In 1850 Isaac Singer improved the design of a sewing machine similar to one patented by Elias Howe Jnr and within ten years he was a wealthy man. This was a machine everyone wanted as the textile industry was on the rise and the sewing machine meant many people could work from home. The factories farmed out work to private homes and those with sewing machines could finish this work much faster than any people using older techniques. This optimistic response to technological change was typical of the 1850s, technology was seen as a gift from God to advance mankind, the telegraph, cotton gin, steam engine and mechanical reaper prompted utopian hopes for a greater future. But technology also had its critics and active enemies. The newly invented revolver was useless for all but one purpose, to settle private scores. The farm women who had made a successful living sewing by hand at home were replaced in the inner cities by working women with sewing machines or in sweatshops. Philosophers and artists were worried about the changing landscape while conservationists made efforts to preserve enclaves as retreats from the ‘evils’ of progress.
Technology drew praise from all sides. Machines were doing the work of people without food or clothing and it was improving society for the betterment of all. In antebellum America the sweeping changes brought about by steam engines, cotton gin, the reaper and the telegraph, mostly European inventions, but Americans had a knack for improving them, was transforming society. But technology did not benefit all. The cotton gin created a greater demand for slaves in the south, machines did the work of artisans who lost their livelihoods and women who had a chance to make a living from home soon lost that chance. Meanwhile, improving transportation, increasing productivity and advancing technology lowered commodity prices and raised living standards for many Americans.
In 1830 the movement west had advanced to Ohio and Kentucky where land alternated with forest and prairie soil, though fertile, was tough. John Deere identified this problem and invented a steel tipped plow that cut the work in half. Settlers saw this plow as a means to open up new lands and found themselves moving into new areas near woodlands and forests where timber could be found to build new homes and fencing. Wheat became to the west what cotton was to the south and gave great purpose to farming. Technology enhanced the working of wheat to quicker and bigger harvests and in 1834 the horse drawn mechanical reaper harvested grain seven times faster than by hand. The mechanical reaper guaranteed that wheat would dominate the Midwestern prairies.
Industrial advancement owed a great debt to effective use of machine tools, power machines that cut and shaped metal to precise requirements. Americans were importing machine tools technology from Britain and very quickly the hand filing of parts became obsolete. After mid century this system of interchanging parts was known as ‘the American system of manufacturing’ and demonstrated that Americans were willing to resort to machines as a substitute for manual labor. Interchangeable parts made replacement parts possible and improved machine tools enabled entrepreneurs to push for greater product and profit. Worker specialization meant faster productivity. After the transmission of the first telegraph in 1844 Americans seized the technology to eliminate the constraints of time and space. By 1852 thousands of miles of telegraph lines connected cities far apart and the era of intercity communication was established.
The railroad had the most dramatic effect on antebellum America. By 1850 ordinary Americans could travel three times faster than by horse. Americans loved railroads but they had hurdles to overcome to perfect the system of rail and railway travel. But the railroad was unstoppable because it had become the great agent of civilization and progress. Between 1840 and 1860 American society had transformed with the railway systems which had become powerful and convenient. By 1860 the Americans had more track than the rest of the world combined. Canals too were n the rise but railways overtook them . Major cities expanded into thriving hubs and linked the east to the west. The dramatic growth of Chicago illustrates the impact of expanding railway lines. In 1849 Chicago was just a village but by 1860 it had become a major city. Rail lines also stimulated the settlement of the mid west and increased the value of farmland and promoted additional settlement. Industrial development prospered and even small towns along routes made money from traffic and estate speculation. Hotels, lumberyards, grain elevators and mills sprang up ins mall towns and by the Civil War the concept of ‘frontiers’ were all but forgotten. Railways were the nations first big business and they transformed the way business was done. Railroad expansion turned New York City into the center of modern investment firms as New York Stock Exchange became the home of investment for those wanting to make money buying and selling shares, not only in the railroad system, but, in time other commodities too.
Technological advances reduced prices for consumers and the widening use of steam power led to longer working hours and better wages. The growth of towns and cities also contributed to incomes. Thriving cities gave extra work to out of season farmers and their families so cash could be earned all year round instead of just for a few months of the year. Women and children too went to work and earned money as opposed to working for no cash on their farms. Many families lived close to the margin and such families needed as much income as could be earned. The quality of life in urban communities was not necessarily superior to rural life but because of economic conditions rural dwellers were financially better off. The comforts and conveniences of city life explain the mass movement of people during the mid 19th century into cities.
As technology progressed its benefits seemed a little uneven. The middle classes were the biggest winners. Domestic life was improving rapidly as new inventions such as stoves enhanced the lifestyles of those who could afford them. Clothing of fine quality was widely available, and the shops were filling up with new inventions, new household utensils, new products imported from far and wide for those who prospered and had the finances to avail of them. The patent office was saturated with new ideas for domestic tools and equipment including new flytraps, household appliances, cleaning products and foodstuffs. While the middle classes enjoyed luxurious lives the poorer lived in squalid tenements. However, all seemed to welcome the age of technological change and all it’s gifts to mankind.
Timber houses that had flourished in the early 19th century began to give way to more orderly rows of brick homes which were a response to rising land prices. Middle class homes were luxurious and elegant while working class housing, usually occupied by Irish Catholics and Free Blacks, were very rudimentary and designed for multiple families. These were known as tenements and mostly owned by ruthless Landlords charging exorbitant rents that could only be afforded by families sharing small rooms. Furnishings also elevated the class divide with the wealthier spending money on high class furnishings and ornaments usually placed in public areas of the home (like the parlor) where they could be seen by visitors while other parts of the home were furnished more sparsely. Rural living was a bit more comfortable as new styles and techniques of building enhanced comfort. Advancing transport systems gave rise to new materials and furnishings becoming widely available at friendly prices and thus middle class rural dwellers could live comfortable quite lives in relative luxury and tranquility which is what most people strived for.
Although life in the 19th century was somewhat primitive by today’s standards it was still one of impressive quality to those who enjoyed the daily spoils and advantages of an ever growing economy. Stoves had arrived into most homes and the quality and variety of diets became more versatile. The new railways systems brought food and vegetables into towns and villages that locals had not seen or heard of in the past. Even foodstuffs grown thousands of miles away could still be found in stores at friendly prices and thus the diet of most Americans became very varied. New water systems such as aqueducts were being constructed all over civilized America and families started to live healthier lives with the availability of free flowing water. Despite improvements home comforts were somewhat limited. Coal fires lasted longer than wood but caused pollution. Carbon monoxide emissions created health risks, even though most people were oblivious to its existence, food stuffs could not be preserved so had to be consumed as quickly as possible. Ice boxes did not exist so meat could only be preserved using salt which accounts for the popularity of pork which tasted more pleasant than salted beef. Public waterworks were impressive but not yet widespread. It was usually a very upper class areas that had access to water hydrants and bats and showers could only happen by boiling water pot by pot. Most working class people only bathed once a year and thus urban life consisted of many pungent smells, rat infestation was common as a result of poor sanitary conditions, wild animals such a s hogs roamed the streets (often captured and eaten in poorer areas) and piles of horse manure and human waste gathered on the streets and created, in intense heat, a dangerous environment that would create health problems for many who were ignorant of the source of their ill health.
Boyer, Clark & Halttunen