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Authored by

  • Stuart M. Blumin
    Cornell University
    Ithaca, New York

Cities and the Frontier Thesis

It is not generally noticed that Frederick Jackson Turner invokes "the complexity of city life" as early as the second paragraph of his vastly influential essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Nor is it widely noted that references to the city and to America's "manufacturing civilization" are sprinkled throughout his attempt to prove that the original and ongoing encounter with the wilderness was the shaping force in American national development. Turner's rather dark, fin-de-siècle announcement that "the frontier is gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history," invites anxious attention to an inevitable urban-industrial future in the twentieth century and beyond. But the city as both commercial center and workshop is present—one might even say emphasized—throughout Turner's "first period," as the crucial site of history's advance from the primitive to the modern. Turner's key point is not that cities were insignificant in pre-twentieth-century America, but that they grew out of a frontier experience that left a permanent, native imprint upon them (1).

Turner first presented his essay in 1893. Before the century had closed (and before the "Turner thesis" had taken hold among historians), a quite different statement about the nature and meaning of American urbanization appeared under the title The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Statistics (2). Adna Ferrin Weber was perhaps not even aware of Turner's essay when he compiled and analyzed available statistics of urban concentration; in any case, the assumptions and conclusions of The Growth of Cities are strikingly opposed to those of "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Weber begins his statistical compilation with American data, but he quickly moves on to Europe, and from there, so far as the data were available to him, to the rest of the world. More importantly, Weber insists that urbanization, even in its American manifestation, is a global phenomenon. Cities arise and grow for many of the same reasons, and often in a similar fashion, all across the world, and are linked in various ways within a growing network of regional, national, and international exchange. Weber, indeed, finds an interesting way of conveying the global character of urbanization, even within an essentially Western frame. His book begins by comparing two young British offshoots at opposite ends of both the century and the planet: the United States in 1790 and Australia in 1891. Both had populations of just under four million. But while the Americans of 1790 who lived in cities of 10,000 people or more accounted for only 3 percent of the total population, Australians living in comparably sized places in 1891 amounted to 33 percent. The difference was one of time, not place—the America we see here lay at the threshold of the nineteenth-century urban revolution; Australia at its full development (3).

As the phrase "urban revolution" suggests, an important element of Weber's book is the well-substantiated claim that cities and urban systems were growing very rapidly during the nineteenth century, and that the significance of this growth was of the first order, particularly in the Western world. In Western Europe, for example, which was already partly urbanized at the start of the century, the population continued to be driven to cities, enlarging towns and cities of all sizes, increasing the urban proportions of nearly every country, and creating urban majorities within Britain and parts of Germany. In England and Wales, the proportions of the population living in cities larger than 10,000 increased from 21 percent in 1801 to 62 percent in 1891; those living in cities of 100,000 or more increased from fewer than 10 percent to nearly a third. (Table 1.) In a more rural France, where only a tenth of the population lived in cities of 10,000 or more in 1801, and fewer than 3 percent lived in Paris and other cities exceeding 100,000, the proportions had risen to 26 percent and 12 percent by 1891. (Table 2.) Outside of Europe, only a tiny fraction of the world's populations had lived in cities at the start of the nineteenth century, but in many nations the urban proportion grew into impressive minorities—to select three South American examples: 30 percent in Uruguay, 28 percent in Argentina, and 17 percent in Chile. In new countries such as the United States this meant the creation of many new urban centers, some of which—think here of Chicago and San Francisco—grew rapidly into great cities. By 1890, when some 28 percent of the American population lived in cities of 10,000 or more (another 10 percent were counted in smaller cities and towns of 2,500 to 10,000), more than 15 percent had come to reside in cities larger than 100,000 (4). At the start of the nineteenth century, no American city had even approached that population threshold. (Table 3.) By the century's end, a newly consolidated New York City could boast a population of nearly three and a half million (5). New York was (and is) exceptional, but we should see it as occupying the tip of a now tall and wide pyramid of more than seventeen hundred urban places, from great cities to small country towns, that spread across the American landscape.

