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American Cultural History

19th Century - 1850 - 1859

1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890


Presidents: Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan | Population: 23,000,000 | Statehood: California, Minnesota, Oregon

About the 19th Century Decades Pages

 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 1850s

It was mid-century and the states were brewing over slavery. | The population in 1850 was 23,000,000 - 3.2 million were black slaves | Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin | The harsh Fugitive Slave Bill was passed | A Supreme Court decision on the Dred Scott v Sandford case was a setback for antislavery forces | In 1859 the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry was seized by John Brown and 21 followers. | The first oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pa | A transcontinental railroad survey was authorized | A world's fair was held at the newly opened Crystal Palace in New York City | William Stuart of Connecticut became one of the best-known counterfeiters in American history | Immigration from Europe increased | 2 million people arrived in America, mostly from Europe | Gambling and baseball continued as favorite American pastimes.


Portrait of Gen. Scott by  Mathew BradyDuring the 1850s American artists were acquiring reputations in Europe. Greek architecture and sculptures dominated. Hiram Powers, sculptor, exibited his marble Greek Slave in 1851 at London's newly completed Crystal Palace. Henry Kirke Brown's equestrian sculpture masterpiece, George Washington, was unveiled in NYC. The funding was provided by $500 subscriptions from art patrons. Horatio Greenough continued creating his sculptures during the period.

Artists traveled west and used lithographs to record what they saw. Men like John Woodhouse Audubon, and Charles Koppel became well know for their illustrations. Isaac Augustus Wetherby lithographed caricatures of members of the Democratic Party and sold them at seven cents each. He experimented in early daguerreotypes. He painted portraits of subjects live and dead. Landscapes continued to grow in popularity. A vogue for romantic and emotional paintings was begun. The works of Thomas P. Rossiter included Miriam dancing before the Hosts, Return of the Dove to the Ark and Morn, Noon, and Evening in Eden. Sandwich glasswareDuring this decade Mathew Brady began publication of his Gallery of Illustrious Americans. American decorative arts included Sandwich glass, The Hudson River School continued during this period. Landscapes depicted American scenes by artists as Frederick Church, Thomas Moran and others. Winslow Homer began his artistic career with wood engravings printed in Harpers Weekly.

Greek Revival architectural style came to its end with a new wing to the Capitol in Washington, designed by Thomas U. Walter. New York's Crystal Palace was built in 1853. It was constructed of cast iron and glass and had the largest dome yet erected in the U.S. One of the first fireproof buildings was constructed for Harper & Brothers publishing headquarters. St. Patrick's Cathedral , Gothic style, was begun by James Renwick (completed in 1879.) Taller buildings built with iron and steel were the trend. Elisha Graves Otis invented the first elevator.


Expansion westward continued to drive American business and economic growth.  As new territory was added to the United States, agriculture boomed and new industry developed.  Seamstress 1853, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division  reproduction number LC-USZC4-3598 In 1850 the Donation Land Claim Act called for the orderly and legal ownership of land in Oregon, and California became a state.   The Gadsden Purchase of 1853, settled  the boundary between Mexico and the United States west of Texas. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act encouraged white settlement of more new territory.  The Graduation Act of 1854 passed and reduced the price of federal land. Gold was discovered in 1858 near Denver, Colorado, initiating the Pikes Peak Gold Rush and hastening the settlement of Colorado. The Comstock Lode, was discovered in Nevada in 1859.

Transportation was better due to new roads and railways.  In 1851, the Erie Railroad linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Rail connected Chicago, Ill. with eastern ports.   1852, the National Road was completed to Vandalia, Illinois. In 1852, immigrants seeking employment came to Pittsburgh via railroad.  Pittsburgh continued to prosper as iron, glass and textiles became the city's main industries.  Gradually the manufacturing core of the United States was established.  By 1853, five rail trunk lines crossed the Appalachian Mountains.  In 1853, Congress authorized the War Department to survey for a transcontinental railroad.  

By 1850, the textile industry was one of the largest in the country.  In 1851, Robert Knight began producing textiles, later called Fruit of the Loom, in Warwick, Rhode Island.    The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co., the country's first oil corporation, was established by George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth.  What came to be known as the American System of Manufacture involving interchangeable parts was developed during this time. In 1855, Samuel Colt established a manufacturing plant in Hartford, Connecticut using standardized components for guns.  In 1857, the national economy entered a prolonged depression due to the failure of the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance & Trust company.  1858, Hyman Lipman patented the first pencil with an eraser.  Manufacturing and the industrial spirit grew and set the stage for the Gilded Age when huge fortunes were made from industry.


Books which altered the thinking of the time:
The Columbian Orator pub. Caleb Bingham
My Bondage My Freedom by Frederick Douglass
Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth
The Promise of the Father by Phoebe Palmer
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin
The era of public libraries began during this decade with the Astor Library in New York. Boston Public Library was opened also. Several books which had enormous social impact were written during this decade: books we still read and love 150 years later. Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter, depicting American life under Puritan rule during Colonial times, and The House of Seven Gables. Herman Melville published White Jacket describing abuses in the navy, including emphasis on flogging. The following year Melville published Moby Dick, considered by many Americans as the greatest book produced in this country. The most important book of the decade (maybe the century) was Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly,1852, by Harriet Beecher Stowe This book became phenomenally popular and dramas of the story of Uncle Tom and Eliza were played by traveling companies throughout the country. Clotel, released in England in 1853 and in the U.S.in 1864, was the first African American novel, was written by William Wells Brown, who had escaped from his former owner. Slave narratives, popular between 1840 and 1860, included Frederick Douglass' My Bondage and My Freedom and Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years as a Slave. Cotton is King, or the Economical Relations of Slavery by David Christy, was published.

Thoreau published Walden, or Life in the Woods. Longfellow's poetry was popular, poems like The Song of Hiawatha and The Courtship of Miles Standish. Walt Whitman wrote and published Leaves of Grass. Oliver Wendell Holmes published the witty Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. In 1855, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations was published by John Bartlett, a Cambridge, Mass. bookstore owner.

From Reveries of a Bachelor: A Book of the HeartSentimental fiction grew even more popular, especially with women readers. A popular male author in the sentimental (romantic) genre was Donald Grant Mitchell, who wrote Reveries of a Bachelor: A book of the Heart, which sold more than a million copies by the end of the century. Mary Jane Holmes published 39 novels during her lifetime, wrote the sentimental Tempest and Sunshine; or Life in Kentucky and later Lena Rivers, which sold over 1,000,000 copies. Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, the popular novelist, published The Hidden Hand which sold nearly 2,000,000 copies.

William Andrus Alcott wrote more than 100 home health books, including The Home Book of Life and Health. Religious tracts (brochures) were everywhere in the nineteenth century and anti-abolition tracts began being published in both the north and south.A novel, Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There by Timothy Shay Arthur, promoted temperance and sold over 1,000,000 copies in the first few years of publication..

Harper's Monthly Magazine began its publication and contained serializations of novels of Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and Thackery - British authors who were paid more by Harper's than by British publications. The Atlantic Monthly was founded. The first issues of newspapers were published in the west, included the The Weekly Oregonian and The Deseret News in Salt Lake City, published by the Mormon Church. The New York Times (first known as the New York Daily News) began publication. Una was published in Washington, D.C. by Paulina Wright Davis and was a magazine supporting women's suffrage.


Miner at Pikes Peak, Colorado."Go West Young Man.  Go West!" advised Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune in 1851.  Many took his advice. By 1850 the mean-center of population in the United States was no longer Baltimore, Maryland, but the town of Parkersburg on the Ohio River in what was then western Virginia.  This trend continued.  The beginning of the decade had seen 44,000 people make the trek to California, and by 1852 that state's population had increased fifteen times in only four years.  The settlers in Michigan and Wisconsin pushed northward toward the Great Lakes.  The discovery of gold in Colorado  precipitated the Pikes Peak Gold Rush in 1858 as people were once more lured to an area by the hope of instant riches.  All of these moves were never easy.  The main killers on the overland trails were diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, and malaria; accidents such as drownings, shootings, and wagon mishaps; and, least of all, Indian attacks.    Only 4% of the about 10,000 fatalities were due to Indian raids.  The pioneer's choice of a final place to settle often hinged on whether a particular location was considered healthy. One result of population shift in the country was increased tension between the North and the South.  With the admission of Minnesota and Oregon to the Union, there was no longer a balance between free and slave states.

Steamship from Illustrated London Times, May 1858.Between 1851 and 1860, 2,639,752 souls sought a new life in America. Most were still of European origin, but many Chinese came to the West Coast during the gold rush period.  Most settled in the San Francisco area.  The two nationalities coming to the United States in the largest numbers continued to be the Irish and the Germans.  The Irish mainly entered the country at New York City or Boston.  Lacking funds to go elsewhere, they had to remain in these cities, often in deplorable conditions.  They were forced to seek work at such menial jobs  - the men as ditch diggers, miners, or construction workers; the women as maids, clothes washers, or cooks.  Nativism, or hostility to immigrants, continued to be prevalent in American culture.





Orphan train handbillThe 1850's saw more states providing free public education as the Indiana (1852), Ohio (1854) , Illinois (1855), and Minnesota (1858) legislatures passed the necessary laws.  Massachusetts enacted the "Compulsory Attendance Act of 1852" which required that all children between the ages of eight and fourteen attend school at least three months of each year.  

Three years later, in 1855, Massachusetts abolished segregation in its schools, the first state in the Union to do so.  Margarethe Schurz founded the first kindergarten in the United States in 1856 at Watertown, Wisconsin.  Her German speaking kindergarten class was based on the ideas of Friedrich Froebel.  Henry Barnard began the American Journal of Education in 1854.  1857 saw the founding of the National Teachers Association, forerunner of the National Education Association, by 45 teachers and educators in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Charles Loring Brace, a missionary for the Children's Aid Society in New York City, advocated sending slum children to live on farms in the West as an alternative to the state reform schools.  These relocations were known as the Orphan Trains.  By 1860 as many as 5,000 children had been sent to the West under this program.  Public education in the South continued to lag behind that in the rest of the country.  Only four  of the states in that region (North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama) had public schools.  Most poor white children attended one-room school houses or were taught the basic 3 "R's" in their homes.  Most black children received no education at all.  

Antoinette Brown became the first woman in the country to complete courses for a degree in theology but was denied her college degree in the subject by Oberlin College in 1850.  The Cooper Union in New York City became the first college to ban discrimination based on race, religion or color. Michigan State University became the first land- grant college in 1855.  A plethora of universities had their beginnings between 1850 and 1859.  Among them were University of Utah (1850), Oregon State University(1850), Northwestern University(1851), University of Minnesota (1851), College of the Pacific (1851), Antioch College (1852), College of California which became the University of California (1855), Auburn University (1856), and Iowa State University (1858).  Higher education was becoming available all across the country.






FLASH! Lincoln makes speech stating, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."FLASH! Fugitive Slave Bill introduced FLASH! First Cunard steamer crosses Atlantic in nine and a half days! FLASH!Chicago baseball unions formed! FLASH! Fire in San Francisco destroys 2500 buildings.FLASH! Horace Greely wins contest for "The Philosophy of Advertising." FLASH! Matrimonial agencies gain popularity. Ad reads, "CHEAP WIVES for poor and deserving young men...particular attention paid to the matching of temperaments." Another, "Two well-educated young men would like to make acquaintance with two young ladies with a view to matrimony. FLASH! Tightroper walker, Charles Blondin, crossed Niagra Falls, alone, then with a man on his back, pushing a wheel barrel and then walking on Stilts. Yikes! FLASH! Godey's Lady's Book features a section called "Employment for Women."


Jenny LindP. T. Barnum coaxed Jenny Lind to the US with the astronomical sum of $187,000.  His publicity campaign included her virtuous Christian character, the prestige of opera singing, and reports of huge enthusiastic crowds and the scarcity of tickets despite the cost, $225 on opening day.  Her popularity was immense until she married her accompanist, Otto von Goldschmidt. When a French pianist, Henri Herz, performed in San Francisco, the box office had to have scales to weigh the gold dust with which spectators bought their tickets. Heinrich Steinway moved from Germany to the US in 1853 and established his piano manufacturing business in New York.

Stephen Foster wrote "Old Folks at Home" in 1851, but asked E. P Christy of the Christy Minstrels to use his name as author to capitalize on his fame.  Soon Foster was the best known composer in America.  Most composers received little if any remuneration.  Minstrel music helped to humanize blacks in the eyes of the northerners, feeding the growing antislavery movement. At the same time, slavery was no longer a joking matter and songs became less contentious, more likely to show an idealistic life back on the plantation such as "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Darling Nelly Gray."  Soon after Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was adapted for stage.

John Sullivan Dwight, father of American musical criticism, established The Journal of Music in 1852.  He tried to improve American musical taste, championing Beethoven, Bach, Mozart & ChopinPopular music included:


Picnics  were popular in the 1850ís.  Food might include crackers, cold boiled ham and tea.  Fried potatoes, or potato chips, would be a welcome treat. Tin plates and cups were used for serving the picnic food. In 1859, baking powder  was invented by Eben Horsford.  A delicious cake could be served at the picnic or at home.

During this decade, fabrics with stripes and patterns were used in fashionable clothing.  Women also began wearing hoops or cage crinolines  under their dresses. Bo Peep or poke bonnets were popular throughout this period, and older women continued to wear them for decades afterward.


Sewing machine advertisement 1853As more of the country was explored and settled, many states launched geological surveys to determine their natural resources. G. K. Warren compiled all known geographic information into a map of the United States from the Mississippi to the Pacific.  Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania.  Camels were tried as a means of transportation in Texas but they found the rocky soil  unsuitable.

Rudimentary contraception [such as douching, or the pessaire or pisser] and abortion [with cathartic powders and the "infallible French female pills"] aside, the birthrate for an average American couple was 5.42.  At the same time, Doctors were not very adept at diagnosing coma, and fear of premature burial led to bizarre funeral customs, including shovels and pickaxes in the coffin to allow the dead person to dig himself out, and Bateson's Revival Device, a bell above ground with a pull rope attached to the deceased's hand.  

Elias Howe revolutionized the manufacture of clothing with the invention of the sewing machine.  In 1852, the Studebaker Company was formed to build wagons.  Throughout the decade, the brothers used their Yankee ingenuity to build wagons better and faster.  Elisha Otis designed the Safety Elevator in 1853, demonstrating its security by standing atop the elevator and cutting its cable, and the first Translantic Cable was laid from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1858.  On a more personal note, William Campbell and James Henry took out a patent in 1857 for a Plunger Closet, now known as a toilet.  


Missionaries and migration went hand in hand across the west, reaching California during the gold rush period when thousands of people from all walks of life settled the new territory.  Diversity of culture and religion was a natural result of the mix of people.  California was a vital hub for the extension of Protestantism to the Orient. By challenging evangelical missions, the California experience set the stage for theological shifts later in the century.  In 1855, Nativists, also called the Know-Nothing Party or the American party, swept the California state elections.   Black churches were important to the newly forming black communities in California and other western areas.   Jewish bankers and merchants helped establish stability in newly forming communities.  Anti-semitism was less apparent in the West than other regions.  Lack of structure made all outsiders, insiders. Overall, what dominated the American West was the Democratization of American Christianity.  The religious terrain was populist.  Religion responded to the spiritual needs and life circumstances of ordinary people.  The right to choose one's faith was empowering, not liberating.   Spiritualists of all types flourished between 1850-1859. Temperance societies continued to grow during the 50's.   The Young Men's Christian Association  began in Boston in 1851 and New York City in 1856.

In Utah, a different form of migration had created a type of isolation from the other American territories.  Brigham Young's Mormon settlement in the Salt Lake valley had grown and prospered.  Polygamy was publicly encouraged by Brigham Young and treated as both incumbent upon members and a privilege.  In 1857, fearing an invasion by federal soldiers, Mormons and their allies, the Utes, attacked a wagon train and killed 120 California bound settlers. In 1858, President  Buchanan ordered an expedition of 2,500 soldiers to Utah in order to assert federal authority over the Mormons until they were being recalled at the beginning of the Civil War. Buchanan later pardoned the Mormons.

Abolitionists and pro-slavery groups continued to clash in the already established states of the Union.  Part of the Compromise of 1850, The Fugitive Slave Act, required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves and denied a fugitive's right to a jury trial.  This added to the resolve of abolitionist to end slavery in America.  Religions would divide over slavery.  Women of color  supported the women's rights movement in speeches such as Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman?" given at the 1851 Women's Rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Men also supported the women's movement. 

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