Lesson Progress:

Immigration, Economic Classes, and Entertainment

Lesson Content

Inquire: Changes to America’s Culture and Makeup in the First Half of the 1800s


“Life means change; where there is no change, death comes.”
-Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

Where there is life, there is change, and America during the first half of the 1800s had societal changes everywhere. The economic classes became more defined and more distinct; entertainment, art, and literature became uniquely American; and immigration patterns changed, bringing new conflicts to the country and altering what it meant to be an American.

‘Twilight in the Catskills’ by Frederic Edwin Church

Big Question

How did immigration, entertainment, and economic classes shape American society during the first half of the 19th century?

Watch: Art, Hoaxes, and the Macabre- Entertainment Evolve

Read: Economic Divisions


Profound economic changes sweeping the United States in the 1800s led to equally important social and cultural transformations. Distinct economic classes were formed, especially in the rapidly industrializing North, and unequal distributions of newly created wealth spurred divisions along class lines. Each class also formed a specific culture and held its own views regarding slavery.

The Economic Elite

Economic elites gained further social and political ascendance in the United States due to a fast-growing economy that enhanced their wealth and allowed distinctive social and cultural characteristics to develop among different economic groups. In the major Northern cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, leading merchants formed an industrial capitalist elite. Many came from families that had been deeply engaged in the colonial trade of tea, sugar, pepper, slaves, and other commodities and had passed their wealth on to their children. As a result, many of these families were familiar with the trade networks connecting the United States with Europe, the West Indies, and the Far East and continued to use them to their advantage.

DecorativeThe Industrial Revolution led some former artisans to reinvent themselves as manufacturers. These enterprising leaders of manufacturing differed from the established commercial elite in the North and South because they did not inherit wealth, but instead came from humble working-class origins. These manufacturers embodied upward social mobility through their hard work and discipline. They achieved the American dream.

As beneficiaries of the economic transformation sweeping the country, the newly established manufacturers formed a new economic elite that thrived in the cities and cultivated its own distinct sensibilities. The manufacturing economic elite celebrated a culture of hard work, which put them at odds with elite Southern planters who prized leisure and the Northern industrial capitalist elite who had largely inherited their wealth and status.

Northern business elites, many of whom owned or had invested in businesses like cotton mills that profited from slave labor, were ambivalent about slavery.

The Middle Class

Not all enterprising artisans were so successful that they rose to the elite; however, many artisans and merchants who owned small factories and stores did manage to achieve and maintain respectability in an emerging middle class. Lacking the protection of great wealth, members of the middle class agonized over the fear that they might slip into the ranks of wage laborers. Thus, they continuously had to strive to maintain or improve their middle-class status.

As a result, the middle class valued cleanliness, discipline, morality, hard work, education, and good manners — traits they believed would enable them and their children to gain upward mobility. Middle-class children, therefore, did not work in factories but attended school. They were also expected to spend their free time engaged in “self-improving” activities, such as reading, playing the piano, or playing with toys and games that would teach them skills and values they needed to succeed in life. In the early 19th century, members of the middle class began to limit the number of children they had as children no longer economically contributed to the household, and raising them “correctly” required money and attention.

Middle-class women also did not work for wages. Their job was to care for the children and maintain the home in a state of order and cleanliness, often with the help of a servant. Women were also responsible for cultivating their children’s and husband’s good manners and purchasing consumer goods. These activities conveyed that a family was educated, cultured, and financially successful.

Most members of the middle class felt slavery promoted a culture of leisure rather than one of hard work, and thus were largely anti-slavery.

The Working Class

The Industrial Revolution in the United States created a new class of wage workers who developed their own culture. The new working class formed their own neighborhoods, living away from the oversight of bosses and managers. While industrialization and the Market Revolution improved some aspects of working-class life, these sweeping changes mostly benefited the middle and elite classes. The working class continued to live in precarious situations and suffered greatly during economic slumps, such as the Panic of 1819.

Although most working-class men sought to emulate the middle class in keeping their wives and children out of the workforce, their economic situations often necessitated otherwise. Working-class children might attend school for a few years or learn to read and write at Sunday school, but education was often sacrificed when income was needed, and many working-class children went to work in factories. While the wage laborers’ wives usually did not work outside the home, many took in laundry or did piecework at home to supplement the family’s income.

DecorativeTaverns also served an important function for the working class, as places to forget the long hours and uncertain wages of the factories. Alcohol consumption was high among the working class, although many workers did take part in the Temperance Movement.

Wage workers in the North were largely hostile to abolishing slavery, fearing it would unleash more competition for jobs from free African Americans. Many were also hostile to immigration, for similar reasons.

Yet, immigration to the United States accelerated in the 1840s and 1850s as Europeans were drawn to the promise of employment and land in the United States. Many new members of the working class derived from the ranks of these immigrants who came to America bringing new foods, customs, and religions. The Roman Catholic population of the United States, fairly small before this period, began to swell with the arrival of Irish and German immigrants.

Reflect: Novel Entertainment


If you were going to spend a night out with your friends, would you rather go to:

Expand: The First Wave… Irish and German Immigration in the Mid-1800s

In the middle of the 19th century, more than half of the population of Ireland emigrated to the United States, as did an equal number of Germans. Most of these new arrivals came to their new country because of civil unrest, severe unemployment, or almost inconceivable hardships at home. This wave of immigration affected almost every city and every person in America.

