50 photos from American life in the 19th century
Photographs have a way of capturing emotion. A photo may echo sadness and desperation, as is the case with Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph known as “Migrant Mother,” showing a distraught mother and her children during the Great Depression. It may capture the spirit of triumph, as is accomplished with John Rooney’s iconic 1965 shot of boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali standing over opponent Sonny Liston. A photograph can also appear to signify hope and joy, à la Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square.”
Regardless of the scene or sentiment that is captured in a photograph, images from throughout history have the ability to freeze moments in time. In doing so, they allow future generations to peer into the past and obtain glimpses into life before their own, whether it’s the major events (e.g., Nat Fein’s “The Babe Bows Out” or Abraham Zapruder’s “JFK Assassination, Frame 313”) or the small moments (e.g. W. Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor,” or the first-ever cell phone photo, Philippe Kahn’s image of his newborn daughter’s first moments).
Like any time period in the age of photography, the 1800s in America has been widely chronicled, in images dating back to the early years of the century. A look back on the images will take viewers to the country’s first boardwalk in New Jersey, make them grapple with the realities of the Civil War, and bring them along a journey to discover the evolution of transportation over the course of the decades.
To learn more about 19th-century America through photographs, Stacker compiled a collection of 50 essential images that capture what life was like in the 1800s. Photos are sourced from a wide range of government databases and national photo libraries. From photos depicting iconic inventors and activists in action, to those simply depicting a day on the beach, each of these images shines a light on a small corner of American life between 1800 and 1899. Read on to view fascinating images and learn more about the events and trends that shaped 19th-century America.
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1890: Couple walks along the beach in Atlantic City
Seaside socializing rose to popularity in the 19th century, beginning in Britain where doctors were encouraging beach visits as a way to combat “melancholy,” and later in America as the trend hit the East Coast. The first boardwalk stateside was built in Atlantic City in 1870 by two men—a hotelier and a railroad conductor—who had grown aggravated with beachgoers consistently dragging sand into their resorts and train cars. It was very basic, consisting only of an arrangement of boards laid out on the sand, and was later replaced by a larger railed boardwalk in 1890. In this photo, people stroll along the sand at the New Jersey beach, with the boardwalk in the background.
1855: U.S. Capitol dome under construction
The dome of the U.S. Capitol was designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, who took on the project after entering a competition to design an extension of the Capitol. While the government building had an original dome added in the 1820s, additions to the Capitol over the subsequent years made the original dome feel too small. This photo shows the Capitol dome under construction, as the original wood-covered copper structure was replaced by Walter’s new and improved cast iron design.
1862: Enslaved people harvest sweet potatoes on Hopkinson’s Plantation
The Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves held in rebel states be free, was signed into effect by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863. That was just a year after this photograph by printmaker and photographer Henry P. Moore was captured. The image depicts a group of enslaved people as they work a sweet potato plantation in South Carolina.
It has been suggested that the image was staged by Moore as part of a larger statement about the condition of slaves in the country, even as they were on the cusp of freedom. Particularly, the argument has been that even with possible freedom on the horizon, the emotionless attitudes of the figures in the photograph could be Moore’s way of depicting the struggles that would still lie ahead, even in a society freed from slavery.
1870: Docks of New Orleans in Louisiana
The Port of New Orleans has long been considered a major point of commerce in the United States, due to its instrumental location along the Mississippi River. The river is the country’s largest and is a key point of transportation for goods, with the Port of New Orleans playing a role in the movement of key national exports like grain. In this photograph, the docks of the busy New Orleans port are captured with loads of cargo and ships being loaded for transportation along the Mississippi.
1862: Lincoln visits a Civil War camp in Maryland
The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, in which Union General George B. McClellan and his men successfully forced the troops of Confederate General Robert E. Lee out of Maryland and thwarted his efforts to invade the north. This photo shows then-president Abraham Lincoln visiting McClellan and his troops at their camp near Sharpsburg, Maryland, where the president attempted to persuade McClellan to attack Lee’s troops while the Union army had the upper hand. Refusing to comply, McClellan was dismissed from his rank shortly after.