Table 1: Changing concentration of population in nineteenth-century England and Wales

England and Wales
Living in Cities Greater than 10,000 1801 21%
1891 62%
Living in Cities Greater than 100,000 1801 10%
1891 33%

Table 2: Changing concentration of population in nineteenth-century France

Living in Cities Greater than 10,000 1801 10%
1891 26%
Living in Cities Greater than 100,000 1801 3%
1891 12%

Table 3: Changing concentration of population in nineteenth-century United States

United States
Living in Cities Greater than 10,000 1790 3%
1890 28%
Living in Cities Greater than 100,000 1790 0%
1890 15%

Historical Continuities

As the European statistics suggest, significant and sustained urbanization did not begin with the nineteenth century; nor did it end at the century's close. Rather, the period of Weber's analysis represents the "take off" of a global phenomenon of enormous significance, intensifying in Europe where it is most easily observed in its early stages, and spreading through other parts of the world to the point where, in most global regions, significant patterns of rural-urban migration and urban development lay the foundations for the quantitatively more dramatic transformations of the twentieth century. The more impressive global urbanization statistics of the twentieth century should not distract our attention from this nineteenth-century "take off," and from the most obvious question that emerges from Weber's statistics: Why did it happen? What drove so many people, in so many parts of the world and in so sustained a fashion, from farms and villages to new lives in cities and towns? Weber's own initial approach to this question is a rather coy avoidance of the most obvious answer, through a well-chosen projection: "The business man's answer would probably be short and trenchant, 'Steam'" (6). Cities have grown, Weber reminds us, through all of recorded human history, and in response to a variety of forces, including changes in agriculture and developments in commerce that should be obvious even to the unreflective and forward-facing "business man," focused so resolutely on belching industrial smokestacks. But Weber cannot and does not resist circling back to industrialization—driven by liquid water as well as by steam—as the principal source of the more rapid urbanization of the nineteenth century. More than a century later, we can look back on these phenomena and come to the same conclusion. Perhaps, too, with greater historical distance, we can offer the bolder thought that the conjuncture of urbanization and industrialization forms the infrastructure of the modern world—that these large, intersecting forces, played out through the lives of millions of ordinary people, lay at the very core of what we believe separates our own lives from those lived through most of the ages of human history.

The relationship between urbanization and industrialization is at once simple and complex. At its simplest level, it is the concentration of people in geographic space that results from the transfer of portions of a workforce from agriculture, which spreads cultivators across the land, to manufacturing, which brings them into close proximity within crowded factories and in workers' neighborhoods immediately beyond the factory gates. That closer proximity, even from the recruitment of workers to a single factory on each of the mill sites and existing townscapes across a given nation, can account for a portion of the upswing in urbanization in an era of expanding industrial output, for manufacturing of all kinds and at virtually any degree of intensity is more labor intensive than the long-distance commerce that underlay the development of cities in any region's pre-industrial era. More simply put, the factory, the mill, or the congeries of outworking shops, is a more powerful population magnet than even the busiest of import-export businesses, particularly in the era when the latter sent as many of its workers out across the globe as it drew to its dock and warehouse. But the individual factory or "putting out" network constitutes only the beginning of the story. Location economics tells us that industrial firms will themselves tend to group together, as they seek the same transactional efficiencies by locating at or near sources of capital, labor, managerial skill, information, the products of ancillary firms, transportation breakpoints, municipal services, and, as Weber's "business man" would quickly add, power, including great piles of inexpensive coal. These efficiencies can be realized in a variety of ways, but the most common solution, especially during the nineteenth century, was to locate either in an existing city or on an adequate mill site not too far from the city's various resources. Hence, most nineteenth-century industrialization occurred within the city, greatly magnifying the size and complexity of existing seaport and river towns, and calling into existence a number of new factory and mill towns within the geographic orbit of older cities. In each case the addition to the city of not one but many industrial firms magnified as well the secondary and tertiary effects of agglomeration—the demand by industrial businesses for banking and advertising, insurance and shipping, and by the new industrial workers for housing, food, clothing, entertainment, organized religious experience, and other urban and neighborhood services. These brought to the city not only new large businesses but also carpenters and bricklayers, butchers and bakers, tailors and second-hand clothing dealers, actors and prostitutes, honest preachers and religious charlatans, in numbers never before seen. The great cities would remain the most complex, and would continue to grow beyond limits that even Weber predicted they would soon reach. But even the simpler, single-industry mill towns would become larger and more varied—not mere mill sites but real additions to an urban network expanding in response to the new industrial economy's need for workers, and to the needs of those workers for goods and services they could not, or could no longer, provide for themselves.

