Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > North American history > Industrialization of the United States
Industrial development in the United States began as early as the 18th century (see early United States history). However, the years from 1865 (the American Civil War) to 1945 (the end of World War II) were momentous, as the USA rose from an agrarian nation of 35 million citizens, to the world's dominant superpower, a world leader in manufacturing and the home of 140 million people, mostly through immigration. The Old West was colonized, and mass production, automobiles, electric lighting, and popular culture such as Hollywood movies and jazz created the modern American lifestyle.
|United States historical travel topics:|
Indigenous nations → Pre-Civil War → Civil War → Old West → Industrialization → Postwar
African-American history • Mexican American history
|“||Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.||”|
—W. C. Fields
The late 19th century was named The Gilded Age; and saw a rising class of capitalists and intellectuals, among continued poverty, widespread corruption, and racial tension in the wake of the emancipation of slaves. While the adventures of the Old West have shaped posterity's image of 19th-century America, most of the population remained in the East and South. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing across the Atlantic in England, and would eventually spread to the United States. This heralded a new era of massive immigration to cities such as New York and Chicago from other parts of the US and from abroad to work in the factories (though frequently under appalling conditions). These cities eventually grew into the multicultural, cosmopolitan metropolises that we know today.
It was also during this period that the United States would establish its own overseas colonial empire. The first American colony would be Liberia, which was founded in West Africa in 1822 for the settlement of freed African-American slaves. Liberia would declare independence in 1847, which would be formally recognised by the United States in 1862, thus temporarily putting an end to the American colonialism. However, the United States would later win the Spanish-American war in 1898, thus gaining colonies of its own once more; Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Cuba was granted independence in 1902, followed by the Philippines in 1946, while Guam and Puerto Rico remain U.S. territories to this day.
The Progressive Era starting around 1900 brought political reforms, such as antitrust laws, labor rights, women's suffrage, and the prohibition of alcohol (which was repealed in 1933). The "war on drugs" has its origin in the prohibition era and the time immediately afterwards, though the actual term was not used until the Nixon era.
World War I was followed by the Roaring Twenties, an economic boom brought to halt by the 1929 stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. The New Deal policies of the 1930s included infrastructure projects which transformed the American scenery.
During the interwar years the US started intervening in some low level domestic conflicts and civil wars throughout Central America and the Caribbean, mostly to ensure stable dictatorships favorable to the US and American business interests primarily in bananas and other agricultural products. This era gave rise to the term "banana republic" and some of the same patterns could be seen after the war with a cold war background.
As World War II in Europe began in 1939, the United States was a non-belligerent supporter of the Allies. The Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 marked the beginning of American involvement in the Pacific War, and after Germany also declared war on the US shortly thereafter, the American Armed Forces became officially engaged in the European theater as well, beginning with the liberation of North Africa in November 1942. World War II played a major role in kickstarting America's recovery from the Great Depression, as many industries were revitalized to support the war effort. As many men were drafted into the military to fight in the war, many factory jobs were taken over by women to fill in for the labor shortage, thus leading to the resurgence of the feminist movement that advocated the economic and political empowerment of women. In 1944 the Allies, mostly Americans, landed at the D day beaches and helped bring the war to an end by May 1945 (Europe) and September 1945 (Japan) respectively.
In sports, baseball grew and consolidated into "Major Leagues", and the first rules of American football were set. At first, football was almost exclusively played by high school and college amateurs. Basketball was also invented in this era and ice hockey became a sport played mostly in the Midwest, the Northeast and Canada. Public attention to these two sports was low and their attendance figures were dwarfed by "America's pastime", baseball. Radio and railroads made nationwide leagues at least a theoretical possibility, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Major League Baseball franchises could be found in most of the Northeast and Midwest, playing the first "World Series" in 1903 and having a single commissioner since 1920 (although MLB would did not become a unified league until 2000). Professional football originated mostly in and around Ohio and by 1920 a league that would later become the NFL and included teams such as the Green Bay Packers or the Chicago Cardinals (now playing in Arizona) crowned its first champion but was mostly ignored by major newspapers, radio stations and the public at large. For the first half of the 20th century, boxing and horse racing received much greater media coverage than the sports considered as "major" today, apart from baseball.