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1864: Civil War destruction in Richmond, Virginia
During the Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman’s belief was that a “total war” approach was perfectly logical and justifiable in the fight against the Confederates, writing in a letter to Army Officer Henry Halleck in December 1864 that Union soldiers were “not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people.” In an effort to scare Georgia civilians into abandoning the Confederate cause, Sherman proposed a March to the Sea, in which he and 62,000 of his men traveled 285 miles from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. Though Sherman’s goal was not to blindly destroy everything that lay in his troops’ way, his men were instructed to burn down the homes and barns of anyone who attempted to fight them.
Though the march was ultimately considered a win for the Union cause, it caused a good deal of damage along the way. Here, an image captures the destruction that was caused in Richmond during the course of the march.
1865: Lincoln’s funeral on Pennsylvania Avenue
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre by stage actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Abraham Lincoln’s 1,700-mile funeral procession, which was the first to involve travel by train, traveled through more than 400 communities in six different states, in addition to the country’s capital, between April 19 and May 3. Here, the funeral procession is shown as it moves along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.
1887: Construction of St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway
The St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway was America’s largest rail system and the start of what later became the Great Northern Railway, which ran from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. It was built to replace the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which had gone bankrupt. Led by Canadian American railroad executive James J. Hill, the construction of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway began in 1879 and was completed in 1893. This photo shows the construction of the railroad in Montana.
1865: Helena, Montana, as a frontier town
Montana officially became a territory in 1864, after hopeful prospectors began flooding into the region during the gold rush. The swift spike in population that came with the migrations gave rise to what were known as “boomtowns,” or “frontier towns,” which are essentially quick-to-materialize towns that emerge when settlers land in a new region. Here, a frontier town in Montana’s capital, Helena, is shown.
1872: Camp study of expedition
The role of geological surveying and land mapping played a critical role in understanding western lands being explored in the 19th century. Photographer William Henry Jackson was a key player in such projects, as he spent a good part of the late 1800s working with the U.S. government to survey regions around Yellowstone River and the Rocky Mountains. Jackson’s job was to capture images of these new territories to create a documented account of the landscapes. This photograph by Jackson shows the survey team of an 1872 expedition as they sit by their camp.
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1871: The Annie sails on Yellowstone Lake
The U.S. Congress in 1872 made Yellowstone the world’s first government-recognized national park. Photographer William Henry Jackson captured this photo for the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey. The image depicts The Annie, the first boat to sail on Yellowstone Lake.
1875: Native American prisoners of the Red River War
As an increasing number of Americans headed west during the 19th century, the U.S. government tried to shrink or totally eliminate Native American tribes settlers came in conflict with along the way. The Red River War, a military campaign that took place in 1874 and 1875, was an effort to remove several Southern Plains tribes—Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho—from Texas territory. This photo depicts American Indian war prisoners in Florida, where 74 tribal leaders were imprisoned.
1878: Buffalo hide yard in Dodge City, Kansas
When the railroad arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1872, it brought with it a drastic shift in how buffalo native to that region were hunted. While the animals were once killed primarily for food in addition to their hides, the railroad introduced an element of commerce that ultimately gave rise to a thriving buffalo hide industry. This photo shows Charles Rath—one of the greatest buffalo hunters of the 1800s—sitting on a rick of some 40,000 buffalo hides in 1878.
1885: Placer miners in Prescott, Arizona Territory
Placer mining is a method of using water to extract heavy minerals like gold and chromite from the earth. Panning, which was the method that gold miners used in the 19th century, is one early iteration of placer mining, by which prospectors would find gold by separating it from other minerals and the soil according to their density and gravity. This photo captures a scene involving several placer miners as they search for minerals in Prescott, Arizona Territory.
1880: Northwestern Express Stage and Transportation Co. in South Dakota
Hallmarks of long-distance stagecoach travel in the 19th century were pit stops every few hours during which coach drivers could swap out their horses and give passengers a chance to rest and eat (hence the name stagecoach: transportation occurring in stages).
