American History
The Industrial Age

*The Civil War was one of the country’s greatest tragedies—over 3 million Americans fought in it, and over 600,000 men (2% of the population died in it) and it destroyed the South’s economy and bred decades of resentment against the Yankees.

*For the North, though, the War was a blessing in disguise, because the war demanded the production of so many guns, clothes, railroads, canned foods, and other things.  This led to a boom in the Northern economy and the foundation of many fortunes.

*The industrial revolution began with textile mills.  Although it began in Britain it soon spread to the northern US.  There cotton mills were supplied by the plantations in the South, which spread across the southeast thanks to the cotton gin making cotton farming (and thus slavery) profitable.

*Producing cotton cloth was a complex process. Cotton had to be picked and cleaned (done by slaves and the gin), then separated, then combed, then spun into thread.  Thread would then be woven into cloth and cloth sewn into clothes and other things.

*All this was a long process, but starting in the 1700s many parts began to be done by machines.  Soon manufacturing was broken down into many steps, so it was not necessary to hire expert craftsmen.  Rather, anyone could be trained to make each part of a product or the put those parts together.  At its most refined, this allowed one person to do only one single job all day.  This was boring, perhaps dehumanising, and poorly paid, but efficient.  This led to the mass production of goods that had once been produced one at a time by hand tools. 

*As mass production became more efficient, goods became cheaper, and more people were able to buy more products, allowing even average people to feel rich—a person might even have several suits of clothes now, or a watch of his own.

*Furthermore, although the average factory worker was paid less than expert craftsmen might have been, most still made a wage good enough that in the mid-1800s they could hope to get ahead in the world.

*This was the American Dream: to work hard, become good at your job, and save money to start your own business or at least impress the boss enough that you could one day run his.

*One of the most popular writers of the late 1800s was Horatio Alger.  He wrote rags-to-riches stories in which poor boys worked hard and eventually became wealthy and famous (usually with a little luck thrown in, too, such as rescuing the boss’s daughter and marrying her).  Although they were usually pretty corny, they were still believable because many Americans truly had a chance to achieve something like it.

*Read the selection from Alger’s Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York on page 101.

*One reason American factory workers could demand higher wages in the mid-1800s was because if they did not get the pay they wanted, they could always move west.  Factory owners could pay them higher wages than foreign companies paid their workers because the US government encouraged it.

*Protective tariffs made foreign goods expensive, encouraging people to buy American products.  High tariffs were supported by the Republican Party, which tended to be supported by businessmen (and also by many Civil War veterans and African-Americans who wanted to vote for the Party of Lincoln).  Democrats tended to oppose tariffs because they hurt the poor by driving prices up.

*Laissez-faire economic policies also let businesses compete with each other so that the strongest and most efficient would succeed.  This competition helped keep prices from getting too high.

*The fact that successful businesses could make money encouraged risk-taking and innovation.  Entrepreneurs who started their own businesses were seen as heroes and so were the inventors who made the factories more efficient.

*Thomas Edison was one of the most famous inventors.  He not only invented the light bulb, but he held about 1,100 patents in the US, having created types of record players, movie cameras, and the electric chair.

*Samuel Morse’s telegraph let businessmen and regular folks communicate with one another between cities and Guglielmo Marconi developed the wireless telegraph in 1896 which formed the basis for the later invention of radio. 

*Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone while trying to find a way to help the deaf; founded the Bell Telephone Company, which later merged to form the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.

*The sewing machine made the textile industry even more efficient and Elisha Otis’s safety elevator and the invention of steel frame construction made skyscrapers possible.

*At first factories were powered by water, but later by steam.  The downside to steam power is that to boil the water to make steam, coal was burnt in great quantities, producing industrial pollution on a previously unknown scale—in parts of England, moths adapted by changing from white to brown (and back again) over the span of decades, so they would not show up on pollution-covered trees.

*Some people were concerned about this, and the first national park—Yellowstone--was created in 1872.

*As technology improved over the course of the 1800s, factories became more efficient.  Transportation became more efficient, too.  At first canals allowed people to travel by water, but by the mid-1800s the most important form of transport was the railroad. 

*Railroads came to cover so much of America and travel so quickly that they changed time itself.  To make sure that trains ran on schedule wherever they were, the railroads invented time zones and began standardising time across the country (where previously noon was determined locally whenever the sun was overhead.

*Study the map on page 105.

-Why did Chicago become important? (hub of many railroads; meatpacking centre due to its proximity to the farms and ranches of the Midwest and prairies)

-What important invention was created by the railroads and meatpacking industry?  (refrigerated train cars)

-Why did Pittsburgh become a centre of industy?  (natural resources nearby or easily shipped like coal and iron, the basis of the steel industry)  What is Pittsburgh’s football team?  (Steelers)

-What did Las Vegas begin as? (Army fort)  Why did it become an important rail centre?  (water supply for locomotive boilers—the same reason Johnson City began)

-How did Atlanta gets its name? (Georgia and Atlantic rail lines began there)

-Did any major railroads run all the way across Tennessee?  (no)

-What other areas on the map look like they might be important rail hubs?

*Railroads were important for shipping new resources that supported America’s industrial growth.  Wood was the first major resource (the Appalachian Mountains were nearly deforested before a major public campaign bought part of the Great Smokey Mountains to be a park in the 1920s and 1930s).

*In 1859, Edwin Drake drilled the world’s first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania—previously most oil came from whale blubber, but whales are difficult to hunt and even by the late 1700s were becoming harder to find as they became endangered and some kinds even went extinct.  At first the oil drilled in Pennsylvania (like whale oil) was mostly used for lamps and later machine lubricant, but in the 20th century became the basis of most major forms of transportation.

*Coal was mined in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and parts of the Midwest, and iron and copper around the Great Lakes and in Pennsylvania and New York.

*Coal and iron were the major resources that went into making steel.  Steel became important in the late 1800s because in 1850 Henry Bessemer in England created the Bessemer Process, a way to make strong, lightweight steel that was not brittle (a problem with earlier ways of making steel).  This steel formed the frames for skyscrapers, railroads, suspension bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge (the longest bridge on Earth when it was finished in 1883), and many other things.

*By the late 1800s, though, the Industrial Age was having problems.  Wages were falling as immigrants came to America (particularly from Eastern Europe) and as the best farm land was taken many poor farmers had to give up and move back to the cities and other workers could never really hope for a farm of their own at all.  This led to falling wages and poor working conditions, because with more people looking for work, companies did not have to worry as much about good wages or good treatment to keep the workforce that they needed.  This in turn would lead to protests and demands for reform.

This page last updated 13 August, 2011.
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