As noted last time, I am dividing the 19th century into several posts. I want to stress that no century is more important or more worth studying than another, but it happened that it was most convenient to do it this way for the 19th century. The subjects of immigration and industry in Cambridge in the nineteenth century are closely related, as immigration provided a new workforce, and they are also the main reasons that Cambridge changed size and shape over that century. Most immigrants to the city settled in Cambridgeport or East Cambridge, and these areas were also the centers of local industrial growth. Now, let's take a closer look at these topics.
Nineteenth-century immigration changed and diversified the character of the city because it was different from previous immigration. Generally speaking, early immigrants to Cambridge were English. In the first part of the nineteenth century, almost all immigrants to Cambridge were Irish or English.1 In the second half, immigrants also came from Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Russia, Poland, Latvia, Armenia, and Lithuania, and Canada, particularly French-speaking Canada. The ethnic makeup of the city also included some Asian immigrants, some African Americans, and a small number of Native Americans.2 The new residents of the area came looking for new economic opportunities. One of largest immigrant groups was the Irish. Ireland had long been impoverished, and in 1845, a blight struck the country's potato crops, causing widespread devastation known as the Great Hunger or the Irish Potato Famine.
Immigrants brought their own cultural traditions, including religion. In 1831, a group of Catholics in Cambridge began to raise money to build their own church, so they would no longer have to cross into Boston to attend Mass. In 1842, their project, St. John's Roman Catholic Church, was finally completed.3 The Catholic church took care of the Irish population with charities and social programs, but as its constituency was mostly poor, its efforts had mixed success. Irish immigrants were sometimes passed over for jobs because of widespread anti-Irish prejudice. Irish Catholics were viewed as drunk, stupid, unskilled, and sick. “Paddy” became a standard buffoon character in popular jokes and in newspaper humor columns.4 In both Boston and Charlestown, the early nineteenth century saw anti-Irish rioting, and in 1834, a mob burned down the Ursuline convent and Catholic school in Charlestown. In Cambridge, people acted with as much prejudice, but less violence – the city never had an anti-Irish riot.5
The waves of immigration also caused new diversity in the economic makeup of the city. In the first two centuries that Cambridge was settled by Europeans, most immigrants, even the somewhat ascetic Puritans, were at least moderately well-off. However, the majority of immigrants to the area in the mid- and late nineteenth century were poor.6 Like much of the American North, Cambridge was swept by industry in the later part of the 19th century. 7 Immigrants filled a need for cheap unskilled industrial labor. They also took jobs as domestic servants. All but the poorest of native New Englanders refused to take jobs with such low pay and equally low social status.8
Industrialization in Cambridge rescued Cambridgeport and East Cambridge from floundering attempts at becoming centers of trade in the early part of the nineteenth century. The major industries in these areas included soap making, furniture making, and meatpacking. As the century progressed, the areas developed even further. Migration from rural areas increased as people gave up their small-scale farms in the rocky New England soil and took jobs in factories instead.9 In 1860, Cambridge was one of the forty largest American communities.10 The Panic of 1873-78, which at the time was the worst economic depression in American history, didn't hit Cambridge very hard; the city's economic growth paused, and then resumed at its regular rate.11 The growth was not limited to major industries. Cantabrigians bound books, made musical instruments, engines, industrial-scale boilers, and cars, laid railroad track, and built bridges.12 However, industrialization was a mixed blessing. For example, in the 1890s, East Cambridge typified a dirty modern city. Meatpacking and fertilizer were among the most offensive of the many industries that contributed to the odor and uncleanliness of the area.13
By 1896, the population density in Cambridge was greater than in Boston.14 Apartment buildings of varying quality sprung up all over the city by the end of the century. Many of them were the crammed, sometimes rickety buildings we think of as tenements.15 Cambridge developed big-city Industrial Age problems, such as dangerous workplace conditions and living conditions. By the late nineteenth century, many people began to try to correct these kinds of problems, through legislation, charitable organizations, and other methods.
Coming next at Cambridge Considered: A Very Brief History of Cambridge, 1800-1900, part 3, Progress and the Progressive Era
1Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001), 100.
3Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: 3 1/2 Centuries on the Charles. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976), 57.