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"The Breakers", a gilded-age mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.

In American history, the Gilded Age refers to substantial growth in population in the United States and extravagant displays of wealth and excess of America's upper class during the post-Civil War and post-Reconstruction eras of the late 19th century (1865-1901). The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their 1873 book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.

The wealth polarization derived primarily from industrial and population expansion. The businessmen of the Second Industrial Revolution created industrial towns and cities in the Northeast with new factories, and contributed to the creation of an ethnically diverse industrial working class which produced the wealth owned by rising super-rich industrialists and financiers such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flagler, and J.P. Morgan. Their critics called them "robber barons" owing to their use of overpowering and sometimes unethical financial manipulation. There was a small, growing labor union movement led in part by Samuel Gompers, who created the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. It featured very close contests between the Republicans and Democrats, and, occasionally, third parties. Nearly all the eligible men were political partisans and voter turnout often exceeded 90% in some states.[1]

This period also witnessed the creation of a modern industrial economy. A national transportation and communication network was created, the corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the 20th century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States exceeded that of any other country except Britain. Long hours and hazardous working conditions led many workers to attempt to form labor unions despite strong opposition from industrialists and the courts.

The wealth of the period is highlighted by the American upper class' profligate opulence, but also by the rise of American philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the "Gospel of Wealth") that endowed thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities. The Beaux-Arts architectural idiom of the era clothed public buildings in Neo-Renaissance architecture.

This period overlaps with the nadir of American race relations and the start of the era of Jim Crow. African Americans lost many of the civil rights obtained during the Reconstruction era, 1863-1877, often after violent or fraudulent elections.

The end of the Gilded Age coincided with the Panic of 1893, a deep depression. The depression lasted until 1897 and marked a major political realignment in the election of 1896. After that came the Progressive Era.


Industrial and technological advances

The Gilded Age was rooted in industrialization, especially heavy industry like factories, railroads and coal mining. The First Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869, providing six-day service between the East Coast and San Francisco.[2]

During the Gilded Age, American manufacturing production surpassed the combined total of Great Britain, Germany, and France. Railroad mileage tripled between 1860 and 1880, and tripled again by 1920, opening new areas to commercial farming, creating a truly national marketplace and inspiring a boom in coal mining and steel production. The voracious appetite for capital of the great trunk railroads facilitated the consolidation of the nation's financial market in Wall Street. By 1900, the process of economic concentration had extended into most branches of industry—a few large corporations, called "trusts", dominated in steel, oil, sugar, meatpacking, and the manufacture of agriculture machinery. Other major components of this infrastructure were the new methods for fabricating steel, especially the Bessemer process. The first billion-dollar corporation was United States Steel, formed by financier J. P. Morgan in 1901, who purchased and consolidated steel firms built by Andrew Carnegie and others.

Increased mechanization of industry is a major mark of the Gilded Age's search for cheaper ways to create more product. Frederick Winslow Taylor observed that worker efficiency in steel could be improved through the use of machines to make fewer motions in less time. His redesign increased the speed of factory machines and the productivity of factories while undercutting the need for skilled labor. This mechanization made some factories an assemblage of unskilled laborers performing simple and repetitive tasks under the direction of skilled foremen and engineers. Machine shops grew rapidly, and they comprised highly skilled workers and engineers. Both the number of unskilled and skilled workers increased, as their wage rates grew[3] Engineering colleges were established to feed the enormous demand for expertise. Railroads invented complex bureaucratic systems, using middle managers, and set up explicit career tracks. They hired young men at age 18-21 and promoted them internally until a man reached the status of locomotive engineer, conductor or station agent at age 40 or so. Career tracks were invented for skilled blue collar jobs and for white collar managers, starting in railroads and expanding into finance, manufacturing and trade. Together with rapid growth of small business, a new middle class was rapidly growing, especially in northern cities.[4]

The United States became a world leader in applied technology. From 1860 to 1890, 500,000 patents were issued for new inventions—over ten times the number issued in the previous seventy years. George Westinghouse invented air brakes for trains (making them both safer and faster). Theodore Vail established the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. Thomas A. Edison invented a remarkable number of electrical devices, as well as the integrated power plant capable of lighting multiple buildings simultaneously; he founded General Electric corporation. Oil became an important resource, beginning with the Pennsylvania oil fields. Kerosene replaced whale oil and candles for lighting. John D. Rockefeller created Standard Oil Company to consolidate the industry.


