Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.
Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.
The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.
Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.
Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Historically, gentrification has had a smaller demographic impact on American cities than suburbanization or immigration. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Furthermore, districts such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Georgetown in Washington DC have had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Gentrification thus must be examined alongside suburbanization as one of the major historical trends shaping the 20th-century American metropolis.
Mass transit has been part of the urban scene in the United States since the early 19th century. Regular steam ferry service began in New York City in the early 1810s and horse-drawn omnibuses plied city streets starting in the late 1820s. Expanding networks of horse railways emerged by the mid-19th century. The electric streetcar became the dominant mass transit vehicle a half century later. During this era, mass transit had a significant impact on American urban development. Mass transit’s importance in the lives of most Americans started to decline with the growth of automobile ownership in the 1920s, except for a temporary rise in transit ridership during World War II. In the 1960s, congressional subsidies began to reinvigorate mass transit and heavy-rail systems opened in several cities, followed by light rail systems in several others in the next decades. Today concerns about environmental sustainability and urban revitalization have stimulated renewed interest in the benefits of mass transit.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people.
Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness.
Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.
Wendy L. Wall
The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state.
The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy.
Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”
Ann Durkin Keating
Since the beginning of the 19th century, outlying areas of American cities have been home to a variety of settlements and enterprises with close links to urban centers. Beginning in the early 19th century, the increasing scale of business and industrial enterprises separated workplaces from residences. This allowed some urban dwellers to live at a distance from their place of employment and commute to work. Others lived in the shadow of factories located at some distance from the city center. Still others provided food or raw materials for urban residents and businesses. The availability of employment led to further suburban growth. Changing intracity transportation, including railroads, interurbans, streetcars, and cable cars, enabled people and businesses to locate beyond the limits of a walking city.
By the late 19th century, metropolitan areas across the United States included outlying farm centers, industrial towns, residential rail (or streetcar) suburbs, and recreational/institutional centers. With suburbs generally located along rail or ferry lines into the early 20th century, the physical development of metropolitan areas often resembled a hub and spokes. However, across metropolitan regions, suburbs had a great range of function and diversity of populations. With the advent of automobile commutation and the growing use of trucks to haul freight, suburban development took place between railroad lines, filling in the earlier hub-and-spokes patterns into a more deliberate built-up area.
Although suburban settlements were integrally connected to their neighbors and within a metropolitan economy and society, independent suburban governments emerged to serve these outlying settlements and keep them separate. Developers often took the lead in providing differential services (and regulations). Suburban governments emerged as hybrid forms, serving relatively homogeneous populations by providing only some urban functions. Well before 1945, suburbs were home to a wide range of work and residents.
Between 1880 and 1929, industrialization and urbanization expanded in the United States faster than ever before. Industrialization, meaning manufacturing in factory settings using machines plus a labor force with unique, divided tasks to increase production, stimulated urbanization, meaning the growth of cities in both population and physical size. During this period, urbanization spread out into the countryside and up into the sky, thanks to new methods of building taller buildings. Having people concentrated into small areas accelerated economic activity, thereby producing more industrial growth. Industrialization and urbanization thus reinforced one another, augmenting the speed with which such growth would have otherwise occurred.
Industrialization and urbanization affected Americans everywhere, but especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Technological developments in construction, transportation, and illumination, all connected to industrialization, changed cities forever, most immediately those north of Washington, DC and east of Kansas City. Cities themselves fostered new kinds of industrial activity on large and small scales. Cities were also the places where businessmen raised the capital needed to industrialize the rest of the United States. Later changes in production and transportation made urbanization less acute by making it possible for people to buy cars and live further away from downtown areas in new suburban areas after World War II ended.
James J. Connolly
The convergence of mass politics and the growth of cities in 19th-century America produced sharp debates over the character of politics in urban settings. The development of what came to be called machine politics, primarily in the industrial cities of the East and Midwest, generated sharp criticism of its reliance on the distribution of patronage and favor trading, its emphatic partisanship, and the plebian character of the “bosses” who practiced it. Initially, upper- and middle-class businessmen spearheaded opposition to this kind of politics, but during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, labor activists, women reformers, and even some ethnic spokespersons confronted “boss rule” as well. These challenges did not succeed in bringing an end to machine politics where it was well established, but the reforms they generated during the Progressive Era reshaped local government in most cities. In the West and Southwest, where cities were younger and partisan organizations less entrenched, business leaders implemented Progressive municipal reforms to consolidate their power. Whether dominated by reform regime or a party machine, urban politics and governance became more centralized by 1940 and less responsive to the concerns and demands of workers and immigrants.
Zoning is a legal tool employed by local governments to regulate land development. It determines the use, intensity, and form of development in localities through enforcement of the zoning ordinance, which consists of a text and an accompanying map that divides the locality into zones. Zoning is an exercise of the police powers by local governments, typically authorized through state statutes. Components of what became part of the zoning process emerged piecemeal in U.S. cities during the 19th century in response to development activities deemed injurious to the health, safety, and welfare of the community. American zoning was influenced by and drew upon models already in place in German cities early in the 20th century. Following the First National Conference on Planning and Congestion, held in Washington, DC in 1909, the zoning movement spread throughout the United States. The first attempt to apply a version of the German zoning model to a U.S. city was in New York City in 1916. In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Ambler Realty v. Village of Euclid (1926), zoning was ruled as a constitutional exercise of the police power, a precedent-setting case that defined the perimeters of land use regulation the remainder of the 20th century.
Zoning was explicitly intended to sanction regulation of real property use to serve the public interest, but frequently, it was used to facilitate social and economic segregation. This was most often accomplished by controlling the size and type of housing, where high density housing (for lower income residents) could be placed in relation to commercial and industrial uses, and in some cases through explicit use of racial zoning categories for zones. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Buchanan v. Warley (1917), that a racial zoning plan of the city of Louisville, Kentucky violated the due process clause of the14th Amendment. The decision, however, did not directly address the discriminatory aspects of the law. As a result, efforts to fashion legally acceptable racial zoning schemes persisted late into the 1920s. These were succeeded by the use of restrictive covenants to prohibit black (and other minority) occupancy in certain white neighborhoods (until declared unconstitutional in the late 1940s). More widespread was the use of highly differentiated residential zoning schemes and real estate steering that imbedded racial and ethnic segregation into the residential fabric of American communities.
The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SSZEA) of 1924 facilitated zoning. Disseminated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the SSZEA created a relatively uniform zoning process in U.S. cities, although depending upon their size and functions, there were definite differences in the complexity and scope of zoning schemes. The reason why localities followed the basic form prescribed by the SSZEA was to minimize the chance of the zoning ordinance being struck down by the courts. Nonetheless, from the 1920s through the 1970s, thousands of court cases tested aspects of zoning, but only a few reached the federal courts, and typically, zoning advocates prevailed.
In the 1950s and 1960s, critics of zoning charged that the fragmented city was an unintended consequence. This critique was a response to concerns that zoning created artificial separations among the various types of development in cities, and that this undermined their vitality. Zoning nevertheless remained a cornerstone of U.S. urban and suburban land regulation, and new techniques such as planned unit developments, overlay zones, and form-based codes introduced needed flexibility to reintegrate urban functions previously separated by conventional zoning approaches.