The Life and Death of Great American Cities
As the American frontier was closed during the late 19th century (with the exception of Alaska), the early 20th century was the Golden Age of American cities. While Old Towns from before the Civil War are few, the architecture of the Industrial Age brought the world's attention, with the first skyscrapers, and innovative styles such as Art Deco.
From 1901 until 1998, the world's tallest building was found in the United States, with the Philadelphia City Hall, finished in 1901, being the first American record-holder. From 1908, the title was passed on between skyscrapers in New York: the Singer Building (until 2020 the tallest building ever to be voluntarily demolished), the Metropolitan Life Tower, the Woolworth Building, the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center (the tallest building ever to be destroyed by force). Sears Tower in Chicago was tallest in the world from 1974 until 1998, when it was surpassed by Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur. The current tallest building in the United States is, since 2013, One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, in New York City at 1,776 ft (541.3 m).
Many city centers fell in decay during the Great Depression. Since the 1940s, much of the population has migrated to suburbs. Many neighborhoods were subsequently torn down to "make way for the automobile", particularly those inhabited by poor and/or non-white people. Increasing globalization has also meant that much of the manufacturing has moved abroad to countries with much lower labor costs, causing many former great industrial cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh and Buffalo to fall into a state of urban decay with high rates of poverty, unemployment and violent crime. During the 21st century, some American city centers have been revitalized, due in part to rising gas prices that make living in the suburbs uneconomical, decreased crime rates, and a sense of boredom with the sterility of suburban life that many in the so-called Millennial generation feel. The trend of re-urbanization appears to continue resulting in better public transport systems in and between many cities.
The United States has too many remnants from the Industrial Revolution to mention in a single article. This is a compilation of cities and other places of great historical importance, where the industrial heritage is more or less visible today. Many of them are in the north-east, and can be seen on the American Industry Tour from Boston to Chicago.
In the mid-19th century, America became world leading in railroads, and later in urban rail. However, from the 1930s, the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy had many rail lines closed down, to promote automobile use. Ever since then, America has been the land of the automobile, with rail travel lagging behind. Even today of roughly one billion automobiles in the world, 250 million are driving around on American streets. Getting around the United States without a car can thus be difficult.
New England had already developed some industries during the Colonial era, but industrialization really took off during the Civil War.
- 1 Boston/Charlestown, Massachusetts. Site of the Boston Navy Yard. From its foundation in 1801 until its decline past World War II and the final decommission in 1974, it built and maintained much of the US Navy.
- 2 Waltham, Massachusetts. A suburb of Boston, with the remnants of the Boston Manufacturing Company. A center for the American textile industry already in the early 18th century, and the birthplace of the Waltham System; an early version of the assembly line. In the 19th century, Waltham Watch Company made the city known as the Watch City. The car company Metz made the first American Motorcycles here.
- 3 Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell had watermill-powered workshops already in the 18th century, and was the country's first planned industrial city.
The Mid-Atlantic had thriving industrial cities even before the Civil War. Their productivity helped bring the Union to victory. Many immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe settled here. The manufacturing crisis beginning in the 1960s hit the Mid-Atlantic hard, but high-tech, service and hospitality industries have emerged, and many industrial buildings have been redeveloped for other purposes.
- 4 Albany, New York. A center for the wood, paper and print industry, with many of the nation's first high-rise buildings. It owes its importance at least in part to the Erie Canal.
- 5 Troy, New York. Troy flourished throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and though deindustrialized like most of the rest of the North, has what's probably the best-preserved collection of grand 19th-century big-city buildings in the country.
- 6 New York City. The largest city and main economic center of the United States since the 19th century. Many of the world's first skyscrapers, including notable landmarks such as the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, were built here. Since 1886, the iconic Statue of Liberty has been the first sight of America for millions of immigrants from overseas. Other world-famous landmarks include the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and Times Square, which is home to the NASDAQ stock exchange.
- 7 Atlantic City, New Jersey. A resort city with its heyday during the early 20th century, especially in the Prohibition years, when the city was highly corrupt, and a haven for drinking, gambling, and other vices. Today, the city is very much down on its luck.
