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American Cultural History

19th Century - 1870 - 1879

1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890


Presidents: Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes | Population: 39,818,449| Statehood: Colorado

About the 19th Century Decades Pages

Working man - 19th century In 1800 everyday life had changed little since the year 1000. By 1900 the Industrial Revolution had transformed the world's economy. To see the whole picture, we encourage users to browse all the way through these decades. Then visit the suggested links for more information.   As librarians, we must point out that the best way to immerse oneself in a topic is to use both Internet and the library.  ENJOY!

The 1870-1879

Big business moves Americans into the second industrial revolution | American society led by Mrs. J.J. Astor, grand dame of New York social scene | Philanthropy grows | The great fire of Chicago | P.T. Barnum's The Greatest Show on Earth | first public telephones | John D. Rockefeller founds Standard Oil Company | U.S. General Amnesty Act pardons ex-Confederates | First American zoo is established in Philadelphia | Tennis introduced to Americans | Football uniforms introduced.


dogtrot house- mid 19th centuryPainters like John La Farge, William Morris Hunt, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler were influenced by the prominent French schools. George Innes' Home of the Heron, sentimental, romantic, is a good example of the romantic landscapes that lasted through the end of the century. Mary Cassatt is unique in that she was the only American painter to show work in the famed Impressionist exhibitions. John Singer Sargeant, portraitist, also painted in this 'new' style. Realist paintings were also subjects, including Thomas Eakins' Gross Clinic. Winslow Homer, a genre artist, The Checkerplayers by John Rogers.produced a series of paintings of the sea during this decade. Homer also completed his famous The Cotton Pickers. Water color became an honored medium in American art.

The Corcoran Art Gallery was incorporated by an act of Congress. The Society of American Artists was founded to exhibit works of artists not shown by the Academy of Design. John Ruskin (British) influenced architecture with his defence of medieval architecture, his style known as Ruskinian Gothic or Victorian Gothic. (Read Seven Lamps of Architecture.) What is referred to as American glass began with experimentation by John La Farge, a creator of murals (Trinity Church, Boston) and stained glass windows. (Battle Window at Harvard, church windows in Buffalo, Worcester, and Columbia U in New York.) Enjoy the Art Timeline by the New Britain Museum on American Art.

Famous sculptures completed during the period:


The Gilded Age was in full flourish. Although industrialization was strong, the Grange organizations helped agriculture retain its place as the largest area of production in America.  In the South, a strong cotton export economy remained.  As factories grew in urban areas, cities grew. Railroads centralized growth.  Congress grew fearful of government by monied corporations grew and passed laws, like the Railroad Act, which was passed in Illinois in 1871. This law set maximum shipping rates and prohibited railroads from favoring large corporations with low rates. Child labor had grown partly in response to the Civil War, when adults were away from home. Montgomery Ward catalog 1875-76Child advocates like Charles Loring Brace began to agitate against the horrible working conditions of these children, some as young as 4. Wage slavery did not just affect children. In 1874, Massachusetts passed a law establishing a 10 hour work day for women.  In 1875, 14 members of the Molly Maguires were tried for murdering mine owners.  New industrial capitalists, or robber barons, like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt controlled much of the nation's wealth and power.  

Ideas like Laissez-faire espoused by William Graham Sumner, a prominent social-Darwinist, grew.  The Panic of 1873, set off  by the collapse of Jay Cooke's Northern Pacific Railroad, set up a depression which lasted for 5 years. New companies such as Remington Typewriters did emerge as businesses changed to fit new industrial methods. In 1870, John D. Rockefeller and associates incorporated the Standard Oil Company, establishing what quickly became the world's largest oil refinery complex.  In 1872, Andrew Carnegie built a steel-rail rolling mill named the Edgar Thomson Works.  Mail order company Montgomery Ward made the catalog ordering business big in rural areas. Cornelius Vanderbilt built the New York Union Depot in 1873.  In 1873, the Colgate Company began marketing dental creamJoseph F. Glidden patented barbed wire in 1874, transforming western ranching forever.   John Dryden founded the Widows and Orphans Friendly Society in 1873, reorganized in 1875 as the Prudential Friendly Society, which provided the first U. S. Industrial insurance. Also in 1875, R. J. Reynolds started a chewing tobacco farm in Winston-Salem, N. Carolina.  Henry J. Heinz (tomato ketcup), Albert G. Spalding, (baseballs for major league use) and John Wanamaker (the largest department store - the Grand Depot) all introduced new products which grew into American icons. 1877 Gustavus Swift (meats), and in 1879 Frank W. Woolworth  (Great Five Cent store) initiated businesses which still operate today.   In 1879, James Gamble developed Ivory Soap, named by Harley Procter.


