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article number 558
article date 05-24-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Growing Cities Grow New Social Issues, 1880-1890
by Arthur Schlesinger

From the 1933 book, The Rise of the City.

* * *

THE clash of country and city was not a phenomenon peculiar to America. All over the civilized globe the rural regions lay under a cloud—in Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Belgium.

The introduction of farm machinery and the opening up of virgin fields in the Argentine and Australia, added to those of the new American West, rendered unprofitable much of the agricultural labor of the Old World, stirred rural conservatism into fierce discontent and enhanced the attractions of the near-by city for the peasant toilers.

Everywhere there was an exodus from the soil while the trading and industrial centers waxed by leaps and bounds. Between 1881 and 1891 Prussia added two million to her cities while her countryside barely increased a half million.

Rural France lost a half million at the same time that her urban places gained well over a million; the rural population of England and Wales declined over two hundred thousand while the towns and cities advanced by three and a quarter million. By 1891 London and Paris had doubled their population of mid-century and Berlin had more than quadrupled hers.

From earliest times the painful, upward march of mankind had beaten a path through the streets of the town. The cities, not the country districts, had been—in Theodore Parker’s phrase—”the fireplaces of civilization whence light and heat radiated out into the dark cold world.”

Memphis, Thebes, Nineveh, Babylon, were the great capitals of early civilized man. In Greek and Roman times the city was the state itself. The revival of a vigorous urban life in the eleventh century, along the shores of the Mediterranean and in northern Germany, hastened the breakdown of feudalism and paved the way for the Renaissance and modern times.

Unregarded by all but etymologists, the age-long contrast between city and country survives in the very language we speak—that language which townsmen coined with such glib facility. The well-mannered civis living in urbs was, for that reason, civil and urbane as well as civic and urban; his manner of life was epitomized in the very word, civilization.

His rude rural neighbor, on the other hand, was a pagan or a rustic (from the Latin words, paganus and rusticus, for peasant), a boor (from the Dutch boer, a farmer), or a heathen (that is, a dweller on the heaths).

In America in the eighties urbanization for the first time became a controlling factor in national life. Just as the plantation was the typical product of the "antebellum" Southern system and the small farm of the Northern agricultural order, so the city was the supreme achievement of the new industrialism.

In the city’s confines were focused all the new economic forces: the vast accumulations of capital, the business and financial institutions, the spreading railway yards, the gaunt smoky mills, the white-collar middle classes, the motley wage-earning population.

By the same token the city inevitably became the generating center for social and intellectual progress. To dwell in the midst of great affairs is stimulating and broadening; it is the source of a discontent which, if not divine, is at least energizing.

In a populous urban community like could find like; the person of ability, starved in his rural isolation, might by going there find sympathy, encouragement and that criticism which often refines talent into genius.

Moreover the new social needs created by crowded living, stimulated inventors to devise mechanical remedies—appliances for better lighting, for faster communication and transit, for higher buildings—which reacted in a thousand ways on the life of urban folk.


Density of population plus wealth concentration also facilitated organized effort for cultivating the life of mind and spirit. In the city were to be found the best schools, the best churches, the best newspapers, and virtually all the bookstores, libraries, art galleries, museums, theaters and opera houses. It is not surprising that the great cultural advances of the time came out of the city, or that its influence should ramify to the farthest countryside.

As the cradle of progress the city, in some manner or other, seemed to favor persons born within its walls over those born on the farm. One investigator, basing his conclusions on ’Who’s Who in America,’ found that towns of eight thousand and more people produced nearly twice as many men of distinction as their numerical importance warranted. A study of the antecedents of leading American scientific men disclosed that a disproportionate number of these were likewise of city birth.

“The main factors in producing scientific and other forms of intellectual performance,” concluded the investigator, “seem to be density of population, wealth, opportunity, and institutions and social traditions and ideals.”

But the heirs of the older American tradition did not yield the field without a struggle, To them, as to Jefferson, cities were “ulcers on the body politic.” In their eyes the city spiritual was offset by the city sinister, civic splendor by civic squalor, urban virtues by urban vices, the city of light by the city of darkness.

