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article number 553
article date 05-10-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Many of Us Move To the City 1880-1890
by Arthur Schlesinger

From the 1933 book, The Rise of the City.

* * *

IN the Middle West and the North Atlantic states rural America, like a stag at bay, was making its last stand. The clash between the two cultures—one static, individualistic, agricultural, the other dynamic, collectivistic, urban—was most clearly exhibited in the former section, for the march of events had already decided the outcome in the East.

Agriculturally the Middle West, unlike the Great West, was beyond its period of growing pains. Farming was no longer pioneering and speculative; save in some of the newer districts the tendency everywhere was toward stabilization and a settled routine.

Though the corn belt cut a wide swath through the lower tier of states and wheat predominated in the colder climes, the individual farmer was apt to supplement his main product with hay, orchard fruits and vegetables and to raise horses, cattle and hogs as well as crops, meantime guarding his soil resources through systematic rotation and the use of fertilizers.

The maturity of agriculture was mirrored in the physical appearance of the farms, particularly in the older regions. Neat frame dwellings housed the owners. Barns of increasing size and solidity, built of trimmed painted boards and perhaps protected below the ground line by stonework, sheltered the livestock and crops in place of the pioneer’s slender framework of poles covered with straw. Instead of the old-time zigzag fences of split logs now appeared orderly rail fences or the new-fashioned wire variety.

One observant Old World visitor formed a distinctly favorable impression of Middle America as it flashed by his car window. “The tall corn pleased the eye;” he wrote afterwards, “the trees were graceful in themselves, and framed the plain into long, aerial vistas; and the clean, bright, gardened townships spoke of country fare and pleasant summer evenings on the stoop.”

That this “flat paradise” was “not unfrequented by the devil” was suggested to him only by the billboards along the car tracks advertising cures for the ague.

Economic stabilization bred political caution. Though the Granger agitation and the Greenback propaganda of earlier years had centered largely in the Middle West, the agrarian unrest which shook the trans-Missouri country and the South in the 1880’s won little response. Already in the preceding decade the growth of a prosperous dairying interest in Wisconsin and Iowa had caused opposition to the demands of the wheat growers for greenback inflation.

Even more notable results appeared in the eighties as mixed farming became the rule and agricultural products found a ready market in near-by cities. Urban sentiment, always hostile to agrarian panaceas, also colored the farmers’ thinking in countless imperceptible ways and helped confirm their new-found conservatism.

In 1893 the states from Ohio to Iowa and Minnesota would vote more than seven to one in both houses of Congress for Cleveland’s proposal to repeal the silver-purchase act, while the Solid South and the Great West would plump heavily in the other direction.

It should further be noted that the migration of many sons of the Middle West into the trans-Missouri farming country and into the cities did much to relieve the pressure on the means of rural livelihood. As we have seen, the Far West, like another Eve, was formed out of a rib taken from the side of Middle America.

By 1890 a million native Mid-Westerners lived in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas and six hundred thousand more in the region beyond. Still others were trying their luck in the newer parts of Texas and Arkansas.


This great exodus drew off many restless and adventurous souls whose staying might have given the politics of the home states a distinctly radical cast. Professor Turner has pointed out that the agrarian leadership in the new Western commonwealths came chiefly from the ranks of natives of the Middle West.

While great numbers of immigrant farmers settled in the section, they generally shunned the older agricultural regions, flocking rather into Minnesota, Michigan and other of the less developed parts. Though the promise of an easier living beckoned them farther westward, they preferred to consort with fellow countrymen who had already firmly established themselves and were well satisfied with the returns of their toil.

State immigration boards in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri exerted themselves to attract alien newcomers, but with diminishing energy as the decade advanced. In 1884, Iowa frankly discontinued all official efforts, no longer desiring people “merely to count up in the census.”

Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, following the well-worn tracks of their countrymen in earlier years, came in such numbers as to make of Minnesota and Wisconsin a New Scandinavia. Industrious, thrifty, law-abiding, highly literate, these descendants of the Vikings contributed materially to the prosperity and civic advancement of their adopted states. The whole family—ten children were common, twenty not unknown—toiled in the fields, at least until comparison with Yankee ways planted seeds of revolt in the daughters’ breasts.

There were two hundred and sixty-five thousand more Scandinavians in the Middle West in 1890 than a decade before. Most of them became agriculturists, a third settling in the single state of Minnesota.

Like the Scandinavians, a majority of the four hundred thousand Germans who came in the 1880’s turned farmer. But they were less imbued with the true pioneer spirit and generally bought the partly worked farms of Americans who were itching to be up and doing elsewhere. As thrifty and hard working as the Scandinavians, they were also deeply interested in education and quite as easily assimilated.

The Germans were not, however, such stern Protestants, many indeed being Catholics, and they brought to rural life a " Gemütlichkeit," a sociability, which set them apart from all other racial elements.

On local political issues the two north European peoples were often divided, particularly when the Teutonic bias in regard to “blue laws” and the liquor traffic entered as a factor.

By 1890 more than half the Germans and Scandinavians resided in the Middle West, about the same proportion of the Swiss and Poles and nearly two thirds of the Dutch and Bohemians.

A traveler familiar with the great stretches of country toward the Pacific and the Gulf would have been immediately aware that in the Middle West the traditional rural culture of America was rapidly dissolving and a new form rising in its stead.

Though occasional cities, some of them populous and wealthy, were to be found in the Great West and the South, their existence merely accented the general rural character of the civilization which encompassed them. But in the great triangular central region, extending from Ohio to Missouri and Minnesota and containing nearly one third of all the people of the nation, the migration from the country districts had attained a momentum that was fast giving the city a dominant position in the social organism.

In 1880 one out of every five Middle Westerners lived in urban communities of four thousand or more inhabitants, ten years later one out of every three. In the single decade the number dwelling in such centers doubled, attaining a total of six and a quarter million.

Illinois and Ohio boasted nearly one hundred and twenty towns and cities, including some of the largest in the land, while even in Minnesota and Missouri three out of every ten persons in 1890 were townsfolk.

Cincinnati Ohio, late 19th century.

The drawbacks of life on the farm had, of course, been felt by earlier generations, but never before with such compelling force.

At least since the adoption of a national land policy in 1785, isolation and loneliness had been the almost inescapable conditions of country existence, for by the ordinance of that year the government rejected the New England system of farmer communities and provided for large, scattered, individual holdings. These tendencies were confirmed and strengthened by the homestead law of 1862.

Thus in the less developed parts of the Middle West such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, or in the near-by territory of Dakota, country neighbors dwelt too far apart for friendly intercourse, being but four to the square mile when land was held in quarter sections and even farther away if the homesteads were larger or tracts remained unoccupied.

Even in the older farming districts families generally lived out of sight of other habitations; they had no mail deliveries; and the balm of a telephone was denied to all but a tiny minority.

As urban communities increased in number and importance, the farmer’s feeling of isolation was deepened by a knowledge of the pleasant town life not many miles away.

The craving for solitudes is not as natural as the craving for multitudes; and the companionable sense of rubbing elbows, even if anonymously, with one’s fellows compensates for many of life’s repulses and frustrations. If the chief historian of the Scandinavian Americans is correct, the cheerlessness and hardships of farm life accounted for the uncommonly high proportion of insanity among the Norwegians and Swedes in the Middle West.

Certainly where families of different nationalities occupied the same neighborhood social intercourse was at a minimum, though a homogeneous immigrant community sometimes succeeded for a time in keeping alive the friendly social customs of the home land.

Despite such drawbacks many farmers valued the free open country life above all else and would not willingly have exchanged it for any other type of existence. Rural life, too, had its occasional cherished diversions for both young and old: its picnics and its gatherings at the swimming hole in summer, its nutting and hunting expeditions in the fall, its annual county fair and horse races, its family reunions at Thanksgiving, its bob-sled parties of merrymakers in winter, its country dances in all seasons of the year. Even its religious revivals might be so regarded.

Funerals, too, were as much social events as solemn obsequies, attracting people from miles around and affording a treasured opportunity for brushing shoulders and exchanging gossip on the doorstep of the church or under the horse sheds.

For those with eyes to see, nature itself in its vagrant moods and infinite variety was a never ending source of pleasure. A field of growing wheat—”deep as the breast of a man, wide as a sea, heavy-headed, supple-stalked, many-voiced, full of multitudinous, secretive, whispered colloquies”— was to the aesthetic “a meeting-place of winds and of magic.”

But such pastimes and diversions paled before the bright attractions of the city, for, after the manner of human nature, the country dweller was apt to compare the worst features of his own lot with the best aspects of urban life. Nor, in the thinking of many, especially the younger folk, did these occasional pleasures repay for the drudgery and monotony which attended much of the daily toil, only to yield in the end a modest living.

Farm work in former days had been spiced with greater variety. Now the advent of railroads and the lowered cost of manufactures led the farmer to buy over the store counter or through the mail-order catalogue, multifarious articles which he had once made for himself.

With no apparent reduction in the amount of labor, the kinds of tasks were fewer and often less appealing to his special interests and aptitudes.

In contrast the city offered both better business openings and a greater chance for congenial work.


The parents of Hamlin Garland, after a taste of Iowa village life, returned to the farm, to the resentful disappointment of their two sons (one of whom had clerked in an “ice-cream parlor”), who compared unfavorably the “ugly little farmhouse” and the “filthy drudgery of the farm-yard” with the “care-free companionable existence” of the town.

Herbert Quick’s mother pleaded in vain with her husband to leave their Iowa homestead for a place where their children might attend better schools. About the same time in Wisconsin Grant Showerman’s farmer father told him, “I hope you won’t have to drudge the way I’ve had to . . . . I want you to be a lawyer. I might have been a lawyer if I’d only had an education.”

Men and boys, however, were probably less sensitive to the shortcomings of rustic life than the women who, as Herbert Quick recorded in after years, “in many, many cases . . . were pining for neighbors, for domestic help, for pretty clothes, for schools, music, art, and the things tasted when the magazines came in.”

It was the city rather than the un-peopled wilderness that was beginning to dazzle the imagination of the nation. The farmer, once the pride of America, was descending from his lofty estate, too readily accepting the city’s scornful estimate of him as a “rube” and a “hayseed.”

Different from Australia, where a few great centers gathered in the city-wending throng, the tendency was to move from the countryside to the nearest hamlet, from the hamlet to the town, and from the town to the city. The reasons that impelled a person to leave the farm to go to a crossroads village were likely to cause the ambitious or maladjusted villager to remove to a larger place, or might in time spur the transplanted farmer lad himself to try his fortunes in a broader sphere.

The results were seen in the records of city growth. The pyramid of urban population enlarged at every point from base to peak, and the countryside found itself encroached upon by hamlet, town and city.

The typical Mid-Western urban community was a small town varying in size from a few thousand to ten or fifteen thousand people.

Amidst such surroundings, it may be noted, youths like George Ade, Charles A. Beard, Meredith Nicholson and Charles H. Mayo grew up and had their first taste of life’s sweets and bitters with no foreknowledge of that greater world where their names were to gain repute.

* * *

Such a town, for instance, was Xenia with its seven or eight thousand inhabitants, the county seat of a rich agricultural community in southwestern Ohio. The well-shaded dirt streets, running at right angles, were lined with trim two-story houses set well back from the brick sidewalk behind neat picket fences and looking out on the world from under the screen of pleasant, if over-ornate, porches. Deep backyards with a stable and other outhouses and an occasional fruit tree allowed ample space for children’s play and, through a back gate, opened onto a highway of dust and dark adventure known to matter-of-fact grown-ups as “th’ alley.”