Industrialization, Urbanization, and Agriculture

The effects of industrialization on urbanization are still more complicated, and extend even to the land, and to countries that did not significantly experience industrial growth within their own borders (recall those South American urban statistics). Agricultural workers were not merely drawn to the city; many were also pushed there by changes in farming that are traceable in no small measure to industrialization as a global phenomenon, and to more integrated international markets in food, fiber, and other products that developed in concert with expanding industrial production and distribution. The invention and production of new agricultural machinery in some of those labor-hungry urban factories "industrialized" farming itself in some instances, mechanizing and consolidating farms that now needed fewer rather than greater numbers of hands per acre. More importantly, new techniques and institutions of both production and transportation reduced world-wide agricultural prices, driving large numbers of marginal farmers from the land and into cities in search of a new livelihood. In many places, from Italy to China, it drove them to other countries, too, including the United States, and increased the ethnic complexity of the cities in which they came to reside. And there is a smaller-scale effect that is less widely entered into this equation of industrialization and rural-urban migration. Within the rural landscapes of various countries the appearance of factory-made goods in local markets removed a number of economic functions from the home and from grist mills and other rural workshops, drawing some farmers and other rural producers into nearby towns to receive, store, insure, advertise, and sell the cloth, the prepackaged flour, and the other "store bought" goods that now arrived from city factories and mills far beyond the local horizon. Even without a factory in sight, in other words, new forms and quantities of industrial production could create urban life. The broad base of the urban pyramid was as much the product of industrialization as was its narrow top.

All of this takes us back to the idea that the specifically American history of the nineteenth-century urban revolution, and of the industrial revolution we have now joined to it, is international in two senses. First, what was happening in the United States was happening elsewhere as well, most obviously in England, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the country with the most impressive urban statistics, but in varying degrees in other parts of the West and in other regions of the world. And second, American industries and cities were linked to the economies of many other nations in a global system of extraction, production, finance, and exchange. In its earliest stages, American industrial development, even when it occurred within established seaports, actually reduced recurring exchanges beyond the sea by making the young nation less dependent on imports of a variety of manufactured goods. But the sheer scale and complexity of the maturing urban-industrial economy meant that remaining linkages, along with many new ones, would soon grow well beyond the value of those reduced or lost in the name of national self-sufficiency. America was, of course, never self-sufficient, and it became less so with the passage of time. And if it was, as Turner insisted, in some senses an inward looking nation, shaped in part by the frontier experiences and dreams of parts of its population, it was also a city-dwelling, industrial-capitalist nation, linked to the wider world. Did the frontier define "the first period of American history?" I would propose that the growth of cities and an urban-based industrial economy, bearing only the weakest imprint of a sometimes long-forgotten wilderness experience, was the more powerful force.

