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The industrial era was a period in American history that encountered tremendous technological development. Great economic opportunity accompanied this technological progress, which served to sculpt a more competitive and impersonal American identity. A plethora of important intellectual and cultural changes emerged during this time, many of which have had a long-standing impact on life in the United States. These changes included the intellectual shift from expansionism to urbanization, the creation of the corporate form, and the behavior of conspicuous consumption among the upper class. Coupled with these widespread shifts in thought and action, the direct reactions that stemmed from each of these changes played an important role in the way that these changes would affect the well being of people in the future. These reactions included the introduction of public space in urban areas, the Populist movement, and the development of a mass culture.
One of the most significant changes in American thought during the industrial era that served to enduringly alter the nature of settlement within the United States was a new and radically divergent perception of space. Before the late 1800s, American history was characterized by a fundamental desire to explore and settle upon uncharted territory. The development of the Frontier provided an avenue for trailblazing individuals to exercise those pursuits. Legislation that was passed shortly after the Civil War, such as the Land Grant Act and the Pacific Railroad Act, provided the incentive for Americans to move into unsettled land and helped to stimulate the growth of industry and markets in the Western United States.1 The separation of the uncharted West represented a state of true independence that favored the most resourceful and driven individuals. The West was regarded as a crucible for strength and virility. From the perspective of the West as a frontier, it existed as a borderland between civilization and savagery—the Wild West—which provided for the creation of a very lucrative “cowboy culture” for Easterners to exploit through dime novel stories and performances such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.2 The West possessed tremendous appeal from an economic and a cultural standpoint for all Americans, Western settler and Eastern citizen alike. This multitude of Wests that emerged during the 1800s served to cement a national American identity. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the West began to die out in the public eye. The United States underwent a significant shift in economic orientation during this period from a characteristically agrarian society to an increasingly industrialist society. More wage laborers were needed in the factories that were built in East Coast cities and less independent landowners were needed to grow crops. This newly formed and unregulated industrial system thrust the American people into a system of great economic potential met with great social and political unfamiliarity.
This sudden closing of the West was the result of a shift in thinking that was driven by intellectual literature such as The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner.3 In 1893, Turner, a young historian from the University of Wisconsin, composed a paper that provided insight into the value of the Western United States as well as its ultimate limitations. Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” laid out the development of the American frontier from the 1600s up through the 1890s. After outlining the extent of American settlement, Turner concluded that there was no undiscovered land remaining in North America—the frontier line was ostensibly nonexistent. Within a country that was forged upon a desire to expand, Turner articulated that this ability to expand our territory was suddenly gone. While in a realistic sense, Western land was only beginning to be occupied; this expansionist logic of Turner and other academics had hit an extreme. However untrue, Turner was well aware of the influence of technology and the industry that was quickly growing in cities on the East Coast. A highly mechanized society demanded large amounts of wage labor packed into small areas near factories and presented itself as very foreign and almost opposite to the widespread and familiar agricultural system. In retrospect, the West possessed a vast wealth of land for occupation during Turner’s time and continues to today, as well. Realistically speaking, the actual closing of the Frontier likely differed from Turner’s speculation regarding the demise of the West. From an ideological standpoint, the Frontier Thesis possessed great merit in correctly anticipating this profound shift in American society towards industry and urbanization. Additionally, Turner’s Frontier Thesis frames the crisis that he and other educated citizens had to come to terms with in the near future—the soaring, unbounded American spirit that these individuals have believed in for over 200 years no longer exists.
From this intellectual impetus that shifted American thinking from the West to condensed cities in the East, there was a cultural backlash to this new and constricting manner of urban living through the introduction of public spaces. When cities became the center of civilized life within the United States, an abundance of social, political, and health issues plagued the inhabitants of these new environments. Over the course of time and through the publishing of literature, which exposed the troubles of urban living such as How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, the US Government stepped forward to bring order to a previously disorganized system. Organizations that regulated the resources that city life warranted such as proper sanitation, public transportation, and basic utilities were developed as areas became more urbanized. Local political corruption that permeated places such as Tammany Hall in New York City began to be subdued through muckraking journalism and powerful legislation.4 For as quickly as the American became accustomed to congested living conditions, residents concurrently acquired a desire for greater liberty in their environments. This breathing room was established through the introduction of public parks.