Even though the introduction of railroad travel in the latter half of the century added a new mode of transportation to choose from, stagecoaches remained a popular mode of transportation, especially in more rural regions. In this photo, a major stagecoach station in South Dakota—the Northwestern Express Stage and Transportation Co.—is shown as a coach prepares to start its journey.
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1891: The Great Hostile Camp of the Lakota Sioux tribe
In 1890, the ongoing conflict between the U.S. military and Native Americans erupted on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Wounded Knee became the site of a massacre—and the final clash between the U.S. government and the Plains Indians—in which 150 unarmed Native Americans were killed. This image depicts the landscape of a Lakota village on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
1893: Oklahoma Land Run of 1893
By 1893, there had already been a number of land rushes in Oklahoma Territory, including the land rush of 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison opened up a 1.9 million-acre area of what had been Native American territory for western settlement. This photo depicts the Oklahoma Land Run Sept. 16, 1893, in which around 100,000 land-hopeful settlers raced west on trains, horses, foot and wagons to try to claim land for themselves and their families. With only 42,000 parcels of land available, however, most of the settlers would come out of the land rush with nothing to show for it.
1887: Sod house in the Nebraska plains
As Americans built homesteads throughout the Great American Prairie, one of the biggest struggles was the lack of ideal materials to work with for building. Without a natural supply of common materials like wood or stone, prairie homesteaders were often left to rely on sod: grass and the layer of soil and roots directly beneath it. In this photo, a family stands in front of their sod house in Nebraska.
1880: Load of lumber
Michigan’s vast landscapes of pine trees and hardwoods made the region a key player in the 19th-century lumber industry. This photo shows a sled pulling loads of lumber in 1880, at which point Michigan had become the largest lumber producer in the country. Sleds were instrumental in moving massive logs on manmade ice-covered roads when simply dragging them from the forest wasn’t a feasible option.
1890: Oregon salmon canning establishment
Just like Michigan was a valuable territory because of its high supply of lumber, other regions throughout 19th-century America quickly developed industries based on the unique natural resources of those areas. In the late 1800s, salmon-canning was a rapidly growing industry along the Columbia River in Oregon. In the 1880s, salmon canning reached its peak in the region, with a total of 39 operating canneries.
This photo depicts workers at an Astoria, Oregon, canning establishment in 1890, which marked the beginning of the salmon industries slowing thanks to overfishing in preceding years. The last cannery along the Columbia River closed in 1980.
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1870: Thomas Edison in Newark laboratory
Though Thomas Edison is most commonly remembered for his invention of the incandescent lightbulb, the prolific inventor’s work extends far beyond that, with a record 1,093 patents to his name. In this photograph, a young Edison works in his New Jersey laboratory. Edison perfected his lightbulb in 1879 after more than a year of tinkering and testing.
1883: The Brooklyn Bridge under construction
New York’s Brooklyn Bridge was constructed in the 19th century to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn over the East River. The 14-year long project, which would be the first steel suspension bridge, was based on the designs of German-born civil engineer John Augustus Roebling. This photo shows the construction of the bridge as it nears its completion in 1883. The iconic part of the New York skyline took 600 workers and cost more than $320 million in today’s dollars.
1892: Tram on San Francisco’s Market Street
Built to serve as a more efficient alternative to the horse-drawn wagons and cable cars of the time, electric streetcars emerged as a mode of San Francisco transportation in 1892. This photo shows a section of the streetcar line along Market Street, which was the origin of the line that then ran through the Mission District and Glen Park to end in the Colma cemeteries.
1882: Sculpting of a Statue of Liberty model in Paris
While the Statue of Liberty is an iconic symbol of New York and American liberty at large, the statue was designed by a Frenchman. Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi created the Statue of Liberty upon a suggestion from Édouard de Laboulaye—also known as the “Father of the Statue of Liberty”—who wanted to create a monument that would symbolize freedom and democracy in the post-Civil War age. Here, Bartholdi works on the left hand of his large-scale statue in a Parisian warehouse.
