Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
A More Perfect Union

Understanding Primary Sources:
Daily Life of the Poor in Industrial Cities

Objective: Students analyze a primary source description of tenement life and use a variety of primary sources to create a portrait life for the urban poor in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
2-3 hours over 2-3 days

Building Background:
Discuss with students how the rise of industry in the late nineteenth century led to the growth of cities. Businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller became extremely wealthy men from their factories' earnings. The wealth didn't trickle down to their workers, however. As factories grew, the demand for inexpensive labor also increased. Factory jobs were filled largely by recent immigrants to the United States, many of whom toiled long hours in horrible conditions for little pay. Conditions at home for these workers were not much better. Many workers lived in crowded apartment buildings called tenements. Few had access to education or recreation. Many struggled just to make ends meet. Tell students that they will research the urban factories and tenements to create a portrait of the daily life of the urban poor in the late nineteenth century.

What To Do:

1. Distribute copies of the Excerpt from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis . Have students read the description of tenement life and highlight or underline words or phrases that help them picture what life was like in a tenement.

2. Distribute the Daily Life in a Tenement worksheet. Have students use the information from the Riis's excerpts to answer the questions.

3. Have students use the school or local library to research life in urban tenements in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Encourage students to use both primary and secondary sources for information. Students should also look for information on working conditions in industrial cities. If you have Internet access, students can use these sites for their research:

How the Other Half Lives

This site provides the full text and illustrations of Jacob Riis's description of tenement life in New York in the late 1800s.

The Concord Review: Reform and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

This online essay details the tragic 1911 factory fire and the reform efforts that followed.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820 - Present

This exhibit from the Smithsonian features photographs, prints, artifacts, and descriptions of the sweatshops of industrial cities.

4. Challenge students to use the information they collected to create a portrait of life for the urban poor. Allow students to decide what form their portraits will take. Students can write descriptive reports, draw pictures or create collages, quote primary sources, and put any statistics they find into charts and graphs. Encourage students to present their portraits to the class. If possible, organize students' portraits into a museum display and invite other classes to tour the exhibits.

Have volunteers identify the hardships faced by the urban poor in the industrial cities. Encourage students to discuss how working and living conditions might have affected different groups, such as women, children, recent immigrants, and the sick.


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