A Decade by Decade Guide to 19th Century American Cultural History

The 19th Century brought with it the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in a great amount of change between 1800 and 1900. There was not a single aspect of life that was left untouched by the remarkable changes in daily life during this period. Art & Architecture, Business, the Economy, Literature, Education, Music and Theater, Social Movements and Science were all transformed in ways no one in the 18th century or earlier could have imagined.


In 1800, America had been independent for less than 25 years. The decade would see: Thomas Jefferson elected to the Presidency – The first Congress convening in Washington – The Free African-American’s petition put before Congress – The U.S. forbid the importation of Africans to be used as slaves—The Library of Congress established - John Chapman start dispensing seedlings and seeds in Ohio – The United States population hit an estimated 5.3 million – The Louisiana purchase was closed for $15 million – Lewis and Clark setting out on a three year journey to the West Coast – Charles Wilson Peale establishing the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts – Embargo Act stopping all trade with foreign countries – Charles Brockden Brown publishing Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist – Burr shooting Hamilton over Hamilton’s win for the New York governor’s seat – The founding of the United States Military Academy at West Point; Edgar Allen Poe, Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee would later attend – Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader, establish a defense against whites in the westward movement – Mastodon fossils found in New York.


This decade got off to a rocky start with the War of 1812, and ended with an economic boom. In between the beginning and the end, this decade would be witness to: Frances Scott Key composing the Star Spangled Banner – The Presidency of James Madison and James Monroe – Native Americans warring to keep their land in the West from white settlers – Soccer and Boxing becoming popular – The state of Louisiana entering the Union – John Jacob Astor founding the Pacific Fur Company – Washington Irving publishing Rip Van Winkle – The Era of Good Feeling being proclaimed due to Madison’s election – Differences between Unitarians and other Christian sects brought to light by William Ellery Channing’s sermon – The first American factory being built to combine cotton spinning and weaving – Ten inches of snow falling in June in Massachusetts – British forces taking over Washington and burning the Capital – Spanish Florida becoming a territory of the U.S. by a treaty with Spain – Enslaved African Americans revolting unsuccessfully in Louisiana – Thomas Cooper preparing potassium in the U.S. for the first time.

In 1820, James Monroe was reelected President, which was not the only notable event to take place in this decade, other interesting happenings were: Washington Irving publishing The Sketch Book – The U.S. population hitting close to 10 million – Missouri entering the union making it the 24th state – The opening of the Santa Fe trail – Daniel Boone dying at 85 – The trade of foreign slaves being made into an act of piracy – The first college opening for women in New York- John Gorham’s publishing The Elements of Chemical Science – The completion of the Erie Canal – The formation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs – Thomas Jefferson’s death – Painters Durand and Cole becoming part of the Hudson River School – Noah Webster publishing the American Dictionary of the English Language – Jim Bridger’s exploration of the Great Salt Lake – James Quincy Adams being elected President – Sir Walter Scott composing the song Hail to the Chief – The development of canned food.

This decade started out with President Andrew Jackson signing the Indian Removal Act and ended with John Quincy Adams fighting to free the slaves from the ship Amistad. Other important events include: The U.S. population hitting almost 13 million – Nat Turner leading the slave uprising that saw 70 whites and 100 blacks killed – Choctaws signing a treaty that had them surrender 8 million acres of land in the east for territory in Oklahoma – Democracy in America being written by Alexis de Tocqueville – Andrew Jackson being elected President – Texas inhabitants voting to separate the state from Mexico – Oberlin College being the first school to accept black students – The National debt was paid off – Santa Anna leading the siege at the Alamo – Martin Van Buren being elected President – the Panic of 1837 beginning because of increased inflation, bank failures and high unemployment rates – Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes Nature – The Washington Monument was designed and building began – Currier and Ives was established – The poet Emily Dickenson was born.


The 5th decade of the 19th century begain with The Underground Railroad being well established and helping slaves escape to the free North. The decade ended with 80,000 people rushing to California in search of gold. In between, many other events took place: Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message – Child labor laws limit children under 12 to 10-hour workdays – Immigrants were arriving from many other countries – The term millionaire was coined – The Smithsonian Institute was established - Panorama-style painting became popular – The Chicago Board of Trade was opened – Edgar Allen Poe printed his first set of short stories – Herman Melville published Typee – In the North, African American children were segregated in schools – Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree – Composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk was refused by the Conservatory of Paris – Women dressed in full skirts and often wore bonnets – Opium became available as laudanum which was used to ease pain and as a recreational drug. 