Except for a ropewalk, paper mill and lumber yard on the outskirts, the chief business activity centered at the intersection of Main and Detroit streets. Here within a few minutes’ walk were situated the only shops of the town: the “notion” store, a hardware store, two or three groceries, the drug store displaying great bottles of colored liquid in its windows, the odorous harness shop fronted with a huge dapple-gray wooden Percheron, the cigar store with its undersized wooden Indian on guard.

Here the Little Miami train came puffing through two or three times a day, the shrill whistle of the “thirty” serving as a sort of curfew for the youngsters. Here, too, overlooked by the upstairs offices of the lawyers along Main Street, the stone courthouse reared its bulk, surrounded by trees and lawn, with a band stand and commodious hitching rails in the rear.

Life in town: Xenia Ohio.

Behind the courthouse grounds, around the corner from the Y. M. C. A. quarters and the ’Gazette’ office, stood the only other civic building—a barnlike brick structure sheltering the jail, the mayor’s office and an auditorium and stage. The “op’ry house” it was called by official decree.

Signs abounded of the important place the horse occupied in the doings of the town. A hitching block or post hospitably reposed in front of nearly every store or house, while at important street corners municipal watering troughs offered refreshment. For the accommodation of the citizen who lacked his own horse and buggy a half-dozen livery stables plied a brisk trade. Blacksmith shops—dark caverns of enchantment to passing juveniles—replaced the horses’ worn or cast shoes.

For six days of the week life was uneventful enough; but on Saturday the streets took on an unwonted stir and bustle, for then the country people hitched up Nelly or Dobbin and invaded the town—whiskered adults self-conscious in their Sunday “best,” young swains beauing bashful sweethearts, thin-chested mothers herding restless broods. It was a gala occasion for the farmers and their families, a day of hard work and many sales for the merchants.

The morals of the townspeople were safeguarded less by the single blue-clad policeman or the lively concern signified by the six or eight steepled churches than by the intimate knowledge which everyone had of everyone else’s affairs.

City sophistication was conspicuous for it absence; yet the people enjoyed advantages of education and social commingling which made them the envy of their country cousins.

For many a young man, however, Xenia was not a spacious enough world, and there was a constant drift of the young people to larger places.

* * *

The extraordinary growth of its bigger cities was one of the marvels of Middle Western life in the eighties. Chicago, which best represented the will power and titanic energy of the section, leaped from a half million in 1880 to more than a million ten years later, establishing its place as the second city of the nation.

The Twin Cities trebled in size; places like Detroit, Milwaukee, Columbus and Cleveland increased by from sixty to eighty per cent. Of the fifty principal American cities in 1890, twelve were in the Middle West.

The rapid urbanization was, of course, accelerated by the swarming of foreigners into the section. During the eighties the immigrant population of Middle America increased nearly nine hundred thousand, reaching a total at the close of the decade of three and a half million. Every fifth or sixth person in 1890 was of alien birth.

Though the Scandinavians, as we have seen, generally preferred the farm to the city, seventy thousand of them were working in Chicago in 1890, the men as mechanics or factory hands, the daughters usually as domestic servants. Fifty thousand more dwelt in the Twin Cities.

The Germans also divided their allegiance. James Bryce heard German commonly spoken on the streets of Milwaukee; the Teutonic element in Chicago, while thrice as numerous, was less conspicuous because of the babel of other tongues. As skilled workers the newcomers from the "Vaterland" were generally found in such trades as photography, tailoring, baking, locksmithing and lithography.

The nationalities which most thoroughly identified themselves with city life, however, were the Irish and particularly the increasing stream of Russian and Polish Jews and Italians who constituted the “new immigration.”

