Contagious diseases have long posed a public health challenge for cities, going back to the ancient world. Diseases traveled over trade routes from one city to another. Cities were also crowded and often dirty, ideal conditions for the transmission of infectious disease. The Europeans who settled North America quickly established cities, especially seaports, and contagious diseases soon followed. By the late 17th century, ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia experienced occasional epidemics, especially smallpox and yellow fever, usually introduced from incoming ships. Public health officials tried to prevent contagious diseases from entering the ports, most often by establishing a quarantine. These quarantines were occasionally effective, but more often the disease escaped into the cities. By the 18th century, city officials recognized an association between dirty cities and epidemic diseases. The appearance of a contagious disease usually occasioned a concerted effort to clean streets and remove garbage. These efforts by the early 19th century gave rise to sanitary reform to prevent infectious diseases. Sanitary reform went beyond cleaning streets and removing garbage, to ensuring clean water supplies and effective sewage removal. By the end of the century, sanitary reform had done much to clean the cities and reduce the incidence of contagious disease. In the 20th century, public health programs introduced two new tools to public health: vaccination and antibiotics. First used against smallpox, scientists developed vaccinations against numerous other infectious viral diseases and reduced their incidence substantially. Finally, the development of antibiotics against bacterial infections in the mid-20th century enabled physicians to cure infected individuals. Contagious disease remains a problem—witness AIDS—and public health authorities still rely on quarantine, sanitary reform, vaccination, and antibiotics to keep urban populations healthy.
John M. Dixon
The Enlightenment, a complex cultural phenomenon that lasted approximately from the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, contained a dynamic mix of contrary beliefs and epistemologies. Its intellectual coherence arguably came from its distinctive historical sensibility, which was rooted in the notion that advances in the natural sciences had gifted humankind with an exceptional opportunity in the eighteenth century for self-improvement and societal progress. That unifying historical outlook was flexible and adaptable. Consequently, many aspects of the Enlightenment were left open to negotiation at local and transnational levels. They were debated by the philosophes who met in Europe’s coffeehouses, salons, and scientific societies. Equally, they were contested outside of Europe through innumerable cross-cultural exchanges as well as via long-distance intellectual interactions.
America—whether it is understood expansively as the two full continents and neighboring islands within the Western Hemisphere or, in a more limited way, as the territory that now constitutes the United States—played an especially prominent role in the Enlightenment. The New World’s abundance of plants, animals, and indigenous peoples fascinated early modern natural historians and social theorists, stimulated scientific activity, and challenged traditional beliefs. By the eighteenth century, the Western Hemisphere was an important site for empirical science and also for the intersection of different cultures of knowledge. At the same time, European conceptions of the New World as an undeveloped region inhabited by primitive savages problematized Enlightenment theories of universal progress. Comparisons of Native Americans to Africans, Asians, and Europeans led to speculation about the existence of separate human species or races. Similarly, the prevalence and profitability of American slavery fueled new and increasingly scientific conceptions of race. Eighteenth-century analyses of human differences complicated contemporary assertions that all men possessed basic natural rights. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution focused international attention on man’s innate entitlement to life, liberty, and happiness. Yet, in a manner that typified the contradictions and paradoxes of the Enlightenment, the founders of the United States opted to preserve slavery and social inequality after winning political freedom from Britain.
Jessica Ellen Sewell
From 1800 to 2000, cities grew enormously, and saw an expansion of public spaces to serve the varied needs of a diverse population living in ever more cramped and urban circumstances. While a wide range of commercial semipublic spaces became common in the late 19th century, parks and streets were the best examples of truly public spaces with full freedom of access. Changes in the design and management of streets, sidewalks, squares, parks, and plazas during this period reflect changing ideas about the purpose of public space and how it should be used.
Streets shifted from being used for a wide range of activities, including vending, playing games, and storing goods, to becoming increasingly specialized spaces of movement, designed and managed by the early twentieth century for automobile traffic. Sidewalks, which in the early nineteenth century were paid for and liberally used by adjacent businesses, were similarly specialized as spaces of pedestrian movement. However, the tradition of using streets and sidewalks as a space of public celebration and public speech remained strong throughout the period. During parades and protests, streets and sidewalks were temporarily remade as spaces of the performance of the public, and the daily activities of circulation and commerce were set aside.
In 1800, the main open public spaces in cities were public squares or commons, often used for militia training and public celebration. In the second half of the 19th century, these were augmented by large picturesque parks. Designed as an antidote to urbanity, these parks served the public as a place for leisure, redefining public space as a polite leisure amenity, rather than a place for people to congregate as a public. The addition of playgrounds, recreational spaces, and public plazas in the 20th century served both the physical and mental health of the public. In the late 20th century, responding to neoliberal ideas and urban fiscal crises, the ownership and management of public parks and plazas was increasingly privatized, further challenging public accessibility.
Rachel Hope Cleves
The task of recovering the history of same-sex love among early American women faces daunting challenges of definition and sources. Modern conceptions of same-sex sexuality did not exist in early America, but alternative frameworks did. Many indigenous nations had social roles for female-bodied individuals who lived as men, performed male work, and acquired wives. Early Christian settlers viewed sexual encounters between women as sodomy, but also valued loving dyadic bonds between religious women. Primary sources indicate that same-sex sexual practices existed within western and southern African societies exploited by the slave trade, but little more is known. The word “lesbian” has been used to signify erotics between women since roughly the 10th century, but historians must look to women who led lesbian-like lives in early America rather than to women who self-identified as lesbians. Stories of female husbands who passed as men and married other women were popular in the 18th century. Tales of passing women who served in the military, in the navy, and as pirates also amused audiences and raised the spectre of same-sex sexuality. Some female religious leaders trespassed conventional gender roles and challenged the marital sexual order. Other women conformed to female gender roles, but constructed loving female households. 18th-century pornography depicting lesbian sexual encounters indicates that early Americans were familiar with the concept of sex between women. A few court records exist from prosecutions of early American women for engaging in lewd acts together. Far more common, by the end of the 18th century, were female-authored letters and diaries describing the culture of romantic friendship, which sometimes extended to sexual intimacy. Later in the 19th century, romantic friendship became an important ingredient in the development of lesbian culture and identity.
The transformation of post-industrial American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries includes several economically robust metropolitan centers that stand as new models of urban and economic life, featuring well-educated populations that engage in professional practices in education, medical care, design and legal services, and artistic and cultural production. By the early 21st century, these cities dominated the nation’s consciousness economically and culturally, standing in for the most dynamic and progressive sectors of the economy, driven by collections of technical and creative spark. The origins of these academic and knowledge centers are rooted in the political economy, including investments shaped by federal policy and philanthropic ambition. Education and health care communities were and remain frequently economically robust but also rife with racial, economic, and social inequality, and riddled with resulting political tensions over development. These information communities fundamentally incubated and directed the proceeds of the new economy, but also constrained who accessed this new mode of wealth in the knowledge economy.
Rioting in the United States since 1800 has adhered to three basic traditions: regulating communal morality, defending community from outside threats, and protesting government abuse of power. Typically, crowds have had the shared interests of class, group affiliation, geography, or a common enemy. Since American popular disorder has frequently served as communal policing, the state—especially municipal police—has had an important role in facilitating, constraining, or motivating unrest.
Rioting in the United States retained strong legitimacy and popular resonance from 1800 to the 1960s. In the decades after the founding, Americans adapted English traditions of restrained mobbing to more diverse, urban conditions. During the 19th century, however, rioting became more violent and ambitious as Americans—especially white men—asserted their right to use violence to police heterogeneous public space. In the 1840s and 1850s, whites combined the lynch mob with the disorderly crowd to create a lethal and effective instrument of white settler sovereignty both in the western territories and in the states. From the 1860s to the 1930s, white communities across the country, particularly in the South, used racial killings and pogroms to seize political power and establish and enforce Jim Crow segregation. Between the 1910s and the 1970s, African Americans and Latinos, increasingly living in cities, rioted to defend their communities against civilian and police violence. The frequency of rioting declined after the urban rebellions of the 1960s, partly due to the militarization of local police. Yet the continued use of aggressive police tactics against racial minorities has contributed to a surge in rioting in US cities in the early 21st century.