1870-1900: Industrial Development

After the Civil War, the United States rapidly transformed into an industrial, urbanized nation. Technological innovation, economic growth, development of large-scale agriculture, and the expansion of the federal government characterized the era, as did the social tensions brought about by immigration, financial turmoil, federal Indian policy, and increasing demands for rights by workers, women, and minorities. 

This group of objects highlights innovation and industrialization in the late 1800s, and the benefits as well as detriments of becoming an economic and industrial power.

Currently on view

Century Vase, 1876

Made by Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, New York

The American Industrial Revolution transformed the nation from a scattering of isolated communities into an economic and industrial giant, in part due to the country’s wealth of natural resources. Forests, minerals, waterways, and huge tracts of arable land for farming and ranching provided the raw materials that fueled growth and development, often at the expense of the environment.

This vase celebrates 100 years of American progress and depicts now-vanished icons of the American landscape such as bison, a wooden reaper, and a steamship.

Railroad Spike, 1869

Commemorative of the final spike that completed the transcontinental railroad

Railroads were the basis of the nation’s industrial economy in the late 1800s, creating new markets, carrying billions of tons of freight to every corner of the country, and opening up the West for development. Thanks in part to the railroad providing access to new land for farming, agricultural production doubled in the 1870s, which in turn increased railroad traffic.

Gift of Union Pacific Railroad, Mr. A. E. Stoddard, President

Stock Ticker, about 1900

Made by the Western Union Telegraph Company

The U.S. economy grew rapidly after the Civil War, fueled by an astounding rise in wealth, wages, production, and corporate mergers, along with limited government regulation. The volume of stocks traded rose sharply with corporations’ need for investment capital and the development of new technologies. The 1867 invention of the stock ticker, transmitting up-to-the-minute share prices over telegraph lines, modernized the stock exchange.

Gift of Western Union Corporation

Incandescent Lamp, about 1891

Made by Edison General Electric Company

Many inventions in the late 1880s helped speed urban growth, allowing for taller buildings, more efficient factories, and better transportation. One of the most dramatic improvements occurred in artificial lighting. Thomas Edison’s development of an electric lamp that did not rely on open flames made lighting more practical for factories, offices, and homes, and transformed city life.

Gift of General Electric Lighting Company, through Terry K. McGowan

Tinfoil Phonograph, 1878

Invented by Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Edison helped usher in an age of organized research in support of commerce and industry that reshaped American life. Vowing to turn out inventions on a regular basis, Edison and his team of scientists, engineers, draftsmen, and laborers developed or improved over 1,000 patents, from huge electric generators to this early phonograph.

Gift of American Telephone and Telegraph Company

Alexander Graham Bell's Big Box Telephone, 1876

One of the first commercially available telephones

Telegraph lines could carry only one coded message per wire at a time, which became a hindrance as the volume of communication increased. To overcome this problem, Alexander Bell used his knowledge of acoustics to devise a method of sending multiple tonal messages over a wire. This led to the telephone, and a communication revolution that transformed business and daily life.

Gift of American Telephone and Telegraph Company

Cross, 1875–99

Made by a Hispanic Catholic in New Mexico

New Mexico has experienced many cultural encounters since the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s. Following the United States’ 1848 annexation of the area at the end of war with Mexico, the population of the territory boomed, bringing together Catholics of Spanish descent, indigenous tribes, Protestant missionaries, and Anglo American settlers. Though often in conflict, these communities forged a distinctive regional identity that survives to the present.

Silver Presentation Cup, about 1900

Presented to Susan B. Anthony on her eightieth birthday

Although American women fought for black suffrage, they were unable to vote in federal elections themselves until 1920. As suffragists moved out of the parlor and into the streets, they challenged the notion that a woman’s place was solely in the home. Susan B. Anthony shocked the nation when she was jailed in 1872 for illegally trying to vote.

Gift of National American Woman Suffrage Association

Print, 1870s

Black politicians during Reconstruction

With the end of the Civil War, hard-won constitutional amendments abolished slavery and established citizenship and voting rights for black Americans. But during and after Reconstruction, blacks were often treated as second-class citizens. Southern states continued to restrict black voting, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan led to decades of violence.

