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Immigration and migration in the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age saw a population boom in U.S. cities due to industrialization, immigration, and migration. Work shifted from self-directed farming to factory jobs. New immigrants arrived from diverse regions, creating a large industrial workforce. Cities became industrial hubs, offering jobs and supportive communities.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Here's a graph showing the population growth in four US cities from 1860 to 1900. In 1860, before the Civil War, New York City was the biggest city in the United States, but even it didn't have more than a million people. There wasn't a single city of more than a million in the whole country at that point. Compare that to just 40 years later when not one, but three cities had passed the million mark, and New York had nearly 3.5 million residents. Proportionally, Chicago's population growth was even more drastic, from only about 100,000 residents in 1860, it got 17 times bigger by 1900, with about 1.7 million residents. Traditionally, Americans had been a pretty rural farming people, but starting in the late 19th century, there was a rapid shift towards urbanization. By 1920, urban residents would outnumber country dwellers in the United States for the first time. And today, more than 80% of Americans live in cities. So what led to this explosion in the population of cities in the decades after the Civil War? The major factors behind this shift were industrialization, immigration, and migration. Now we've been talking about those three things in various forms in American history up until this point, from the cool inventions of the first industrial revolution to the influx of Irish and German immigrants in the 1840s to the movement of Americans ever westward. So industrialization, immigration, and migration weren't new forces in American society, but there were unique aspects of all three of these processes during the Gilded Age that contributed to the development of cities in this era. One thing that changed was the nature of work that people did. During the Gilded Age, there was a tipping point in the American labor market. In 1880, for the first time ever, the number of people who worked for someone else for wages, people who had a boss and needed to do what they said to get paid, outnumbered Americans who worked for themselves, like farmers who could decide for themselves when to sow or harvest their crops. The second industrial revolution, which began after the Civil War, was a booming era of expansion and industrial production. So there were a lot of factory jobs available, and most of those jobs were for unskilled laborers, that is workers who don't require any kind of special training before they start a job. So there was an overall transition from farm work that was self-directed to unskilled factory work done for a boss. Another change during the Gilded Age was in who was doing the immigrating and migrating. Until the 1840s, most immigrants to the United States had been Protestant Christians from northern and western Europe, and they were relatively well off financially. After the Civil War, a variety of factors abroad, combined with the wide availability of jobs in the United States, brought different types of immigrants to American cities. These new immigrants, as they were called, tended to be from southern and eastern Europe, Mexico, and Asia, and they differed from old immigrants in that they tended to be poorer, have darker complexions, and practiced Catholicism or Judaism instead of Protestantism. In addition in this era, African Americans from the south began to migrate to northern and mid-western cities. All of these immigrants and migrants created a large industrial workforce. But why did they all move to the city? Let's take a look at some of the push and pull factors that prompted people to uproot themselves and head to American cities during the Gilded Age. First, there were push factors, or things that were pushing people out of their previous living situations. A big one was poverty and just a lack of financial mobility at home. Farmers in many countries were hit hard by the mechanization of agriculture, which happened in this time period. About a third of the people moving to cities were Americans leaving farms and heading to the city for industrial jobs. Another push factor was persecution and discrimination at home. The Russian government took an increasingly intolerant position towards Jews in this time period, who were subject to mob violence and campaigns of ethnic cleansing in Europe. In the American south, the emergence of Jim Crow laws and an increase in lynchings were among the reasons that African Americans elected to leave after the Civil War. But what were the pull factors that landed them in cities? For one thing, many struggling immigrants from abroad didn't have the money to go anywhere else. So after they arrived, they just stayed put. But the main reason that people moved to cities is because that's where the jobs were. With the development of steam power and electrification, factories no longer had to be located next to waterways. So cities developed as industrial hubs. Often cities would develop as the center for one specific industry, like steel in Pittsburgh, meat packaging in Chicago, or clothing in New York. People also found communities of support in cities. Earlier immigrants might send money and information to their families and friends back home, helping them to move and get established. This facilitated the development of urban neighborhoods, where people from similar backgrounds spoke the same language, ate the same food, and provided each other with assistance. In these ethnic enclaves, people could get newspapers and even go to see theater performances in their native languages. So let's finish by taking a look at two narratives of immigrants arriving in American cities in this time period. The first one is from Lee Chew, who immigrated to San Francisco from China at age 16 in the year 1880. He wrote, "When I got to San Francisco, "which was before the passage of the Exclusion Act, "I was half starved, because I was afraid "to eat the provisions of the barbarians. "But a few days living in the Chinese quarter "made me happy again. "A man got me work as a house servant "in an American family. "When I went to work for that American family, "I could not speak a word of English, "and I didn't know anything about housework. "I did not understand what the lady said to me, "but she showed me how to cook, wash, iron, sweep, dust, "make beds, wash dishes, clean windows, paint and brass, "polish the knives and forks, et cetera. "In six months, "I had learned how to do the work of our house quite well, "and I was getting $5 a week and board "and putting away about $4.25 a week. "I had also learned some English. "I sent money home to comfort my parents. "But though I dressed well and lived well and had pleasure, "going quite often to the Chinese theater "and to dinner parties in Chinatown, "I saved $50 in the first six months." The second one is from Mary Antin, who immigrated to Boston from what is now Belarus at the age of 13 in the year 1894. She wrote, "The first meal was an object lesson of much variety. "My father produced several kinds of food ready to eat, "without any cooking, from little tin cans "that had printing all over them. "He attempted to introduce us to a queer, "slippery kind of fruit, which he called banana, "but had to give it up for the time being. "On our second day, a little girl from across the alley "came and offered to conduct us to school. "My father was out, but we five between us "had a few words of English by this time. "We knew the word school. "We understood. "This child who had never seen us 'til yesterday, "who could not pronounce our names, "who was not much better dressed than we, "was able to offer us the freedom of the schools of Boston. "We had to visit the stores and be dressed "from head to foot in American clothing. "We had to learn the mysteries of the iron stove, "the washboard, and the speaking tube, "and above all, we had to learn English. "With our despised immigrant clothing, "we shed also our impossible Hebrew names. "A committee of our friends, "several years ahead of us in American experience, "put their heads together "and concocted American names for us all." So what similarities and differences do you see between the experiences of Lee Chew and Mary Antin? Why do you think they immigrated to American cities, and what do you think their lives would be like going forward in the Gilded Age?