Early twentieth century American business

A century of expansion

In 1800 the United States was a new nation that was struggling to define itself, but by 1900 it had become the world’s leading industrial nation with the largest economy in the world. This was due to a number of factors:

  • There was abundant fertile land on which to grow food and other useful cash crops such as tobacco and cotton.
  • Natural resources in the form of wood, coal, oil and iron and copper ores were plentiful
  • The country was vast in comparison with the number of inhabitants, even before the westward expansion between 1807 and 1912.

Immigrants and settlers 

Immigrants to Ellis IslandFewer than four million inhabitants were recorded in the first United States census in 1790 but by 1870, that number had risen to forty million, as waves of ambitious, energetic immigrants, many of whom were skilled and entrepreneurial, came to America to explore the opportunities that the new country offered. Some came from Northern and Western Europe, others from Greece, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia and Russia. Japanese and Chinese settlers also arrived and relocated from the East Coast to the American West Coast.


Many immigrants were literate and some possessed a fair degree of wealth, while others were illiterate and poor. Very few newcomers to America spoke any English and large numbers were illiterate even in their native tongues. The majority of Europeans were either Protestant, Roman Catholic or belonged to the Eastern Orthodox church; others were Jewish refugees, who had fled from persecution in Eastern Europe. From further afield, immigrants followed Asian or Far Eastern religions such as Shinto or Buddhism. 

The common factor amongst all was that they believed life in America would offer better prospects and for many, freedom from persecution.


American cities, mostly in the north and west of the United States, became the destination of many of the most destitute immigrants, who settled in specifically ethnic areas which acquired names like Chinatown, Greektown or Little Italy. There was little integration between ethnic groups and housing was often in overcrowded tenements, but despite poor living conditions and low wages earned from factory work, many immigrants felt that life in America was far better than in their countries of origin.

Live long and prosper

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a high birth rate and a rapidly growing population supplied labour for industry, resulting in a large pool of customers for industrial products. However, there was still a constant shortage of workers as industrial and agricultural expansion grew faster than the population. The labour shortage had two important effects on business and commercial growth:

  • Wages rose, which attracted both native workers and talented immigrants
  • Agriculture and industry adopted and developed new technologies to increase productivity.

Many entrepreneurs prospered from these conditions.

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The African-American perspective

Immigrant life was certainly better compared to the experience of black African-Americans in the rural South. Millions had previously been slaves and therefore classed as property, bought and sold indiscriminately by white slave owners and forced to work for nothing. Even after the slave trade was abolished in America in 1865, black Americans struggled to achieve equality with their white countrymen. Although the nineteenth century saw huge business and commercial growth in the United States, only a small minority of African-Americans enjoyed successful business careers and they still had huge barriers to overcome.

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