- 8 Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The city was industrialized already before the Civil War; it is best known for the Bethlehem Steel Company, once the country's second-largest steel manufacturer, which was dismantled during the 2000s. The main industrial area has been transformed to include a casino resort and the National Museum of Industrial History, a Smithsonian affiliate museum opened in 2016 to preserve America's industrial heritage.
- 9 Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Steamtown National Historic Site tells a lot about American railroad history. The Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum can also be found here.
- 10 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A cluster for iron and steel production during the late 19th century, with several museums and tours. Infamous in later times for the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear incident.
- 11 Washington, D.C.. The capital is younger than most other big cities at the Atlantic coast, and most of its monumental architecture was created during the early 20th century. The Smithsonian Institution (established in 1846) has many museums; especially the National Museum of American History and the Arts and Industries Building contain many objects from the Industrial Revolution.
- 12 Wheeling, West Virginia. At the northernmost corner of the South, Wheeling's immigrant population and anti-slavery sentiment made the city culturally more Northern than Southern. As West Virginia seceded from Virginia during the Civil War, Wheeling was the provisional state capital from 1861 to 1863. After the war, the tobacco industry flourished, as well as Victorian architecture, for which the city is known today.
- 13 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The "Steel City" was once at the core of American industry, and the seat for United States Steel, at its time the world's largest corporation. Though many steel mills have closed down during the 20th century, Pittsburgh has revitalized its industrial heritage.
- 14 Titusville, Pennsylvania. The birthplace of American oil industry, with the Drake Well Museum.
- 15 Buffalo, New York. An industrial city powered by the hydroelectricity from Niagara Falls, with several museums.
- 16 Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, 1000 North Croatan Highway (Follow US Highway 158 to mile 7.5, turn west into Memorial), ☏ . Daily 9AM–5PM (closed on Dec 25). Celebrates and explains the first successful controlled, sustained, powered, heavier-than-air flights, which the Wright brothers performed here in 1903. The visitors center has a model of the original aircraft, and interpretive talks. Outside, stone markers show the start and ending points of the first four flights. The adjacent First Flight Airport (KFFA) offers a 3,000 ft (910 m) runway for day use, with tie-downs but no fuel or other services. Compared to the time of the first flight, Kill Devil Hill has shifted south a short distance due to wind, and is planted with grass to keep it in place. It is topped by an Art Deco monument to the Wright brothers, and Orville attended its dedication. $7/adult, children 15 years or younger free, free with passes.
The rich natural resources, such as grain, iron, coal, wood and hydroelectric power, together with the Great Lakes and the Mississippi river system, allowed the Midwestern cities to boom during the Industrial Revolution. Since World War II, manufacturing has declined, and the region is today known as the "Rust Belt", with high unemployment and urban decay.
- 17 Chicago, Illinois. America's second city during the Industrial Revolution was the capital of the meatpacking industry, a haven for organized crime during Prohibition, and a hotspot for blues and jazz. Much of the city was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. An important city in the history of organized labor, with the Pullman Union, and the Haymarket Square Massacre, the date of which is remembered in most of the world (though not the US or Canada) as a worker's holiday on May 1st. Also known for its brilliant classic modernist skyscrapers. Chicago has in general been more successful than other Midwestern cities in diversifying its economy, and while urban blight still exists in some neighborhoods and suburbs, Chicago continues to be one of the most important cities in North America, and is the largest commodities trading hub in the United States.
- 18 Cleveland, Ohio. The birthplace of Standard Oil, the Rockefeller dynasty, and the early motor industry. The country's fifth largest city during the 1920s. As most other cities in the once industrial heartland it has fallen to a "rust belt" image, but a revitalization is underway and the somewhat negative reputation of the city is almost entirely undeserved
- 19 Detroit, Michigan. The "motor city", the name "Detroit" was long a metonym for the US automobile industry. As the industry downsized since the late 20th century and population moved to the suburbs, much of the city lies deserted. The already-struggling city was hit hard by the housing crash of 2007/2008; though there are signs of recovery and "new urbanism", a long way remains to go.
- 20 Indianapolis, Indiana. The first Union Station in the USA was built here, allowing transfer between different railroads. The early motor industry rivaled Detroit. Today, the city has many museum featuring 19th and 20th century artifacts.
