In the antebellum era, Kentucky’s population grew rapidly as immigrants flocked into the state. Communities changed quickly with the increasing use of toll roads, stagecoaches, canals, and steamboats.
Strong religious influence during the early 19th century began with the popularity of lively "camp–meetings;" the largest of which was held in Cane Ridge (1801). Thousands gathered for nearly a week to hear sermons and debate social and theological issues. Some became so moved, they "talked in tongues" or experienced "holy jerks." Thus began the era of the Great Revival, in which church membership surged; evangelism spread the gospel and new denominations (e.g. Disciples of Christ and Cumberland Presbyterian) emerged.
One communal group — Shakers — flourished in two relatively isolated within two communities founded on properties supplied by converts. Their legacy survives at restored Shakertown Village at Pleasant Hill, and through their folk art and music. Unlike the introspective Shakers, other denominations, particularly the Presbyterians, heavily influenced society and politics.
Although a few private academies flourished, public education struggled because of sparse funding, untrained teachers and insufficient supplies. Some schools focused on religion, often using Bibles as textbooks, while others emphasized classical studies. A few denominations established specialized schools, such as Choctaw Indian Academy (1825–1842), which "Americanized" Native American youths.
Following the War of 1812, church–supported college foundation and administrative influence boomed. Some, like Transylvania University were renowned for their faculty and curriculum. Founded by Presbyterians, Transylvania housed the West’s first medical department. In 1846, some of its distinguished faculty left the school to found what became the University of Louisville’s medical department.
Kentuckians also practiced medicine without formal training. Doctors often used folk remedies to combat diseases like influenza and ague. Medicines were rarely effective, sometimes fatal, and sanitation in medical procedures was poor. Even progressive efforts could not compete with short life expectancies and high death rates, especially during epidemics.
Many epidemics plagued antebellum Kentucky; most notable were cholera epidemics in 1832–35 and 1848–54. Alleged causes ranged from sin to rotting vegetation. Few understood the rapidly spreading disease or suspected poor sanitation. Doctors prescribed various remedies, including poisonous calomel concoctions. Kentucky fatalities ranked among the nation’s highest during each epidemic. People fled communities in fear, leaving others to bury cholera victims. Doctors published research offering answers to epidemics and other medical puzzles in academic journals.
Reading remained a popular pastime for the literate. A fascination with Kentucky history inspired non–fiction and romanticized fictional works. Early libraries and the Kentucky Historical Society (1836) were founded. However, newspapers were a more typical reading venue for many topics, including controversial ones, such as slavery.
The state’s first newspaper, the <i>Kentucky Gazette</i> (1787) led a boom in local newspapers as the demand for information grew with ever expanding communities and printing capabilities. Specialized newspapers, including C.M. Clay’s antislavery <i>True American</i> (1845) also emerged. Despite many short’lived publications, some survived. Antecedents of the <i>Courier-Journal</i> first appeared in 1830 with the <i>Louisville Journal</i>, and then the <i>Louisville Courier</i> in 1844.
Kentuckians also engaged their cultural identity through social groups, folk music, and public performances. Technology popularized printed sheet music, such as Stephen Foster’s "My Old Kentucky Home." Musical and theatrical productions — staged at inns and town squares before the construction of theaters — made Lexington and Louisville the cultural centers of the West.
Architects designed elegant buildings and skilled craftsmen contributed to interior decoration. Silversmiths created coin flatware and furniture makers availed themselves of the native hardwoods. Portraits by Matthew Jouett and Joseph Bush, among others, were particularly popular, while photography first appeared in daguerreotype and ambrotype processes.
Kentuckians also found entertainment outside their homes. Steamboats brought traveling shows, panoramas, and circuses. Entire communities sometimes shut down for these events. Agricultural exhibitions, similar to modern–day county fairs, often included horse races — a popular pastime since frontier days. In addition, racetracks first emerged soon after communities outlawed races held on public streets.
Assorted attractions drew elite Kentuckians and other socialites. One such amusement was Mammoth Cave, which was opened as a tourist attraction in the 1840s. Visitors took guided tours through creatively named rooms mostly discovered and mapped by cave explorer/guide Stephen Bishop. Even more popular were the springs with "healing waters," such as Harrodsburg Springs. These expensive summer resorts attracted the country’s aristocracy with social activities and excessive comforts.
Travelers published reflections on experiences with diverse Kentucky personalities. Writings comment on politics, passion, pride, hospitality, and, of course, horses. Today, Kentuckians retain identities established during this era, which have been passed down through history and enduring traditions.