From the Ralph E. Becker Collection of Political Americana

Statue, late 1800s

Made by the Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, New York

In the late 1800s, black Americans gained citizenship and the vote, while immigrants from Europe and Asia came to the country in record numbers. As these minorities strove for economic prosperity and social justice, some white Americans reacted to the rapidly changing social order with apprehension and hostility. The relationship of the three figures in this statue captures this tension.

Gift of Mrs. Franklin Chace

Singer Sewing Machine Patent Model, 1889

Factory machine for making buttonholes

American goods were increasingly made in factories as companies adopted large-scale, standardized production methods in the late 1800s. Specialized machines took the place of manual tasks—such as sewing buttonholes for ready-made clothing—speeding up the work to meet the growing demands of a nation of consumers. The advent of more simply constructed women’s apparel in the 1890s gave a further boost to the clothing industry.

Sholes & Glidden Typewriter, 1873

Made by E. Remington & Sons

The development of corporations after the Civil War led to the creation of multiple layers of office management. The vast demand for professional managers and clerical staff encouraged education and the growth of the middle class. The introduction of the typewriter gave women the opportunity to enter the corporate workplace.

Gift of Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict

John Brown Lennon's Delegate Badge, 1893

From the Journeymen Tailors’ Union convention

Rapid industrial development in the late 1800s changed where and how Americans worked. By 1900, U.S. factories employed 4.5 million people, most working long hours for low wages in often unhealthful conditions. Workers organized local and national unions in response, leading to an intense period of political activity, strikes, and sometimes violent clashes in the fight for labor rights.

Gift of D. E. Lennon

Jeans, 1873-96

Made by Levi Strauss & Co., San Franscisco

Between 1870 and 1900 over 430 million acres were settled in the United States, most of them in the West. Mining, ranching, and farming drew waves of settlers, and cities and commerce followed. In 1873 San Francisco merchant LeviStrauss and tailor Jacob Davis patented a designfor rugged workers’ pants for western wear—the first jeans, advertised at right in 1875.

Gift of Walter Haas Jr.

Winchester Rifle, 1881

Captured from Sioux when Chief Low Dog surrendered in Montana Territory

Through most of the 1800s, Americans viewed the nation’s westward expansion as a symbol of its providence as a land of wealth and progress. But Indian tribes resisted the encroachment of settlers in their territories, setting off decades of violence. The federal government gradually pushed the tribes to more isolated areas, offering U.S. citizenship, but few opportunities, to those who agreed to accept allotments of land on reservations.

Man's Gown, about 1896

Ordered from China by Lee B. Lok in 1896

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, thousands of Chinese laborers were left jobless in the western United States. Unwelcome in California, where it was feared they competed for low-paying jobs, many moved to the East Coast. Lee Lok emigrated from China to San Francisco in 1881 and then moved to New York City’s Chinatown where he worked in a general store. Although he could not become a U.S. citizen, his children could, and did.

Gift of James Edgar Mead and Virginia Lee Mead

The objects below are no longer on view

Harvester and Self-Raking Reaper Patent Model, 1877

Patented by William Whiteley

Increasingly mechanized farming meant fewer laborers were needed on farms, releasing them to work in urban industrial jobs. As the cities grew, demand increased for agricultural goods in turn. Inventors looked for new ways for farming to be more efficient and profitable, including making improvements to existing technology such as the mechanical reaper first developed by Cyrus McCormick in 1834.

Creeping Baby Doll, 1870s

Patented by Robert J. Clay

In the 1870s, changing notions of childhood meant that Anglo American parents had only recently accepted crawling, or creeping, as a natural stage in a baby’s development rather than a bad habit.  Prior to this, generations of American children had been prevented from crawling on all fours, an activity then associated with animals and the insane.

Child's Dress, 1876

Made from fabric purchased at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition

Celebrating innovations in industry and the arts, the international Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the American Revolution, embodied Americans’ confidence in the future, and revealed the country’s potential to the rest of the world. Among the crowds attending the centennial was Henry Fletcher, who purchased the patriotic fabric his wife used to make this dress for their first child, born in 1876.