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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: People: Assimilation and the Crucible of the City
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: People
Text 1. The American Metropolis
Text 2. Coney Island
Text 3. Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick
Text 4. Lewis W. Hine photographs
Text 5. Jacob Riis, How the Other Lives
Text 6. Anzia Yezierska, Russians
Text 7. Two Wives
Text 8. Lee Chew, The Biography of a Chinaman
Text 9. Exclusion
Text 10. Zitkala-Sa, Native Americans

Timeline: 1865-1913


Resource Menu

State Street, Chicago, 1905
State Street, Chicago, 1905

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How was the American cultural mainstream defined at this time?
  •  What messages and strategies of socialization did the government and other culture brokers extend to immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans during this period?
  •  What benefits and costs for these groups were associated with a strategy of assimilation?
  •  How did the city function as a site of assimilation?

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1.  The American Metropolis
- "State Street, Chicago," photograph, 1905
- George Bellows, New York, oil on canvas, 1911

The World's Fair that so disturbed Henry Adams was also known as the White City. Its chief planner Daniel H. Burnham had carefully laid it out as an ideal. It stood as a model—a new, disciplined, ordered urban world that rebuked messy chaotic cities, like Chicago, which lay just beyond its gates. During this period cities became larger and more complex by the month as people flooded into them from rural and small-town America and from abroad. In time the largest among them, New York and Chicago, became something new in America—great cities, metropolises.

The images offered here suggest something of the nature of that transformation and what it meant to urban dwellers. The photograph of State Street in Chicago is by photographer Carleton H. Graves, whose company produced hundreds of stereographic images for popular entertainment. The painting New York is by George Bellows (1882-1925). Born in Columbus, Ohio, he attended Ohio State University. In 1904 he left the University without a degree to study art in New York. There he became a pupil of Robert Henri, who imparted to his students the belief that art must connect with harsh reality of city life. His students learned that lesson well and went on to create what later became known as the "Ashcan School." According to critic Robert Hughes, Bellows paintings display the "charm of ebullience and vulgarity." His depictions of New York, especially of the crowded streets of lower Manhattan, "celebrated . . . [Theodore] Roosevelt's 'strenuous life' (see EMPIRE) in a big-boned, muscular America." A comparison of these works could provoke among your students a profitable discussion on the differences between photography and painting. 1 page.

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2.  Coney Island
- Thomas A. Edison, Inc., Rube and Mandy at Coney Island, film, 1903
- Frederic Thompson, "Amusing the Million," Everybody's Magazine, September 1908

New York and the photo of State Street suggest a new sort of urban experience. Cities at this time began to offer a new kind of leisure experience, too. At amusement parks people could join the crowds skimming down sliding boards, getting soaked shooting the chutes, and wobbling across rope bridges. The most glittering playland was Luna Park, the "side show" Frederic Thompson and his partner Elmer S. Dundy created on Coney Island in New York City. Amusement parks were the product of American progress. Luna Park, for example, could not have existed without Edison's electric lights, thousands of them. Its boisterous and dizzying "carnival spirit" was the product of Thompson's steady and calculated professionalism. Urbanization put millions of fun-seekers just a streetcar ride away. Mass advertisement drew them to its gates, and the wages of their city jobs got them in. Yet some people worried about the parks. As the adventures of Rube and Mandy demonstrate, the fun and games at Luna Park were not designed to promote gentility. Yet, according to Thompson, attending an amusement park was like frolicking at a Sunday-school picnic. In Everybody's Magazine, "Amusing the Million" appeared alongside articles with titles like "Newport the Maligned," poems like "The Brides of May and September," and short stories like "The Mayor's Honeymoon." Like Rube and Mandy swaying across the rope bridge, Thompson walks a wire trying to convince readers that his perpetual carnival is fit for mothers, sisters, and sweethearts. 9 pages, plus online viewing of the film.

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3.  Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick, Or, Street Life in New York, novel, 1867, excerpts

At the center of Bellows's New York is a wagon that could be carrying almost anything. Its cargo does not matter, but its color does. Shining gold in the sunlight, it is the symbolic heart of the painting. Gold is what drew the crowds to the city and kept them in motion. But how does one navigate those bustling streets to get that gold? Horatio Alger, Jr., offered an answer. Alger (1832-1889) was born in Chelsea (now Revere), Massachusetts. His father was a Unitarian minister who wanted him to become a clergyman. He instead wanted to become a poet and, to that end, studied under Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at Harvard. Upon graduating he wrote for a local newspaper and taught school. Eventually, he did turn to the ministry, taking a position in Cape Cod, but in 1866 he gave it up to follow a writing career in New York. There he became fascinated with the world of bootblacks and newsboys, and it was out of their experience and his own austere values that he created his novels, of which Ragged Dick was the first. Essentially an assimilation story, it, like all of his novels, describes the progress of a young boy, who, through hard work, persistence, and luck, escapes the city streets. He may not become wealthy, but he does achieve respectability, the goal of all the fictional strivers in this section of the toolbox. In the excerpted chapters Dick befriends fellow bootblack Johnny Nolan and guides Frank, a country boy, through the city. 7 pages.

