1866 and 1915, 25 million immigrants came to the United States. Most of them came from Italy and Southeastern Europe, but they also came from Scandinavia, Russia, Poland, Germany, Ireland, England, and France. By 1910, 15 percent of the country’s total population was foreign-born.

Most of them came to escape hard economic times at home, despotic governments, or both. Many times their expectations were unrealistically high. “America is all puddings and pies!” enthused one young man as he stepped off the ship in New York.

Despite the warning of a popular immigrant guidebook to “forget your past, your customs, and your ideals,” many of the new Americans clung to their own languages, customs, and cuisines, and gravitated to communities populated by others from their country.

The presence of so many immigrants in so short a time caused alarm in some “natives,” who feared the newcomers would weaken their chances in the job market and pollute American culture. But it wasn’t until 1921, after World War I had created millions of refugees in Europe, that Congress tightened immigration policies concerning Europeans.

In the meantime, as much as 80 percent of the immigrant wave settled in Northern cities. By the turn of the century, more than a third of Chicago’s populace was foreign-born, and there were more Irish in New York City than there were in Ireland.

The immigrants weren’t the only newcomers in town, because there were plenty of American-born country folks moving to urban areas, as well. By 1900, 30 million Americans lived in cities, about a third of all U.S. residents. The number of cities larger than 100,000 increased from 9 to 50 between 1860 and 1910.

But many parts of the big cities were festering sores. In those areas, fire protection, street cleaning, sewage systems, garbage collection, and water treatment barely existed. The Chicago River was an open sewer. Baltimore’s sewers emptied into the tidal basin, and in the summer heat, journalist H. L. Mencken wrote, it “smelled like a billion polecats.”

Housing was often designed to cram the most people into the least space. It wasn’t uncommon for 24 four-room apartments to be built on a 2,500-square-foot lot. Tenement slums took on fitting names, such as “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Bone Alley,” or “Poverty Gap.”

Gradually, things improved in the major urban areas. No one, rich or poor, wanted to live in filth, and after the link between disease and poor sanitation was firmly established, city leaders began to develop adequate sewage and water systems. Public transit systems, based on streetcars or trolleys, were put in place.

But none of it happened overnight, and more than a few farmers-turned-city-dwellers must have yearned more than once to be home on the range.

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