Research papers and contributed articles


Editor’s Introduction: The Politics of Urban Reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 1870–1920


Not only is the city involved most deeply in the great political experiment of the present and the future, but it is the dominating element in that experiment. The United States, along with the other nations of the western world, is rapidly coming to be a nation of cities, and even while the majority of the American people remain rural, so far as residence is concerned, the influence of the cities upon national life is quite out of proportion to their population. For the city is the distributing centre of intelligence as well as of goods. The city stands for organization. It is the center of the complex web of national life. (Wilcox 1904: 14)

At the turn of the 20th century, interest in urban reform reached new and impressive levels. Decades of unprecedented growth and expansion, fueled in large measure by industrialization, created a perfect storm of problems municipal governments were ill-equipped to address. A growing cadre of middle- and upper- class reformers directed their attention to the complex challenges facing North American and European cities. These reformers hoped to solve emerging urban problems because they recognized the essential role of the city in modern life as well as its potential to promote social progress and the highest ideals of human civilisation. The articles in this issue examine the ways urban reformers—mayors and city planners, in particular—confronted the serious trials of modern urban life and, in doing so, contributed to a transatlantic dialogue about the nature of progress in the modern industrial world. Although they utilized different approaches, the leaders drew from a common  pool of ideas that challenged traditional laissez-faire attitudes about government and recognized an expanded role for the state as a positive agent in social and economic development. Towards that end, many supported public ownership of natural monopolies such as power, gas, and water. They also pursued policies that promoted greater civic awareness and interest in the city as a collective experiment in self-government. Such policies included the construction of public farms, parks, libraries, sewage facilities, and bathhouses. In this introduction, I will first provide a brief overview of the evolution of attitudes toward the city—from a necessary evil to the prime catalyst of national social and economic development. Following that, I will summarize each of the articles in this issue.

The Evolution of the City in the 19th Century

In the highly urbanized world of the 21st century, it is easy to forget that the city and its role as a fixture of national economic and social life is a relatively recent development. In the colonial era, cities and towns were established on a very limited scale to provide a means for regulating colonial life:

While the building of towns was a crucial feature of American colonisation, the towns were to be thought of as instruments of control—not as laboratories of democracy or experiments in individual freedom. (Glad and Brown 1967: 4–5)

Social and economic life in colonial cities was highly regulated, and unapproved exploration beyond the town’s borders was strictly prohibited.

Despite the restrictions against, and dangers associated with, expansion, the diffusion of settlers into the North American back country outpaced the growth of American towns and cities throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. In 1800, only 6 percent of the American population lived in urban places of 2,500 or more. By 1820, that number had only grown to 7 percent (U.S. Census Bureau 1949: 24). Cities in the early decades of the 19th century were relatively small and focused on commercial activity. Most of the workforce was still directly involved in the production of goods,  with as many as one-third of workers involved in skilled or semiskilled labor (Klein and Kantor 1976: 71).

Within a relatively short time-frame—from roughly 1820 to 1870— the nature and size of the city changed rapidly. Powered by new and improved sources of energy, the machine replaced manual labor as the dominant source of productivity. The shop system was supplanted by large and impersonal factories. New cities formed, and old cities re-formed around those factories, which processed raw materials and manufactured finished products on an incredible scale. Demanding a steady stream of workers, urban populations ballooned. In 1840, nearly 2 million or 12 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas. In 1860, that number had jumped to 24 percent of the total population, and by 1890, more than one-third of the American people lived in urban places (U.S. Census Bureau 1949: 24).

In addition to adding more people, urban economies specialised in one or two major industries, which provided the bulk of city jobs and wealth. For Chicago, that industry was wholesale slaughtering and meatpacking, for Philadelphia it was carpet and rugs. Specialisation was even more pronounced in smaller urban areas. In 1900, for example, Troy, New York produced 85 percent of the total value of cuffs and collars sold in the United States. Similarly, Baltimore, Maryland contributed 64 percent of the total national value of canned oysters (U.S. Census Bureau 1902: ccix).

Industrial specialization increased interdependence. The degree to which the welfare of some cities depended upon the performance of its primary industry was astounding. The closing of a single plant could send shock waves throughout the entire city. Klein and Kantor (1976: 99) described the “domino like interdependencies” of industrial cities:

*Alexandra W. Lough holds a Ph.D. in American history from Brandeis University where she completed a dissertation entitled, “The Last Tax: Henry George and the Social Politics of Land Reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.” She currently serves as the Director of the Henry George Birthplace, Archive, and Historical Research Center located in Philadelphia, PA.

More information is available on her website:
American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 75, No. 1 (January, 2016).
DOI: 10.1111/ajes.12139
VC 2016 American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Inc.

Alexandra-W-Lough-bioAlexandra (Alex) is a historical consultant specializing in American political, social, and cultural history.  She holds a Ph.D. in American History from Brandeis University and currently serves as the Director of the Henry George Birthplace, Archive, and Historical Research Center.  Alex is working on a book manuscript based on her 2013 dissertation, The Last Tax: Henry George and the Social Politics of Land Reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

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