In today's world, where we routinely zip down the highway at 70 miles per hour and we can fly coast-to-coast in a matter of hours, it is hard to imagine the revolution in transportation that took place in the 1800s. From a world where most people rarely traveled faster than their legs could carry them or much beyond their home towns, the 1800s witnessed an amazing and rapid development of technology, improvements in infrastructure, and a national will to conquer the vast distances of a growing country. Through the work of inventors, individual entrepreneurs, and municipalities, Americans found new opportunities for traveling conveniently from place to place within their communities, and a frontier nation was unified by rail, by road, and by a sense of national identity. This is the story of nineteenth century America on the move!
From an isolated and inward-looking new nation clinging to the East Coast, America in the 1800s grew in size, strength, and military might. From the War of 1812 to the century-long campaigns of conquest against Native American peoples, territorial expansion through war with Mexico to the great national tragedy that was the Civil War, American soldiers and sailors forged a tradition of pride and heroism that is part of our national heritage. Sometimes misguided, sometimes truly inspired, nineteenth century America produced some of the greatest military leaders and witnessed some of the bloodiest battles in our history. Behind the scenes, and often neglected in our official histories, the life of America's citizen soldiers was a tough and brutal one. Patriotism, heroism, and human folly all combine in the story of the roots of Americas rise to the status of world military power.
Medicine developed into a science in the 1800s, but it was a long evolution from folk remedies and superstition to a modern understanding of how the human body works and how disease is spread. Throughout much of the century, the life expectancy of the average American was decades shorter than it is now. A lack of understanding of simple hygiene contributed to the early death of many women after childbirth, and children routinely died of common childhood diseases like measles. An incorrectly treated broken arm could kill a healthy young man, and pain, disfigurement, and epidemic disease was the fate of many Americans. Traditional herbal remedies were sometimes the best treatments available, while patent medicines often contained toxic substances, and medical procedures were often painful, disgusting, and ultimately useless. The dedicated scientists and medical researchers of the 1800s made a tremendous contribution to the health and happiness of Americans.
The farmers, workers, and pioneers of America in the 1800s were nourished by a tradition of hearty, down home cooking that is still a part of our national cuisine - New England baked beans, roast beef, turkey, corn on the cob, and pumpkin pies. With roots in the British Isles, and with important contributions from Native American food plants and cooking techniques, American food and drink quality and seasonal variety was vastly improved during the 1800s by new technologies in transportation, food storage, hygiene, and preservation, growing national and world markets, and not least the delicious ethnic cuisines of new immigrant groups. Hungry for innovation, quality, and economy, Americans in the 1800s became the best fed nation in the history of the world!
We're all here because of people who met and fell in love in the past! In the 1800s, most young men and women were bound by powerful traditions of family, church, and society that limited their choices in romance and marriage. As an economic and community-building institution, marriage options were traditionally controlled by the older generation. Marriages were often arranged by families, and the bride and groom's personal feelings for each other were much less important than they are today. But as in so many other ways, America was a new and more open society. Communities of people from different and diverse backgrounds were established in a new land, and young people came together in a freer, more open environment. Romantic love flourished in the America of the 1800s as it never had before, with a whole variety of courting and marriage customs, many of which we still cherish today.
While often behind the scenes and hidden from history, women in 1800s America worked side by side with men in building our nation. On the frontier, strong, capable women worked as hard or harder than their menfolk, taming the land and raising the crops while shouldering the responsibilities of keeping house and caring for the children. The life of the farm wife in the settled parts of the country was one of sunup to sundown labor in an era with few modern conveniences. And in urban areas, working class women were a major part of the workforce in an industrializing economy, while middle and upper class women influenced America's social movements, supported charities, and helped beautify the gritty cities. In the course of the 1800s, new labor saving technologies in the home, improved health conditions, greater economic and educational opportunities, and a growing sense of their rights helped to empower women and started the movement toward full equality with men that continues to this day.
In rough frontier cabins, tidy farmhouses, and elegant townhouses, Americans in the 1800s were dedicated to living as well and as comfortably as their circumstances allowed. The American home was a sacred institution, the seat of family life where the patriarch ruled with Mother at his side as guardian of the home, and the children were raised with strict discipline and strong values. Changes in taste and fashion, improvements in technology (indoor plumbing and a host of new laborsaving devices), and social change transformed home and family life in the 1800s, as opportunities for leisure activities and commercially produced consumer goods came within reach of the average American. But the strong American tradition of the sanctity of the home, consumerism, and the importance of a happy family life has its roots in the homes of nineteenth century Americans.