Urbanization, city building and development, technological innovation, and other aspects of industrialism were foundational characteristics of the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Moreover, during the same period, American militancy increased considerably as the United States became involved in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and various expeditions against American Indian nations. Some merchants, entrepreneurs, and bankers in Pittsburgh exploited the national demand for domestic development, military expansion, and imperialism by expanding the city’s commercial and manufacturing industries. In turn, Pittsburgh’s rapid industrial development demanded a large labor force, which drew an ethnically diverse population of native-born Americans, Europeans, and free African Americans.
Although industrialism created avenues for Pittsburgh’s economy to develop and diversify, it also helped solidify a social hierarchy (based on occupation and wealth) that placed bankers, merchants, and industrialists at the top, professionals and artisans below them, and laborers at the bottom. Some industrious and innovative individuals found financial success in Pittsburgh, however, the city’s educational institutions were insufficient and many lacked political representation (both of which were, and still are, vital modes of upward social mobility). Landownership was a requisite for voting and holding office, few colleges existed, and lower education demanded tuition, which restricted many from climbing the hierarchical ladder.
During the early 1830s, however, Pennsylvania answered demands for greater suffrage by eliminating property qualifications and enfranchising all white men, which allowed many of lower socioeconomic ranks to possess greater political representation. Those newly enfranchised, along with the emerging professional class, utilized their political influence to pursue improved and readily available education. Like demands for greater suffrage, Pennsylvania caved under internal pressures when they instituted state funding to elementary education in 1834 and expanded their high schools throughout much of the state, which became well established by the 1850s.
Higher educational institutions, on the other hand, were often established by religious denominations. Despite their motives (educate ministers and increase literacy rates so followers could read the Bible), religious institutional support led to the establishment of Duff’s Mercantile College in 1840, Iron City College in 1855, and other higher educational facilities. Although many, namely women and African Americans, remained disenfranchised, early efforts aimed at expanding suffrage and improving educational institutions were essential step in destabilizing a rigid social hierarchy, whereby, through education, political activity, and perseverance, one could better their social status and enjoy greater financial success.