Rare Images Depicting American Life in the 19th Century

photos of america in the 19th century

The hunting and fishing party, Champlain, New York

The 1860s in the United States was a time of turmoil and change. The first half of the decade was dominated by the American Civil War, with the later half seeing the country pull itself out from the damage during the Reconstruction. It was also an era of migration, with Lincoln's 1862 Homestead Act encouraging people to move West with the promise of 160 acres of free land.

These rare photographs of daily life in 19th-century America depict not only the New England and New York areas, but also the adventures of those who moved West to Tennessee, Iowa, and Minnesota. Far from the urban slums depicted by Jacob Riis or the Civil War photos of Mathew Brady, these images from the 1860s by unknown photographers show a different side of American life.

In between glimpses of rural America, we see the subtle impact of the Industrial Revolution.  Men pose proudly next to a steam fire engine in Georgia, yet horsepower abounds in most images. Early factories in Massachusetts and Minnesota pair well with shops selling dry goods and clothing. But we also see leisure activity, with groups picnicking in New York or simply lounging in the great outdoors. Collectively, these precious early photographs give us a well-rounded glimpse of American life in the 19th century.

These rare photos from the 1860s show us daily life in America during the 19th century.

Daily Life America 1800s

A Snowy Day in Westchester County, New York

Daily Life America 1800s

A crowd of folks gather around the Glen Mountain House in Watkins Glen, New York

photos of united states in the 19th century

Women in front of their house, Barton, Vermont

photos of united states in the 19th century

Women on the home front, Corning, New York

photos of america in the 19th century

Men and children stand on a brick sidewalk adjacent to an apothecary, Salem, Massachusetts

pictures of america in the 1800s

Dry Goods Store in Princeton, Illinois

Daily Life United States 1800s

Man and horse at barn in Springfield, Massachusetts

Daily Life America 1800s

Downtown after a rainstorm, Hartford, Connecticut

Daily Life United States 1860s

Taking a Break on Mt. Mansfield, Vermont

Daily Life America 1860s

A Civil War era academy, Orford, New Hampshire

photos from the 1800s

Boatman at Emerald Pool, New Bedford, Massachusetts

Daily Life United States 1860s

A child dressed in ruffled shirt, cape and fur hat sits on a horse in the front yard of a home adorned with four stately columns, Latrobe, Pennsylvania

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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