1850 -1859
Mid-century found America in a heated debate over slavery, at the time there were 3.2 million slaves in the country. The decade ended with Georgia passing the law which forbids owners from manumitting (freeing) slaves in their wills. During the decade America was growing greatly and the population had exploded to 23 million – The first elevator was designed and installed by Elisha P. Otis – The Dred Scott decision was passed by the Supreme Court – American artists were becoming famous in Europe – Greek sculpture and architecture were popular – In Titusville, PA the first oil well was drilled – There were three Presidents Milliard Filmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan – The Scarlet Letter was published by Nathaniel Hawthorne – Westward expansion drove United State business and economic growth – New roads and railways were built for better transportation – The textile industry was booming – More states than ever before were providing free public education – P.T. Barnum enticed Jenny Lind to America with a sum of $187,000 – Picnics were all the rage – The sewing machine revolutionized clothing manufacturing.

1860 - 1869
The 1860s were a time of liberation of African Americans as Abraham Lincoln fought to abolish slavery and became President while doing it. The U.S. population had mounted to almost 32 million, while civil war broke out in South Carolina. This decade was riddled with strife as the country was divided between the North and the South. Important events and cultural affairs were varied: The first American draft was enacted – Prices on everything were rising – Thanksgiving Day became an official holiday – The IRS raised income taxes – Landscape painting was in vogue from Civil War artist Winslow Homer – Telegraph lines and railroads were helping to reshape the American economy – Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson continued to be successful – American realism in literature began – The North and South conflict took its toll on education and America’s children – Music focused on the Civil War that led to songs about the battles – The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written by Julia Ward Howe – Roller skates were invented by James L. Plimpton – Guns were vastly improved to enable faster shooting up to 2 to 3 times faster – Women were enjoying greater political power and suffrage groups were formed.

1870 - 1879
This decade finds Americans in the midst of their second industrial revolution and the time was known as The Gilded Age. The phone is invented by Alexander Graham Bell – Custer attacks Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse – Rutherford B. Hayes is elected President – Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt is invited to show her work in the famous Impressionist exhibitions – Industrialization is in full force with the industrial capitalists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie controlling most of America’s wealth – Ivory Soap was invented by James Gamble – Novels depicting real life and nature were popular from writers such as Mark Twain and Edward Payson Roe – Immigration had hit an all time high with almost 142,000 coming in 1877- Germany had the greatest number of immigrants in this decade with over 800,000 flocking to America – Education in the South was poor due to the ravages of war – Despite southern whites attempts to keep blacks out of the schools there were over 500,000 African American children attending school by 1877.

1880 - 1889
The robber barons were in control of America’s wealth by the time this decade rolled around, William Kissam Vanderbilt built a home in New York City which cost $3,000,000. It was unlawful to exclude blacks from jury duty – Women were active in sports – The millionaires of the day started collecting art – Portraitist John Singer Sergeant’s Portrait of Madame X was very popular – A national railway system had been developed – Mechanization changed the way work was performed – Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady was published as was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn – Immigrants still came from mostly northern and western Europe – James A. Garfield was President – The Chinese Exclusion Treaty put restrictions on Chinese immigration for work – The first camera was sold by George Eastman – Booker T. Washington founded The Tuskegee Institute – The Standard Oil Trust was organized by John D. Rockefeller – The world’s first skyscraper was built 10-stories high in Chicago – The McGuffey texts taught morality in the schools – Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas and operas were traveling around the country – Mass circulation magazines were designed with advertising and articles – The Brooklyn Bridge was opened over 40 years after it had first been proposed.

1890 -1900
The last decade of the 19th century saw Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt as President. The U.S. population of nearly 63,000,000 and immigration was still going strong. New York City was the home of immigrants from all around the world – 23,000 children were employed in factories in 13 states – Lizzie Borden was accused of killing her parents with an ax – John Fiske put American history at the forefront of society with The American Revolution – Labor unions were created – Giant Corporations had taken over American business – American Tobacco and General Electric were formed during this time – The Manhattan Life Insurance Building and the Astoria Hotel were built in New York City – Art Nouveau was the style of the decade – Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass – More students than ever were seeking advanced degrees – The major dances of the day were the waltz and the two-step – Medicine was modernized – Doctors at John Hopkins first used rubber gloves in surgery – Pragmatism was a popular philosophy – The National Parks were established at Yosemite and Sequoia.

By the end of the 19th century, the World was headed for bigger and better things. The telephone and rail system allowed for quicker communication in social and business life. New American philosophies were born. Race relations improved and slavery was soon to be a thing of the past. Women saw greater opportunities for growth through the suffrage movement and were being educated like never before. This period will always be known for its contributions to modern American life.