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How Did the American People Live From 1800 to 1840?

Updated on January 7, 2014

In 1800, The United States extended west to the Mississippi River, beyond which lay French territory. The population of the United States was 5.3 million, most of them farmers. By 1840 the population had expanded to 17 million, and the country had added ten new states. Perhaps more importantly, America was becoming a manufacturing nation, a nation of immigrants, and a nation that had the infrastructure to expand past the Mississippi into the West.


In the early 19th century, 80% of the population lived and worked on a farm. Most farming was done by hand. Plows were horse-drawn, walk-behind, wooden, and single-bottom. Farmers broadcast seeds by hand, harvested with a sickle and threshed with a flail. Most farm machinery could be made by hand. By 1840, some farmers had begun using the new McCormick reaper and steel plows. These new factory-made tools meant that farmers now needed to work not just to feed themselves but also to earn cash to buy modern farming equipment.

 Advertisement for the twine binder version of the McCormick reaper. Caption reads: "The People's Favorite! The World-Renowned McCormick Twine Binder! Victorious in over 100 Field Trials! New and Valuable Improvements for 1884!"
Advertisement for the twine binder version of the McCormick reaper. Caption reads: "The People's Favorite! The World-Renowned McCormick Twine Binder! Victorious in over 100 Field Trials! New and Valuable Improvements for 1884!" | Source
"Clipper Ship Lightning." The clipper ships replaced the sailing ships of the early 1800s.
"Clipper Ship Lightning." The clipper ships replaced the sailing ships of the early 1800s. | Source


In the early 19th century, immigrants from western and northern Europe and from East Asia were arriving in record numbers. These immigrants, a disproportionate number of them men, boarded sailing ships with cramped and uncomfortable steerage accommodations, and sailed to the port cities of the eastern United States. Some spread out to settle the new western territories. Many, however, settled in quickly built housing in the cities of the east. During the first four decades of the century, New York grew from 60,515 to 312,710. Philadelphia and Boston saw similar growth. Cities were over-crowded, barely keeping up with the influx of population.


Manufacturing blossomed, fueled by new inventions and by the infusion of cheap labor. At the beginning of the 19th century, most goods were made in home workshops by craft workers who hand-crafted an entire product themselves. As the number of factories grew, so did specialization. Rather than going through a lengthy apprenticeship to learn every aspect of, for example, furniture-making, factory workers were very quickly taught a small part of manufacturing, for example attaching the legs of chairs. Manufacturing towns sprang up along the rivers, populated by people who spent their working hours performing the same factory task over and over throughout the entire working day.

Before factories, manufacturing was done in home workshops.
Before factories, manufacturing was done in home workshops.


Manufacturing and invention changed the face of the country in the first four centuries of the 1800s. The steam engine, invented in 1804, was soon powering ships, mills and factories. In 1800 railways were nothing more than horse-drawn wagons pulled along short rail lines. By 1840 a system of canals and 2,818 miles of railway track crisscrossed the eastern part of the country. Between 1790 to 1840 the U.S. Patent Office office issued a total of 11,500 patents including the telegraph, aqueduct technology and a steel rope that was used in building suspension bridges. This new technology brought new goods, information and people, changing the shape of cities, and bringing new inventions into the daily lives of people across the country.

Horse-drawn railway
Horse-drawn railway | Source


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