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The Industrial Age 1865 To 1917

May 2024
7min read

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, The Jungle (many editions), is the most powerful account we have of the new world of industrialized production. On the bloodsoaked floors of these gigantic meat mills, and in the vile slums that rimmed them, immigrants fresh from the fields of Lithuania and Poland were reduced almost to the condition of the animals they were paid to kill and cut. (The novel also contains a spectacular account of the work inside a modern steel mill.)

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 Sister Carrie (1900; many editions), the Indiana-born Theodore Dreiser brilliantly captures the vitality and velocity of this new technological city, along with the consumption culture that department-store magnates like Marshall Field were bringing into being. In the second half of the novel the action shifts to New York City, a bigger, more powerful, and vastly more impersonal place than Chicago. Dreiser’s New York is a city of amplitude and opportunity, but it is also an unforgiving force of nature that ruins as many lives as it elevates, an image evoked by Carrie Meeber and her doomed lover, Hurstwood, one made by the city, the other undone by it. Sister Carrie is America’s Tale of Two Cities, and Dreiser is our Dickens, a wide-awake traveler to what was then an absolutely new world, the turbulent industrial city, its culture nothing short of revolutionary.

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, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of the Evolution of Institutions (many editions), a caustic dissection of the customs and conventions of America’s new capitalist conquistadors. Like Karl Marx, Veblen exposed the wasteful, self-indulgent lives of a new class of status-driven plutocrats who were fashioning a metropolitan culture of “conspicuous leisure.” But, unlike Marx, he did it with wit and irony and without Marx’s tiresome historical determinism. The Theory of the Leisure Class is Swiftian satire raised to the level of judicious scholarship, a work read enthusiastically by reformers of the time and still a useful guide to the deep-lying motivation of those who spend and display selfindulgently and extravagantly.

Dreiser’s Hurstwood ends his life in a rundown hotel on the Lower East Side, site of New York’s foulest slums. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane portrayed these neighborhoods with painful accuracy. But it took the invention of flash photography and the crusading spirit of Jacob Riis, an immigrant himself, to expose this earthly hell to a national audience. Riis came to America from Denmark in 1870 at the age of 21 and landed a job as a police reporter eight years later. His beat included Mulberry Bend, the worst neighborhood in New York. In 1890 he published How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (many editions), a book that should be read until urban poverty is abolished.

Riis made his readers feel as if they were there, at his elbow, as he took flash photographs with his handheld detective camera. The flash powder exploded with such sudden force that it left many of his subjects with looks of fright or surprise on their faces. Yet some of Riis’s most heart-stabbing photographs are carefully posed shots of street kids and struggling families. Riis was not free of the racial prejudices of his time, but his work—the prose nearly as powerful as the pictures—awoke the conscience of the nation and led to tenementhouse reform.

An altogether different urban America is described in the work of two of the outstanding interpreters of our national culture, the critic and social philosopher Lewis Mumford and the historian David McCullough. In a slim, sparkling book, The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895 (1931; Dover), Mumford rediscovered a “buried Renaissance” beneath the political corruption and sordid speculation of the Gilded Age, a group of writers, painters, and builders who produced work of integrity and permanency. Among them were Frederick Law Olmsted, Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson, Thomas Eakins, Emily Dickinson, and John A. and Washington A. Roebling, builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, “perhaps the most completely satisfactory structure of any kind that had appeared in America.”

The Roeblings—father and son—are the heroes of McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972; Simon & Schuster), a magisterial account of the building of the greatly loved East River span. For Mumford and McCullough, the Brooklyn Bridge is a poem of granite and metal, the Chartres Cathedral of the epoch of steam and steel. It is also a stupendous engineering achievement, a story McCullough turns into an enthralling family and urban drama. His is the best book about nineteenth-century New York City and one of the masterworks of American scholarship and storytelling.