Influential figures

Gilded age philanthropy: a table d'hôte dinner menu from March 4, 1893 for a meal in honor of symphony conductor Walter Johannes Damrosch.

Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt were amongst the most influential industrialists during the Gilded Age. Carnegie was born into a poor Scottish family; at age 18 he became an assistant to railroad superintendent Thomas A. Scott in Pittsburgh. In 1870, Carnegie erected his first blast furnace. Both Carnegie and Rockefeller gave away most of their wealth in large scale philanthropy. Carnegie created the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) to upgrade craftsmen into trained engineers and scientists. Carnegie built hundreds of public libraries and several major research centers and foundations. Rockefeller retired from the oil business in 1897 and devoted the next 40 years of his life to giving away most of his money using systematic philanthropy, especially in the areas of education, medicine and race relations. "Commodore" C. Vanderbilt started out as a poor Staten Island farmer boy, then quickly through his sharp wit and lethal business policies built an enormous fortune in steamships and railroading to become the wealthiest man in the world in his day. His descendants and heirs would become famous for their ability to both increase and spend their wealth, building gigantic and lavish mansions and dominating Gilded Age high society.

Labor unions

The rise of unions

As American men, women, and children toiled away in the factories of the 1880s, many of them dreamed of one day living the Horatio Alger myth of moving from "rags to riches." While some Americans enjoyed unparalleled success as compared to their counterparts, many Americans still struggled to make ends meet. Workers began to organize labor unions to take responsibility for their own improvement. Modern labor unions emerged during the Civil War era. One of the earlier attempts at a national union was the National Labor Union, formed in Baltimore in 1866. The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, had success in the late 1880s but then collapsed. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), a coalition of trades unions, became dominant in the 1890s, under Samuel Gompers. and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) emerged, encouraging all workers to unite.

The great strikes

While labor unions became increasingly popular in the late 1800s, their successes were also tempered by some crushing defeats. One of the earliest strikes following the Civil War was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. It lasted for 45 days; it was finally ended when President Rutherford B. Hayes sent in federal troops. The number of deaths and the amount of damage caused by the strike scared many Americans. In 1886, the Knights of Labor were hit by two devastating events that eventually brought about an end to their union. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 and the Haymarket Square Riot ended both internal and external support for the Knights. The Homestead Strike led by workers at the Homestead Steel Plant owned by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick was an organized attempt at trying to secure better wages and working conditions than was ended with an assassination attempt on Frick. The final major strike of the late 1800s was the Pullman Strike which began at the company town of Pullman, Illinois. Owned by George Pullman, the town was the home to all the workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company. When Pullman refused to meet with workers to discuss intolerable conditions brought on by the Panic of 1893, a national rail strike was orchestrated by the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs. This time the strike was halted by a court injunction and Debs was arrested by federal troops sent in by President Grover Cleveland. The Supreme Court upheld government action with their decision in the 1895 case In re Debs. With the Court decision coupled with the use of the Sherman Antitrust Act, labor unions were unable to regain much power until the 1930s.


A Group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to "Blow Over"--"Let Us Prey." Cartoon of New York's Boss Tweed and other Tammany Hall figures, drawn in 1871 by Thomas Nast and published in Harper's Weekly.