In politics rural dwellers sought to preserve or restore their birthright of equality by stoutly belaboring their capitalistic foe embattled in his city fortress; but against the pervasive lure of metropolitan life, felt by their sons and daughters, they could do no better than invent sensational variations of the nursery tale of the country mouse and the city mouse.

Urban growth evoked a voluminous literature of bucolic fear, typified by such titles as "The Spider and the Fly; or, Tricks, Traps, and Pitfalls of City Life by One Who Knows" (N. Y., 1873) and J. W. Buel’s "Metropolitan Life Unveiled; or the Mysteries and Miseries of America’s Great Cities" (St. Louis, 1882). It may be questioned, however, whether such exciting accounts with their smudgy but realistic pictures did more to repel than entice their breathless readers to partake of the life they depicted.

To traveled persons familiar with the distinctive personalities of European centers, American cities presented a monotonous sameness. Apart from New York, Boston, Washington, New Orleans and a few other places Bryce believed that “American cities differ from one another only herein, that some of them are built more with brick than with wood, and others more with wood than brick.”

Most places possessed the same checkerboard arrangement of streets lined with shade trees, the same shops grouped in much the same way, the same middle-class folk hurrying about their business, the same succession of unsightly telegraph poles, the same hotels with seedy men lounging in the dreary lobbies.

Few foreign visitors stopped to think, however, that American cities were the handiwork not of many national states but of a fairly uniform continent-wide culture. If they lacked the colorful variety of ancient European foundations, they also lacked the physical inconveniences and discomforts which picturesqueness was apt to entail. But it could not be gainsaid that a tendency toward standardization, as well as toward higher standards, was one of the fruits of American urban development.

While in the European sense there was no single dominant city in America—no city both metropolis and capital—yet all agreed in according the foremost position to New York. Nowhere else were there such fine buildings, such imposing financial houses, such unusual opportunities for business and recreation. No other place had such an air of rush and bustle, the streets constantly being torn up, dug up or blown up.


To New York an unending stream of visitors discovered some pretext to go each year; in it many foreign travelers, going no further, found material for pithy, if ill-informed, comments on the whole American scene. “The streets are narrow,” wrote one observer in 1883, “and overshadowed as they are by edifices six or more stories in height, seem to be dwarfed into mere alley-ways.”

At that time the well-populated district did not extend much beyond Fifty-ninth Street; and Madison Square at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue had recently supplanted Union Square as the nerve center of New York life.

But the period of growth and expansion of New York was at hand. The corporate limits, which before 1874 had not reached beyond Manhattan Island, spread rapidly until in 1898, as Greater New York, they embraced Bronx County, Kings County (Brooklyn), Richmond County (Staten Island), and a portion of Queens County (on Long Island).

As earlier, Broadway was the main artery of New York life, lending itself successively to wholesale trade, newspaper and magazine publishing, retail shopping, hotels and theaters, as it wended its way northward from the Battery.

Manhattan’s other famous thoroughfare, Fifth Avenue, offered a continuous pageant of “palatial hotels, gorgeous club-houses, brownstone mansions and magnificent churches.”

Different from most American cities, the finest residences stood side by side without relief of lawn or shrubbery; only on the striking but as yet unfinished Riverside Drive, with its noble view of the Hudson, was architecture assisted by nature.

Merchant princes and Wall Street millionaires vied with one another to sustain Fifth Avenue’s reputation of being the most splendid thoroughfare in America, “a very alderman among streets.” During the 1880’s a dark brown tide swept up the avenue. The late A. T. Stewart’s marble palace at the corner of Thirty-fourth Street, long a magnet for sightseers, was eclipsed by the newer brownstone mansions of the Vanderbilts and others farther up the avenue, inclosed by forbidding iron fences.

In the late afternoon Fifth Avenue churned with “a torrent of equipages, returning from the races or the park: broughams, landaus, clarences, phaetons, . . . equestrians in boots and corduroys, slim-waisted equestriennes with blue veils floating from tall silk hats.”

Yet New York was a city of contradictions, reminding one visitor of “a lady in ball costume, with diamonds in her ears, and her toes out at her boots.”

Against the splendors of Fifth Avenue and the show places of the metropolis had to be set the rocky wastes of Shantytown, extending during the 1880’s along the East Side from Forty-second to One Hundred and Tenth Street and inhabited by Irish squatters, goats and pigs living promiscuously together. Contrasting with the pillared citadels of wealth in Wall Street was the near-by slum section, a festering spot of poverty and immorality, finding a tawdry outlet for its life in the notorious Bowery.

