World History 2 153 - 10.2.2 The Challenges of Life in the Industrial City

Although city life brought many benefits, it also posed challenges for people of all classes. The first was finding a place to live. Urban populations grew quickly in the second half of the nineteenth century as people flocked to the industrial city from the countryside and abroad. By the middle of the century, more British people lived in cities and towns than in rural areas. Housing construction did not keep up, and cities and living spaces were often cramped and crowded.

Many of the middle class moved to the new suburbs that sprang up around cities, using horse-drawn or electrified streetcars to travel to work. For working-class people, options were more limited. Laborers with families often attempted to live on the edges of cities like London, away from the dirt, crowds, and noise. As urban areas grew, however, these neighborhoods were often absorbed into the city proper. If you could not afford to live far away from the city, soon enough the city would find you.

Beyond the Book

Charles Booth’s Map of Poverty

Access an interactive version of a map made by Charles Booth in 1889. Booth, an English social reformer, drew the map of London indicating where people of different levels of wealth lived in the city. Click on a box on the map to enlarge it. As you explore, consider the neighborhoods you see. What does this map reveal to us about housing patterns in the late nineteenth century?

  • Where were the poorest neighborhoods located?
  • Where did the wealthiest people tend to live? What else is located in these neighborhoods?
  • Why might certain neighborhoods have appealed to (or driven away) certain types of people?

Link to Learning

This is an online archive of newspaper articles describing London’s East End, a poor neighborhood. Most of the articles are from the 1880s, when the serial killer Jack the Ripper hunted his victims there.

Regardless of the city, housing was problematic and usually in short supply. Families with children might find themselves occupying only two or three rooms. Cooking, eating, working, and socializing frequently took place in the same space. Separate areas might be reserved for sleeping and for visiting, but they were cramped as well. A bed for yourself—let alone a room—was an unrealizable dream for members of the working class. Family members might even share a bed with boarders.

Housing configurations varied according to place. In British cities, the preference was for single-family dwellings; houses were narrow, with one room on the ground floor, another on top, and perhaps a third above that. Skilled workers might be able to afford houses with two rooms on the bottom floor and more above. They might even have a small garden. In France and the United States, the preference was for apartment buildings. In the United States, these might be built side by side with several apartments per floor; each working-class family occupied two or three rooms, and apartments on the inside walls might lack fresh air and daylight. In France, the working class might inhabit the same apartment houses as middle-class families but not the same floors. The middle class lived on the second floor (the étage noble), and other families lived above them in descending order of rank as they approached the roof; the very poorest lived in the attic where they baked in the summer, froze in the winter, and were regularly rained upon (Figure 10.10).

This picture shows a well-dressed couple bringing bundles to a poor family living in an attic. The poor man’s arm is in a sling. The woman lays on the floor. Four young children are near them. Laundry hangs from a clothesline.
Figure 10.10 A picture from an 1844 French pictorial magazine shows members of the middle class bringing charity to a poor family in a Parisian attic. (credit: “Visiting the poor” by Le Magasin Pittoresque/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The very worst-off might live in dark basement apartments that flooded when it rained. Others might occupy a single room in what was once a large middle-class home and was now an apartment house occupied by numerous families. Sometimes living spaces were so small as to be almost unimaginable. In 1901, an unskilled kozukai (errand man) in Tokyo shared a 100-square-foot room with his wife and two teenage children. Other Japanese lived in even smaller spaces. The poorest laborers rented floor space by the night in a common sleeping room and had to battle other sleepers for the privilege. Bedding was provided only for a fee, and bedbugs and lice were abundant.

Some members of the working class might be provided with housing by their employers. The American railroad car manufacturer George Pullman built a model town for his employees in 1884, on the south side of Chicago near the plant where his famous sleeping cars were produced. Workers were not required to live in the town, but it provided amenities they would likely not have been able to afford elsewhere. There were parks, a store, a church, a school, a library, and a theater. Employees used their wages to pay their rent and to buy what they needed at the store. Each worker’s home featured gas lighting and indoor plumbing, and trash was collected every day. Pullman believed that housing his workers in a clean, orderly environment would make them more productive. He also believed that by providing them with a decent standard of living, he could prevent strikes or worse forms of unrest. By 1893, about twelve thousand people lived in the town.

There were problems, however. Workers were never allowed to purchase their homes, which Pullman’s agents inspected at random to make sure they were kept clean and well maintained. Workers who lost their jobs were evicted with their families. All were expected to attend church on Sundays. Pullman chose the books to be kept in the library and the plays to be performed in the theater. There was no saloon. In 1894, Pullman cut employees’ wages in the wake of an economic depression and laid off many workers. However, he refused to lower their rents, which were already higher than those in the surrounding area. The workers saw no alternative but to go on strike. Other U.S. business owners, like chocolate king Milton Hershey and piano manufacturer Henry Steinway, also built model towns for their employees for the same reasons Pullman had.