Americans' sense of civic virtue was shocked by the scandals associated with the Reconstruction era: corrupt state governments, massive fraud in cities controlled by political machines, political payoffs to secure government contracts (especially the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal regarding the financing of the transcontinental railroad), and widespread evidence of government corruption during the Ulysses S. Grant Administration. This corruption divided the Republican party into two different factions, The Stalwarts led by Roscoe Conkling and the Half-Breeds led by James G. Blaine. Accordingly there were widespread calls for reform, such as Civil Service Reform led by the Bourbon Democrats and followed by the Republican Mugwumps, especially Samuel J. Tilden and Grover Cleveland. There was a sense that government intervention in the economy inevitably led to favoritism, bribery, kickbacks, inefficiency, waste, and corruption. The Bourbon Democrats led the call for a free market, low tariffs, low taxes, less spending and, in general, a Laissez-Faire (hands-off) government. They specifically denounced imperialism and overseas expansion. Many business and professional people supported this approach, although—to encourage rapid growth of industry and protect America's high wages against the low wage system in Europe—most Republicans advocated a high protective tariff. Labor activists and agrarians expressed the same spirit but focused their attacks on monopolies and railroads as unfair to the little man. Many Republicans also complained that high tariffs, for instance on British steel, benefited industrialists like Carnegie more than his employees who even at the time were regarded by many as being pitifully exploited.

In politics, the two parties engaged in very elaborate get-out-the vote campaigns that succeeded in pushing turnout to 80%, 90%, and even higher. It was financed by the "spoils system" whereby the winning party distributed most local, state and national government jobs, and many government contracts, to its loyal supporters. Large cities were dominated by political machines, in which constituents supported a candidate in exchange for anticipated patronage—favors back from the government, once that candidate was elected—and candidates were selected based on their willingness to play along. The best known example of a political machine from this time period is Tammany Hall in New York City, led by Boss Tweed. Presidential elections between the two major parties (the Republicans and Democrats), were closely contested, and Congress was marked by political stalemate. Mudslinging became an increasingly popular way of gaining advantage at the polls, and Republicans employed an election tactic known as "waving the bloody shirt". Candidates, especially when combating corruption charges, would remind voters that the Republican Party had saved the nation in the Civil War. During the 1870s, voters were repeatedly reminded that the Democrats had been responsible for the bloody upheaval, an appeal that attracted many Union veterans to the Republican camp. The Republicans consistently carried the North in presidential elections. The South, on the other hand, became the Solid South, nearly always voting Democratic. The political humiliations of Reconstruction were still fresh in many minds. Conversely, the Democrats invoked images of the "lost cause" and the glorious "stars and bars" in much the same way Republicans "waved the bloody shirt." The corruption of the Republican organization led to the defection of a group of reformers called the Mugwumps that supported Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884. This victory gave Democrats control of the presidency for the first time since the Civil War (not counting the ascension of Andrew Johnson who was technically elected as part of the Union Party).

Overall, Republican and Democratic political platforms remained remarkably constant during the years before 1900. The negativity and ambiguity of politics began a shift in the press to yellow journalism, in which sensationalism and sentimental stories took as prominent a role as factual news.


Prior to the Gilded Age, the time commonly referred to as the old immigration saw the first real boom of new arrivals to the United States. During the Gilded Age, approximately 10 million immigrants came to the United States in what is known as the new immigration, many in search of religious freedom and greater prosperity. The population surge in major U.S. cities as a result of immigration gave cities an even stronger impact on government, attracting power-hungry politicians and entrepreneurs. Pressuring voters or falsifying ballots was commonplace for politicians, who often sought power only to exploit their constituents. To accommodate the influx of people into the U.S., the federal government built Ellis Island in 1892 near the Statue of Liberty. After 1892, a short physical examination was given; those with contagious diseases were not admitted. Few immigrants went to the poverty-stricken South.

Chinese immigrants

The construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in California and Nevada was handled largely by Chinese laborers. In the 1870 census there were 58 Chinese men and 4 women in the entire country; these numbers grew to 100,000 men and 40,000 women in the 1880 census.[5] Labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor strongly opposed the presence of Chinese labor, by reason of both economic competition and race. Immigrants from China were not allowed to become citizens until 1950; however, their children born in the U.S. were full citizens.

