City Life

A wood engraving print depicting a densely packed street scene at night with revelers, musicians, and glowing signs.
Fritz Eichenberg (American, 1895-1945), City Lights, 1934, wood engraving, Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of Thomas M. Kreider, 1992.173.

By 1920, more Americans lived in cities than rural areas for the first time in history. With soaring buildings, bustling factories, electric lighting, and crowds of people, the modern city epitomized significant changes in American life. As centers of commerce and cultural vibrancy, cities like Chicago offered recreation to all social classes. Electrified streetcars, elevated trains, and subways provided city dwellers with swift transportation. Inside electric-powered factories, workers toiled night and day on production lines, churning out products for the masses. On the streets and in crowded apartments, people of different racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds jostled together, producing both the tensions and vitality of city life.

WATCH: New York City in 1929.

Black and white video of crowds of people, automobiles, streetcars, and flashing signs on the streets in New York City.

New York City street scenes, 1929. Fox Movietone News Collection, Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina.


Black and white photo from 1906 of a large ship deck crowded with people.
“Immigrants on an Atlantic Liner,” United States, circa 1906. Photography by Edwin Levick (American, 1869-1929). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Factory and industrial jobs in expanding cities attracted waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Latin America, as well as Black migrants from the American South. These individuals and families settled in towns and formed distinct communities. Between 1880 and 1920, nearly 20 million immigrants, mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe, arrived in America. Many settled in Northeastern and Midwestern cities like Chicago. Amelia Thoridl, of Germany, one of the Wormser’s maids, was among them.

Working-class immigrants contended with many of the problems created by the industrialization and rapid expansion of cities, namely wealth inequality, dangerous working conditions, overcrowding, and sanitation issues. Settlement houses, run by female social workers, and charitable institutions offered social services to recent immigrants to alleviate hardship and facilitate the immigrants’ Americanization. Leo Wormser served as a trustee to one such organization, the Jewish Charities of Chicago, which provided educational, medical, and recreational resources to Jewish immigrants in the city.

A crowd of young Jewish boys and girls gather around an archway emblazoned with the words “Chicago Hebrew Institute.” A row of boys wearing boxing shorts sit upon the archway, while two boys box below.
The Chicago Hebrew Institute, a charitable organization that provided services to Jewish immigrants, organized athletic activities for adults and children. “Chicago Hebrew Institute Athletic Program,” Chicago, circa 1915. Photography by Taylor & Lytle. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-017310.


A city filled with the glowing lights of skyscrapers and electric streetlamps.
Looking out of their Drake Tower penthouse at night, the Wormsers would have gazed upon the twinkling lights of Chicago’s electrified cityscape. “Downtown Chicago at night,” Chicago, 1930. NYWT&S Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

As urban populations increased, cities expanded both outwards and upwards. The development of steel-framed structures, electric elevators, and better ventilation systems ushered in the skyscraper era, which emerged in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. To the public, skyscrapers symbolized power, innovation, and a uniquely American modernity. The Wormsers themselves lived in one of the many luxury high rises erected during the 1920s. When it was completed in 1928, the Drake Tower was the tallest residential building in Chicago.

WATCH: Construction workers build a skyscraper in Manhattan.

Black and white video of construction workers installing rivets with little to no protective equipment on a skyscraper.

Construction workers work on the Lincoln Building, New York, 1929. Fox Movietone News Collection, Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina.