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Immigration, Urbanization, and Identity

The Progressive Era City


The end of the nineteenth century saw a period of rapid immigration and urbanization. As the promise of factory jobs and higher wages attracted more and more people into the cities, the United States began to shift to a nation of city dwellers. By 1900, 30 million people (30% of the population) lived in cities.

For many people, this migration to the cities was beneficial, but for many more, there were severe problems. For the emerging middle class, conveniences such as department stores, chain stores, and shopping centers emerged to meet their needs as consumers. But for the poor, including thousands of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and China, the cities were not as welcoming. Lured by the promise of higher wages and better living conditions, immigrants flocked to the cities where many jobs were available, mainly in steel and textile mills, slaughterhouses, railroad building, and manufacturing. These companies often hired children, as they required less pay and could often handle delicate tasks better than adults.

Many of these newly arrived immigrants lived in poverty, resulting in a very poor quality of life. In the cities, immigrants were faced with overcrowding, inadequate water facilities, poor sanitation, and disease. Working class wages provided little more than subsistence living and very limited opportunities for movement out of the city slums.

However, not all was bleak in the cities of the Progressive Era. Within the cities, enclaves of immigrants created tight-knit communities based on their common culture. Photographers such as Jacob Riis and Louis Hine were able to capture some of the domestic scenes of children and their families, which showed that while life certainly was not easy, there was still a sense of community and pride.

Grade Level

Middle & High School

Classroom Connections

English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History

Curriculum Snapshot

  • The rapid urbanization caused by waves of immigrants coming from eastern and southern Europe, as well as from China, from the 1880s–1920s
  • Child labor practices that were commonplace in mills, factories, and mines
  • Immigrants struggling to maintain their cultural identity in the midst of creating a new home in the United States


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