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Middle Class Opportunities in American Cities During the Second Industrial Revolution

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  • 0:05 Modern America Is Born
  • 1:07 Advances in Technology…
  • 3:16 Sports and Leisure Activities
  • 4:41 Educational Opportunities
  • 6:45 Popular Art and Literature
  • 8:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In the late 1800s, a new middle class emerged in America. In this lesson, learn about new opportunities available to these urbanites, including technology, sports and leisure, education and the arts.

Modern America is Born

At the dawning of the nation, Thomas Jefferson believed that the United States would reject industry and urbanization in favor of an agrarian paradise where independent farmers - the most valuable and honest citizens - ruled politics and the economy. It took less than a century to prove him wrong.

In the decades following the Civil War, America was transformed from a collection of regions and rural farming communities into a unified, urban, industrial power. In addition to masses of factory workers, the giant corporations of the Second Industrial Revolution also needed thousands of engineers, supervisors, clerks, accountants and other white-collar employees, resulting in a booming middle class. This literate and curious urban workforce had more money and more time to enjoy all that the cities had to offer: new technology, experiences and opportunities.

Advances in Technology and Communications

Technology changed the way urban Americans live and work, essentially creating the modern city. Lightweight steel and elevators allowed buildings to scrape the sky. Trains, trolleys and streetcars introduced what we know today as a commute between separate residential and business districts. Indoor plumbing and sewers made life more comfortable. The introduction of electricity opened the door for many new devices. And with Thomas Edison's light bulb, cities and their residents made their own hours, whether working or playing.

New communication technologies at the turn of the century also transformed society and allowed businesses to expand rapidly. Improved printing methods slashed the cost of publication, leading to record-high readership for magazines and newspapers. To increase sales, newspapers commonly embellished or even invented stories. Despite this so-called 'yellow journalism,' the result of this print revolution was a more informed public and increased literacy, and advertising would never be the same.

The introduction of the telegraph transformed communication decades earlier, and by this era, Western Union enjoyed a near monopoly on the transfer of critical information, including stock tickers and the Associated Press. So when Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone, he literally put control of information back into the hands of the people.

Though Bell emphasized the telephone's use in business, a quarter of American homes had phones by 1909. Housewives used the telephone to socialize and to order goods and services. But the telephone also provided a new means of employment for women, first as operators and then in offices. Middle-class Americans enjoyed many other new communication technologies at the end of the 19th century, such as the phonograph, cameras, movies and wireless.

Sports and Leisure Activities

Urban Americans enjoyed many new forms of entertainment. They went to amusement parks, zoos and circuses, museums and sideshows. They shopped in brightly lit department stores like Macy's. The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, America's first World's Fair, drew 10 million visitors. Men and women alike joined the cycling craze that ignited in the 1890s with the advent of the 'safety' bicycle. They went to the theater to enjoy concerts, operas and plays, minstrel and burlesque shows. Vaudeville acts were the most popular. Such well-known performers as Will Rogers, Harry Houdini and the Marx Brothers all got their start in vaudeville.

Collegiate and professional sports became popular forms of mass entertainment, including football and boxing, but the most popular spectator sport in America at the turn of the 20th century was baseball. The National League was formed in 1876, and by 1903, there was a World Series championship. Cities across the country scrambled for their own home team and many financed huge stadiums to hold the crowds. Before the color barrier went up, several black men played in the majors, most notably a man named Moses Fleetwood Walker, more than 60 years before Jackie Robinson is credited with desegregating the sport.

Educational Opportunities

Educational opportunities expanded in the late 1800s also, especially in urban areas for many different reasons. By the end of the century, compulsory elementary education existed throughout the Northern and Western states. Of course, it was much easier to pass these laws than to enforce them, and child labor remained common until federal legislation intervened.

There were also more opportunities for higher education, including vocational schools and state-run land grant colleges, some of which were open to African Americans. Wealthy philanthropists established several prestigious universities, such as Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Vanderbilt, Duke and the University of Chicago.

Educational opportunities caused significant changes for middle class women in the 1890s. Nearly half of the nation's colleges accepted females. But once they graduated, women found that most occupations were still closed to them. Many of these young, educated ladies began to challenge the Victorian 'cult of domesticity.' Most of them weren't radical; they simply wished to apply the nurturing values of the women's 'sphere' outside the home. Middle class women had the chance to become leaders in several reform movements, including the prohibition of alcohol, settlement houses, education and child labor.

Slowly, more career opportunities opened to women, especially those who were single. About half of all the young, white, educated women never married. Among families, the average American household fell from seven children to four throughout the century. This new era of femininity was epitomized by an illustrator named Charles Gibson, who drew the new woman as intelligent, liberated, wealthy and beautiful. No surprise that men and women alike admired his so-called 'Gibson Girls.'

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