The New Yorker was already famed for his provincialism: his proud ignorance of the rest of the nation and lofty condescension toward cities of lesser note. Yet foreign tourists found much to interest and detain them in these other centers, and at least one felt a native New Yorker to be “less American than many Westerners born on the banks of the Oder or on the shores of some Scandinavian fjord.”

Boston charmed with the quiet tenor of her life, her atmosphere of intellectuality, her generally English appearance. With the reclamation of the Back Bay, a great engineering project completed in 1881, the city acquired over a hundred acres of filled land which made possible its expansion southward and the development of straight, wide thoroughfares to Copley Square and beyond.


Even more than Boston, Philadelphia impressed her visitors as a city of homes, with row upon row of prim brick houses with white wooden shutters, owned by their occupants. “If there are few notable buildings, there are few slums.”

In Washington the traveler found America’s most beautiful city, “one of the most singularly handsome cities on the globe.” Its parks and wide shaded avenues, its spacious vistas, the dazzling white of its public edifices, were reminiscent of great European capitals. In the absence of an army of factory workers the general tone was one of dignified ease in pleasing contrast to the feverish anxiety typical of other cities. “The inhabitants do not rush onward as though they were late for the train . . . or as though the dinner-hour being past they were anxious to appease an irritable wife . . . ."

Farther to the west lay Chicago, “the most American of American cities, and yet the most mongrel,” a miracle city risen Phoenix-like from its great fire of 1871. Its business and shopping district, rivaling New York’s in high buildings, noise and impressiveness, was fringed by three residential areas:
- the north side, its broad streets lined with handsome abodes, churches and club houses overlooking the lake;
- the south side, a newer and hardly less aristocratic section, studded with stately mansions and spacious parks; and
- the vast west side, more populous than the other two combined, where dwelt the immigrants and laboring folk.

Like every other great city, Chicago offered a study in contrasts: squalor matching splendor, municipal boodle contending with civic spirit; the very air now reeking with the foul stench of the stockyards, now fresh-blown from prairie or lake. A “splendid chaos” indeed, causing the roving Kipling to exclaim, “Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again.”

No better example could be found of what one contemporary called “urban imperialism.” The surrounding prairie was for miles laced with railroads, and a large portion of the city and its suburbs was made up of a series of huge stations, car yards, grain elevators, cattle pens and storehouses.

As the world’s greatest corn, cattle and timber market Chicago completely dominated the Mississippi Valley and, to some degree, the farther West as well. Other places like Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and the Twin Cities rose and flourished largely by its sufferance or favor. Even the older entrepôts— Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans—lay under tribute to the Lake city, and Denver and San Francisco were not too remote to escape its influence.

Yet these and other cities had their own economic and cultural spheres of influence, and astonished Europeans found in them a level of material comfort typical only of the principal foreign centers.

* * *

Conditions of lodging varied as widely as types of people and differences in income. For well-to-do transients the great cities offered hotels constantly increasing in number, size and sumptuousness.

Already famous in the eighties were such hostelries as the Grand Union, Park Avenue and Murray Hill in New York, the Stratford and the Lafayette in Philadelphia, Young’s and the Vendôme in Boston, the Grand Pacific, Palmer House and Auditorium in Chicago, the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and Baldwin’s in San Francisco.

Palace Hotel, San Francisco.

Among the new ones in the last decade of the century were the Plaza, Savoy and Waldorf-Astoria in New York, the Jefferson in Richmond, Virginia, and the Raleigh in Washington.

Such hotels, gorgeously decorated and furnished, with a steadily diminishing emphasis on the “steamboat style,” made a special appeal with their private baths, electric elevators, electric-call service and other up-to-the-minute conveniences. Though the incessant “tinkle, tinkle, tinkle of the ice-pitcher” proved “positively nauseous” to the British compiler of ’Baedeker,’ he otherwise thought well of the American institution and had even a word of praise and commiseration for that “mannerless despot,” the hotel clerk.

Every large city also had hotels of second and third class or of no class at all, falling as low in New York as lodging places in Chatham Street (now Park Row) and the Bowery where one could secure sleeping space for a few pennies a night.