So great was the influx of all races into Chicago that its foreign-born inhabitants in 1890 numbered nearly as many as its entire population in 1880.

Chicago neighborhood, late 1800s.

A writer in the nineties, analyzing its school census, pointed out that “only two cities in the German Empire, Berlin and Hamburg, have a greater German population than Chicago; only two in Sweden, Stockholm and Göteborg, have more Swedes; and only two in Norway, Christiania and Bergen, more Norwegians.” If the “seacoast of Bohemia” was a figment of the poet’s imagination, the third largest city of Bohemians in the world could at least boast an extended lake front.

These and other immigrant groups huddled together in dense colonies like islands in a sea of humanity. They jealously maintained their own. business institutions, churches, beneficial societies, foreign-language newspapers and often their own parochial schools. In the small district about Hull House on South Halsted Street eighteen nations were represented.

As individuals ventured forth from these racial fastnesses into the bewildering world outside, they generally found it their lot to perform the disagreeable or arduous work which Americans of older stock disdained. The sweatshops in the garment industry were recruited largely from Bohemians and Russian Jews; the rough unskilled jobs in the building trades fell chiefly to Irish and Italians; while the business of peddling became a specialty of Jews.

Assimilation went on at an uneven pace, being notably slow in the case of the new arrivals from southern Europe and Russia. Timidity and ignorance on the part of the immigrant, suspicion and contempt on the part of the native-born, constantly retarded the process.

Even the American-born children, if reared in an Old World atmosphere and taught their school lessons in an alien tongue, were more apt to be second-generation immigrants than first-generation Americans. But sooner or later the influences of the new land began to penetrate.

Perhaps unusual business success or the liberalizing effect of membership in a labor union helped break down the barriers. More often, however, the change reflected the influence of the public school carried into the immigrant home by the children. Though a regrettable breach sometimes resulted between the older and younger generations, the democratic school system was a major force for rapid Americanization. The number of American-born immigrant children in Chicago in 1890 nearly equaled that of the total alien-born, thus increasing, though not by that proportion, the foreign character of her population.

As was Chicago, so in a measure were Cleveland, Minneapolis and Detroit. Yet Chicago’s four hundred and fifty thousand foreign-born, Cleveland’s one hundred thousand, Detroit’s eighty thousand and Minneapolis’s sixty thousand formed only two fifths of all the people in those cities in 1890.

In places like Columbus and Indianapolis seven eighths of the population continued to be of American nativity. Many of the native-born, however, were of alien parentage and still in the process of learning American ways.

In so far as the swiftly growing urban localities drew population away from the countryside, the effects were severe enough to threaten many rural districts with paralysis. A map of the Middle West, shading the counties which suffered the chief losses between 1880 and 1890, would have been blackest across central Missouri and in the eastern half of Iowa, northern and western Illinois, central and southeastern Indiana, southern Michigan and central and southern Ohio.

Though some of the depletion of rural population, particularly in Iowa and western Illinois, was connected with the building up of the agricultural country to the west, much of it was due to the cityward flight. In Ohio 755 townships out of 1316 declined in population; in Illinois 800 out of 1424.

Yet during the same decade every Middle Western state gained substantially in total number of inhabitants—Ohio about one seventh and Illinois nearly a quarter—an advance only in part to be accounted for by immigrant additions and the natural increase of population.

Such indications of rural decay, however, were mild as compared with conditions in the North Atlantic states. In this great seaboard section stretching from the Potomac to the St. Croix, the city had completed its conquest. Already in 1880 about half the people—seven and a half million—lived in towns and cities of four thousand or more inhabitants; within a decade the proportion grew to nearly three fifths or eleven million.

In 1890 about two out of every three persons in New York and Connecticut were townsfolk, four out of every five in Massachusetts and nine out of every ten in Rhode Island. Only the states of northern New England preserved their essentially rural character.

New York City neighborhood, late 1800s.

