What were the dangers of city life in the 1800s?

Updated April 17, 2017

The 1800s saw many Americans move from rural environments to cities, and by 1890, some 40 per cent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas, according to the University of Northern Iowa website. These changes were driven by the waves of immigrants entering the country and by the idea that cities would offer new opportunities to rural Americans. Many of the dangers inherent in city dwelling in the 1800s were a result of the increasing urban population.

State of Buildings

With the huge influx of immigrants into American cities, many people were forced to live in overcrowded buildings that were in various states of disrepair. These buildings were crammed together in badly designed living areas, and since the buildings were constructed of wood, fire was a constant threat. Once a fire had begun, it was often difficult to control, as seen with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This blaze ultimately destroyed 18,000 buildings and left some 75,000 people without a home, as noted by the Chicago History Museum website.

Industrial Work

Many children and new arrivals to cities found work in factories and workshops, which were not built or run to the health and safety standards seen in the 21st century. Jobs in industry were fraught with dangers relating to machinery such as spinning wheels, while in some cases, the whole work environment itself could be hazardous, such as in coal mining. Since this kind of work was often all that was available, many people continued to work in industry to avoid living --- and quickly dying --- on the city streets.

Sanitation and Disease

Overcrowded conditions and a lack of plumbing forced poor city dwellers to live in unsanitary conditions. People urinated and defecated outside, and little garbage was cleared by the authorities. This low standard of sanitation attracted animals, which carried disease, and illnesses quickly spread through packed communities. In Boston, for example, historical evidence exists of cholera outbreaks among communities of impoverished Irish immigrants, who were forced to live cramped together, sometimes even outside in alleys and gardens, and share the same drinking water. According to the History Place website, 60 per cent of children born to these Bostonian Irish families during the mid-1800s were killed by disease by the time they were 6 years old.

Rowdy Behavior

A lack of money and jobs drove some unfortunate city dwellers to desperation and violent crime. In Boston, for instance, crimes such as aggravated assault rose by 400 per cent in the mid-1800s. Beggars --- including many children --- were also a problem in many cities.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Simon Fuller has been a freelance writer since 2008. His work has appeared in "Record Collector," "OPEN" and the online publication, brand-e. Fuller has a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Reading and a postgraduate diploma from the London School of Journalism.