The textbook version of the American industrial revolution begins with the English immigrant Samuel Slater's ingenious (and from the British point of view, criminal) reconstitution of cotton spinning machinery of the sort he had worked with in the mills of Lancashire, for the firm of Almy and Brown in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1790. The numerous small spinning mills that Slater helped build in southern New England during the next few years constituted the first significant cluster of industrial production in the United States, but they were soon dwarfed by the results of a more extensive (and similarly illegal) copying of English technology by the Boston merchant, Francis Cabot Lowell. Lowell, in association with a number of other wealthy Boston merchants, built the first fully integrated American cotton mill, ten times the size of any of Slater's spinning mills, in Waltham in 1814, and the success of this enterprise led in turn to a cluster of still larger mills on the banks of the Merrimack River, less than thirty miles from Boston. The reliance of these mills on water power precluded their construction in Boston itself, but the farms and woods that initially surrounded them should not obscure the urban capitalization and control of these institutions. And in any case the farms and woods did not last long. The mills on the Merrimack were soon surrounded by America's first industrial satellite city, appropriately named Lowell (7).

Beyond the "Textile Paradigm"

Mechanized cotton mills provide the most dramatic and easily understood exemplars of early American industrialization, but the story of the emergence and development of the manufacturing sector of the American economy is actually a good deal more varied than the traditional "textile paradigm" allows, and, in the aggregate, even more closely connected with the growth of cities. In nearly all other product areas industrialization proceeded not from the sudden injection of impressive new production technologies, but from the highly varied attempts of city-based merchants and enterprising artisans to gather and ship inexpensive, American-made goods to rapidly expanding inland markets. Turnpikes, canals, river steamboats, and railroads dramatically reduced the costs of reaching these markets, and businessmen sought to reduce expenses further by lowering production costs in any way they could. Although this often involved subdividing production tasks, as did the sequence of water-powered machines in the large textile mills, in most instances it only gradually resulted in the incorporation of heavy machinery, and it most often did not require the building of water-powered mills outside the city. Indeed, by the time most industries reached the stage of large-scale mechanization, advances in productivity based on the deskilling of tasks and the piecemeal introduction of large or small machines in small "manufactories" and outworking shops were long-established. In many industries, it was not until after the Civil War that the large-scale factory began to supplant these smaller and less mechanized workplaces, and by then the spread of coal-fired steam engines made it less likely that production would migrate from the city to mill sites in the countryside.

The traditional association of industrialization with the large, mechanized factory has somewhat obscured the importance of earlier and less easily understood changes in modes of production, and of the pre-Civil War years in which most of them occurred. Even apart from textiles, it was in the three or four decades preceding the war that the most significant transitions from craft-based to industrial processes occurred; indeed, as Thomas Cochran long ago established, the Civil War itself, once thought to be the indispensable catalyst to American industrial development, is more properly understood as a disruption of changes well underway (8). Economic statistics of the antebellum era are far from reliable, but they suggest that during the two decades before the war the manufacturing sector of the economy grew far more rapidly than agriculture, mining, or construction, rising from perhaps one-sixth of total commodity output in 1840 to approximately one-third in 1860, even in the face of impressive expansion in each of the other sectors. Not coincidentally, these were also the decades of the most impressive relative urban growth in American history. City and town populations nearly doubled during the 1840s, and then increased by about 75 percent (from a larger base) in the 1850s (9). Cities and industrial workshops of all sizes and types were "taking off," and an element central to both developments was a vast expansion of foreign immigration, mainly from Ireland and Germany. Mostly poor refugees from famine, economic dislocation, and political conflict, these immigrants provided cheap labor for city-based factories, manufactories, and outwork shops, at a propitious moment for industrial entrepreneurs seeking to lower production costs.


Foreign immigration of this sort was, despite its striking differences from more local migrations from farm to city, part of the ongoing migration of rural people to industrializing cities. This process would continue through the rest of the century and beyond, shaped by new crises of various sorts, but driven most fundamentally by the changing demands for labor in a global economy that wanted fewer farmers and more industrial and other urban workers. In the United States, cities and the industrial sector of the economy would continue to grow and to reinforce each other's growth. By the end of the nineteenth century, manufacturing would account for more than half of the value of goods grown, mined, built, and produced, and the numbers of people living in cities and towns would account for some 40 percent of the total population. This pattern of reinforcing urban-industrial growth would continue into the next century, and then change in response to new technologies and the new overall structures of a post-industrial economy. But as America entered the twentieth century, the continuing coalescence of urbanization and industrialization would constitute the most fundamental force shaping the nation's everyday life. This force had developed relentlessly over a long period, and its result was a revolution in the way most Americans lived, and in the way the nation as a whole related to the larger world.