In the East, too, most of the nation’s great cities were to be found. New York City, with already more than a million people in 1880, reached a million and a half in 1890 without the help of Brooklyn which contained eight hundred thousand more.

Philadelphia attained a million in 1890, though since the previous census Chicago had supplanted her as the second city of the United States. Boston, Baltimore and Washington had about half a million each, Buffalo and Pittsburgh a quarter million each. Countless smaller places spotted the landscape and gave to the entire region a strongly urban cast.

In striking contrast were the rural backwaters. "Sloven farms alternate with vast areas of territory, half forest, half pasturage;” an observant foreign traveler wrote of Pennsylvania and New England:

“ . . . farm buildings, partly in ruins, testify at once to the former prosperity of the agricultural industry and to its present collapse.” Then, “all at once, on rounding a hill, one comes upon a busy valley, its slopes dotted with charming cottages, while at the further end rise the immense blocks of buildings and chimneys that tell of the factory.”

The census of 1890 first revealed the extent of the rural exodus. Two fifths of Pennsylvania, a good quarter of New Jersey, nearly five sixths of New York state and much of New England had fallen off in population during the decade. The eclipse of the Eastern countryside had, of course, been long in process, indeed ever since the old farming districts of the Atlantic states first felt the competition of the virgin lands of the interior.

After the Civil War the pressure became even greater, for the opening of new railway lines enabled the prairie farmers, with the aid of favoring freight rates, to undersell Eastern farmers in their own natural markets.

The normal drain on the older agricultural districts was intensified by the drift of country boys and girls to the towns and cities as industry boomed and the lure of the near-by metropolis captured their imaginations. Far removed from the free lands of the Great West, the rural youth was now less inclined to ask “Where is the fittest farm?” than “Where is the fitter vocation?”

New England was hardest hit of all, especially those parts in which agricultural retrogression was not offset by corresponding urban development. Three fifths of Connecticut, three fourths of Vermont and nearly two thirds of New Hampshire and Maine declined in population.

Out of 1502 townships in all New England 932 had fewer people in 1890 than at the start of the decade. Cellar holes choked with lilac and woodbine, tumble-down buildings, scrubby orchards, pastures bristling with new forest growths, perhaps a lone rosebush—these mute, pathetic memorials of once busy farming communities attested the reversal of a familiar historic process, with civilization retreating before the advancing wilderness.

Official inquiries at the end of the eighties revealed more than a thousand farms in Vermont abandoned for agricultural purposes, over thirteen hundred in New Hampshire, nearly fifteen hundred in Massachusetts and more than thirty-three hundred in Maine. Vermont farms with good buildings went begging at five dollars or less an acre.


Nor did the upland villages escape the general debacle. “The proportion of abandoned wagonshops, shoeshops, saw-mills and other mechanical businesses has far outstripped the abandonment of farms,” wrote one contemporary. Judge Nott of Washington, D. C., happening upon a stricken village in southern Vermont, found that:

" . . . the church was abandoned, the academy dismantled, the village deserted. The farmer who owned the farm on the north of the village lived on one side of the broad street, and he who owned the farm on the south lived on the other, and they were the only inhabitants."

All others had fled—”to the manufacturing villages, to the great cities, to the West.” Where once had dwelt “industry, education, religion, comfort, and contentment,” there remained “only a drear solitude of forsaken homes.”

Generally the people of push and initiative migrated while the less enterprising stayed at home. Thus Yankee energy, though continuing to contribute vitally to the upbuilding of America, did so at a terrible cost to the stock it left behind.

Ministers and humanitarian workers in the country districts were appalled by the extent of inbreeding, the prevalence of drunkenness, bastardy and idiocy, the lack of wholesome amusements and the almost universal poverty. In nearly the same words two Congregational preachers reported:

“My people are degenerates; the people all through my district are degenerates.”