European employers also provided towns for their workers. The first such towns were Copley and Saltaire, in Britain, both founded in the middle of the nineteenth century. In northern Italy, the Crespi family built the town of Crespi d’Adda in 1878 for workers at its textile factory. In addition to single-family houses with gardens, the town had a school, a clinic, a church, and a theater. To encourage a sense of equality among the workers, all the houses were the same except those belonging to the factory manager, the clinic’s doctor, and the priest. Towns for miners and factory workers were also established in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and northeastern Spain. Some were intended simply to provide housing for workers employed by mines or mills located in rural areas. Others, like Port Sunlight and Bourneville in England, were meant to provide not just a place to live but a model community for the working class.

Some laborers were housed in the factories at which they worked. Workers in the Japanese textile industry, most of whom were young unmarried women and teenage girls, lived in dormitories owned by the factories in places like Osaka. Many Russian workers also lived in barracks in the factories where they labored in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Several families might share a single room. Single men slept in bunks arranged side by side to the ceiling with no privacy. When factories lacked space, workers might sleep in shifts, and single women and families might sleep in the single men’s dormitories as well.

Just as great as the challenge of overcrowding and poor housing was the problem of dirt. Some cities had alleviated many aspects of this problem by the end of the nineteenth century, but others remained. The major source of dirt in the nineteenth century was waste—factory waste, human waste, and animal waste, especially horse manure. As cities grew larger, public transportation became a necessity. The solution most cities settled on was horse-drawn streetcars and omnibuses. Thousands of urban dwellers made use of them.

These forms of public transport, however, meant the introduction of more horses, beyond those needed to pull freight wagons and the carriages of the wealthy, and horses fouled the cities’ streets. The average horse produces thirty to fifty pounds of manure each day. In 1878, there were approximately 78,000 horses in Paris. At about this time, horses dropped some 600,000 tons of manure in Chicago’s thoroughfares each year. When they died in harness, their bodies were often left to rot in the streets. To horse manure and carcasses was added the waste of humans who lacked indoor toilets in their homes and did not wish to visit outdoor latrines in the dark. The buckets and chamber pots they filled during the night were often emptied into the streets in the morning along with kitchen waste. The piles of garbage and manure attracted rats and flies.

This problem was somewhat alleviated when new forms of public transportation appeared. Commuter railway lines that transported middle-class people to and from the suburbs actually increased the number of horses in cities at first, because horse-drawn streetcars were needed to transport commuters from rail stations to their destinations within the city. It was only with the electrification of streetcar lines and the building of underground railroads in the late nineteenth century that cities started to become cleaner. New York City introduced electrified streetcars in 1881. Prague did so in 1891, and London in 1901.

Although London lagged in introducing electric streetcars, it was a pioneer in building underground railroads, opening the world’s first subway, the Metropolitan line of the London Underground system, in 1863. Other cities quickly followed. Glasgow and Budapest opened their undergrounds in 1896, as did Paris in 1900, New York in 1904, and Buenos Aires in 1913. These modes of transportation also had the benefit of being faster and less expensive than conveyances that traveled on crowded surface streets.

As for water, urban factories, slaughterhouses, and tanneries often dumped waste directly into nearby bodies of water. Through the process of capillary action, contaminated water and liquefying waste, like that deposited in latrines, could travel to the sources of public drinking water. As a result, this water was dirty and sometimes smelled worse than the streets. The stockyards and slaughterhouses of Chicago tossed the manure, blood, and unused organs of cows, sheep, and pigs into a fork of the Chicago River. The methane gases produced from the decomposing organic matter caused bubbles to rise to the surface, giving this stretch of the river the name Bubbly Creek (Figure 10.11). The amount of waste produced by the stockyards and slaughterhouses was so great that people traveling to Chicago by train in the middle of the night reportedly could smell the city long before they saw it.

A man in a hat and long coat stands on an island that rises above a pool of liquid waste. Buildings are visible nearby.
Figure 10.11 In this 1911 photograph, a man stands on an island formed by solidified waste in Chicago’s Bubbly Creek. The waste surrounding the creek was so deep that observers reported seeing chickens sink into it and disappear from sight. (credit: “Bubbly Creek” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Flush toilets prevented human waste from being deposited in backyard latrines or tossed into the streets, but they were only part of the solution. The waste still needed to be disposed of somewhere. In too many cities, household drains simply carried it to sewer systems that ultimately dumped it into the same rivers from which water for drinking and bathing was taken. By 1858, six feet of waste had piled up along the banks of the Thames in London, and the stench was so intense that custodians at the Houses of Parliament covered the windows with curtains soaked in chloride of lime, a disinfectant, to keep the politicians inside from passing out. The smell was dubbed the Great Stink, and carbolic acid, another disinfectant, was poured into the river to alleviate the problem.