This cultural response to the confinement of cities through the making of parks and public spaces was one of the most significant urban developments on a human level. The development of parks in the United States marked significant social change for the American people and was one of the first and most perceptible means that the stratification of social class that the industrial system forged was overcome. The development of parks provided a degree of freedom, however small, to all people living in the cities. Considering how rapidly urbanization occurred during the turn of the 20th century, all individuals needed to have a place where they could depart from the fast-paced, hard-working, and impersonal ambience of the city to find solace in organic open spaces. The idea to appropriate space for parks and green space was an all-inclusive one, considering that all human beings, regardless of their position in society, have a fundamental connection to nature. The development of these new spaces allowed for a degree of civic attachment among people of different classes. Much like open space in the American West was utilized as a common culture among the American people, parks were, to some extent, an analogue to the Frontier by facilitating the creation of a more connected identity albeit within a smaller and more centralized setting.
Frederick Law Olmstead was a pioneer in park development who believed in the social reform that these open spaces could provide for city-dwellers.5 Olmstead was arguably the most prolific landscape architect in the United States and was recruited from coast-to-coast to design urban parks, roadways, college campuses, and other structures. According to Olmstead, public parks had the potential to shape the behavior of the public in a positive manner. By creating a forum for people of all backgrounds to intermingle, particularly immigrants who had yet to fully assimilate with society and those of higher class, parks could erase the disturbing foreignness of the working class and replace them with middle class values.6 From the perspective of Olmstead, parks carried great weight through their ability to transcend class boundaries.
The development of parks also contributed to a new paradigm in regard to the personality of cities. Parks advanced the idea that these loci of production can be reformed from something that merely highlights the disparity between people by virtue of their respective living and working conditions to an area that can display the similarities that people share. The presence of public spaces helped to show that cities are more than merely centers for employment. Parks are a place where one can abandon business interests and embrace spending leisure time and getting to know others. The presence of parks was a reminder that cities are an amalgam of individuals that come together to form a social organism. Every person plays a role in its functioning and, consequently, the particular rights and interests of all individuals should be considered. During the industrial era, this movement towards the appropriation of public spaces aided in preserving some degree of humanity within a highly antagonistic and impersonal setting.
The industrial era represented a profound change in the scope, profitability, and the overall ethic of American business interests as embodied by the development of new economic forms. Although Britain as well as other European countries had undergone their own period of industrialism before the United States, products invented in the United States became distinctly American. With respect to communication, Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone and in the realm of electricity, Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb. With respect to American business, a new industrial engine known as the corporation arose to meet the opportunity that existed in this unregulated system. Unlike previous American businesses, corporations intended to satisfy a much larger market by having more workers on staff and by increasing the range and scope of their operations. The appeal of corporations existed in their ability to protect investors by bestowing a limited liability upon their investment, making the act of having a stake in a company safer. Limited liability had the effect of concentrating unprecedented amounts of capital, which corporations could utilize to expand horizontally or vertically within their market.7 Corporations represented a complete restructuring of private enterprise, in which the independent business had usurped the government as the engine of economic development within the United States.8 As compared to Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand, which had governed market interactions up until the 20th century, a very visible hand in the form of a professional class of white-collar workers utilizing this new corporate form guided the American economy.
The corporation was not only the pinnacle of American industrial achievement because of its scope of operations and size of output, but because it represented the conflation of many industrial components. The success of the corporation was the result of the managerial revolution, the transportation revolution, and the creation of a vast national market. Corporations utilized middle management, a newly developed, educated breed of worker that possessed the ability to lead others, delegate responsibility, and communicate over a wide distance, which allowed for more business to be done more efficiently than with unskilled labor.9 Additionally, extensive railroad networks allowed for a vast distribution network in order to tap into a huge national market.
