With The Long Christmas Dinner spanning a full 90 years—starting at the 1850s— and both Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden generally occurring in the 1920’s and the 1930’s, extensive research went into each decade that couldn’t possibly all fit into the Study Guide for A Wilder Night. Hence a 4th Wall Post (or two) was born!
The 1850s saw a lot of technological advancements and connections. The railroad network and the telegraph network helped the nation economically. Immigrants from Europe were spilling into the US. Mills that popped up throughout the North East, and with the railway expansion, food from Midwest farms were able to get to the South and East. The California Gold Rush beckoned prospectors from all over the US and China. The North was becoming incredibly urban and industrialized, while the South remained very rural.
The Irish came in droves, trying to escape the Great Famine in Ireland. Due to their poverty and Roman Catholic views, they were ostracized and pushed to underdeveloped neighborhoods in Boston, Massachusetts, and New York City (predominantly). They also were forced— due to their unpopularity— to do the low-paying yet physically demanding jobs. The Germans also came to America to avoid the rising disasters in finances in Germany. In contrast, they usually sold their possessions and came to America with money. They tended to be educated and middle-classed and were generally more trusted.
Manufacturing made up about two-thirds of the nation’s economy, with cotton material being the chiefest amongst the factories and mills. Cotton was in high demand throughout the world and the South met that need. However, because cotton can destroy farmland, these cotton farms were moving west. In the Northern part of the Southern states, tobacco plantations were slowing down, and slavery dying out. Sadly slavery continued to survive due to the slave trade which sent many of them to the cotton plantations. Slavery was a contentious topic at the time. America was gaining new states, particularly in the Southwest/Midwest. Much of this decade was spent in political dispute.
Texas was annexed as a slave state and would lead to a war with Mexico as well as the American Civil War. The Mexican-American war ended in 1848, and the US got California, Utah, Nevada, parts of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. However, this war stirred up contentious feelings about slavery. Democrat David Wilmot proposed the Wilmot Proviso in Congress, which states that slavery would not be allowed to spread into any territory from Mexico. It was extremely unpopular to the southern states who felt it would infringe on state rights. Another compromise, known as the Compromise of 1850, was prepared by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun… It wasn’t actually a compromise. It was just a series of arguments in Congress that continued to polarize each party. It was eventually passed as five bills. California was a free state, and New Mexico and Utah were given popular sovereignty. It abolished the slave trade in Washington DC and passed the Fugitive Slave Law (which approved the return of slaves that had run to the north, back to the south). This sparked controversy and the novel/play Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published and gained popularity.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act reversed the compromises by allowing the new states of the Union to decide their stance on slavery. It also led to the formation of the republican party who opposed expansion of slavery states but weren’t absolute abolitionists.
When Lincoln was elected president, the Southern states seceded and established themselves as the Confederate States of America. The Civil War began when Confederate General Pierre Beauregard opened fire on Union (northern) troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In response, Lincoln sent Union troops to reclaim it, which meant invading the South. The Union had the upper hand in terms of population, industrialization, and transportation. The war was a defensive one on the South side, which meant if they could hold the North at the border line until they gave up, they had a chance at winning. They only ever invaded the North as a shock-tactic to scare Yankees. Everyone believed it would be a short war, but it turned into four years’ worth of bloodshed. The war ended with Ulysses Grant trashing Georgia and South Carolina, trapping General Robert E. Lee and forcing his surrender. The war left the Union strong and hearty; the South was financially crippled and devastated. Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, four days after the news of Lee’s surrender reached Washington DC.
The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1866, the first law to protect African Americans. It was vetoed by President Johnson, but the veto was overridden by Congress. However, the KKK formed in secrecy to discourage African Americans from voting. They spread terror and crime, stunting racial equality progress despite the Civil Rights Act.
The West continued to be settled. Alaska was added to the Union and with the final golden spike driven into the ground at Promontory, Utah, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads were joined, thus creating the transcontinental railroad. 1869 ended with Black Friday in New York City and one of the first successes for women’s suffrage— a law passed in Wyoming Territory unconditionally guaranteeing women the right to vote.
Everything continued to keep progressing and rising— literally, everything. Technology, conflicts, imperialism, literature, and drama, etc. The telephone, light bulb, phonograph, steam drill, and headphone jack all made their debuts into society. Yellowstone became a national park.
Racial/Civil rights continued to make some headway with the first African-American to be sworn into Congress and the 15th Amendment being ratified, giving black Americans the right to vote. The Great Fire of Chicago roared (thanks to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow) and caused 196 million in damages, leaving 90,000 homeless. A fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin spread across six counties and was the deadliest fire in US history.
The Women’s Crusade of 1873-74 is started when women in New York marched against liquor stores and created the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. This would later culminate in prohibition. Another win for women: Rutherford B Hayes signed a bill allowing female attorneys to argue in Supreme Court cases.
Conflict with Native Americans came to a head in 1876 when a government issue ordered them into reservations throughout the West.. The famous Colonel Custer and the 7th Cavalry engaged the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes and were completely razed— none of them made it out of this battle alive. A year later, Crazy Horse (leader of the Sioux tribe) surrendered in Nebraska due to cold and hunger. However, another war (the Nez Perce) started in Idaho Territory, due to the constrictions of the reservation system.
As easier access to communication and travel became more available, American life began changing radically. Clothes, food, equipment, appliances could all be mail-ordered via catalogues (Sears and Roebuck) and were brought in from all over the country. With that, jarring and canning became more and more popular, as did the ever-popular (and personal favorite) carbonated soda, Coca-Cola.
Public schools and universities grew stronger from demand. Immigrant parents in particular were keen to get their children as integrated and adjusted as possible. New classes and courses were offered in history, sciences, and arts. Universities also burgeoned, not just in course development, but in quantity. In particular, Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Leisure became a new feature to life, giving way to sports (an Amateur Athletic Union) and vaudeville. Zoos, museums, and amusement parks were created. Literature began targeting the middle class— Mark Twain entered the scene with Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The Wall Street Journal published its first post.
Politics, as ever, were a strange place. James A Garfield was elected President, but only barely. He was shot in a railroad station and died two months later from infection, and his Vice President, Chester Arthur, took over. Congress repealed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, so people could discriminate based on race. Work conditions took center stage as the Haymarket riot blew up in Chicago after a three-day strike over eight-hour work days. It was followed by other labor battles for worker rights and unions. The Federation of Labor was later formed by 25 craft unions.
Architecture and art were combined in the Brooklyn Bridge, followed by the Statue of Liberty. Groundhog Day was established. President Cleveland protected prehistoric features in Arizona, making them lands that can’t be settled or sold.
Text by Hannah Gunson-McComb; Image research by Christina Porter