St. Louis: Becoming a City (1850-1900)
St. Louis entered the Victorian Age with style and a massive growth of industry and commerce. Resources of iron, the era of the steamboat and railroad, and the age of invention molded the city into a thriving metropolis. St. Louis was also home to diverse customs and a tapestry of cultures.
The iron resource some sixty miles south of St. Louis led to a booming factory and foundry industry. Iron pipes, plows, stoves, and tools were produced of pig iron. Decorations on grand homes and elaborate pointed fences were created of wrought iron. The demand for iron increased after the fire of 1849 destroyed the center of the city. When trees used for fuel to melt iron became depleted, coal or coke was substituted. The demand for iron dwindled around 1900 because inferior iron was the result of not using wood for fuel in its production.
Steamboats that carried supplies like the iron produced about 60 miles south of St. Louis were the major river transportation between 1850 and 1870. At St. Louis the steamboats were reported to be anchored three deep and in a line for a mile along the levee. St. Louis was the nation's third busiest port until the beginning of the Civil War. The 1874 completion of the Eads Bridge signaled the beginning of east - west railroad commerce at St. Louis. The railroads affected river traffic and were encouraged by local government. By the 1880s the steamboat approached its decline.
Railroads were one of the many new technologies of the day. Victorian homes featured the technology of the late 19th century as well. Ladies were introduced to the foot-powered sewing machine. Flickering candlelight was replaced with gas or oil lamp illumination, gradually supplanted in the 1880s in the homes of the wealthy by electricity. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and within a year it was introduced to St. Louis. A staple of the middle class Victorian home was the piano. In 1898, the first player piano was introduced to the market. Furniture underwent change. The stiff, hard wood of straight-backed benches evolved into soft, cushioned upholstered couches.
In the 1850s, St. Louis received a large number of German and Irish emigrants. Germans who could afford the voyage came to St. Louis to escape political unrest in their country. They settled in St. Louis, close to the area in Mid-Missouri where other German settlers established homes due to the geographical similarity of Missouri and the German wine country.
The Irish came to the United States to escape a potato famine in their country. Many Irish were poor and illiterate. One man, Joseph Murphy, learned how to build wagons. He applied these skills and opened a business. The specially designed Murphy Wagon could hold up to 5000 pounds of freight and was used on the Santa Fe Trail. Murphy also made "prairie schooners" that overlanders used to follow the trails west.
African-Americans were both free and slave in St. Louis. One very famous national case originated at the Old Court House, in which Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom. A final court ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 declared that blacks were not citizens and had no rights under the law. This decision only divided the nation further amid pre-Civil War tensions. Dred Scott eventually won his freedom when his family was emancipated later that year by a former owner.
St. Louis succeeded in the most major period of growth up to 1900. New technology improved everyday life. The city saw a shift in transportation from steamboats to railroads, and became a city of enterprising manufacturers on the brink of a new century.
Did You Know?
The Museum of Westward Expansion at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial contains over 150 quotes from diaries, journals, letters and speeches. The designers of the museum felt the actual words of nineteenth century pioneers were the most powerful way to tell their story. Click to learn more. More...