To the same extent that technological changes during the industrial era provided for the development of the corporate form, the corporation itself ushered in unprecedented change on the intellectual life and the values of the United States. In a brief 20-year period, the business culture of the United States was completely remade into a profoundly powerful force not only in American culture, but also relative to the rest of the world. After acquiring a stronghold on US markets, economic opportunity and the presence of communication networks such as the telegraph drove corporations to pursue foreign consumers. It was through the corporation that Europeans first encounter American life, namely through the selling abroad of the Singer sewing machine.10 Beginning with the railroad, the corporation expanded to almost all aspects of American life in the late 1800s. Considering that the success of a business is determined by the demand of a product sold, the corporation emerged as an embodiment of society’s values and aspirations. Firms like Standard Oil and the American Tobacco Company expressed the American attachment to such things as transportation and smoking. Paradoxically, the increased pervasiveness of the corporation directly led to its inconspicuousness. Although the presence of vast international companies was a considerable concern in its day, the excessive production and distribution of advertisement from such organizations came to be customary in society. Even though the corporation arose with the sole aim of developing the most efficient manner of acquiring profit, this selfish approach to business remains deeply entrenched in American life and thought.
In spite of the incredible productivity of the corporation, its rise to power did not lack in trepidation among the American public. Inspired by desires to reap profits and impose order on a chaotic, unstable economy, many captains of industry were exemplars of the work ethic who displayed great ingenuity and skill organizing complex industrial enterprises. The quintessential industrialist during this time was John D. Rockefeller, who possessed a titanic corporate conglomerate known as Standard Oil. During Standard Oil’s heyday, roughly 80% of the country’s petroleum was under the control of Rockefeller.11 In light of such remarkable market control in which price-setting was inevitable, it is understandable why many Americans living during this period felt powerless to resist the economic influence of these firms.
Due to the exploitation of the system by many factory owners such as Rockefeller, new realms of intellectual thought such as Populism were created among the American people that addressed this new economic and social chasm that formed between the new “haves” and the “have-nots” of American society. By virtue of it being both a body of thought and a political party, Populism served both an ideological and political purpose. Populism was a direct response by the laboring class, namely farmers, to corporations that inflicted an external economic influence that farmers had no control over.12 The most common medium of economic control that corporations channeled in relation to these farmers was the grain elevator. Many of the corporations that existed in the Western United States functioned as monopolies due to a lack of other companies inhabiting the same area. Both railroads and the grain elevator could enforce unfair terms over the farming community.
Following the Panic of 1873 as a result of bankruptcy of the bank Jay Cooke & Company, farmers lost the ability to loan money from all financial intermediaries.13 They were unable to increase their crop production and, as a result, these farmers struggled to survive. For any hope of economic gain, political involvement became necessary for these individuals. Pitted against this economic crisis, the farmers formed the Grange Movement, a small organization of farmers that attempted to affect political change with the hopes of building regional legislation that favored the farmer. The Grange Movement went on to personally finance their own grain elevators to ensure that there were no monopolies over farmers from certain regions and that the farmer himself was always being treated fairly.14
Other groups such as the National Farmer’s Alliance and the Knights of Labor developed from the Grange Movement in order to uphold the rights of farmers within a larger sphere.15 The groups that resulted from this initial interest, however, pointed to the importance of the rights of the worker. If corporations were to remain a powerful form of industry, the rights of all people need to be upheld. This is what the Knights of Labor came to be about: protecting the rights of both skilled and unskilled labor on a national level. Although skilled workers were an investment, much more so than unskilled workers who could have been easily replaced, it was the interest of people in general that became most important.