In general, hotels in the South were apt to be poorer than in any other section, while in the West, even in the newer towns, they were unexpectedly good.

If the traveler did not wish to patronize his own hotel dining room, he could usually find in the larger cities excellent restaurants at hand. In Delmonico’s at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street he could eat the best meals in America, at the highest prices. There important political conferences were held, college societies celebrated their reunions and distinguished foreigners were feted.

The Brunswick and the Brevoort were hardly less fashionable, the former receiving its summer patrons in an attractive garden in the rear.

While other centers were not as well served as New York, Chicago boasted of the Richelieu and Kingsley’s, and the French restaurants in New Orleans—Moreau’s, Mme. Venn’s, Flêche’s, Victor’s—were justly famed the country over.

City dwellers who wished to escape the drudgery and responsibility of housekeeping usually lived in boarding houses.

With the opening of the Buckingham Hotel in New York in 1877, however, an increasing number of attractive apartment hotels for private families made their appearance. At the same time the swifter means of transit and communication caused a flow of population into suburban districts where shaded streets, ample lawns and neighborly friendliness gave everyday living something of a bucolic flavor.

This dispersion was particularly noticeable in the last ten years of the period, far outdistancing the rapid extension of official municipal limits. By the end of the nineties New York’s suburbs held over a million people, one third as many as the city proper, while more people actually lived on Boston’s outskirts than within her corporate confines. Pittsburgh, Providence and Cincinnati had similarly acquired strong satellite colonies.

In contrast to this agreeable picture must be placed another, that of the living conditions of the less prosperous classes and particularly of the immigrants. Of the great cities of the land, Philadelphia and Chicago were least scarred by slums.

Boston, Cincinnati, Jersey City and Hartford had badly diseased spots, but the evil was most deeply rooted in New York City, where land rentals were highest and the pressure of immigrants strongest. In all Europe only one city district, in Prague, was half as congested as certain parts of Manhattan.

Bad as conditions had been earlier in New York, they became worse in 1879 with the advent of a new type of slum, the “dumb-bell” tenement, so called because of the outline of the floor plan. This became virtually the only kind erected there in the next two decades.

Five or six stories high, the bleak narrow structure ran ninety feet back from the street, being pierced through the center by a stygian hallway less than three feet wide. Each floor was honeycombed with rooms, many without direct light or air and most of them sheltering one or more families.


Almost at once such barracks became foul and grimy, infested with vermin and lacking privacy and proper sanitary conveniences. The sunless, ill-smelling air shafts at the sides of the building proved a positive menace during fires by insuring the rapid spread of flames.

In rooms and hallways, on stairs and fire escapes, in the narrow streets, dirty half-clad children roamed at will, imbibing soiled thoughts from their soiled surroundings.

The dense slum district bounded by Cherry, Catherine, Hamilton and Market streets was known as “lung block” because of the many deaths from tuberculosis, No wonder such rookeries were nurseries of immorality, drunkenness, disease and crime. The real surprise is, as the state tenement-house commission pointed out in 1900, that so many of the children grew up to be decent, self-respecting citizens.

In 1879 the total number of tenements in New York was estimated at twenty-one thousand, their inhabitants at more than half a million. A census taken in 1888 showed over thirty-two thousand tenements with a population exceeding a million. By 1900 the number of buildings had grown to nearly forty-three thousand and their occupants to over one and a half million.

From time to time philanthropic citizens like Ellen Collins and Alfred T. White built model tenements in New York and Brooklyn to demonstrate that decent lodgings for the poor comported with fair profits for the landlord.

Organizations like the State Charities Association and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor insistently agitated for stricter housing laws. To their aid came a young Danish American, Jacob A. Riis.

As police reporter on the ’Sun’ Riis had gained a first-hand knowledge of slum conditions, which he used with great literary effect in a series of newspaper and magazine articles beginning in the eighties. His first book, ’How the Other Half Lives,’ published in 1890, came to Theodore Roosevelt as “an enlightenment and an inspiration for which . . . I could never be too grateful.”