1887: Students in New York school salute the flag
The influx of European immigrants in America during the 19th century caused a rise in slum communities, where those with limited resources were left to fend for themselves with few employment options or protective legislation. With one major result of the slums being a lack of adequate education for children, the Children’s Aid Society built a series of industrial schools between the 1880s and 1890s.
These schools were meant to help take children out of slums and provide them with a strong education and moral foundation. In this photo, children from one of these schools—Mott Street Industrial School in New York—are shown giving the Oath of Allegiance. The image uses the then-newly developed technique of flash photography.
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1870: Chicago White Stockings baseball club
This photo shows the Chicago White Stockings baseball team, including star players William Craver and Levi Meyerle, as they pose for a photograph on their Lakeside Park playing field in Chicago, Illinois. The White Stockings were the first professional team in the Windy City and served as the predecessors to the two well-known Chicago baseball teams that play for the city today: the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox.
1892: Ringling Brothers parade in Wisconsin
In the late 1880s, families used to await the arrival of acrobats, exotic animals, and other performers on “Circus Day.” Each time that a circus came through town, their arrival would be marked by a parade along the main street. In this photo, residents of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, line up on either side of Main Street to watch the procession of the Ringling Brothers Circus, including several elephants.
1892: Brighton Bicycle Club members prepare to race
Before Americans had many transportation options beyond horse-drawn wagons and coaches, cycling became a simple and popular way for people to get around. The convenience and rising ubiquity of cycling paved the way for the creation of bicycle clubs across the country, where like-minded residents of a community formed an organization focused on bicycle-forward travel, exploration, and enjoyment. This photograph from 1892 shows members of the Cincinnati-based Brighton Bicycle Club as they prepare to race.
1899: Steel pier at Atlantic City beach
With Atlantic City being the site of the first boardwalk in America, it’s only fitting that the seaside city would also become home to the nation’s first waterfront amusement park. Steel Pier was originally opened in 1898 by a local investment group, and quickly became a popular attraction for locals and tourists. The pier enjoyed a number of milestones, including hosting the first Miss America Pageant in 1921 and Frank Sinatra in 1950. In this photo, Steel Pier is shown in the center of a bustling beach in 1899, just a year after its completed construction.
1886: Randolph Street Market in Chicago’s Haymarket Square
In April and May 1986, workers throughout Chicago—along with unionists, socialists, and anarchists—assembled and took to the streets to demand a nationwide shift to an eight-hour workday. Days of striking were interspersed with protest meetings, and on May 4, a demonstration that began peacefully on Des Plaines Street culminated in a violent clash between officers and citizens. The conflict left eight law enforcement officials dead and countless more citizens injured and dead. This image shows the busy center of Randolph Street Market in Chicago, just south of the 1886 anarchists’ riot.
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1888: Executive committee members of the International Council of Women
The International Council of Women in 1888 became the first organization of women to promote the advancement of women’s rights and equality on an international level. The organization’s birth and activity was a natural result of the growing discourse around gender-based injustice that was taking place in the latter half of the 19th century. In this photograph, members of the organization’s first executive committee, including famous women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, are shown during their first meeting in Washington D.C.
1889: New York Stock Exchange
Before the New York Stock Exchange came onto the scene, auctions were the closest thing to the kind of trading and exchanging that would establish a going rate for goods and commodities. In May 1792, the Buttonwood Agreement, which was signed on Wall Street in New York City, introduced the idea of a centralized exchange in the U.S. that would set a commission rate and eliminate the auctioneering culture of old. This photo shows the hectic floor of the New York Stock Exchange nearly 100 years after its initial founding.
1893: Great Basin at the Chicago World’s Fair
The Chicago World’s Fair—also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition—was a six-month celebration honoring the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in North America. Among the many wonders on display at the fair was the nation’s first Ferris wheel, as well as its first encounter with electricity. This photo captures the view from across the Great Basin, a sparkling lake in the center of the fair’s Court of Honor, which was expertly designed and decorated by a group of artists and architects.