It may well be believed that such characterizations applied to the most neglected communities rather than to typical ones. Yet everywhere the process of folk depletion was going on at an alarming rate, lending color to the assertion that New England’s woods and templed hills were breeding their own race of poor whites.

Dismayed by the trend of the times, the close of the eighties saw the several state governments engaged in frantic efforts to promote a back-to-the-country movement. Few literate Americans were allowed to remain ignorant of the bargains in land and farm buildings that might be found in New England’s rustic parts. Vermont even tried the expedient of colonizing three small groups of Swedish immigrants on deserted tracts.

The situation, however, had to grow worse before it could become better. Once the nation-wide agricultural sickness of the early nineties had run its course, rural New England would discover sources of new wealth in dairying, truck gardening, the expansion of wood-working industries based on second forest growths and, last but not least, the rapid development of the summer-boarder business.

Despite the decline of rural population in New England and other parts of the East, the attractions of city life were so great that from 1880 to 1890 the section in general gained twenty per cent in number of inhabitants. By the latter year nineteen million, or somewhat less than a third of all the nation, lived there.

Urban growth, even more than in Middle America, was nourished by foreign immigration. A larger proportion of the alien arrivals settled in the East and fewer of them took up farming as a livelihood. The census of 1890 disclosed a million more immigrants than a decade earlier. In the section as a whole one out of every five persons was foreign-born.

Nor could one assume, as ten years before, that any immigrant he met was likely to belong to the older racial strains that had fused into the historic American stock.

The Eastern commonwealths with their great ports and thriving industries were the first to feel the impact of the new human tide that was setting in from southern and eastern Europe. While in 1890 they contained more Irish and Britons than did any other section—a total of two and a third million—and with nine hundred thousand Germans ranked in that respect next to the Middle West, they also embraced more Italians, Russians and Hungarians than any other section, to the number of a quarter million.

New York City German neighborhood.

A fourth of the people of Philadelphia and a third of the Bostonians were in 1890 of alien birth. New York-Brooklyn was the greatest center of immigrants in the world, having half as many Italians as Naples, as many Germans as Hamburg, twice as many Irish as Dublin and two and a half times as many Jews as Warsaw.*

* Compared with Chicago, Greater New York in 1890 possessed more Irish, English, Germans, Russians and Italians. but Chicago had a larger number of Scandinavians, Bohemians, Poles and Canadians. Thirty-nine per cent of the population of New York-Brooklyn was foreign-born in 1890.

Four out of every five residents of Greater New York were foreigners or of foreign parentage. Different from Boston and Philadelphia, the newer type of immigrant had become a considerable element in the city’s population though the Germans and Irish still greatly predominated.

These latest arrivals, ignorant, clannish, inured to wretched living conditions, gravitated naturally to the poorest quarters of the city toward the tip of Manhattan and gradually pushed the older occupants into the better sections to the north.

Lower New York was like a human palimpsest, the writings of earlier peoples being dimmed, though not entirely effaced, by the heavier print of the newest corners. Through the eighties the Italians crowded into the old Irish neighborhoods west of Broadway, while the Russian and Polish Jews took possession of the German districts to the east with the tenth ward as their center.*

* The specialized character of Italian clannishness is shown by the fact that Neapolitans and Calabrians clung to the Mulberry Bend district, a colony of Genoese lived in Baxter Street, a Sicilian colony in Elizabeth Street, between Houston and Spring, while north Italians predominated in the eighth and fifteenth wards west of Broadway, and south Italians in ‘‘Little Italy" between 110th and 115th streets in Harlem.

The Hungarians settled thickly east of Avenue B, about Houston Street, and the Bohemians near the river on the upper East Side from about Fiftieth to Seventy-sixth Street.

Smaller groups like the Greeks and Syrians also had their special precincts where picturesque Old World customs and trades prevailed; and in the heart of the lower East Side grew up a small replica of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Quite as strange to Americans as the south Europeans were the French Canadians who began their mass invasion of New England shortly after 1878. For over two centuries these descendants of the pioneers of New France had tilled the soil of the province of Quebec where, intensely race-conscious and devoted to Catholicism, they had stubbornly maintained their identity and language apart from the conquering English.