In his novel Poor White (1920; New Directions), Sherwood Anderson tells a darker tale, the betrayal of man by his own machines. It is the story of a small town’s sudden and thoroughgoing transformation by industrial capitalism. The people of Bidwell, Ohio, embrace new laborsaving machines only to see these machines trigger “a long silent war between classes, between those who have and those who can’t get.” Pre-industrial Bidwell is an impossibly warm and satisfying place, but the characters caught up in the painful process of change—farmers and mechanics, dreamers and entrepreneurs—are expertly etched, with what H. L. Mencken called a “superb reality.”

John Dos Passos, in his trilogy U.S.A. (1930–36; Library of America), written during the opening years of the Great Depression, picks up the march of industry where Anderson stops, giving us an unequaled social portrait of the first 30 years of twentieth-century America. (The novels are The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money.) Like Veblen, Dos Passos means to “put the acid test to existing institutions, to strip them of their veils.” A novel of failure and despair, of men and women crushed or corrupted by advertising, financial racketeering, and corporate greed, it is, one critic wrote, “one of the saddest books ever written by an American.” It is also the finest historical novel in our literature, a work in which the novelist, to use Henry James’s phrase, succeeds to the “sacred office” of the historian. U.S.A. remains a book for our time because its characters are current—we can recognize all of them—and because we can take inspiration from the outsiders that challenge the anonymity and greed of modern mass society, most of the kind of people Veblen celebrated in his work—artists, builders, and social visionaries.

In The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973; Knopf), the final volume of his trilogy on the evolution of the American character, the historian Daniel J. Boorstin describes “countless, little-noticed revolutions… in homes and farms and factories and schools and stores … so little noticed because they came so swiftly, everywhere and every day.” This is not a history of politics or political ideas. There is nothing on the union movement, feminism, or civil rights. Instead, Boorstin serves up fascinating pocket histories of American plumbing, meatpacking, product packaging, refrigeration, central heating and air conditioning, supermarkets, and myriad other often ignored transformations that shaped our national uniqueness.

Boorstin believes that Americans are primarily what they make and buy, that things, not abstract ideas, shape the way we behave. The great part of his trilogy is a celebration of America’s pragmatic, “get-ahead” spirit and the wondrous time- and money-saving inventions it brought into general use, from ready-to-wear clothing to inexpensive beef and ham from Chicago. But this final volume is also a cautionary tale, with a heavy dose of Veblenesque pessi mism. Did the very perfection of techniques for democratizing consumption and widening experiences impoverish these very experiences? Boorstin asks. Today, he writes, most Americans live in rootless, “everywhere communities” eating “allthe-time food,” places stripped of their regional identity and local flavor. Endlessly, sometimes irritatingly, provocative, Boorstin’s work is a landmark of social history that is a pure delight to read.

Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955; Knopf) is a perfect complement to Boorstin. It is a book that is almost entirely about ideas—political ideas—and it astutely analyzes the modern reform tradition, from Populism to the New Deal, that Boorstin blithely passes over. The introduction alone is one of the most astute assessments of the American reform impulse ever written, an argument as pertinent today as it was half a century ago. A pervading characteristic of American reformers of both the left and the right, Hofstadter argues, is moral utopianism, an unwillingness to abide anything thought to be evil, whether it be saloons, bigcity machines, or the Communist party.

Anticipating Boorstin, Hofstadter argues that this restless reformism is most successful in dealing with “ things . … in technology and invention, in productivity, in the ability to meet needs and provide comforts. In this sphere America has surpassed all other peoples. But in dealing with human beings and institutions, in matters of morals and politics,” it has disabling deficiencies. It leads to moral crusades and to paranoid fears that some single conspiratorial force must be behind every evil and that these evils must be obliterated immediately and forever, not controlled or hemmed in. It is no accident, Hofstadter suggests, that some of the very reformers who broke up corrupt political machines and rapacious trusts imposed Prohibition on a thirsty nation.

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