How Culture Shaped Traditional & Modern New York Society

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the history of New York. Specifically we will examine how culture has affected the development of New York society. We will highlight key themes and developments.

The Big Apple: A Cultural Center

Maybe some of you have had the opportunity to visit New York City. The 'Big Apple,' as it's often called, is one of the major cultural centers of the world. It's a diverse city containing just about every aspect of culture that you can think of: high fashion, opera, theater, popular music, art, and everything else in between. When we think of New York City as a major cultural center, we usually think of it in a modern context, but the truth is, the 'Big Apple' has been a vibrant cultural center almost from its founding. The culture of this port city has spread throughout the state, and even throughout the world. Let's go back to the founding of New York, and trace the development of culture throughout its history.

Colonial and Revolutionary New York

Before the Dutch settled New York in early 17th century, the area was controlled by Iroquois and Algonquin Native American tribes. In 1609, Henry Hudson claimed the region for the Netherlands. By 1624, the settlement of New Amsterdam had been established on Manhattan Island. In 1664, the area was conquered by the British and its name changed to New York, after the English Duke of York. New York quickly emerged as a leading port city, and by the time of the American Revolution, was the major commerce center in the Thirteen Colonies. Because of this, the city also became a leading center of industry and culture, not to mention vice. Brawling and prostitution were widespread in this cosmopolitan urban environment. New York was a true 'melting pot,' a place where people of all social classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, and religions mixed. In this way, New York was a foreshadowing of what the United States would become.


When the American Revolution broke out, the Sons of Liberty had a strong presence in New York. The Sons of Liberty was a revolutionary group aimed at fomenting rebellion against the British. At the same time, New York was a haven for Loyalists. You may remember, Loyalists were American colonists who decided to stay 'loyal' to King George III and opposed the Revolution. New York was home to many 'high society' Loyalists who enjoyed the fruits of their wealth and power. Attending balls and theater, dressing in colorful, expensive clothing, and sampling fine wines and cheeses were just a few of the luxuries of New York's elite.

Immigration, Flappers, and the Harlem Renaissance

New York continued to grow and expand following the American Revolution. The American Industrial Revolution, taking place throughout much of the 19th century, resulted in the city erecting high rise buildings into the sky. Many of them were built with Carnegie Steel, the steel company founded by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, New York became a prime destination for many immigrants, particularly those from Europe. Ellis Island in New York was the chief gateway into the United States. Some 12 million immigrants passed through the inspection station on Ellis Island while making their way to a new life in America. As a result of the flood of immigration taking place in the late 19th and early 20th century, ethnic neighborhoods in New York sprang up. Certain sections were predominantly Irish, while others were predominantly Italian.

Ellis Island in 1905.

Culture blossomed in New York during the 1920s. When you think of the culture of 1920s, what comes to mind? Maybe you're thinking of well-dressed flappers dancing the night away to jazz music and drinking illegal alcohol. New York became the capital of flapper culture and everything that went along with it: jazz music, drinking, dancing, and the carefree, leisurely lifestyle. It was home to a plethora of illegal drinking establishments called speakeasies.

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