History of the United States
Industrialization and reform (1870-1916)

The industrial growth that began in the United States in the early 1800's continued steadily up to and through the American Civil War. Still, by the end of the war, the typical American industry was small. Hand labour remained widespread, limiting the production capacity of industry. Most businesses served a small market and lacked the capital needed for business expansion.

After the Civil War, however, American industry changed dramatically. Machines replaced hand labour as the main means of manufacturing, increasing the production capacity of industry tremendously. A new nationwide network of railways distributed goods far and wide. Inventors developed new products the public wanted, and businesses made the products in large quantities. Investors and bankers supplied the huge amounts of money that business leaders needed to expand their operations.

The industrial growth had major effects on American life.
The new business activity centred on cities. As a result, people moved to cities in record numbers, and the cities grew by leaps and bounds. The sharp contrast between the rich and the poor and other features of American life stirred widespread discontent. The discontent triggered new reform movements.

The industrial growth centred chiefly on the North.
The war-torn South lagged behind the rest of the country economically. In the West, frontier life was ending.

America's role in foreign affairs also changed during the late 1800's and early 1900's. The country built up its military strength and became a world power.

The rise of big business

The value of goods produced by American industry increased almost tenfold between 1870 and 1916. Many interrelated developments contributed to this growth.

Improved production methods.
The use of machines in manufacturing spread throughout American industry after the Civil War. With machines, workers could produce goods many times faster than they could by hand. The new large manufacturing firms hired hundreds, or even thousands, of workers. Each worker was assigned a specific job in the production process. This system of organizing labourers, called the division of labour, also sped up production.

Development of new products.
Inventors created, and business leaders produced and sold, a variety of new products. The products included the typewriter (1867), barbed wire (1874), the telephone (1876), the phonograph (early form of record player) (1877), the electric light (1879), and the petrol-engine car (1885).

Natural resources.
America's rich and varied natural resources played a key role in the rise of big business. The nation's abundant water supply helped power the industrial machines. Forests provided timber for construction and wooden products. Miners took large quantities of coal and iron ore from the ground.

A growing population.
More than 25 million immigrants entered the United States between 1870 and 1916. Immigration plus natural growth caused the U.S. population to more than double during the same period, rising from about 40 million to about 100 million.

Distribution and communication.
In the late 1800's, the American railway system became a nationwide transportation network. The total distance of all railway lines in operation in the United States soared from about 14,500 kilometres in 1850 to almost 320,000 kilometres in 1900. A high point in railway development came in 1869, when workers laid tracks that joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways near Ogden, Utah. This event marked the completion of the world's first transcontinental railway system. The system linked the United States by rail from coast to coast.

The new railways spurred economic growth.
Mining companies used them to ship raw materials to factories over long distances quickly. Manufacturers distributed their finished products by rail to points throughout the country. The railways became highly profitable businesses for their owners.

Advances in communication provided a boost for the economy. Railways replaced such mail-delivery systems as the stagecoach. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. These developments, along with the telegraph, provided the quick communication that is vital to the smooth operation of big business.

Investment and banking.
The business boom triggered a sharp increase in investments in the stocks and bonds of corporations. As businesses prospered, people eager to share in the profits invested heavily. Their investments provided capital that companies needed to expand their operations.

New banks sprang up throughout the country.
Banks helped finance the nation's economic growth by making loans to businesses. Some bankers of the era assumed key positions in the American economy because of their ability to provide huge sums of capital.

The South and the West

The war-torn South. After the Civil War, Americans in the South faced the task of rebuilding their war-torn society. The South lagged behind the rest of the nation economically. Some industry developed in the region, but the South remained an agricultural area throughout the period of industrialization.

Many Southern farmers--both black and white--owned the land they worked. But in general, the land of these small, independent farmers was poor. The best land was given over to tenant farming--a system in which labourers farm the land and pay rent in money or crops to the owner. The tenant farming system had neither the virtues of the plantation system of pre-Civil War days nor of the independent owner system. The tenant farmers lacked the incentive to improve land that was not their own, and the owners did not have full control over production. For these and other reasons, agriculture remained more backward in the South than elsewhere.