Harried, however, by hard times from the 1860’s on and tempted by better opportunities elsewhere, many of the French Canadians sought escape in migration. Some moved westward to set up farm colonies in Ontario and Manitoba. Others, feeling the pull of the busy mill towns across the international border, succumbed to "le mal des États-Unis."

Presently the trickle of French Canadian population into New England became a flooding stream. About fourteen thousand had removed to Rhode Island by 1875, sixty-four thousand to Massachusetts ten years later. Northern New England made less appeal though occasional settlements of farmers and lumberjacks were to be found.

By 1890 the French Canadians, then numbering two hundred thousand, formed approximately a sixth of the entire immigrant population of New England. Nearly half of them were in Massachusetts.


Hiving in the manufacturing towns, they were eagerly welcomed by employers who found them not only hard workers but also slow to give trouble even when conditions were galling. The opprobrium of being the “Chinese of the Eastern states,” however, they scarcely deserved, although their ready acceptance of low living standards naturally roused the ire of organized labor.

Religiously, too, they were viewed askance by the older elements. Added to the already large Irish Catholic contingent, their presence seemed to threaten the traditional Puritan and Protestant character of the section. “Protestant New England will soon have within itself, a Roman Catholic New France, as large as, if not larger than itself,” cried one alarmist.

As a matter of fact, the language barrier and the desire of the newcomers to import their own priests caused more friction than friendship between them and the resident Irish-American clergy. It was said that French-Canadian support of the Republican party at the polls was due to no reason so good as that the Irish preferred the Democrats.

A race so resistant could hardly be expected to adopt new ways of life overnight. Yet, scattered in a hundred different communities and obliged constantly to rub elbows with people unlike themselves, the chemistry of Americanization worked as quickly with them as with most other alien groups.

Intermarriage, while not common, took place most readily with Anglo-Canadians. Less adept politically than the Irish, they nevertheless gradually found their way into local offices and by 1890 thirteen French Canadians were members of New England legislatures.

Different from other immigrant peoples, however, French Canadians massed themselves in New England, few of them going into the Middle West or even into other parts of the East.

As a lodestone for both immigrant and native-born, the city had decisively placed the East under thrall. Its hand already lay heavily upon the Middle West. Even in the farther West and the South its power and distant allure were strongly felt though society as yet lingered in an agricultural state.

Through the nation in general every third American in 1890 was an urban dweller, living in a town of four thousand or more inhabitants. Cities of from twelve to twenty thousand people had since 1880 increased in number from 76 to 107; cities of from twenty to forty thousand from 55 to 91; larger places up to seventy-five thousand inhabitants from 21 to 35; cities of yet greater size from 23 to 39.

Moreover, the concentration of population had been attended by a significant concentration of wealth. This latter circumstance furnished ample basis for the agrarian contention that the rural districts were not sharing proportionately in the advancing national wealth.

In 1880, according to the census, the aggregate value of farms was equal to that of urban real estate, about ten billion dollars for each. In 1890 the value of farms was returned as thirteen billion while other real estate—mostly urban—was listed at twenty-six billion.

Nor did the people on the farms and in the rural hamlets of the East fare better than those of the West and South. On the contrary, the farms in the Eastern states declined in absolute value during the decade.

If personalty were included, the contrast between city and country became even sharper, particularly since the tangible personalty on the farms was in considerable degree offset by mortgages held in the towns and cities. The most careful contemporary student of the subject estimated that in 1890 the average wealth of families in the rural districts did not exceed $3250 while the average wealth of city families was over $9000.

The wider implications of urban growth, however, reached far beyond exigent considerations of wealth and income. These, as they affected the character of American civilization for good or ill, remain yet to be examined . . . .

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