The era from 1840 to 1893 in the United States encompassed periods of dramatic economic fluctuations, but it was also an era of dynamic overall growth. Underlying the economic transformation were massive changes in the scale and structure of business, not just in manufacturing, but also in retailing, transportation, services, banking, and finance. The period began in depression, following the panics of 1837 and 1839, enjoyed an economic revival in the mid-1840s and 1850s, suffered through the disruptions of the American Civil War, endured a long period of post-war deflation, and ended with the Panic of 1893. These conditions hardly would seem conducive to “pull” immigrants to the United States, but the country also was on a dynamic growth path and opportunities to get ahead abounded. The nation’s population rose over the period nearly four-fold from 17 million to 67 million. By contrast, over the same period the population of what today is Germany increased more slowly, from roughly 30 to 51 million. In 1840 the U.S. population was just under eleven-percent urban; by 1890 it was slightly over thirty-five percent urban. Great cities, with their residents’ demands for new goods and services, expanded dramatically, offering many opportunities. New York City, for example, rose in population from a bit over 300,000 in 1840 to nearly two million by 1893, becoming the third most populous city in the world. Berlin was fifth, with a population of roughly 1.6 million. Nearly one-third of the increase in U.S. population (1840-93) was composed of immigrants, over 16.3 million people, and almost thirty percent of these, or 4.7 million people, migrated from Germany. Nearly two-thirds of all Germans immigrating to the U.S. (from 1820 to 1997) arrived between 1840 and 1893.
Businesses certainly grew in scale and complexity during this period, and many of the biographies in this section bear witness to that. As Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. points out in The Visible Hand (1977), while there was rapid economic growth in the United States prior to 1840, the structure of business enterprises had changed very little. The scope for entrepreneurial action was limited. As late as 1860, the very basic flour and meal industry was the largest in the country by sales. It was followed by cotton goods, lumber, and boots and shoes. The latter three industries were all similar in size and ahead of flour and meal in terms of value added. By 1880, the iron and steel industry had risen to second place (behind flour and grist mills) in terms of sales, followed by meat packing. Machinery had risen from ninth place to sixth. By 1910, the machinery industry (provider of capital goods) was the number one industry in the U.S. by value added, followed by lumber, printing and publishing, iron and steel, malt liquor, and men’s clothing. As we will see in this volume, German immigrant entrepreneurs founded, expanded, or transformed leading firms in many of these industries, as well as in manufacturing, transportation, trade, wine making, retailing, banking, finance, and real estate, among others. The diversity of the contributions of the entrepreneurs contained in this volume reflects the development of the U.S. economy in the period.