The end of the Western frontier.
The long process of settling the United States from coast to coast drew to a close after the Civil War. In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which offered public land to people free or at very low cost. Thousands of Americans and immigrants started farms in the West under the provisions of the act.

After 1870, settlement became so widespread in the West that it was no longer possible to draw a continuous frontier line. The United States Census of 1890 officially recognized the fact that America's frontier had ended.

The settlement of the West brought an end to the American Indian way of life. Farmers occupied and fenced in much of the land. White people moving westward slaughtered buffalo herds on which Indians depended for survival. Some Indians retaliated against the whites by attacking wagon trains and homes. But, as in earlier days, the federal government sent soldiers to crush the Indian uprisings. In the end, the Indians were no match for the soldiers and their superior weapons. Over the years, the federal government pushed more and more Indians onto reservations.

Life during the industrial era

The industrial boom had major effects on the lives of the American people. The availability of jobs in industries drew people from farms to cities in record numbers. In 1870, only about 25 per cent of the American people lived in urban areas. By 1916, the figure had reached almost 50 per cent.

The lives of people in the cities contrasted sharply.
A small percentage of them had enormous wealth and enjoyed lives of luxury. Below them economically, the larger middle class lived comfortably. But at the bottom of the economic ladder, a huge mass of city people lived in extreme poverty.

The wealthy.
The business boom opened up many opportunities for financial gain. The economic activity it generated enabled many people to establish successful businesses, expand existing ones, and profit from investments. Some business leaders and investors were able to amass huge fortunes. The number of millionaires in the United States grew from perhaps about 20 in 1850 to more than 3,000 in 1900.

The middle class.
Other city people prospered enough to live lives of comfort, if not wealth. They included owners of small businesses, and such workers as factory and office managers. They became part of America's growing middle class.

The underprivileged.
The labourers who toiled in factories, mills, and mines did not share in the benefits of the economic growth. They usually worked at least 60 hours a week for an average pay of about 20 cents an hour, and had no fringe benefits.

As the nation's population grew, so did the competition for jobs. The supply of workers outstripped the demand. The oversupply of workers led to high unemployment. In addition, depressions slowed the economy to a near standstill in 1873, 1884, 1893, and 1907.

The everyday life of the city poor was dismal and drab. The poor lived crowded together in slums. Much of their housing consisted of cheap apartment buildings called tenements. The crowded slum neighbourhoods bred crime. Overwork, poor sanitation, and inadequate diet left slum dwellers vulnerable to disease. Many poor children received little or no education, because they had to work to contribute to their families' welfare.

The farmers.
American farmers also suffered hardships after the Civil War. Advances in agricultural equipment and techniques had enabled most of the farmers to increase their production. However, middlemen between the farmers and the consumers took a large share of the money earned from farm products. The middlemen included owners of railways, mills, and gins.

The Gilded Age. American author Mark Twain called the era of industrialization "The Gilded Age." Twain used this term to describe the culture of the newly rich of the period. Lacking tradition, the wealthy developed a showy culture supposedly based on the culture of upper-class Europeans. The enormous mansions of the newly rich Americans imitated European palaces. The wealthy filled the mansions with European works of art, antiques, rare books, and gaudy decorations.

Most Americans, however, had a far different idea of culture. They enjoyed fairs that exhibited industrial machines, the latest inventions, and other items related to America's material progress. The American people were eager spectators at circuses, vaudeville shows, and sporting events. Baseball became so popular after 1900 that it was called the national pastime. Also after 1900, a new kind of entertainment, the cinema, began attracting public interest.

Government and the people.
After the Civil War, the Democratic and Republican parties developed strong political machines. Members of these organizations kept in contact with the people, and did them favours in return for votes. But in general, political leaders strongly favoured business interests.

Government of the era was also marked by widespread corruption. Ulysses S. Grant became president in 1869. Members of Grant's administration used their government positions for their own financial gain. Corruption also flourished in state and local government.


A strong spirit of reform swept through the United States during the late 1800's and early 1900's. Many Americans called for changes in the country's economic, political, and social systems. They wanted to reduce poverty, improve the living conditions of the poor, and regulate big business. They worked to end corruption in government, make government more responsive to the people, and accomplish other goals. By 1917, the reformers had brought about many changes. Some reformers called themselves progressives. As a result, the period of American history from about 1890 to about 1917 is often called the Progressive Era.