The legacy of the corporation was the standard that it inaugurated in American business. Corporations, through their ability to appeal to a national market, intended to maximize economic profit. Although in many cases, these mergers and business strategies which sought to corner the market on certain items, much like Rockefeller did for oil, allowed for important legislation to be developed such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 which prevented the unfair growth of these trusts.16 Although the prospect of future monopolies came to be quickly checked by the government, the precedent of monopolistic competition arose due to these large companies which were formed and broken apart, a feature that the US economy still possesses today. This original intent to capitalize upon the progression of technology and the connectedness of the country by virtue of railroads and telegraph led to a tremendous production of goods and services.
The opportunity for large amounts of capital in this corporation-dominated industrial system allowed for a new acquisitive ethic among the wealthy in American society. Historian Thorstein Veblen published a book entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class, which looked at the creation of an entirely new cultural class which Veblen labeled the leisure class.17 The members of this leisure class who had access to large amounts of wealth took on a new function by using ostentation and accumulation to show their importance and significance. This class, which prided itself on not having to work, was the antithesis of the working class. The view of these individuals was that not having to work was a mark of superior achievement. Leisure, the non-productive consumption of time, revealed an elevated social position and importance. The tendency of the leisure class towards inactivity was not an accident; it was intentional. The leisure class and the conspicuous consumption that they participated in was a chance for rich Americans to exert their influence by, in effect, attempting to create an American aristocracy.
In light of all of the exclusivity that the leisure class attempted to impose during this time through their articulation of wealth and the invidious way that they demeaned the working class, the remaining classes acquired their own means of consumption. Mass culture was a means of amusement that was developed in order to rival this high culture. New technology allowed for the expansion of a market for the entertainment of individuals of all amounts of income. In addition to the mass production dime novels for which the rotary printing press provided, amusement parks with new rides and displays became a big hit to the public. A highlight of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 was the introduction of the Ferris Wheel.18 For those living in New York City, the weekend getaway that Coney Island provided also became a prominent locale for working class people seeking entertainment.
The World’s Columbian Exposition juxtaposed these two competing cultures of consumption—the mass culture of entertainment along with the civic virtues of high culture as embodied by the fair’s architecture. Mass culture, especially in new industries, meant that the benefits of modern technology reached more Americans than ever before. Although the acquisition of massive fortunes among the social elite had deleterious consequences for society at large, the prior exclusivity of consumption contributed to an insatiable appetite among the public for mass-produced items and amusement. This new opportunity for all the working class served to greatly change American culture. The idea of consumption for all social classes became a normative value of American life. This business culture that was created during the late 1800s allows for tremendous production, but allows for consumption on an unprecedented level. While households previously suffered from a scarcity of resources, industrialism created a unique economic situation for the consumer. For the first time in history, products became available in outstanding quantities, at outstandingly low prices, which made them available to virtually everyone. This began the era of mass consumption, a behavior that has come to pervade every corner of American living.
During the era of American industrialism, major shifts towards ideas such as urbanization, corporations, and consumption represent the zeitgeist of American industrialism. For many Americans, economic prosperity became the governing American ideal. For all of the economic gain that technological progress enabled, however, industrialism also fostered a serious concern that everything that previously made the United States excellent was being challenged. Although America has never been a country of different classes, this particular avenue towards opportunity for many Americans created a system of greater disparity. The most prominent cultural responses to these economically oriented ideas indicated a return to traditional American values. The creation of parks across the United States, the creation of the Populist Party, and mass culture are all attempts to curb the tyrant of industry. All of these reactions place the equal rights of men at their forefront of interest. Although providing for oneself is an essential American desire, business interests should never trample upon the rights of others. This is arguably the legacy of the American industrial era—to create a country in which industry can prevail while still preserving the basic rights of all citizens. Although the United States has improved greatly in this respect between the late 1800s and the present day, this difference between the personal interests of Americans and the moral interests of Americans will always clash. It will forever be the job of the people to speak out for the common good as compared to what appears best for the individual.
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