Nothing could be further from the truth. Even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, one of the most remarkable things about the United States—noted by native-born Americans and foreigners alike—was its pace of urbanization. Perhaps none of the cultural shifts that transformed the United States in the decades before the Civil War were as significant as the growth of large cities. This story of urban expansion is one that the collections at the Clements Library tell remarkably well, both in terms of where items in the collection were produced and what they are about.
So how fast were American cities growing? The numbers are difficult to believe. The cities of the early United States were compact collections of mostly wooden buildings, of easy walking scale. In 1800, the vast majority of New York’s 60,000 residents lived on the southern tip of Manhattan Island below Canal Street. Similarly in Philadelphia, which was the nation’s largest city, the population was concentrated in what we now call Old City, with some spillover south and north into areas that were then not part of the city proper.
By 1860, Manhattan was home to over 800,000 people, with another 280,000 living in the then-independent city of Brooklyn. Philadelphia had grown from 40,000 in 1800 to over 560,000. What was even more remarkable was the sudden appearance of cities that had been nothing more than tiny clusters of buildings in 1800. Cincinnati grew from under 10,000 residents in 1820 to over 160,000 in 1860. St. Louis was home to only 5,000 people in 1830; three decades later, it had also topped 160,000. More dramatic still were the so-called “mushroom cities” of the West. In the span of 30 years, from 1840 to 1870, Chicago multiplied in size 66 times, from 4,500 to 300,000. San Francisco topped them all. When gold was discovered in California in 1849, there were fewer than 1,000 people living on the peninsula. Three years later, there were 35,000; by 1870, there were 150,000.
With urban growth came urban problems: crime, prostitution, drunkenness, noise, sewage, poverty, fires, rampant inequality, loneliness, and more. Yet cities also offered economic opportunity, excitement, diversity, popular entertainment, and anonymity, as well as ample opportunities for the exercise of benevolence. It’s also the case that even though countless critics warned against city life because of the challenges it presented to conventional morality, for many Americans those challenges to conventional morality were a big part of
The Clements Library’s collections chart this boom in urban growth (and the increasing diversity of urban populations) in countless ways, from prints to maps to diaries to books. This interest in urban expansion starts early, as you will see in Mary Pedley’s article on the 16th century indigenous settlement of Hochelaga, and extends into the future, as Emiko Hastings describes in her piece on an eccentric vision of the future of Detroit. Perhaps no part of the collection is more focused on the phenomenon of urbanization than our holdings of bird’s-eye views, a genre of printmaking that was very nearly exclusive to the 19th-century U.S. (even though some of its finest practitioners, such as John Bachmann, were from overseas). Bird’s-eye views represented cities from an imagined perspective high in the air, and in the process became the perfect medium for charting urban growth over time. This desire in visual culture to be able to see the city whole extended into photography, as Clayton Lewis discusses in his article on photographic panoramas.
Many of our manuscript collections describe encounters with the city by writers from all walks of life. Their responses, whether positive or negative, were shaped by what they had been told to expect from the urban environment by the flood of print focused on city life. Maggie Vanderford describes one diarist’s long-term encounter with urban growth, as seen through the lens of his work in the shoe business. Urbanization didn’t only alter the ways people lived and played, it wrought profound changes in how people worked. Whether they read children’s books or saw playbills or read almanacs and novels, American readers in the 18th and 19th centuries would have imbibed the powerful message that cities were where things happened, from important political debates to tawdry circus performances. In this regard it is important to mention newspapers, which were perhaps the signature print form of early American cities. Being sufficiently large and industrious to support at least one daily newspaper was an important milestone for any town that had higher aspirations. The Clements Library’s remarkable collection of 18th- and 19th-century newspapers is not as well known as it should be (we are currently seeking resources to create a checklist of the titles and issues that we hold so we can add them to the online catalog).
Any collection of printed Americana from 1750 to 1900 is by definition an urban collection due to the remarkable concentration of all industries related to communication in American cities (and particularly New York) during this time. As the historian David Henkin noted in his book City Reading (New York, 1998), in the 1850s, New York—which only had two percent of the nation’s population—accounted for 18 percent of the country’s newspaper circulation, processed 22 percent of the country’s mail, and received over 37 percent of its publishing revenue. The urban centralization of the printing trades in the United States happened early, as the new nation began to wean itself from dependence on imported print, but accelerated as the 19th century progressed. By mid-century, Philadelphia, Boston, and Cincinnati combined with New York to entirely dominate the national print market. Thus, both in terms of material production and subject matter, the Clements Library’s collections show—as you’ll see in the rest of this issue—that early American history is urban history.
— Paul Erickson
Randolph G. Adams Director