The Great Stink inspired the rebuilding of London’s sewer system by railway engineer Joseph Bazalgette between 1859 and 1875, as shown in Figure 10.12(a). Bazalgette was knighted for his work. The disposal of London’s sewage was further refined when the city began purifying waste at two major pumping systems in the 1880s and then transporting it to be dumped in the North Sea, a process that continued until 1998. Other cities built similar systems over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some cities even established public toilets, as shown in Figure 10.12(b).

Illustration (a) shows a large number of men in hats and long coats examining a pumping facility. Some men stand on top of the machinery. Image (b) is an exterior photograph of a small building in a park which contains public toilets.
Figure 10.12 (a) This engraving shows the Prince of Wales, the heir to the British throne, attending the 1865 opening of Crossness, one of the major pumping stations of Joseph Bazalgette’s new sewer system. (b) A photograph of an elaborately designed nineteenth-century chalet de necessité, a public toilet, in a Parisian park. Such conveniences helped to keep that city clean. (credit a: modification of work “The Prince of Wales Opening the Metropolitan Main” by The Illustrated London News/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Cabinets water closets Dorion, Champs-Elysées” by State Library of Victoria/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

City air was also dirty in the late nineteenth century. Coal was burned to generate both steam power and electricity, and coal smoke plagued industrial cities as they grew in size. Soot lay upon every surface, including people’s clothing. Anyone who accidentally left windows open found their furniture covered with it. London residents noted how air pollution transformed the color of sunsets. For some this was a mark of pride, and schoolchildren in Osaka, Japan, learned that their hometown was “the City of Smoke.”

Hard on the heels of dirty streets, water, and air came disease. Respiratory problems caused by the inhalation of coal smoke affected many in the nineteenth century. Emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma were common. Approximately one-third of child deaths in nineteenth-century England were attributed to respiratory ailments. Throughout the century, waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid claimed thousands of lives in the cities. Both these illnesses, which kill through dehydration from vomiting and copious diarrhea, are transmitted through water or food that has come in contact with the feces of infected people.

Many cholera pandemics occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century, before industrial technology made the building of secure water and sewer lines possible and good personal hygiene feasible. However, many outbreaks occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century in cities that had not yet modernized their water and sewer systems, and in the poorer neighborhoods of cities that had (Figure 10.13). Three thousand people died of cholera in Vienna within the span of a few months in 1873. In 1892, in the German city of Hamburg, more than eight thousand people died of it. A vaccine was finally developed in 1885.

This magazine cover shows a large skeleton, clothed in flowing robes. The skeleton uses a scythe to cut down soldiers. The image is captioned “Le Cholera.”
Figure 10.13 The cover of an issue of the French magazine Le Petit Journal from 1912 depicts cholera as the Grim Reaper mowing down populations. (credit: “Cholera” by Le Petit Journal/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Finally, overcrowding also contributed to disease. Although tuberculosis affected people in rural areas too, the overcrowded homes and workplaces of industrial cities encouraged it to spread quickly and claim many lives. All social classes suffered from the disease, but it had its greatest impact on the poor, for whom overcrowding was the worst and whose homes often lacked sunlight, which kills tuberculosis bacilli.

Although not necessarily fatal, alcoholism was also a significant health problem in nineteenth-century cities, especially among working-class men. Cities contained numerous saloons, taverns, pubs, cafés, and beer halls, and working-class men routinely sought them out after a hard day. Alcohol relieved boredom, calmed frustrations, and eased the physical pain of factory workers, miners, and dock hands. Establishments that served alcohol commonly offered other services as well, including free or inexpensive food, an employment exchange where men might learn of new jobs, and a place to hear the newspaper read or have a letter written. Men also used drinking establishments as places to discuss politics.

On Sundays, the only day of rest for European and American workers, alcohol consumption was high as many men spent the day drinking. Supervisors reported that it was not uncommon for men to come to work on Monday mornings hungover or still intoxicated. In an attempt to combat this problem, employers began to cut work hours in half on Saturdays, in the hope that if men started drinking earlier, they would finish earlier. Eventually, and largely owing to significant lobbying from labor unions, workers received two full days off on the weekends.

Prostitution, both formal and informal, was common in nineteenth-century cities. Some prostitutes were professionals who lived in brothels, but many others were simply young single women who could not survive on their meager wages alone. Instead of a fee, they might simply want a man to purchase them dinner or new clothing. Even the institution of prostitution modernized in the nineteenth century, and brothels advertised themselves in books of “things to do” in town that could be purchased at railway stations. When asked why they lived such a lifestyle, some women reported that they had been trapped by means of seduction, but many professional prostitutes said the job paid better, required less work, and offered them more privacy than did a job as a factory worker or domestic servant. Sexually transmitted diseases were rampant, however. Many prostitutes and their clients suffered from syphilis, and married men sometimes infected their wives. The result was infertility or babies who were stillborn or blind or had mental disabilities. With no effective cure, syphilis killed its victims after years of agony.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax