Wave of Immigration
1900 - The decades before and after 1900 were a period of enormous transformation in the physical locations of Americans. Demographers typically distinguish two modes of living: urban and rural. In plainer language, people live in the city or they live in the country. Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States had been mostly a nation of farmers, who lived in the country. Indeed, immigrants came to America seeking land that they could farm.
But throughout the nineteenth century, the population living in cities rose faster than the rural population. As the 1800s wore on, more and more Americans moved from the farm to the city, abandoning farming to build new industries in the cities. John D. Rockefeller grew up on a farm in rural New York but moved to the city to become the richest man in America from the new industry of petroleum. Henry Ford had also grown up on a farm, but moved to the city to create the modern automobile industry. Ford didn’t actually like cities: he designed his “Model T” to be useful to farmers. Ford advertised his revolutionary machine as “stronger than a horse and easier to take care of.”
In 1880, when a new wave of immigrants began to arrive in the United States, they moved to American cities, not to the countryside as immigrants had for 250 years. Immigrants took jobs in the new industries in the new cities: Polish farmers became steelworkers in Pittsburgh; Serbian farmers became meatpackers in Chicago; Russian Jewish farmers became tailors in New York City’s garment district; Slovaks assembled cars in Detroit; Italian farmers found jobs in Baltimore factories.
The cities grew at a fabulous pace, some of them doubling in size every decade. By the 1920 census, the urban and rural populations were equal in size, but the rural share would continue to drop for the rest of the twentieth century. Cities became the location of most of American life: politically, culturally, financially, and economically, the action moved from the bucolic countryside to the crowded, filthy city streets.