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The Rise of the Modern City Previous Next
Digital History ID 3049


In the 40 years after the Civil War, over 24 million people flocked to American cities. They came from rural areas in the United States but also across oceans from farming areas and industrial cities in Europe. While the United States' rural population doubled during these years, the urban population increased more than seven-fold. In 1860, 16 cities had a population over 50,000 and only nine had a population over 100,000. By 1900, 38 cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants.

The modern American city was not simply a larger version of older towns. In the late 19th century, American cities changed dramatically in physical size and spatial layout. In Boston in 1873, the outer boundary of settlement stood just two-and-a-half miles from City Hall. In the 1890s, after the establishment of the electric street railway, the outer border of settlement was six miles away. By annexing surrounding lands and filling in bays, cities grew larger, allowing for greater differentiation in the use of space.

Manufacturing and commerce crowded into city centers. Meanwhile, the development of steam railroad lines in the 1860s, electric-powered streetcars and elevated railways in the 1880s, and electric trolleys in the 1890s allowed the wealthy and the middle class to move along newly constructed trolley and rail lines to the country's first suburbs. At the same time the urban poor were concentrated in newly constructed tenements, few of which had outside windows. Less than 10 percent had indoor plumbing or running water.

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