- Historic Sites
The Industrial Age 1865 To 1917
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
In 1800 the United States was an underdeveloped nation of just over 5 million people. It was a society shaped by immigration, but immigrants from one country, Great Britain, made up around half the population. Although some pioneers had moved west of the Appalachian Mountains, America was preeminently a seacoast settlement. A prosperous nation, it still lagged far behind England, which was industrializing furiously. And with only 10 percent of its people living in towns and cities, it was thoroughly agrarian.
All this was about to change, and the change was sudden, explosive, and deeply disorienting. In the next century, immigration, capitalism, and machine technology would reshape the character, culture, and landscape of the young nation. In 1900 more than 77 million Americans lived in a continental empire that was a melting pot for more than 30 nationalities. Sixty percent of Americans still worked on farms, but nearly 40 percent now lived in cities, and the United States had surpassed England as the leading industrial nation on earth. “It is … in things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks,” wrote William Dean Howells.
The Industrial Revolution was, and still is, the greatest engine of change in the history of humankind. Not surprisingly, it has spawned a literature of interpretation, celebration, and indignation that is a feast for the general reader.
With its far-spreading, factorylike environment, nineteenth-century Chicago was a place where writers went to see the machine-age future in all its splendor and squalor. Chicago was the international capital of meatpacking, and in its sprawling stockyards district it was inventing a new way of making things—assembly-line production—that would transform the world. The young socialist Upton Sinclair spent only seven weeks there, but the novel he published in 1906,
Sinclair was a Protestant Prohibitionist, and the novel suffers from his narrowly moralistic treatment of immigrant life, his failure to appreciate the roles that the Catholic Church and the neighborhood saloon played in ethnic advancement. In places the book is preachy and bombastic, and many of its characters fail to come to life. Yet it can still be read today as a devastatingly accurate indictment of the failure of America’s buccaneering capitalists to treat their workers as part of the human race.
Chicago’s nineteenth-century capitalists were inventing a new type of city as well as a new type of work. Rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago’s downtown was a technological wonder, its streets lit by electricity, serviced by swift streetcars, lined by solid rows of skyscrapers, and graced by palatial department stores. In
While young Dreiser was walking the streets of Chicago collecting material for his first novel, a lean, laconic Norwegian-American was hired as an economics instructor at the newly founded University of Chicago. In 1899 Thorstein Veblen published his first and finest book,