Chicago and New York City
Although Dreiser's descriptions of setting can be a little dense, we've got to give him props for really giving us a great idea about what the world of these characters in nineteenth-century Chicago and New York City looks and feels like.
Chicago, where we begin, throbs with excitement. Carrie is quickly drawn to all of its pleasures and utterly transfixed by its department stores, fancy restaurants, and excessive displays of wealth. In this way, the Chicago setting has a lot to do with stimulating Carrie's desires for material success, which—as we know—is a huge focus of her character and the novel as a whole.
As if Chi-Town weren't exciting enough, we're off to the Big Apple for the latter half of the book. It's here in NYC where we really begin to see the extremes of wealth and poverty side by side. This becomes especially critical as our two major characters eventually come to inhabit these two extremes.
The Times They Were a Changin'
Understanding the time period of the late nineteenth century is a critical piece to appreciating much of what goes on in the novel. The rise of industry and commercialism during this time helps to produce the extreme wealth and poverty that the book is obsessed with showing.
Though the Industrial Revolution—in which the production of goods shifted from homes to factories—had been underway since the late eighteenth century in Europe, it wasn't until the latter part of the nineteenth century that industrialization really took off in the U.S., helped in large part by the building of the transcontinental railroad. During that time, a tiny number of dudes (like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan) made huge fortunes in industries such as oil, steel, and banking.
At the same time, factory employment nearly doubled, creating lots of working-class folks who weren't raking in such big bucks. (Source.)
The novel also captures this period's increase in opportunities for women to participate in the workforce, as we see Carrie do early in the novel. At the same time, Sister Carrie explores the constraining gender expectations for both women and men during this time period, which we see the characters struggle with.
Our narrator (who often seems more like a really nerdy tour guide in early parts of the book) gives us a look at both the time period and initial setting location of Chicago in one fell swoop:
In 1889 Chicago had the peculiar qualifications of growth which made such adventuresome pilgrimages even on the part of young girls plausible. Its many and growing commercial opportunities gave it widespread fame, which made of it a giant magnet drawing to itself, from all quarters, the hopeful and the hopeless—those who had their fortune yet to make and those whose fortunes and affairs had reached a disastrous climax elsewhere. It was a city of over 500,000, with the ambition, the daring, the activity of a metropolis of a million. (2.26)
Pretty exciting stuff, huh? No wonder Carrie couldn't wait to pack her little alligator-skin satchel and hop the train to this place.