Early reform efforts included movements to organize labourers and farmers. In 1886, skilled labourers formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL)--now the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Led by Samuel Gompers, this union bargained with employers and gained better wages and working conditions for its members. Farmers founded the National Grange in 1867 and Farmers' Alliances during the 1870's and 1880's. These groups helped force railways to lower their charges for hauling farm products and assisted the farmers in other ways.

The drive for woman suffrage became strong after the Civil War. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. The Territory of Wyoming gave women the right to vote the same year. Soon, a few states allowed women to vote, but only in local elections.

The Progressive Era. The outcry for reform increased sharply after 1890. Members of the clergy, social workers, and others studied life in the slums and reported on the awful living conditions there. Educators criticized the nation's school system. Increasingly, unskilled workers resorted to strikes in an attempt to gain concessions from their employers. Often, violence broke out between strikers and strikebreakers hired by the employers. Socialists and others who opposed the U.S. economic system of capitalism supported the strikers and gained a large following.

As public support for reform grew, so did the political influence of the reformers. In 1891, farmers and some labourers formed the People's, or Populist, Party. The Populists called for government action to help farmers and labourers. They gained a large following, and convinced many Democrats and Republicans to support reforms.

Reformers won control of many city and some state governments. They also elected many people to Congress who favoured their views. In addition, the first three presidents elected after 1900--Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson--supported certain reform laws.

Local and state legislation.
Reformers in local and state government passed many laws to help the poor. Such laws provided for tenement house inspection, playgrounds, and other improvements of life in the slums. Some reform governments expanded public education and forced employers to protect workers against fires and dangerous machinery in factories.

Federal legislation.
Theodore Roosevelt, who became president in 1901, was a liberal Republican who called for a "square deal" for all Americans. Roosevelt became the first president to help labourers in a strike against employers. In 1902, the United Mine Workers struck for better wages and working conditions. Roosevelt asked the miners and the mine owners to settle their differences through arbitration, but the mine owners refused. Angered, the president threatened to have the army take over the mines. The owners gave in, and reached a compromise with the miners.

Republican William Howard Taft succeeded Roosevelt in 1909. Although a conservative, Taft helped further the cause of reform. In 1912, conservative Republicans backed Taft for their party's presidential nomination, and liberal Republicans supported Roosevelt. Taft won the nomination. The liberals then formed the Progressive, or "Bull Moose," Party and nominated Roosevelt for president. The Republican split enabled reform Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency.

The reform movement flourished under Wilson. The many reform measures passed during Wilson's presidency included the Underwood Tariff Act of 1913, which lowered a high tariff that protected American business from foreign competition.

Foreign affairs

During the 1870's and 1880's, the United States paid relatively little attention to foreign affairs. In comparison to such European nations as France, Germany, and Great Britain, the United States was weak militarily and had little influence in international politics. During the 1890's and early 1900's, however, the United States developed into a world power and took a leading role in international affairs.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 marked a turning point in United States foreign policy. Spain ruled Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and other overseas possessions during the 1890's. In the mid-1890's, Cubans revolted against their Spanish rulers. Many Americans demanded that the United States aid the rebels. On Feb. 15, 1898, the United States battleship Maine blew up off the coast of Havana, Cuba. No one was certain what caused the explosion, but many Americans blamed the Spaniards. On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war on Spain. The United States quickly defeated Spain, and the Treaty of Paris of Dec. 10, 1898, officially ended the war. Under the treaty, the United States received Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain. Also in 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii.

A world power.
After he became president in 1901, Roosevelt expressed his foreign policy strategy with the slogan, "Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick." Roosevelt meant that the country must back up its diplomatic efforts with military strength. In 1903, the president used a threat of force to gain the right to dig the Panama Canal. America took over the finances of the Dominican Republic in 1905 to keep that country stable and free from European intervention. These and other actions showed that the United States had emerged as a world power.

War clouds in Europe.
In 1914, long-standing problems among European nations led to the outbreak of World War I. Before long, events would drag the United States into war and test its new role as a world power.