Remedial legislation, following the first tenement-house statute of 1867, was passed in 1879, 1887 and 1895. But in spite of the reformers the laws contained loopholes and enforcement was sporadic. The tenement-house commission of 1900 felt that, on the whole, conditions were worse than they had been fifty years before.

Yet one year later a comprehensive statute was adopted which showed that the humanitarian energies of this generation had not been spent in vain. The act of 1901 not only insured real housing reform in New York, but prompted other states and municipalities to a fundamental attack on the evil.

The problem of urban lawlessness and crime was deeply rooted in that of the slums. Vile places like “Misery Row,” “Poverty Lane” and “Murderers’ Alley” were both continuous recruiting grounds for juvenile delinquents and hiding places for criminal bands.

Lacking normal outlets for play, the tenement waifs naturally drifted into gangs in which what might have been a laudable spirit of group loyalty was twisted into an ambition to emulate the lawless exploits of their elders. Beginning as beggars, sneak thieves and pickpockets, they graduated all too quickly into the ranks of shoplifters, robbers and thugs.

The foreign origin of many of the slum dwellers made this transition all the easier because of prior unfamiliarity with American traditions and laws. In particular, the Irish and Italians contributed more than their proportionate share of the country’s prison population, though it was the American-born immigrant children, lacking proper parental guidance and wholesome surroundings, who turned most readily to underworld life.


One student of the problem, observing that most of the men, women and children in the jails and penitentiaries he had visited were native-born, concluded: “We have ourselves evolved as cruel and cunning criminals as any that Europe may have foisted upon us.”

Other than New York the great criminal centers of the nation were Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and San Francisco. The freemasonry of crookdom made it possible for evildoers to pass quickly from city to city as self-preservation required, or to congregate like birds of prey when crowds gathered for such occasions as the Philadelphia Centennial or the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

In San Francisco lawlessness in the 1880’s still possessed a strong frontier flavor, being characterized by the depredations of youthful hoodlums who brandished large knives and six-shooters and did not hesitate to use them.

In the older American centers crime for profit had fallen into the hands of professionals who constantly devised new traps for the unwary. Pickpockets, badger-game experts, knock-out-drop artists, green-goods men (who circulated worthless money), bunco steerers (swindlers) , gamblers, hold-up men—all these prospered in such a hotbed of evil as New York’s Tenderloin, bounded by Twenty-fourth and Fortieth streets and Fifth and Seventh avenues.*

* The very name, Tenderloin, is a product of these turbulent years. Being in 1876 transferred from an obscure precinct to West Thirtieth Street, Police Captain A. S. Williams exclaimed, "I’ve been having chuck steak ever since l’ve been on the force, and now I’m going to have a bit of tenderloin." Taken up by the newspapers, the term was soon applied to gay, wicked districts in any city.

In particular, New York was the national base for bank robbers. One band led by George L. Leslie was credited by Chief of Police Walling with being responsible for four fifths of the bank burglaries in America until “Western George’s” murder in 1884. His greatest coup was the looting of the Manhattan Savings Institution in New York on October 27, 1878, to the extent of nearly three million dollars, the result of three years’ careful planning.

In order to protect the financial district from other similar maraudings Inspector Thomas Byrnes established his famous Dead Line on March 12, 1880, at Fulton Street, south of which a known criminal would be arrested on sight.

While not usually of the professional ilk, absconding bank cashiers were perhaps the most elegant culprits of the time, though this form of law breaking became less frequent with the conclusion of extradition arrangements with Canada in 1889.

Of the new swindles contrived during these years probably the most successful was the gold brick, introduced into New York in 1880 by Reed Waddell, a native of Springfield, Illinois. In ten years’ time he is believed to have made more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from the sale of his gilded lead bricks and from green goods.

Organized crime was the special product of the slum districts where such bands as the Hartley Mob, the Molasses Gang, the Dutch Mob, the Potashes and the Stable Gang flourished in the dives along the Bowery and its sordid byways.

The Whyos, the most powerful gang of all, had their principal base in Mulberry Bend whence they sallied forth on their missions of pillage and death until their own destruction in the early nineties.

Fortunately for the general safety these bands spent a part of their murderous energy in fighting one another.

Criminologists and publicists pointed with alarm to the portentous increase of lawlessness in the United States. A census inquiry disclosed a fifty-per-cent rise in the number of prison inmates from 1880 to 1890.

New York City detention center, "The Tombs."

Statistics collected by the ’Chicago Tribune’ revealed a growth of murders and homicides from 1266 during the year 1881 (24.7 to a million people) to 4290 in 1890 (or 68.5 to the million) and to 7840 in 1898 (or 107.2 to the million). Such figures were all the more startling since most other civilized countries showed a declining homicide rate, the ratio in England and Germany being less than half that of the United States.

Students of the subject were agreed in placing the fundamental blame on unhealthy urban growth, unrestricted immigration, the saloon and the maladjusted Negro. In addition, Lombroso pointed to the lingering habits of frontier lawlessness even in the more settled states, the new opportunities for crime afforded by discoveries in chemistry and toxicology, and the evil effects of sensation-mongering newspapers.

Another writer stressed the undoubted fact that violence and criminality had come to be regarded “as a sort of natural and inevitable concomitant” of every great labor disturbance.

Yet it seemed to an acute observer like James Bryce that the Americans were at bottom a law-abiding people. Indeed, in the absence of adequate data for earlier periods, it is possible that crime, being mainly concentrated in the cities, had become merely more conspicuous rather than greater in volume.

However this may be, all agreed that the evil was accentuated by lax law enforcement. The official guardians of society only too often were in league with the antisocial elements, passively or actively.

In most large centers a crook could secure police “protection” provided he agreed to hunt his prey elsewhere or, if operating locally, to share his profits with the authorities. It was the opinion of the widely experienced Josiah Flynt that, from Maine to California, the aim of police departments was merely “to keep a city superficially clean, and to keep everything quiet that is likely to arouse the public to an investigation.” Beyond that point they felt no genuine concern.

Yet now and then conditions became intolerable, and official inquests laid bare a state of affairs almost too vile for belief.

Such was the outcome of the courageous war against vice waged by the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church In New York, with the help of the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime.

The ensuing legislative inquiry, conducted in 1894 under Senator Clarence Lexow as chairman, caused the overturn of the Tammany government the following year and the appointment of Theodore Roosevelt to a strenuous administration as main police commissioner.

Among other things the Lexow investigation revealed that appointments and promotions in the police force were for sale and that police officials, besides collecting monthly blackmail from gamblers, saloonists and bawdyhouse keepers, exacted percentages of the profits of “street walkers,” pickpockets and gun men.*

* One woman who owned a chain of brothels testified that she paid $30,000 annually for protection. The commission paid by criminals in Chicago was ten per cent of their earnings, according to L. W. Moore, a reformed bank robber.

In various states efforts were made from time to time to divorce police administration from corrupt municipal politics, the favorite scheme being to head the city forces with officials appointed by the governor. This plan was tried in cities as widely separated as Boston, Charleston, South Carolina, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis, Omaha and Denver. But in most cases it resulted merely in transferring political control from one group of self-seeking overlords to another, without real improvement from the standpoint of the public.


The judiciary also shared responsibility for the bad conditions. In the opinion of one judge at least, “the greatest cause of the increase of crime is the action of the appellate courts, which . . . make the most strenuous efforts, as a rule, to see not when they can affirm but when they can reverse a case.”

Discouraging as was the situation, it was less so than it seemed. Individual police chiefs and officers were noted for their bravery and rectitude; and every city now and then, under reform pressure, treated its wrongdoers with Draconian severity.

Moreover the path of the wicked was rendered increasingly thorny by by-products of American inventive genius. To overcome the difficulties presented by improvements in vault and safe construction and the constantly spreading use of Yale locks, burglars had to be ever on the alert.

Likewise, electricity aided the law-abiding citizen not only by means of better-lighted streets but also through its application to burglar-alarm wiring and to emergency street boxes for summoning police help.

The utility of the “rogues’ gallery,” in limited use since mid-century, was also greatly extended by a free exchange of photographs with other cities; and beginning in 1887 the whole method of identifying criminals was revolutionized by the introduction, first in Illinois, then in Massachusetts and elsewhere, of the Bertillon system of the Paris police, whereby detailed measurements of the culprit’s body were taken and recorded.