1893: Steam electricity power plant in Minneapolis
When the concept of electric streetcars was first introduced in the mid-1880s, there were many who were reluctant to embrace the new technology. Despite the promise of faster, farther-reaching transportation, skeptics, including Thomas Lowry, who controlled the Minneapolis and St. Paul streetcar companies, were unsure about whether to utilize electrification and what it would mean as far as safety. By 1892, however, all horse car routes in Minneapolis were electric, and the technology had more or less taken over. In this photo, workers are shown standing in a Minneapolis steam electricity plant, which powered many of the city’s streetcars.
1890: Solvay Process Co. in Syracuse
When the Solvay Process Company created a Syracuse-based chemical plant in 1881, it was the first U.S. facility to utilize the Solvay process to manufacture sodium carbonate. Solvay Process Co. ultimately paved a new path for the road of industrialization towards the end of the 19th century. The plant eventually developed soda ash, which could be used in the production of materials like glass and paper, as well as products like soap.
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1890: Coal miners in Pennsylvania
As industrialization largely shaped the 19th century, coal mining largely shaped the progression of industrialization. As one of the cheapest and most efficient sources of fuel that could be used for things like trains and steam engines, the value of coal to the country’s continued growth was extremely significant. Unfortunately, the job of coal mining was a brutal one, and many men who took on the job—like those pictured here in Pennsylvania—were often severely injured or killed during the process.
1895: Oil derricks on a hillside in Pennsylvania
While some people headed west to pursue precious minerals during the gold rush, others headed to Pennsylvania in the late 1850s to look for oil, or “black gold.” The Pennsylvania Oil Rush started in 1859, after oil—and, more importantly, its ability to replace steam and coal as a mode of power and fuel—was first discovered. Here, a cluster of hillside oil derricks owned by the Shoe and Leather Petroleum Company and the Foster Farm Oil Company is photographed in Pioneer Run, Pennsylvania.
1890: Horse-drawn combine thresher harvests wheat in Oregon
The use of combine harvesters was new to America as of the 1860s. The farming technology combined the once-independent jobs of a header and a thresher, and thus significantly reduced the time and effort that it would take a farmer to harvest wheat, corn and a number of other crops. In this photograph, the combine harvester is pulled through an Oregon wheat field by horses—though the process allowed for fewer men to be involved, it could call for up to 40 horses—as it harvests the grain.
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1895: Traveling medicine salesman in Oklahoma
Before the widespread existence of brick-and-mortar stores where people could purchase their goods, traveling salesmen were rather common. This was especially true in areas around the Midwest that were slightly more remote. In this image, a traveling salesman speaks to residents of a farm in Oklahoma as they peruse his powders and medicines.
Unfortunately, traveling salesmen were not always the most trustworthy. In the case of those peddling medicine, for example, the popularity of “medicine shows” that traveled across the country and offered “miracle cures” that were sure to cure any number of ailments simply preyed on the desperate to make a profit, without offering any true medical benefit.
1892: School children playing in their Iowa classroom
The quality of schools in rural Iowa in the 1890s were concerning to many who felt children were being disadvantaged by inferior educations. This shortage of well-trained teachers was largely attributed to factors including subpar standards for teacher certification and low wages that left high-quality teachers disincentivized to educate children at Iowa schools. Children were often none the wiser, however, as is evident by this image of elementary school children holding hands and playing a game in their Keota, Iowa classroom.
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1893: Street vendors sell newspapers and comic books
Before the newsstand came to be, the news could be obtained from vendors simply standing on the street and selling it on the go. Here, three men are photographed selling various forms of reading material, including: “Snapshot” comic books; “Chums,” a weekly newspaper for young boys; and a newspaper featuring a front-page story on the death of actor Edwin Booth, who was the brother of Abraham Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth.
1894: Federal troops during the Pullman Strike
At a point where railroad traffic was thriving and had drastically impacted transportation of individuals and goods across the country, any disruption to the railroads’ regular operations had the power to drastically impede day-to-day life. The Pullman factory strike in 1894 did just that. After having their requests declined during a wage negotiation, factory workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike. The boycott was extremely detrimental to railroad traffic across the country and resulted in the first instance of government officials and troops getting involved—as seen in this image—to break a strike.
