What Washington D.C. looked like in the Late 19th Century

To establish a ‘federal enclave,’ the U.S. Congress spent seven years negotiating with members of the Federal Government to define the concept of Washington D.C. as the capital of the United States. Congress passed the Residence Act on July 17, 1790, which established a permanent federal government seat. Christopher Columbus was honored with the name District of Columbia, and George Washington with the name District of Columbia.

From 1830 to 1865, Washington underwent enormous changes, beginning with the arrival of President James K. Polk. As railroads opened up Washington in the 1830s, a wave of tourists flooded the city, as did a proliferation of congressional spouses who transformed the city’s social scene. During the American Civil War, Richmond, Virginia, which housed the Confederate capital, was never too far from the front lines. After Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre just days after the war ended, Washington was plunged into an unprecedented state of desperation and despair. Following the Civil War, the capital slowly became a tourist attraction. Washingtonians were granted self-government for the first time in 1871. Many improvements to the city were undertaken during the three years the territorial government held office: schools, markets, streets, outdoor lighting, sewers, and more than 50,000 trees were planted.

In the late 1890s, social organizations, private clubs, and traditional societies for the arts began to flourish in Washington. The Washington Monument was completed in 1884, the Library of Congress in 1897, and the founding of the American Institute of Architects in 1898.

Below are some historical photos that show Washington from the 1860s to 1890s.

#4 Glass photographic negatives are sun-printed on the roof of J. F. Jarvis’ photo store in Washington D. C., 1890s

#7 Gen. John F. Hartranft reading the death warrant to the four condemned Lincoln assassination conspirators, July 7, 1865

#8 Washington circa 1863. Wounded soldiers at Harewood Hospital with mosquito netting over their beds, 1863.

#10 The Comforts of Home, 1861

The Comforts of Home, 1861

Tent life of the 31st (later, 82nd) Pennsylvania Infantry at Queen's Farm, vicinity of Fort Slocum.

#11 Washington, District of Columbia. Tent life of the 31st (later, 82nd) Pennsylvania Infantry at Queen’s Farm, vicinity of Fort Slocum, 1861

#12 Sanitary Commission storehouse and adjoining houses at 15th and F Streets N.W., Washington, D.C., 1865.

#13 Washington, D.C., circa 1860s. “Old Winder Building, 17th & F. St. NW., Washington, D.C., 1865.

#14 1st U.S. Volunteer Infantry. Hancock’s Veteran Corps on F Street N.W.” Wet plate negative, Washington, D.C., 1865.

#16 Old Patent Office model room (1861-65).” Wet-plate glass negative from the Brady-Handy Collection, Washington, D.C., 1865.

#17 John C. Howard’s stable on G Street between 6th and 7th, where John H. Surratt kept horses before leaving town on April, Washington, D.C., 1865.

#18 Washington, D.C. Sanitary Commission workers at the entrance of the Home Lodge for Invalid Soldiers, Washington, D.C., 1863.

#21 Washington, District of Columbia. The Grand Review of the Army. Units of XX Army Corps, Army of Georgia, passing on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Treasury, Washington, D.C., 1865.

#22 Treasury Department in Lincoln’s time (Cash Room behind the desks).” At least two spectral presences here. Civil War glass negative collection, Washington, D.C., 1863.

#24 New Woman, 1896

New Woman, 1896

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), best known on these pages as a prolific chronicler of Southern architecture, was also something of a feminist firebrand in her younger years.

#30 The Grand Review of the Army. as Gen. John A. Logan’s 15th Army Corps pass down Pennsylvania Avenue on May, 1865 in Washington, DC.

#31 Guards are posted at entrance of Ford’s Theater after the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln April, 1865

#36 Photographic carte-de-visite of a Civil War scene featuring a view of a Confederate Quartermasters House with a group of officers meeting outside, Washington DC, 1863.

#37 Members of the United States Christian Commission stand outside the organization’s Washington D.C. office, 1862.

#54 Senator Benjamin Ryan Tillman seated in an automobile with a woman in front of the U.S. Capitol building.

#58 Buildings of the Sanitary Commission Home Lodge for Invalid Soldiers, North Capitol Street near C Street, Washington, D.C., 1865.

#63 Former US Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant (standing 5th from L) next to a tent with his fellow officers during the US Civil War, 1865.

#66 Inauguration of US President Abraham Lincoln, US Capitol Building, Washington DC, USA, March 4, 1861

#68 Chief Justice Morrison R Waite administering the oath of office to James A Garfield on the east portico of the US Capitol, Washington DC, 1881

#70 Washington, D.C. Hanging hooded bodies of the four conspirators; crowd departing, July 7, 1865

Washington, D.C. Hanging hooded bodies of the four conspirators; crowd departing, July 7, 1865

Lincoln assassination conspirators Mary Surratt, Lewis Payne, David Herold and George Atzerodt shortly after their execution at Fort McNair.

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#72 Adjusting Ropes on Scaffold of Conspirators of Assassination of U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, Arsenal Prison, Washington, DC, July 7, 1865

Written by Aung Budhh

Husband + Father + librarian + Poet + Traveler + Proud Buddhist. I love you with the breath, the smiles and the tears of all my life.

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  1. Did you mean to write “established a permanent federal government seat. Christopher Columbus was honored with the name District of Columbia, and George Washington with the name District of Columbia.”?

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