The Rise and Fall of the American Small City, 1870-1930

During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, small cities in the United States experienced industrialization’s social and economic changes in a distinct way. Due to their specialized economies, closer physical spaces and tighter social bonds, small cities manufactured quality goods and produced cohesive communities that mitigated modernity’s alienation. Rather than succumbing to a new managerial middle class, the old booster middle class grew more influential in small cities as they utilized traditional social networks to partner with industrial elites and oversee the city’s development in the marketplace. This project captures the alternative narratives of urban development through the use of cutting-edge digital methods.

Dominant historical narratives of urbanization and industrialization focus on rural villages in the early nineteenth century and larger cities during the century’s latter half, each portraying a stark and rapid change in the lives of rural and metropolitan Americans. Historical scholarship has focused on smaller cities during the antebellum period because the transition from rural farm to urban factory is at its most provocative. Research on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era has centered on the increasing scale of industrialization, the problems this escalation brought, and the solutions various groups proposed. Most obviously demonstrated in metropolises, these economic changes alienated workers from their traditional support structures, depersonalized the workplace, and influenced culture and society.

While metropolises and rural towns present examples of industrial capitalism’s influence, the experience of small cities reveals an equally important story. Caught between small town and big city, small cities provide an alternative narrative of modernity’s emergence, one that is more gradual and complex. Though some historians have examined smaller cities, their arguments often suggest that these localities mirrored national trends, reinforcing the dominant narrative. Varying economic, physical, and social environments, however, caused different reactions to industrialization. I argue that small cities adapted to the changing society in these distinctly local ways. This subtle shift in agency, of small cities mirroring trends from the metropolis to small cities creating alternative solutions to urban change, leads to a richer and more realistic historical narrative. Specifically, this project focuses on five features of small cities and their ramifications: the creation of a modest booster ethos, the influential elite that complicated politics and reform efforts, the engagement with international markets and colonial discourses, the continued reliance on skilled labor and craftsmanship, and specialized immigration networks. Through a variety of digital methods including the use of mapping, statistics, social network analysis and textual analysis, the sections below explore these issues.

See archived versions of the projects here:

Constructing Furniture City

This project examines how Grand Rapids, Michigan achieved industrial success as “Furniture City” during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Using traditional historical methods, statistics, and mapping, the project highlights Grand Rapids to reveal the alternate path many smaller cities chose to navigated this tumultuous period of American history.

Corruption and Reform

In small cities, national movements like Progressive reform encountered support and resistance in Grand Rapids’s close-knit elite. Using social network analysis, I explore the corruption and its punishment in an early twentieth-century scandal.