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4.  Lewis W. Hine, photographs of immigrants, Ellis Island, 1905

During this period immigration brought unprecedented cultural diversity to American life. As more and more immigrants streamed into the nation's great manufacturing cities, they transformed tenements and older residential neighborhoods into enclaves of mystery and foreignness. Among native-born Americans immigrants evoked curiosity, fear, and animosity. Lewis Hine (1874-1940) tried to address all those responses. Born in Wisconsin, he attended the University of Chicago and taught at the Ethical Culture School in New York. In his classes he used photographs to illustrate his lessons and later, on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, he began to photograph life in New York's tenements. He built a career in sociological photography, which sought to promote a rational understanding of social and economic inequities in the hope that greater public awareness would result in corrective social action. Among his many subjects he photographed immigrants arriving at New York's Ellis Island. We offer a sample of seven photographs. 4 pages.

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5.  Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, 1890, Introduction, Ch. 6

Before Hine took his camera to Ellis Island to photograph immigrants who were just arriving, Jacob Riis took his into the tenements of New York to photograph those who had settled in. Riis (1849-1914) came to the United States from Denmark in 1870. He held several menial jobs before embarking on a journalistic career in 1873. Having suffered economic hardship himself, he decided to focus his work on the plight of the poor. In time he became so frustrated with the inability of words to describe the conditions he saw, he turned to photography, using it to particularly dramatic effect at night, when his magnesium flash would temporarily blind his subjects and freeze them in their surroundings. How the Other Half Lives caused an immediate sensation and won for Riis the hearty congratulations of Theodore Roosevelt, then New York City's Police Commissioner, who used it to help make his case for reform. The book is a tour that takes middle-class readers through "back alleys . . . stable lanes and hidden byways" to discover the secrets of New York. We present Riis's introduction and his chapter on the Bend, the "foul core of New York's slums." The introduction offers a sense that New York has crossed a line and become irredeemably corrupt. At times reading "The Bend," you may have to remind yourself that Riis was writing out of sympathy for the immigrants. 8 pages.

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6.  Anzia Yezierska, "The Lost Beautifulness" and "Soap and Water," short stories in Hungry Hearts, 1920

Jacob Riis would have approved of the way the protagonists in Anzia Yezierska's stories tried to improve themselves because their efforts involved paint, soap, and water. Yezierska (ca. 1885-1970) came to the United States from Poland and grew up on New York's Jewish enclave on its Lower East Side. She received a scholarship to Columbia University's Teacher's College and taught school upon graduation. In 1913 she began to write fiction. The two stories included here reflect her early experiences as a laundress, maid, and night school student. In "The Lost Beautifulness," Hannah Hayyeh's aspirations to middle-class respectability express themselves as several coats of paint on her kitchen walls. When her landlord, seeing the improvement, raises her rent, she vents and rages with a passion both admirable and frightening. Similar to this emotional display is that of the young teacher in "Soap and Water." The breakdown of each character complicates the role that personal cleanliness and domestic respectability played in the Americanization of immigrants. Despite following the rules, both Hannah and the teacher encounter successive barriers to living the "golden dream" they interpret as the pinnacle of American democracy; yet hope for a better life is still capable of assuaging some of their losses. 13 pages.

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7.  Two Wives
- Abraham Cahan, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, 1896, Ch. 3-4
- Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Wife of His Youth," short story, 1900

As those flowing crowds on State Street and in New York suggest, everything in the city is in flux, including identity. While coming to a city can mark a separation from the past, it cannot always keep the past at bay, as the protagonists of these stories discover. In both Yekl and "The Wife of His Youth," a wife arrives at an inopportune moment, bringing her husband a past he is desperately trying to escape.

Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1882. He settled on the Lower East Side of New York and became a writer, lecturer, and editor for the socialist and labor movements. When he was thirty-seven, he became the editor of the Forward, a socialist newspaper. His best-known feature was the "Bintel Brief" ("a Bundle of Letters"), one of America's earliest advice columns. In his novel Yekl, Jake, a Russian Jewish immigrant, has for three years resisted his wife's pleas to join him in New York. During that time he has become something of a dashing playboy. Eventually, he must relent. When Gitl arrives at Ellis Island, she is "slovenly dressed in a brown jacket and skirt of grotesque cut," her hair "concealed under a voluminous wig of a pitch-black hue." She is "uncouth and un-American," a lot like Charles Chesnutt's 'Liza Jane.