  1. Turner's essay has been republished in many places after its initial appearance in the 1893 Proceedings of the Historical Society of Wisconsin. It is the first chapter of the author's essay collection, The Frontier in American History (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1920, 1899), 1-35.
  2. Adna Ferrin Weber, The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Statistics, reprint (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967).
  3. Ibid., 1.
  4. Ibid., 144-45.
  5. Blake McKelvey, American Urbanization: A Comparative History (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1973), 24, 73.
  6. Weber, Growth of Cities, 158.
  7. Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 14-22.
  8. Thomas C. Cochran, "Did the Civil War Retard Industrialization?" in Ralph Andreano, ed., The Economic Impact of the American Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1962), 148-60.
  9. McKelvey, American Urbanization, 37.


As this essay suggests, Adna Ferrin Weber, The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Statistics, reprint (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967, 1899) remains the basic source for understanding the global patterns of nineteenth-century urbanization. American urbanization is described more fully in a number of more recent textbooks, among which are Howard P. Chudacoff and Judith E. Smith, The Evolution of American Urban Society, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000); and David R. Goldfield and Blaine A. Brownell, Urban America: A History, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990). Blake McKelvey, American Urbanization: A Comparative History (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1973) contains a more complete array of urban growth statistics than either of these texts, but is topically less comprehensive. Two books by the geographer Allan R. Pred provide fascinating materials for understanding how a system of American cities emerged even before the Civil War, and how this system worked to channel and enhance the movement of goods, people, and information. These books are: Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States System of Cities, 1790-1840 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), and Urban Growth and City-Systems in the United States, 1840-1860 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980). William Cronon expands upon Pred's insights, and carries them further along in time, in Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991). A very different kind of study of the nineteenth-century American city is Gunther Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). Barth's book, which focuses on characteristic urban institutions, can be read as a complement to Pred's and Cronon's studies of urban-rural systems.

Industrialization and its connections with the American city can be approached most broadly through several essays in Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, vol. 2, The Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) and, perhaps more easily, in Walter Licht, Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). Licht's survey can be complemented by his more focused study of labor markets and migration: Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992). There are a large number of studies, like the latter, that examine industrialization and industrial workers within specific urban settings. Some of the more rewarding of these are: Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979); Philip Scranton, Propriety Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800-1885 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Richard B. Stott, Workers in the Metropolis: Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990); Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Most of these historical studies discuss some aspect of the quantitative dimensions of urbanization and industrialization, but none is as comprehensive, or as useful for quantitative research projects, as the small number of available statistical compendia. An older work of this type, the U.S. Bureau of the Census's The Statistical History of the United States from Colonial Times to the Present (Stamford, CT: Fairfield Publishers, Inc., 1965), is available only in book form, but other collections can now be read on the Internet. A quite new edition of an older compendium, Susan B. Carter, et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present, Millennial ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), is available in five published volumes, and at Historical Statistics of the United States (link below). This is a pay-per-view site. U.S. government sites can be examined without cost. The most relevant site is Census and Population Housing (link below). This site contains photoreproductions of the original published volumes reporting and analyzing each decennial U.S. census, and contains links to other useful sites within the public domain.

Stuart Blumin, professor of history at Cornell University and director of the Cornell-in-Washington Program, is the author of The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (1989) and (with Glenn C. Altschuler) Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (2000). His many articles include "Limits of Political Engagement in Antebellum America: A New Look at the Golden Age of Participatory Democracy" (co-authored with Glenn Altschuler), which appeared in the Journal of American History and was awarded the OAH Binkley-Stephenson prize in 1997. His most recent effort, The Encompassing City: Streetscapes in Early Modern Art and Culture, is forthcoming.