Animals, coming of age novels, travelogues, and realistic novels depicting life and nature in America continued to find readers. During the 1870s, the first anti-cruelty to animals law was passed. During this decade Anna Sewell (British) wrote Black Beauty, referred to as the most influential anti-cruelty novel of all time. This book had the same impact for animal lovers as Uncle Tom's Cabin had for despisers of slavery. It has been loved by generations of young people. Thomas Bailey Aldrich published The Story of a Bad Boy (see illustration), accounting the story of boyhood without the moralization children's books usually had. Another best seller was Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier Schoolmaster. William Holmes McGuffey published The First Eclectic Reader. Bret Harte documented the westward movement with his The Story of a Bad Boy , illustration by the author.tales of gold mines, western life, Indians, and differences in cultures. His poem Plain Language from Truthful James earned him a national reputation. His short stories, including The Luck of Roaring Camp, are studies on what it means to be civilized. The Silent Partner by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps described the horrific factory conditions. This book is a first in "boundary crossing", describing the differences in male and female management styles. William Dean Howell's first novel, Their Wedding Journey, was a combination travelogue and book of manners. Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Henry James' The American and Daisy Miller were popular. Edward Payson Roe wrote a novel based on the Chicago fire, Barrier's Burned Away. Mark Twain continued his 'travelogue fictions.'

An important reference annual, Dictionary of American Biography, was introduced in 1870. Poets John Burroughs (Birds and Poets), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes. New journals this decade included Scribner's Monthly, which gave preference to American authors.


Sitting BullThe 1870's saw increasing belligerence by Native Americans as more and more of their land was  taken away by white migration.  Now settlers were coming not only from the east but  from the populated areas of  the west and southwest.  When gold was discovered in 1874 in the Black Hills of South Dakota, federal efforts to keep miners off the sacred Indian land failed.  The Indian's main source of livelihood, the buffalo, was being hunted to extinction.  The buffalo which had numbered four million in 1870 were reduced to only a half million in 1874.  The Native American way of life was disappearing and their efforts to protect and preserve their lands failed.  There were victories for them such as the Battle of Little Big Horn, but the outcome was inevitable.  The Indian Wars were essentially over with the surrender of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce on October 5, 1877. The coming of the railroads had only hastened the demise.  The federal government was making some attempt to preserve the disappearing wilderness with the establishment of the first national park - Yellowstone.

The total number of immigrants into the country in 1877 was 141, 857.  The greatest number of immigrants of this decade came from Germany (691, 813) with Great Britain (548,043) and Ireland (436,871) not far behind.  In some states the  immigrants could vote within a few months without citizenship, while in other states it took the five years necessary to become a citizen in order to vote. The newcomers influenced life in the country in many ways.  In politics, especially on the state and local level, the voting blocks of the different ethnic groups allowed control of the government.  The Tammany Hall regime of New York City was one of the more infamous.  In 1874 Mennonite immigrants from Russia came to Kansas with seeds for "Turkey Red" wheat.  This drought-resistant strain was to turn the Great American Desert into the "Breadbasket of the World."   Resentment toward the immigrants was present and led to legislation at times.  The Chinese were willing to work for lower wages and a backlash against them led to legislation in Nevada banning Chinese labor and in California to providing separate schools.

BOOKS:Deadwood City




X of illiterate farmer.A nation divided tried to become whole again as the seceeded states gradually rejoined the Union.  However, the South was so devastated by the Civil War that there was little money for such luxuries as "schooling", despite the fact that Congress now required states to guarantee in their constitutions free non-sectarian education to all children.  Despite the efforts of many white Southerners to thwart the education of African-Americans, by 1877 there were more 500,000 black children attending school.  Formal education on the frontier depended on what was available in that locality.  Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on thSchool for negro children 1970se Prairie describes what her school days were like in Minnesota and Kansas.  Edward Eggleton's novel The Hoosier School-Master told of the plight of the teachers in these frontier schools.  In 1873 Susan Blow opened an English speaking kindergarten in St. Louis.  Her kindergarten was supported by William Torrey Harris, superintendent of the St. Louis schools, and based on the ideas of the German philosopher, Friedrich Froebel.  Froebel's ideas were so popular that the Milton Bradley Company produced toys designed by Froebel. The commitment to public kindergartens actually played a part in the women's suffrage movement.  The New England Women's Club , founded in 1868, pressed for school reforms in the city's public schools and sought  the addition of women on the Boston School Committee.  In 1875 six women were elected to the Committee - by men. When 1880 arrived, women were voting for Boston School Committee members.  The education of Native Americans was begun in earnest by the U. S. government in 1870.  Boarding schools were seen as a means of integrating Indian children in the mainstream culture.  One of the most notable of these schools was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.The Kalamazoo Court Case of 1875 set a precedent for the public funding of high schools in the state of Michigan. Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876, was the first research university in the United States.  Its thirteen graduate departments drew many students seeking advanced degrees to its campus.  






Ms. O'Leary's Cow.FLASH! Standard Oil Company founded by John D. Rockefeller. FLASH! Oct 8, 1871. Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicks over lantern. Chicago nearly burned to the ground. FLASH! 1873. Yellow fever, cholera, and smallpox sweep through many southern cities. FLASH! Bellevue Hospital in NYC starts nursing education institution, based on the teaching theories of Florence Nightingale. FLASH! Three ring circus begun by Phineas T. Barnum. FLASH! Nov. 23, 1875. First National Railroad Convention held in St. Louis. FLASH! Custer and 265 men slaughtered by Sitting Bull's Sioux Indians at Little Big Horn. FLASH! Dewey Decimal System originated by Melvil Dewey.


After his Barnum and Van Amburgh Museum and Menagerie Museum burned, P. T. Barnum founded the three ring circus he called The Greatest Show on Earth.  His tent covered three acres of ground and held 10,000 spectators.  The show traveled by rail from Maine to Kansas featuring chariot races and acrobatic acts.   Burlesque and operetta  also traveled the country.  The first burlesque theater, the Columbia, opened on Broadway in 1875.

Another World Peace Jubilee was held in 1872 but was not as successful as the previous Peace Jubilee in 1869.  The 1876 Centennial of American Independence at Philadelphia was attended by crowned heads of Europe.  It included an old folk dance, the cakewalk, originally a competition by slave couples, sometimes with pails of water on their heads.  John Philip Sousa published his first composition, Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes, in 1872.  John Knowles Paine became a professor of music at Harvard, establishing the first department of music in an American university in 1875.  

Negro music continued to be popular.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang spirituals and plantation songs.  A professional negro minstrel,  James Bland,  wrote Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.  Thomas Green Bethune, known as Blind Tom, made a career of his piano virtuosity from the age of six, with as many as 7000 pieces memorized including more than 100 pieces he composed himself.    

Edison's tin-foil phonograph, 1879, from the Smithsonian National Museum of Art History Music was about to be brought into the home with the phonograph, Thomas Edison's favorite invention.  At this point, in 1877, however, it was difficult to operate and the foil "records" only lasted for a few playings.

Popular songs of the times included:
Performing Arts in America 1875 - 1923
Music published in America 1870 - 1885


The art of figure skating (a combination of ice skating and dance) was developed by Jackson Haines. A  duplex wedding was a ceremony for two couples who were being married during one ceremony.  People attending the wedding would wear their most fashionable clothing. Food preparation was going through changes.  Margarine  was developed  to be used in place of butter.  To add spice, Tabasco Pepper Sauce could be added to foods. P. T. Barnum opened his Greatest Show on Earth   in 1871 in Brooklyn.  The circus became a popular family show.


The new field of bacteriology allowed scientists to attack diseases once thought to be unconquerable.   The Marine Hospital Service, forerunner of the Public Health Service, was directed to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in 1878.   The American Public Health Association  presumed that diseases such as cholera were caused by miasma or filth and persuaded cities to clean up garbage, horse droppings and human waste.  While they may have misjudged the cause of diseases, their efforts paid off by removing the breeding grounds for infectious organisms.  A yellow fever epidemic began in New Orleans and worked its way up the Mississippi on the John D. Porter, a towboat towing barges.   Memphis was one of the hardest hit cities.  

Patent medicines abounded, sold through medicine shows and in newspaper ads. One of the most popular was Mrs. Pinkhams, an amalgamation of vegetable extracts and alcohol.   Others might be created of lead, lard, or lime, often dissolved in alcohol.  The first nursing school, Bellevue, was established in 1873, and in 1875, Andrew T. Still established the new medical field of osteopathy.
Barbed wire revolutionized ranching
In 1870, Foot and Mouth Disease was first reported in the United States.  A grasshopper plague of 1874-1866 lead to the establishment of the United States Entomological Commission.  But the development that had the most long-lasting affect on ranching was the invention of barbed wire in 1873 by J. F. Glidden.  No longer were all cattle free-ranging.  Sheep could compete with cattle for grassland.  The first American zoo was established in Philadelphia.  Using the telegraph for communication and the observation that storm systems moved in a certain pattern, the first US Weather Service began its predictions.  

In 1879 Thomas Edison, with the help of a mathematical physicist, Francis R. Upton, designed the first practical lamp.  Although others were working on lighting in the 1870's, Edison's brilliance was to work on a lighting system.  He went on to develop an electric power system, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company.  Americans remained practical scientists, emphasizing inventions over theory.  The decade saw the invention of the telephone, phonograph, cable car and adding machine.  James B. Eads developed the 3-arch Eads Bridge in St. Louis as a means of getting the railroads over the Mississippi River.  This bridge, built to a height of 50 feet above the river, required steamboats to lower their smokestacks, a symbol of their lowering importance in transportation of goods.   The Centennial Exhibition of Philadelphia in 1876 introduced George Corliss's engine that powered Machinery Hall and John Roebling's stone bridge tower that illustrated the Brooklyn Bridge, a work of art as well as a great step forward in structural integrity.


Reconstruction continued as the nation tried to heal and move forward after the Civil War.  As the role of the individual in society became more important, self-made men and women came forward to lead groups to reform America.   Henry Ward Beecher, a well-known preacher, advocated lenient Reconstruction measures after the war, and applied some of Darwin's theories to economics.  First Colored Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-2325, LC-USZ62-2814 (5-6) In 1874, female activists like Frances Willard met in Cleveland to found the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the largest women's organization in the United States.  Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell, the first woman ordained in a Christian church (1853) promoted the idea that coeducation did not hurt women in her book The Sexes Throughout Nature published in 1875.  Mary Baker Eddy held her first public religious service in 1875, establishing the Christian Scientists in 1876.  Robert Green Ingersoll, a well known popular speaker and agnostic from Illinois, wrote "Heretics and Heresies" a speech which praised individualists who thought for themselves.

The role of women was changing.  The Civil War had opened doors as women like Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton nursed soldiers in field hospitals.  Teaching was another area where women like Elizabeth Palmer Peabody gradually became prominent.  In 1875, Col. Francis Parker established a teacher's training school for female high-school graduates in Massachusettes.

The period from the end of the Civil War to about 1900 is often referred to as "The Gilded Age" in American history, after the satirical novel of the same name by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner.  Industrialization was a driving force.  While many people did make fortunes and prosper, some members of society like coal miners did not fair as well.  Native Americans assigned to reservations in 1871 by the Indian Appropriation Act, continued to struggle against their confinement. In 1872, Senator Hiram J. Revels and other black Representatives joined the U.S. Congress. The 19th amendment for woman's suffrage was defeated in the Senate in 1878.  Chinese laborers were forbidden employment in the California constitution adopted in 1879.  

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