Kingwood College

American Cultural History

19th Century - 1840 - 1849

1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890


Presidents: Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore | Population 17,069,453 | Statehood: Florida, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin

About the 19th Century Decades Pages

 In 1800 everyday life had changed little since the year 1000. But, 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.  That is exactly what WE did. ENJOY!

Overview 1840-1849

During the past year approximately 40,000 Indians had resettled in Indian territory and were self-governing | |Immigrants continued to arrive on the U.S. shores, especially from Ireland after the potato famine of 1845. | The first covered wagon train went from Kansas to California. Dorothea Dix campaigned against mistreatment of the insane | Horseracing was the most popular spectator sport. | John Fremont left with his party to explore the route to Oregon beyond the Mississippi river crossing the Continental Divide | The Sons of Temperance was founded at Teetotaler's Hall in NY | The term millionaire was popularized in the newspapers | Congress established the Smithsonian Institution, using a gift from James Smithson in 1829 | The Donner party was trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada | The gold rush was on with the discovery of god in California by John Sutter.


Edward Hicks During the 1840s panorama-type painting became popular. Rolled canvas would be unfolded yard by yard as the story depicted was told. John Banvard's Mississippi River series was 3 miles long and depicted 1200 miles of scenery. The first life-sized bronze statue cast in the U.S. was made by Robert Ball Hughes and placed on the grave of Nathaniel Bowditch in Cambridge. The Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, an example of late meeting house style, was built in Brooklyn. The American Art Union grew in membership. The Hudson River School continued to be extremely popular during this decade. Geoge Catlin painted the American Indian. Portrait or mourning miniatures were popular. Often they contained a lock of hair of the 'dearly departed.'. Edward Hicks continued his art. There remain fine examples of quilts, samplers, and other folk art completed during the time. Artists working in the naive tradition include Rufus Hathaway, Edward Hicks, Joshua Johnson and Ammi Phillips. Most of these artists were untrained and many of the works were not signed, but they contribute greatly to our understanding of what life was like. They are our windows to the past.

Grace Church was constructed (James Renwick architect). It is an important early example of Gothic Revival architecture. Hibernian Hall (Charleston) continued the Greek Revival heyday. It is an example of one of the best, with its hexastyle Ionic portico. A home with tetrastyle Doric colonade was built for James F.D. Lanier in Madison, Ind. It cost $40,000, a huge price for that time. Another Gothic Revival example is the First Congregational Church at Haverhill, Mass. Industrial architecture included the factories and mills, such as those of the Essex Company at Lawrence, Mass. Cast iron production produced a new kind of structure. An example is the first cast-iron building in New York City at Centre and Duane Streets. Foundries such as Badger's Iron Works began to turn out prefabricated parts.


The Independent Treasury System initiated by Levi Woodbury was enacted by Congress in 1840, and created a fiscal system that would last until the Federal Reserve Act of 1931.  Lewis Tappan helped establish the nation's first  credit rating agency, forerunner of Dun and Bradstreet in New York City in 1842.  A new national bank bill, vetoed by President John Tyler, prompted the resignation of the entire cabinet with the exception of Daniel Webster.  In 1848 the Chicago Board of Trade opened, specializing in farm-commodity trading.

By executive order, Martin Van Buren established the ten-hour workday in 1840, for federal employees engaged on public works.  In 1842 the ten-hour workday was adopted by severl states after newly formed trade unions and workers' patries lobbied in those states.  The New York Weekly Tribune Texas Longhorn Reference Library a part of the Texas Longhorn Showcase was founded by Horace Greeley who helped publicize the labor reform movement.  In Commonwealth v. Hunt, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, ruled that labor unions are not, by definition, criminal conspiracies.  Labor reform movements centering around the rights of workingmen began to form with the establishment of labor unions.  By 1844, the Marquette iron-ore range was discovered in Michigan near Lake Superior by William A. Burt.

As the nation expanded with the addition of western states like New Mexico and Texas, new buildings, businesses and industries were developed.  In 1840, New Orleans became one of the largest ports in the nation with approximately $50 million worth of goods sold, more than twice the amount from ten years earlier.  In 1841 the Preemption Act gave squatters who had improved land the right to be the sole purchaser of that land for $1.25 an acre (up to 160 acres of improved land).  Texas became a state in 1845 and a leading exporter of cotton and cattle.  In 1848 the gold strike at John Sutter's Fort in Northern California helped create the state of California.  Inventions like vulcanizing rubber (1844, by Charles Goodyear), the sewing machine (1846, by Elias Howe), and the safety pin (1849, by Walter Hunt) had an effect on businesses and industry.


Cheap publishing because of low postal rates for newspapers and improvements in printing, allowed newspapers to print novels in newspaper format, forcing publishers to produce cheap paperbacks. Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte (E.D.E.N.) Southworth, who wrote 60 novels and many short stories, published The Wife's Victory and the sequel The Married Shrew in The National Era. Her stories, based on true events, dealt with the role of women in society. Edgar Allan Poe published his first short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. The Deerslayer, last of the Leather-Stocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper was The Big Bear of Arkansas by Thomas Bangs Thorpe published. By this time, Natty Bumpo and Hawkeye were household words. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. published Two Years before the Mast, realistically depicting life at sea. Herman Melville sealed his popularity with Typee, a romance about the South Seas.

A new literary genre (detective and mystery stories) was created in 1841 when Edgar Allan Poe introduced The Murders in the Rue Morgue. During this decade, magazines with high standards and espousing particular points of view were established. The Dial, a transcendentalist paper, lasted only four years, but published articles by the important transcendentalists of the period. Others were The Living Age (poetry and criticism), Brownson's Quarterly Review (Catholicism), The Southern Literary Messenger, and Illinois Monthly Magazine (first literary mag west of the Ohio.) Travel sketches (Loiterings of Travel and American Scenery) were published in magazines. Two important newspapers began publication in the 40s. The New York Tribune (Horace Greeley publisher) and the Mirror. Feminist Margaret Fuller published critical essays and Woman in the Nineteeth Century. In 1849, Thoreau published his essay Civil Disobedience.

Poets continuing to flourish included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Ballads and Other Poems, Evangeline), Rufus Wilmot Griswold (anthology entitled The Poets and Poetry of America), and John Greenleaf Whittier (Lays of My Home). Ralph Waldo Emerson published his second series of Essays. Regional folksy stories were published, from the south (Seba Smith and William Tappan Thompson) and New England (Major Jack Downing). These folksy stories delighted readers with their homespun philosophy and descriptions of everyday life told 'in dialect.' Tall tales from Arkansas (The Big Bear of Arkansas by Thomas Bangs Thorpe) and other tales were popular. Writings about the western frontier became popular. Charles W. Webber, a Texas Ranger, wrote Jack Long and Old Hicks.

Our neighbors are the rattlesnakes– 
They crawl up from the Badlands' breaks;
We do not live, we only stay;
We are too poor to get away.

~ Folklore in the American West ~ Early American Fiction University of Virginia's Publicly Accesible Collection of writings by authors of the 19th century.


Oregon Trail Gold - that magic word sent thousands rushing to California to seek their fortunes.  "Oregon Or Bust" - that slogan inspired thousands to risk life and limb on the Oregon Trail to settle the fertile land of the Pacific Northwest.  "Manifest Destiny" - that  phrase provided the rational for the ever westward push of Americans.  Some men and groups who in various ways contributed to the stories, myths, legends, and  events of this movement westward are:

Prior to the gold rush fever, fewer than 19,000 hardy souls made the trek west to the Pacific; between 1849 and 1860 280,000 moved to the area by a number of methods and trails.

The 1840's witnessed the greatest number of immigrants in proportion to the total population of the United States in the history of the nation - 1,427,337.  Such European countries as Germany and Sweden simplified the regulations that had  hindered emigration, and many settled in the state of Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Those who had previously come to America began to send travel tickets and money to relatives and friends in the "old country" to enable them to make the journey to the new land.  The suffering and poverty brought on by the potato famine in Ireland and crop failures in Germany persuaded even more Irish and Germans to make the trip across the Atlantic. This constant stream of  newcomers led to opposition to their increasing numbers and influence. Nativist secret societies such as the Order of United Americans were organized to protest the tide of immigration.  In 1847 the Know Nothing Party , with a platform of  anti-Catholicism and anti-immigration, was formed and managed to win elections in a number of states.




The issues in education at this time did not differ much from the issues of today.  Bilingual education for the children of German immigrants was mandated by the city of Cincinnati, Ohio after the recently arrived German population demanded it.  The separation of church and state was a matter of strong debate.  Up until the influx of Irish immigrants, the mainly Protestant population favored teaching from the King James version of the Bible, and the texts often had anti-Catholic passages in their readings.  However, by 1840 nearly half the people in New York City were foreign born, many of whom were Irish and Catholic.  Bishop John Hughes demanded that the city provide money for Catholic schools.  In 1844  there were anti-Catholic riots in  Philadelphia against the attempts by the Catholics in the city to end Bible-reading in the public schools.  Catholic churches and homes of immigrants were burned and looted, and the riots had to be put down by the militia.    African-Americans were fighting for the right to a quality education.  In the South it was against the law to teach a slave to read.
In the North the Negro children were segregated in the school system.  When Benjamin Roberts sought to enroll his five-year-old daughter Sarah  in the elementary school closest to their home in Boston, Sarah was refused admittance.  Mr. Roberts took his case to the Massachusetts courts, and in 1849 the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruled against Sarah Roberts.  The arguments both for and against this case were to be used in the federal courts for another 100 years.  In 1855 the Massachusetts legislature passed a law prohibiting racial segregation in the state's schools, the first such law in the United States. Women were entering the teaching field in increasing numbers, but their salaries were still half that of their male counterparts. Most women served under the supervision of a male principal.  Much of the teaching was done by rote memorization and penmanship was perfected by writing verses in a copybook.  Some were trained by the Central Committee for Promoting National Education and sent to such frontier states as Iowa and Wisconsin as missionary teachers.  On November 6, 1845  the Limestone Springs Female High School  was opened  in South Carolina, a pioneering occurence in the South.

This decade saw the first American woman earn a medical degree as Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from the Geneva Medical College of New York in 1849.  In 1847 the tuition-free Academy of New York City, later to become City College of New York, was chartered by the New York State Legislature.  Some institutions of higher learning founded between 1840 and 1849 were Notre Dame (1842), Ohio Wesleyan University (1842), University of Mississippi (1844), Baylor University (1845), State University of Iowa (1847), University of Wisconsin (1847), and Otterbein College (1849).






FLASH! 1842. Godey's Lady's Book predicts tight sleeves will last. Warns ladies attending summer resorts to guard against bare arms, which cause men to blush. FLASH! March 3, 1842. Governor John Davis of Massachusetts signed a law to limit the workday of children under 12 years of age to 10 hours. FLASH! June 27, 1844. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, and his brother murdered by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. FLASH! Seneca Falls, NY. July 19-20, 1848. A women's convention is called by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to discuss such subjects as voting, property rights, and divorce. FLASH! January 24, 1848. John Sutter finds gold in them-thar' hills of California. FLASH! April, 1849. Amelia Bloomer reports in her magazine, The Lily, that following a drinking contest the defending champion, who had drank three pints, sank to the floor and died. FLASH! Harriet Tubman , escaped slave, works with the Underground Railroad.


Louis Moreau Gottschalk, America's premier composer, was refused admittance to the Conservatory of Paris because heHutchinson Family Singers 1846 was American and "no American can be good enough for the Conservatory of Paris."  The oldest professional orchestra in the United States, the New York Philharmonic, was founded in 1842, presenting four programs per season.

The Hutchinson Family Singers of New Hampshire sang temperance and anti-slavery songs as well as popular songs.  Another traveling group, The Virginia Minstrels, as a joke, produced the first minstrel show at the Bowery Circus.  They played a banjo, a fiddle, a tambourine and the bones (originally animal rib bones) and sang Old Dan Tucker.   Minstrelsy, first called Ethiopian minstrels, spread across the country.  While most minstrels were white men in blackface, there was one phenomenal black dancer, William Henry Lane, known as Juba.  He also blackened his face. Daniel Decatur Emmett, a circus performer, wrote black dialect songs. Early minstrel music was basically frontier music sung in the dialect of negroes. Stephen Foster began writing plantation songs, but soon became interested in the more lucrative minstrel songs such as 'Gwine to Run All Night, better known as "Camptown Races," and Oh! Susanna.  The Christy Minstrels, the most successful minstrel band,  introduced many of Stephen Foster's songsMinstrelsy was beoming more restrained, more melodic.

Engraving of Ring Dance, Niskeyuna Shaker Community USA The Sacred Harp was published in 1844, using shape notes to make singing easier.  Isaac N. Young's Short Abridgement of the Rules of Music, a Shaker tunebook, made Shaker music more accessible to the public, also using shape notes.  The Shakers created over a thousand songs to use in praise of God, originally all vocal. They would dance and shake to the music, hence their name, the Shaking Quakers.  The public was invited to concerts and some of the songs, typified by "Simple Gifts," evolved into folk songs.  