1864: Denver’s South Platte River during the Great Flood
Tragedy struck Sheffield and surrounding regions in Colorado territory when, in 1864, a dam in one of four nearby reservoirs was breached, giving way to allow around 650 million gallons of water to escape in under an hour. The flood—known as the Great Sheffield Flood—killed 240 people and left homes and other buildings drowning under as much as 26 feet of water. In this photograph, people in Denver stand along the shore of the South Platte river, which is rushing under the pressure of incoming water from the flood.
1898: Gold diggers climb Chilkoot pass in Alaska
Nicknamed the “Golden Staircase,” Alaska’s Chilkoot Pass is a 26-mile trail that took hopeful—and incredibly brave—prospectors through the territory’s frigid conditions during the Klondike Gold Rush. This image shows gold diggers trekking along the route in 1898, just two years after gold had been discovered in the Klondike region in 1896. Following the initial discovery of gold, more and more hopefuls attempted to brave the elements—including blizzards, avalanches, and freezing temperatures—to try their hands at finding gold deposits of their own at Klondike.
1892: Ellis Island opens
New York Harbor’s Ellis Island first opened in 1892 and served as a point of entry for immigrants coming to America. It’s estimated that more than 12 million immigrants arrived to Ellis Island in the 60-plus years that it was ushering newcomers into the country. With immigrants coming from throughout Europe, the migration of people to the U.S. that occurred through Ellis Island marked one of the first huge waves of incoming immigrants in the country. This undated photo (circa 1880) captures a group of people descending from a ship docked in the harbor as they enter Ellis Island.
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1896: Telephone exchange employees in New York
The first switchboard was created in 1878 out of a variety of random materials, including teapot handles and carriage bolts. Though it wasn’t the most refined prototype, the creation paved the way for the mainstreaming of telephones, which up until this point had been somewhat limited in their potential due to limited transmission technology.
With the switchboard in place, cross-country telephone communication became far simpler, by connecting callers to a middleman who would direct calls from there. The switchboards, which needed to be operated manually, were often handled by women, as is evident in this photograph of employees at a telephone exchange in New York City.
1895: Veranda of the Palm Beach Hotel in Florida
Before 1894, Palm Beach wasn’t a top destination for beachgoers just yet, but that changed when Henry Flagler came into the area and revitalized it with the construction of West Palm Beach’s first resort: The Royal Poinciana Hotel. Other hotels, including the Palm Beach Hotel—pictured here with its grand terrace—and the Palm Beach Inn (known as The Breakers) also emerged to attract wealthy visitors and encourage tourism in the county.
1895: Children swim at a public bath in New York
Record numbers of incoming immigrants during the late 19th century in America created major crises of overcrowding in cities like New York, where space was limited and populations were relentlessly rising. A result of the influx of new residents gave rise to tenement housing, which were multistory apartment buildings that crammed multiple families into living quarters with limited space and facilities.
Tenement buildings that popped up in poorer neighborhoods of the city were usually accompanied by public bathhouses, where family members could bathe and keep cool during hot summer months. Here, a group of children is shown playing and swimming in a public bath in New York.
1896: Henry Ford drives his first automobile
By the late 1800s, people had traveled by wagon, stagecoach, train, tram, and trolley. Automobiles, however, had yet to enter the scene until 1896, when Henry Ford created the quadricycle, his first attempt at a car that would run on gas. The automobile was constructed using iron for the outer body and a leather belt and chain for its transmission. In this photograph, Ford is pictured driving his first car on Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. He later sold the vehicle for $200 and used the money to build a second iteration of the prototype model.
1898: Young men recruited for Spanish-American War
By 1895, Spanish colonial control was dwindling, with some of its few remaining colonies worldwide being Cuba and the Philippines. The Spanish-American War occurred as a result of Cuba’s fight to break free from Spanish rule; a fight that the U.S., in 1898, became involved in after pressure by popular demand. In this photograph, military recruiters in New York attempt to enlist volunteers to fight in the war.
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