- 21 Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Another former industrial city that is known for its breweries and dairy products.
- 22 St. Louis, Missouri. Host city of the 1904 World's Fair and Summer Olympics, as well as the Wainwright building, a high-rise office building that became the prototype for modern skyscrapers.
After the American Civil War, the federal government organized the South under the Reconstruction program. Reconstruction briefly brought the civil rights guaranteed in the constitution to (almost) all (male) citizens, including African Americans. However by 1876 Reconstruction had ended and the South was firmly in the grab of the old white landowning elite from the antebellum era. Though slavery was abolished, racial tension continued, and under "Jim Crow laws", African-Americans remained as second-class citizens until the Civil Rights revolution during the 1950s and 60s. There was a civil rights movement throughout the 19th and early 20th century, however it was less successful than in the 50s and 60s (owing in part to different attitudes among white Northerners) and more focused on lifting African Americans up from poverty through education and economic development than on achieving political participation. The most notable result of the early civil rights movement was their defeat in the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case that established the notorious "separate but equal" rule in 1896 and was overturned in 1954 in the ruling on Brown v. Board of Education.
Industrialization generally came late to the South; however, the oil industry in Texas boomed starting around 1900. The New Deal targeted the South, especially through the Tennessee Valley Authority.
- 23 Memphis, Tennessee. This inland port at the Mississippi has seen the best and the worst of American history; racial conflict and poverty, as well as the rise of the blues and modern American popular music.
- 24 Nashville, Tennessee. Known as "Music City", Nashville is the foremost center of Country music and a major center of the recording industry in general. Country music was classed at first as "Hillbilly Records", which were mass-produced starting in the 1920s, when there was a huge immigration of poor Southern white farmers to the major cities of the South, North and, later, West, in parallel to the Great Migration of Southern African-Americans to the North. The homesick white former farmers bought these records in droves, just as the black former sharecroppers supported the companies that pressed the blues and other so-called "Race Records" during the same period. Nashville also has an industrial heritage dating back to the 19th century, starting with the arrival of railways in 1859 and continuing with the electrification of the local trolley system in 1889 and the beginning of production at Marathon Motor Car in 1910.
- 25 New Orleans, Louisiana. Though the Civil War devastated many southern cities, New Orleans was largely intact, though hurricanes and floods later took a toll on the city's architecture. New Orleans always was and continues to be an important port and a center of African American culture, and is credited with being the birthplace of jazz.
California became the Land of Opportunity; more civilized than the Wild West. As the transcontinental telegraph lines and railroads were completed in the 1860s, the Pacific Coast became more connected to the east. The Great Depression caused large-scale migration westwards.
- 26 Hoover Dam. An impressive feat of engineering during the 1930s. It was built to provide water and electricity to Las Vegas and other cities in the area, a feat made difficult today by the ever more severe droughts.
- 27 San Francisco, California. It came to prominence as the main center of the California gold rush, when people would move here from all corners of the globe with hopes of making their fortunes in the nearby gold mines. This city was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake, but quickly rebuilt. The Golden Gate Bridge, one of America's most iconic landmarks, opened in 1937 after much controversy and hundreds of lawsuits. A once common sight throughout the country are the cable cars, that while primarily a tourist attraction are still used by locals for their daily commute.
- 28 Hollywood, California. Hollywood was established as the Western World's greatest center for motion pictures during the 1920s. While the bulk of cinematic production has now moved to Burbank, Universal City and other local surrounding communities, many venues remain from that time.
29 Pearl Harbor, At Kamehameha Hwy (Hawaii 99) and Kalaoa St (take H-1 west to exit 15A (Arizona Memorial, Stadium) onto Kamehameha Hwy; or Honolulu public transit buses #20 and #42). While Naval Station Pearl Harbor is most known from the attack on 7 December 1941, it has marked the presence of the federal government on the islands since it was founded in 1899; six years past the U.S. annexation of Hawaii.
- Lincoln Highway
- American Industry Tour
- Route 66, opened in 1926 and decommissioned in 1985, was a legendary link between east and west until it was bypassed by multiple Interstate highways in the post-war years.
- In a sense all great trips by train across the continent live and breath the history of this era, even though the "original" transcontinental route does not carry scheduled passenger traffic any more