American Society 1865-1890


Mass immigration

  • From the 1860's to 1890 there were more than 10 million immigrants.
  • There were expanding industries in need of a new labour force and empty land to be filled, which were major pull factors for immigrants.
  • Many immigrants were actively recruited by shipping companies. Systems were put in place for arriving immigrants, notably a centre for arriving immigrants on the southern tip of Manhattan Island in New York.
  • Irish immigrants were more likely to settle in urban areas such as New York, Boston and Chicago. Many thousands of non-Europeans arrived also, many of them Chinese labourers employed in constructing the Western sections of the transcontiental railroads.
  • The population increased sharply due to immigration and also due to death rates declining and more people were living longer.
  • Districts of big cities became 'Irish', 'German' or 'Chinatown'. Milwaukee in Wisconsin became a German American city of breweries and German- language newspapers.

The consequences of immigration and urbanisation for American society and culture

  • New immigrant communities were often regarded with suspicion and hostility as they were seem as a threat to jobs or to existing cultural norms.
  • Nativism grew. These were people whose parents were born in America and who felt it necessary to protect American values against the new ways brought in by immigrants.
  • There were also tensions between 'new' immigrants and those who had settled in the previous generation. There was tension within immigrant communities as many wished to become an American whilst others wanted to hold on to the old ways.
  • There was a strong reaction towards Chinese Americans, with newspapers and politicians campaigning to stop the 'Yellow Peril' of Chinese immigrants. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 stopping the immigration of 'skilled or unskilled' Chinese workers. 
  • In the 1860's thousands of Chinese labourers were brought in to work on the construction of the Union Pacific railroad. Many moved to the exisiting Chinese American communities in California. Chinese workers provided half the labour force for San Francisco's key industries such as wool textiles and sewing. Many also worked on farms.
  • Chinese workers were cheap, hard-working and caused few social disturbances. Many employers even admired their work ethic, and some thought they would make far better workers on plantations than black freedmen.
  • However the economic depression following the 1873 stock market panic increased fears that cheap Chinese labour would undermine white workers. 

Other social divisions

  • Reacting against the rise of industrial capitalism, farmers and workers set up the Granger movement and the Knights of Labor to defend their interests. The middle classes also organised pressure groups against the rise of big business.
  • Female suffrage and social equality for women was another division. Women's groups were active in the temperance movement which fought for restrictions on alcohol and the abolition of slavery from as early as 1848. 
  • There were divisions between feminists and men against the cause and also conservative and radical women's groups who split apart on


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