In the middle of the nineteenth century, several factors contributed to the growth and expansion of cities in the United States. The 1850s saw a fantastic peak in the immigration of Europeans to America, and they quickly flocked to cities where they could form communities and hopefully find work1. The rushing industrialization of the entire country also helped to rapidly convert America from a primarily agrarian nation to an urban society.
The transition, however, was not so smooth. Men and women were attracted to the new cities because of the culture and conveniences that were unavailable to rural communities. Immigrants in particular were eager to get to cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston for these reasons, and to look for better jobs than the ones they had found at home. In fact, without the increase in immigration from 1850 to 1920 (where around 38 million came to America), cities would have expanded at lethargic rates – if at all – due to a decreasing fertility rate and a high rate of infant mortality. Death due to disease was also common. Yet the influx of immigrants managed to make up for these losses, and cities grew exponentially for nearly a century1.
While the growth of the urban population led to new technological and industrial developments, it also produced penury, congestion, pollution, fatal disease, and tremendous fires. One of the most important problems that arose from this growth, however, was the absence of a legitimate urban government. Political, or urban, machines filled this void, and through patronage and graft secured votes from as many people as possible for their respective parties4. Immigrants were usually the easiest targets because they frequently did not speak much English, but more importantly, they were looking for security in the city, which could be achieved simply by giving a party your vote on Election Day7. These machines were regularly mocked in magazine cartoons such as this one, which comments subtly on the corrupt practices that the New York political machine (Tammany Hall) used to procure votes:
Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine in New York, is a fantastic example of this form of urban government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Extremely powerful men, called “Bosses,” controlled vast amounts of land and money, while also maintaining close, valuable connections with New York’s wealthy elite6. Political machines were constantly under scrutiny from reform-minded, middle class citizens who were troubled by the political amorality of power structures like Tammany. The wealthy benefited from their operations, and the poor (most of whom were immigrants) were usually more concerned with the physical contributions Tammany made to the city, and less with its methods5.
One interesting figure in Tammany was the powerful “practical politics” expert, George Washington Plunkitt. Born in Central Park (in an area that was once not part of the park’s territory),...