ameriac 1870

America looked very different in 1870.
Lass / Getty
  • In 1870, America was in the middle of great change as the Second Industrial Revolution was just starting, and millions of immigrants were heading for the US.
  • At the time, fashion was more formal, and people loved traveling by carriage, steamboat, or railway.
  • Americans were also shopping via catalogs 150 years ago.
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Today, cell phones, computers, and other forms of technology are so prevalent that we often forget how far we have come. 

Life wasn't always this technology-focused. In fact, 150 years ago, America was in the middle of great change. Around 1870, the Second Industrial Revolution was underway, just as immigrants started flooding the country. 

Take a look back in history to see what life was like 150 years ago. 

In the 1870s, families were experiencing significant changes as the Second Industrial Revolution moved people from farmland to cities.

family in 1870

A family in 1870.
Time Life Pictures / Getty

After the Civil War, America entered its Second Industrial Revolution. During this time, cities became the place to find a job as factories popped up in urban areas. This sparked a great change in the family dynamic. Before this time period, families mostly lived on farmland and made a living off their land. But from 1870 to 1920, 11 million people moved into the cities.

As more people moved into the cities, daily life became gruesome for some.

tenement housing

A tenement in 1888.
Bettmann / Getty

People crammed into the streets of New York City 150 years ago, making the city cramped. This marked the beginning of tenement housing, which packed entire families into one-room apartments. Most lived in squalor and in unsafe environments.  

"It was all very dense, very crowded, and unregulated — conditions that fostered disease and inhumane living conditions," the New York Public Library writes. 

The photo above depicts what would become of tenement housing by the late 1880s, as photographed by Jacob Riis. 

At the same time, people were moving west as train lines expanded.

family 1970

A family out west.
Hulton Archive / Getty

Once the railroads were completed after the Civil War, many people moved out west to settle and farm the open land. Most people think of these people as cowboys, but the Library of Congress says that image is false. The people who moved out west experienced tough lifestyles including, "long, hard hours of labor, poor living conditions, and economic hardship."

The frontier has also been called the "meeting point between civilization and savagery."

The demographics of the country was changing, too, as thousands of people immigrated from Europe to the US.

immigrants elis island

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.
Bettmann / Getty

To combat poverty and hardships, many immigrated to the United States in hopes of a better life. From 1870 to 1900, 12 million people immigrated to the country. At that time, the majority of immigrants were coming from Germany, Ireland, and England.

More than 70% of immigrants entered the US via New York City's Ellis Island. While the boat ride across the ocean was difficult, what waited for them on the other side was filled with hope and promise. 

Children spent most of their time in one-room schoolhouses.

schoolhouse in 1870s

A schoolhouse of children.
Underwood Archives / Getty

Before 1870, public education was not a priority. But between 1870 and 1900, attendance at public schools doubled, as people saw the value of an educated society. In fact, the growing number of immigrant families in the US prompted the need for public schools as immigrant parents wanted their children to be educated. 

Public schools were often one room and housed children of all ages. Students learned math, reading, writing, geography, and history. 

For families who were extremely poor, children would sometimes forgo schooling and instead be sent right to work to help the family's finances.

When not in school, children played with dolls that they made themselves.

children with doll 1870

A girl with a doll.
Imagno / Getty

Most parents 150 years ago would make toys out of items lying around the house. During this time, rag dolls were popular. If you were wealthier, however, you had access to handcrafted toys. Abroad, children played with dolls made of china, train sets, and soldiers. It was also common for children to play with toys that represented a story from the Bible.

Women's fashion was dramatic and elegant, with details focused on the back.

1870 womens clothing

Womenswear from 1870.
Popperfoto / Getty

In the 1870s, women's dresses tended to swoop towards the back and bunch around the buttocks. It was also common that the dress fell flat against the abdomen. The princess waistline, which was achieved by wearing a tight corset, was also popular during this time period.

Unlike today, the menswear of 150 years ago was much more formal.

menswear 1870

Men in 1870.
Hulton Archive / Getty

The men during this time period also often used walking sticks.

Although railroads were growing in popularity throughout the 1800s, 1870 marked the beginning of a boom within the industry.


Train in 1870.
Sepia Times / Getty

Before 1871, 45,000 miles of railroad track had already been laid in the US, but from 1871 to 1900, the country laid another 170,000 miles. As the transcontinental railroads crisscrossed the US, train travel became popular among travelers. 

The railroad also gave people access to different types of food.

train 1870

A train 1870.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty

During the 1870s, people were gaining access to foods they never had before. People on the East Coast could suddenly consume oranges from California, beef from Wyoming, and fresh milk. 

During this time, women canned and baked less. Instead, they started buying commercially prepared items to eat.

fire and dimes

A "five and dime" store.
Bettmann / Getty

Grocery stores like Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company and the A&P opened in the mid-1800s, and they were popular by the 1870s. Around this time, women started buying mass-produced groceries instead of making their own. The "five and dime" stores also became popular around this time period for the same reason.

Around the same time, the US held the first Kentucky Derby.

kentucky derby

The Kentucky Derby in the late 1800s.
Library of Congress

Technically the Kentucky Derby got its start 145 years ago, in 1875, but the newfound interest in leisure that started in 1870 helped the Kentucky Derby come about. Today, the sporting event is still held in Louisville, Kentucky, and is considered an American tradition. 

For African Americans, this period was a time for new-found — albeit limited — freedom.

african american 1870

A Native American man and an African American man in 1870.
Buyenlarge / Getty

After the Civil War and Reconstruction, African Americans were facing a new world. Slavery had been made illegal in 1865 by the ratification of the 13th Amendment and, in 1870, the US government passed the 15th Amendment, which granted African Americans the right to vote.

It states, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." 

Throughout the 1870s, however, multiple practices were implemented to stop blacks from exercising their rights to vote. In some ways, African Americans were free, but in many ways, they were disfranchised during this time period. 

More: Features American History History Industrial Revolution