The Gilded Age saw the United States shift from an agricultural to an urban, industrial society, as millions of Americans flocked to cities in the post–Civil War era. Nearly 40 percent of Americans lived in urbanized areas by 1900, as opposed to 20 percent in 1860. Many young people left the countryside in search of new wonders: cities were at the height of modernization for the time, with skyscrapers, electric trolleys, department stores, bridges, bicycles, indoor plumbing, telephones, and electric lamps. Industrialization and the rush to the cities led to the development of consumerism and a middle class.
In addition to this major shift from rural to urban areas, a new wave of immigration increased America’s population significantly, especially in major cities. Immigrants came from war-torn regions of southern and eastern Europe, such as Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia, Croatia, and Czechoslovakia. This new group of immigrants was poorer and less educated than the Irish and German immigrants who had made the journey to the United States earlier in the century. By the early twentieth century, more than a million immigrants were entering eastern U.S. cities on a yearly basis. Many immigrants could barely make a living, working as unskilled laborers in factories or packinghouses for low wages.
Many nativists—Americans descended primarily from Irish and German immigrants (but not exclusively those groups)—claimed that the newly arriving southern and eastern European immigrants would not be able to assimilate into American society. They saw these immigrants as illiterate and poor, unable to learn English and with little experience living in a democratic society. Many of America’s Protestants also disliked the fact that many of the new immigrants were Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish. Many Anglo-Saxon Americans worried that eastern and southern Europeans would “outbreed” them and take over their once-“pure” race. Many nativists joined the American Protective Association to lobby for immigration restrictions; Congress conceded and eventually barred criminals and the extremely destitute from entry in 1882.
Nativists in the United States reserved special hatred for Chinese immigrants—a group that had worked countless hours of labor at low wages, especially on railroad construction in the West. Unions pressed Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, completely banning Chinese immigration to the United States. Congress did pass the act, and it remained in place until 1943.
The sudden influx of millions of poor immigrants led to the formation of slums in U.S. cities. These new city dwellers lived in tenement buildings, often with entire families living together in tiny one-room apartments and sharing a single bathroom with other families on the floor. Tenements generally were filthy, poorly ventilated, and poorly lit, making them a hospitable environment for rats and disease.
A social reform movement emerged as a result of these worsening living and working conditions in America’s cities. Foremost among the reformers was Jane Addams, a college-educated woman who founded Hull House in 1889 in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Hull House provided counseling, day-care services, and adult education classes to help local immigrants.
The success of Hull House prompted Lillian Wald to open the Henry Street Settlement House in New York in 1893. The combined success of these settlement houses prompted other reformers to open similar houses in other eastern cities with large immigrant populations. In time, women like Addams and Wald used their positions of power to fight for women’s suffrage, temperance, civil rights, and improved labor laws.
In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the policy of segregation by legalizing “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In doing so, the court condemned blacks to more than another half century of second-class citizenship.
Despite the ruling, African-American leaders of the civil rights movement continued to press for equal rights. Booker T. Washington, president of the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, rather than press for immediate social equality, encouraged blacks to become economically self-sufficient so that they could challenge whites on social issues in the future. The Harvard-educated black historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, on the other hand, ridiculed Washington’s beliefs and argued that blacks should fight for immediate—and overdue—social and economic equality. This dispute between Washington and Du Bois encapsulated the divide in the civil rights movement at the end of the nineteenth century and the question as to how blacks could most effectively pursue equality—a debate that lasted well into the civil rights movement of the 1960s and continues today.