Chesnutt (1858-1932) was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents, free blacks, had migrated there from Fayetteville, North Carolina. In 1866 the Chesnutt family returned to Fayetteville, where Charles attended school. Upon graduating, he became a teacher and eventually a principal. His light skin made him a man of two races, a situation he found intolerable in the South. In 1883 he resigned his school post and moved back to Cleveland. During the 1880s, as the urge to write grew stronger in him, he vowed to create literature of "high, holy purpose" that would bring "recognition and equality" to his people. In "The Wife of His Youth," Mr. Ryder—a free-born black refugee from the slave-holding South, light enough to be a pillar in the exclusive Blue Vein Society—has groomed himself to the utmost respectability and is on the verge of his greatest social triumph. At that moment, 'Liza Jane, the woman he married years before down South, turns up looking for him. Arriving in Groveland, she wears "a blue calico gown of ancient cut," her "gray wool" protruding from a large faded bonnet. She is "a bit of the old plantation life." What the women mean and how the men respond to them suggest the price of assimilation. 21 pages.

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8.  Lee Chew, "The Biography of a Chinaman," Independent, 19 February 1903

Between 1902 and 1906 Independent magazine ran a series of autobiographical "lifelets" of "undistinguished Americans." Lee Chew, a Chinese immigrant, wrote one of them. Life in his village in China was sheltered, ordered, and precise. From the elders he learned about the Western "foreign devils," who were false and vulgar. Yet they possessed many things that, even though evil, because not Chinese, were nonetheless wonderful. One day a villager who had spent many years in America returned and with the "unlimited" wealth he acquired while away built a "paradise." This so moves Lee that he emigrates to America to become wealthy himself. In this sketch he tells of his slow, steady rise but also of the disappointments and insults he suffered and finally of the alienation he feels toward his adopted country. Could be profitably used with students. 7 pages.

Note: Wu-Ting-Fang was a Chinese diplomat who served in this country in the early twentieth century. He wrote America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat.

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9.  Exclusion
- Immigration Restriction League, Publication 39, Extracts from "The Report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration for the Year Ending June 30, 1903"
- U.S. House of Representatives, Report of the Select Committee on Immigration, 1892, excerpt

As noted above, the vast tide of immigrants that swept into this country in the late nineteenth-century engendered considerable fear among some native-born Americans. Anguish over disease, crime, filth, loss of national character, and subversion drove prominent citizens in Boston, many on the faculty of Harvard, to establish, in 1894, the Immigration Restriction League. Here we offer one of the League's publications, extracts from a 1903 report on immigration. The report calls for the exclusion of various categories of "undesirable" aliens, but the author's real argument is with the immigrants already here. He sees their concentration in the cities of the East as a threat to the nation's stability. The House Select Committee report takes up the problem on the West coast, where Chinese—not Italian, Russian, or Austrian immigrants—are the source of native discontent. 6 pages.

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10.  Zitkala-Sa
- Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), "The School Days of an Indian Girl," Atlantic Monthly, February 1900
- Gertrude Käsebier, photographs of Zitkala-Sa, 1898

For one group of "newcomers" to industrial America the city was decidedly not the site of assimilation, yet what was happening in the cities affected the strategies of socialization offered to them. In the 1880s the impulse that prompted government action on the problems of poverty, immigration, and labor unrest in the cities was directed west on behalf of Indians. Influential reformers, evangelical Protestants calling themselves "Friends of the Indian," urged education and support as alternatives to suppression and extermination. The transformation of this approach into government policy came through the Dawes Act of 1887, which essentially offered the Indians a deal—if they would give up their traditional ways, they could become members of American society. Under this legislation, if a male would separate himself from a tribe and live according to "civilized" values, the government would provide him land and the prospect of citizenship. In other words, if an Indian ceased to be an Indian, he/she could become an American.

Indian schools were charged with the task of processing the "Indian" out of Indians. Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (1876-1938) entered what she called "the civilizing machine" at White's Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, a Quaker missionary school. Born of a white father and Yankton-Nakota Sioux mother, Bonnin left the reservation at the age of eight to attend White's, a move she made against the expressed disapproval of her mother. After White's she went to Earlham College in Indiana, and upon graduation took the name Zitkala-Sa. She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and taught music at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, a job from which she was fired when she began publishing her autobiographical essays. She went on to compose opera, edit American Indian Magazine, and lobby on behalf of Indian causes. "The School Days of an Indian Girl" tracks her education after arriving in "The Land of the Red Apples" through her college years. In it she ably conveys what to her was the strangeness of her new surroundings. She suffers repeated indignities, some inflicted innocently through cultural misunderstanding, others inflicted deliberately. Language and its subtle power to change a person are a constant theme. In the end she triumphs but at enormous cost.

Photographer Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) lived in Iowa and Colorado until her teen years. She was educated at the Moravian College for Women in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and later studied photography and art in New York. Her photos were published in Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work and other notable photographic magazines of the times. Käsebier photographed Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West and on reservations of the Dakota Sioux. She formed a friendship with Zitkala-Sa and made several portraits of her. 14 pages.

"Chicago, State Street," 1905. Photographic print on stereo card: stereograph published by Carleton H. Graves, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-101147.

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
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