As Americans became more affluent, able to afford a parlor and piano, young women were expected to be able to play the piano and sing.  Death of a loved one was a popular theme, as in Near the Lake Where Drooped the Willow.  Long Long Ago was the most popular song in America in 1843.  The first American opera, Leonora, was written in 1845 by William Henry Fry.  The audience responded enthusiastically, insisting that a favorite song or dance be performed twice.  The Quickstep and the Polka were popular dances.  Popular songs included:


In the 1840’s, people dressed in their most formal clothing for photographs.  Hats and high necklines  for both women and men were common.  A lady usually wore a dress with full a skirt, and she often wore a bonnet. A gentleman would often wear a waistcoat and a hat.  Home furniture during this decade usually included a spinning wheel and a sewing rocker. Oysters were popular food on the dining table during this decade.  In 1847, Adam Exton began baking an oyster cracker to be eaten with oyster stew.


The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, the first of its kind, was established in 1840.  At the time, the usual treatment for toothache was extraction.  False teeth, made of ivory, gold, silver or porcelain, often had to be removed for eating.  Opium, sold in drugstores as laudanum, was ostensibly used to control pain, although it was also abused as a recreational drug.  Dr. Crawford W. Long began experimenting with the use of ether during surgery.  Nitrous oxide, originally provided for entertainment, was the first painkiller (besides liquor) in surgery.  Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn an MD, graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849.

First adhesive stamp Cultural differences between whites, Native Americans and black slaves sparked theories of race such as polygenesisJosiah Nott compared craniums and concluded that different races had separate origins. Lewis Henry Morgan studied evolutionary anthropology, concluding that whites and Indians came from the same family.  Albert Gallatin was a proponent of the environmental theory.  When Native Americans died from viruses such as smallpox and measles, many whites believed they were a dying race headed for extinction.  Half the Pawnees and two thirds of the southern Cherokees died in the Cholera Epidemic of 1849-1852. The only relief for pain caused by cholera was Laudanum.  In 1847, the American Medical Association was formed.

The Wilkes Expedition, a flotilla of six small ships, sailed around Cape of Good Hope, discovered Antarctica twelve hours before the French, stopped at the Fiji Islands and Hawaii, and continued up the Oregon coast. They gathered zoological and botanical samples, illustrating many of them in this era before photography.  John James Audubon started a journey recording birds and mammals in 1842.   

Joseph Henry designed an electromagnet that could lift 750 pounds and built a telegraph line that ran between his laboratory and his home.  Samuel Morse adapted his design into a telegraph that could cover long distances.  In 1844, using the Morse Code, he sent a message from Washington, D. C. to Baltimore, "What God hath wrought."  Other inventions of the time included the safety pin and adhesive postage stamps.


In 1840, a group of  Washingtonian artisans from Baltimore began a form of egalitarian temperance movement which recruited workers and many middle class people.  George Henry Evans'   National Reform Association focused attention on homesteads and rights for working men, another type of egalitarian reform.  This movement evolved into the Free Soil Party, which nominated Martin Van Buren for president in 1848.  The women's rights movement, another type of egalitarian reform, grew out of the abolitionist struggle.  In 1848 several hundred women and sympathetic men met at Seneca Falls, New York.   Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia C. Mott, two of the major leaders for women's rights, wrote the Seneca Falls Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, Fox home expressing the goals and reasons for women's suffrage.  Feminists held different views on 19th Century Christian Feminism.   The Common School movement, established by Henry Barnard and Horace Mann promoted equality in education and a publicly funded education for all children in the United States.

Religious groups found new ways to expand and reach different populations. Ellen Harmon White joined the Seventh Day Adventist movement led by William Miller. The Mormons, led by Brigham Young, established New Zion in Great Salt Lake Valley in 1846-47.  In Black churches such as The American Baptist Missionary Convention  and the African Methodist Episcopol Church, women like Mrs. Julian Jane Tillman, were able to lead congregations.  Utopian communities formed by a variety of groups, hoped to create better societies in the new territories of America.   Shakers, an off-shoot of the Quaker religion, developed  more than 20 communities from 1820-1860.  Other utopian groups from this period included the Oneida Community, Brook Farm, and the Amana Colonies.  The Fox sisters heard "rappings" which sparked a spiritualist craze. Nativism and anti-Roman Catholic feelings, a reaction to the large influx of immigrants from Germany and Ireland, gave rise to the Order of the Star Spangled Banner also called the Know-Nothing Party.  

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