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The Gilded Age and How It Shaped America

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During the late nineteenth century New York City was the center of American modernization. This period, dubbed the gilded age, ran from the 1870s through the 1890s, during which time the city blossomed both industrially, and economically due to rapid development, and an influx of immigrants. While there was prosperous development for the rich during his era, the lower class suffered through dispicable working and living condition. This essay will analyze the remarkable progression that took place in just as short amount of time.

At beginning of the Gilded Age in 1870 New York City was well into its transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society. The growth of factories throughout the city had led to opportunities for jobs outside of the rural lifestyle that those around the world had been accustomed to for centuries. Hearing of these opportunities millions poured in from countries across the globe. European immigrants came to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream, they believed that America was comprised of streets of gold (National Parks Service) and held promises of equality, democracy, progress, opportunity, freedom, and independence, however, once these immigrants arrived in the states the land that awaited them proved to be vastly different from what they dreamed about. Of the 5,400,000 immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1860, about 3,700,000 entered through New York. While some of these immigrants may have been whisked away by rail to other parts of the country from the recently opened Grand Central Terminal, many simply did not have the financial means to leave the city. The majority of the immigrants that came to the United States during this period were vastly different from those that came before them, they had little money, were poorly educated and spoke broken, if any english. This resulted in a nativism approach from many longtime residents as these newcomers were unable to assimilate into the social norms that Americans were accustomed to. As a result, many of these immigrants clustered together in New York City’s boroughs to form ethnic neighborhoods such as Little Italy, where they could be around those that shared the same culture and language. Shown within the picture and scattered throughout these neighborhoods were tenement houses. These became synonymous for housing for the urban poor, as they were unsafe and unsanitary due to their cramped quarters and often lacked basic amenities such as running water, ventilation, and toilets (New York Public Library). These conditions caused the spread of bacteria and infectious diseases such as smallpox, and cholera and led to the desolation of many families. These diseases claimed 2% of NYC’s newborns, and 25% of 20 years old within the city would not live to 30 years old. Immigrants spent their time between their home and work laboring in large industrial complexes to produce goods such as steel, textiles, and food products (American Yawp, Chapter 18 Section III). The job was market highly competitive and while the working conditions were harsh, immigrants were lucky to find work in factories or at places like the Port of New York (pictured in the right of the photograph), which handled nearly 61% of US exports throughout the 1870s (History of New York City). Regardless of the job, immigrant workers were overworked and underpaid, with the average workday lasting between 10 and 16 hrs and garnering them less than $15 a week (Wade Merrill, Lecture, January 2019). While lower classes labored away, their employers, the captains of industry, lived a lavish lifestyle and believed the strong should see their wealth and power increase, and the opposite for the poor, a belief that caused unrest for those of the lower working classes.

By 1890 New York City’s population had grown from 942,292 in 1870 to 1,515,301 (Boston University). Immigrants continued to pour in from primarily europe and due to advancements in steam engine technology they could now cross the Atlantic to New York in record time. However, by this time immigration policies had been set in place that denied admission to people who were not able to support themselves, along with those with mental illnesses, or convicted criminals, who might otherwise threaten the security of the nation. Immigrants continued to settle in neighborhoods such as the one in the photograph, which depicts Mulberry Street in Little Italy. We can see that this is a vastly different New York compared 1870, merchants and vendor’s line the avenue offering goods and services, electrification had begun throughout Manhatten, and a new style of building had emereged. Sparked by the increasing shortage of adequate housing for New York’s poor immigrants, the Plumber and Sanitary Engineer, a NYC journal, sponsored a design competition to create more housing and maximize landlord profits. The winning design was James Ware’s ‘dumbbell’ style tenement, which was named for its narrow airshaft running through the middle of the building with hosuing on each side. Each dumbbell reached six stories and could house 300 people in its 84 rooms. Dumbbell tenement construction escalated after an 1879 housing law set new standards for lighting and ventilation, which resulted in thousands being constructed by the end of the 19th century. Also, relevant in the photo is the addition of fire escapes which became mandatory after one of the Tenement House Acts. While labors continued to work in harsh environments, stronger and more organized labor unions began to form to fight for a growing, more-permanent working class. As these unions gained ground they would lead the way towards the radical changes that would define the working class in the upcoming progressive era.

While the wealthy prospered throughout the gilded age, it came at a great cost for those of the lower classes that provided the backbone to this growth. Henry Demarest Lloyd, a American progressive political activist and pioneer muckraking journalist said, “liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty” (Reading the American Past, Document 18‐3, 49). This quote epitomizes the guildage age as immigrants from around the world came to America in hopes of creating a better life, but instead, many found themselves trapped in poor living and working conditions. While not all promises became reality for these immigrants, in seeking a better life, these 19th century Americans ultimatly defined, re-shaped, and formed the United States we live in today. 

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