From 1820 to 1870, over seven and a half million immigrants came to the United States — more than the entire population of the country in 1810 — nearly all of whom came from Northern and Western Europe. About a third of the new immigrants were from Ireland and almost another third from Germany. Burgeoning companies were able to absorb these new immigrants and put them to work building canals or railroads and doing other kinds of the most labor-intensive jobs in America. As a result, much of the country was built on the backs of these immigrants.

DecorativeEmigration from Ireland was so high due to the harsh conditions facing the country in the 19th century. Almost half of the population lived on farms that produced little income, and because of their poverty, most Irish people depended on potatoes for food. When potato crops failed three years in succession, it led to the Great Famine, which had horrendous consequences. Over 750,000 people starved to death. Over two million Irish people eventually moved to the United States seeking relief from their desolated country. Impoverished, the Irish could not buy property, so they congregated in the cities where they landed, almost entirely in Northeastern states. Today, there are more Irish Americans than there are Irish nationals because of the vast immigration.

In similar circumstances, more than a million Germans fled to the United States to escape economic hardship from 1845 to 1855. They also sought to escape the political unrest caused by riots, rebellion, and an eventual revolution in 1848. Germans wishing to emigrate had little choice besides America because few other places allowed German immigration. Unlike the Irish who mostly settled in the cities where they arrived, many Germans had enough money to journey to the Midwest in search of farmland and work. The largest settlements of German immigrants were in New York City, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee.

As German and Irish immigrants poured into the United States in the decades preceding the Civil War, native-born laborers found themselves competing for jobs with new arrivals who were willing to work longer hours for less pay. In Lowell, Massachusetts, the Lowell Mill Girls — New England farmers’ daughters who worked in the city’s factories — suddenly encountered competition from Irish farmers’ daughters. These immigrant women who had experienced the horrors of the potato famine were willing to endure worse conditions and work for far less than native-born women. Many of the native-born “daughters of freemen,” as they referred to themselves, left the factories and returned to their homes, though not all wage workers had this luxury. Widows with children to support and girls from destitute families had no choice but to stay and accept the faster pace and lower pay. Male German and Irish immigrants also competed with native-born men. German men, many of whom were skilled workers, took jobs in furniture making while Irish men provided a ready source of unskilled labor for laying railroad tracks and digging canals. Native-born men with families to support grudgingly accepted lower wages in order to keep their jobs. This trend was more evident as work became increasingly deskilled; no worker was irreplaceable and no one’s job was safe.

The vast numbers of German and Irish immigrants coming to America were met with hostility, partially because native-born Americans in low-paying jobs were threatened, and sometimes replaced, by groups willing to work for almost nothing. Signs that read NINA — No Irish Need Apply — sprang up throughout the country.Decorative

Some of the opposition was also due to religion as the Irish, and many of the Germans, were Roman Catholic. Ethnic and anti-Catholic rioting broke out in many Northern cities, the largest occurring in Philadelphia in 1844 during a period of economic depression. During this riot, Protestants, Catholics, and the local militia fought in the streets. Sixteen people were killed, dozens were injured, and over 40 buildings were demolished. “Nativist” political parties sprang up almost overnight. The Know Nothings, an anti-Catholic, influential Nativist party, wanted to extend the time it took immigrants to become citizens (and voters) and prevent them from ever holding public office. Eventually, economic recovery following the 1844 depression reduced the number of serious confrontations for a time, as the country was better able to provide labor to all.

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Lesson Resources

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Additional Resources and Readings

Growth, Cities, and Immigration: Crash Course US History #25

A Crash Course video covering Immigration and the growth of American cities

Animated map shows the history of immigration to the US

A Business Insider video displaying an interactive map and dialogue of the history of immigration into the United States

The map that shows where America came from

A Daily Mail article and map showing the origins of the U.S. population, based on the group with the largest population in each county and in each state

Hudson River School

A Metropolitan Museum of Art website showing paintings associated with the Hudson River Artists, along with essays on how the movement fits within the history of American art

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • American Museum
    PT Barnum’s museum in New York City, opened to great fanfare displaying oddities like the FeeJee Mermaid
  • ethnic and anti-Catholic rioting
    riots occurring in many Northern cities due to German and Irish immigration during a period of economic depression, the largest occurring in Philadelphia in 1844 resulting in deaths, injuries, and destruction
  • Hudson River Artists
    a group of American painters who abandoned European artistic sensibilities to create American landscapes that captured the beauty and power of nature
  • Know Nothings
    an anti-Catholic, influential Nativist party, who wanted to extend the time it took immigrants to become citizens (and voters) and prevent them from ever holding public office
  • No Irish Need Apply
    (NINA); a message written on signs, which came out of anti-immigrant sentiments due to religious and economic factors
  • the Great Famine
    an Irish potato famine that led to 750,000 people starving to death and over two million Irish people moving to the United States in search of a better life

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds, J.D. for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: U.S. History: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Hudson River School Artists: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Politics in Transition: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Irish and German Immigration: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

Decorative‘Twilight in the Catskills’Frederic Edwin ChurchWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeAd for Bard Brothers & Co., gold pens; BostonBoston DirectoryWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeThe Tavern, New Boston, NH; from a c. 1905 postcardUnknownWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeNo Irish Need ApplyUnknownWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeIrish emigrants leaving their home for AmericaLibrary of CongressWikimedia Commons Public Domain