Unfortunately urban delinquency had its repercussions on the countryside, most notoriously in the case of the “tramp evil,” which had first appeared in America in the hard years following 1873. While the return of prosperity after 1878 somewhat diminished the number of such vagrants, habit, uncertainties of work, difficulties of personal adjustment, "Wanderlust" and the ease of stealing rides on the railroads caused many to continue In their old ways.

Pitiful caricatures of the restless hardy pioneers of earlier times, these aimless wanderers were freely spawned by the great urban centers, particularly in years of unemployment and industrial conflict like 1885-1886 and 1892-1894. An unofficial tramp census taken in the year 1893 indicated that three out of five were between twenty and fifty years of age, about the same proportion were native-born and trained to skilled trades, five out of six enjoyed good health, and nearly all were literate and unmarried.*

* J. J. McCook, "A Tramp Census and Its Revelations,” ’Forum,’ XV (1893), 753-766. 1349 tramps were interviewed. Their ages averaged younger than those of tramps in England and Germany. Nearly half of them said they had taken to the road within a week of losing their last real job. Of immigrant elements the Irish were the most prominent, accounting for one fifth of all the tramps.

If, as the investigator estimated, the total number of tramps then in the nation was 45,845, they represented an army larger than Wellington’s at Waterloo and their vagabondage involved the withdrawal of a quarter of one per cent of the male population from productive work, not to mention the burdens thrown on the public in the form of alms, police supervision and hospital care.

These nomads developed a manner of living, a culture, peculiar to themselves. A well-marked caste system distinguished between the hobo, forced temporarily “on the road” by lack of work, and the habitual tramp in his ascending social scale from “gay-cat” (tenderfoot) and harmless wanderer to expert criminal.

By cabalistic chalk marks on gate posts the elect were informed as to chances for a “hand-out”; a rigid code of ethics governed their conduct toward one another; and an argot, characterized by such expressions as doss (sleep) , elbow (detective), mooch (beg) and shack (brakeman), marked their common speech.


In the 1880’s a gang of itinerant criminals, known as the Lake Shore Push, working out of Cleveland, forcibly monopolized the “empties” of the Lake Shore line to the exclusion of other wanderers; and in 1886 bands, numbering a hundred or more, seized trains for temporary use in Mississippi and Tennessee.

But, for the most part, tramps went about alone or by twos and threes, their occasional presence and overindulgence in drink increasing the hazards of solitary rural living.

Beginning with New Jersey in 1876, a wave of anti-tramp legislation swept over the nation so that by 1893 twenty-one or more states had passed such acts. Varying in severity—from a short jail sentence to public whipping or even (in two Southern states) sale into temporary servitude—these laws varied even more greatly in the degree of their enforcement.

Local communities often found it necessary to improvise their own remedies; town authorities in Massachusetts attained the desired object by exacting manual work from vagrants.

The nuisance showed no abatement during the life of this generation; there were probably more tramps abroad at the close of the period than at its beginning. Improvement awaited a better adjustment of wages and employment to available labor supply and a less indulgent attitude on the part of railroads toward the unbidden occupants of “side-door Pullmans.”

If we consider only the sordid aspects of urban life, the American city of the period seems a cancerous growth. But the record as a whole was distinctly creditable to a generation which found itself confronted with the phenomenon of a great population everywhere clotting into towns. No other people had ever met such an emergency so promptly or, on the whole, so successfully.

The basic facilities of urban living—transit, lighting and communication—were well taken care of by an outburst of native mechanical genius which helped make these years the Golden Age of Invention. Some places moved forward faster than others, of course, and all lagged in some respects while advancing in others.

If the rural spirit of neighborliness was submerged in the anonymity of city life, there developed in its place a spirit of impersonal social responsibility which devoted itself, with varying earnestness and success, to questions of pure water, sewage disposal and decent housing for the poor, sometimes taking the extreme form of municipal ownership.

Moreover, what the great cities felt obliged to do under the whip of necessity, smaller towns undertook in a spirit of imitation, so that the new standards affected urban life everywhere.

What most impresses the historical student is the lack of unity, balance, planfulness, in the advances that were made. Urban progress was experimental, uneven, often accidental: the people were, as yet, groping in the dark.

A later generation, taking stock of the past and profiting by its mistakes, would explore the possibilities of ordered city planning, not only in the interests of material welfare and community health but also with an eye to beautification.

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