Congress banned further Chinese immigration through the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882; the act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States, but some students and businessmen were allowed in. Subsequent to the act, the Chinese population declined to only 37,000 in 1940. Although many returned to China (a greater proportion than most other immigrant groups), most of them stayed in the United States. Chinese people were unwelcome in many areas, so they resettled in the "Chinatown" districts of large cities.[6]

Urban life

Society itself underwent significant changes in the period following the Civil War. One of the most significant changes came in the further urbanization of the northern cities. As a result of increasing demand for factory workers as well as mass immigration from Europe, the population of cities began to swell. Major American cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago even saw populations grow in excess of one million people. These rapid changes in cities brought about modern architectural and transportation features. Louis Sullivan became a noted architect using steel frames to construct skyscrapers for the first time while pioneering the idea of "form follows function". One of his earliest works was the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri. Elisha Otis’ introduction of safety measures on elevators also helped buildings reach newer heights.

American cities also expanded with the introduction of new transportation technology. From horse cars to elevated railway and later electric streetcars and subways, the cities constantly pushed outward. As immigration increased in cities, poverty rose as well. New immigrants were forced to live in the poorest urban areas including the Five Points and Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. These areas were quickly overridden with crime gangs such as the Five Points Gang and the Bowery Boys rose to prominence. Families were forced into crowded living conditions in the so-called "dumbbell tenements".[7]

Social changes

During the Gilded Age, many new social movements took hold in the United States. Many women abolitionists who were disappointed that the Fifteenth Amendment did not extend voting rights to them remained active in politics, this time focusing on issues important to them. Reviving the temperance movement from the Second Great Awakening, many women joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in an attempt to bring morality back to America. Other women took up the issue of women’s suffrage which had laid dormant since the Seneca Falls Convention. With leaders like Susan B. Anthony the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was formed in order to secure the right of women to vote. Science also played an important part in social thought as the work of Charles Darwin became popular. Following Darwin’s idea of natural selection, English philosopher Herbert Spencer proposed the idea of social Darwinism. This new concept justified the stratification of the wealthy and poor and coined the term “survival of the fittest.” Joining Spencer was Yale University professor William Graham Sumner whose book What Social Classes Owe to Each Other argued that assistance to the poor actually weakens their ability to survive in society. Sumner argued for a laissez faire and free market economy. Not everyone agreed with the social Darwinists and soon a whole movement to help the poor arose. Henry George proposed a “single tax” in his book Progress and Poverty. The tax would be leveled on the rich and poor alike, with the excess money collected used to equalize wealth and level out society. In Chicago, noted attorney Clarence Darrow made vocal arguments that poverty and not biology created crime. Wisconsin-born author Thorstein Veblen argued in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class that the “conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure" of the wealthy had become the basis of social status in America. In Looking Backward author Edward Bellamy wrote of a future America set in the year 2000 in which a socialist paradise has been established. The works of authors such as George and Bellamy became popular and soon clubs were created across America to discuss their ideas although these organizations rarely made any real social change. The Third Great Awakening which began before the Civil War returned and made a significant change in religious attitudes toward social progress. Followers of the new Awakening promoted the idea of the Social Gospel which gave rise to organizations such as the YMCA, Salvation Army, and settlement houses such as Hull House founded by Jane Addams in Chicago.

See also


  1. ^ Joel Silbey, The American Political Nation, 1838-1893 (1991)
  2. ^ Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like It In The World; The men who built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 (2000)
  3. ^ Daniel Hovey Calhoun, The American Civil Engineer: Origins and Conflicts (1960)
  4. ^ Walter Licht, Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century (1983)
  5. ^ See Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990 U.S. Bureau of the Census
  6. ^ Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community (2000)
  7. ^ Arthur Schlesinger, The Rise of the City, 1878–1898 (1933)


  • Peter H. Argersinger; Structure, Process, and Party: Essays in American Political History. (1992) online version
  • Alan Brinkley; "The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, Volume II: From 1865" McGraw Hill Higher Education 2004. textbook
  • Buenker, John D. and Joseph Buenker, eds. Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Sharpe Reference, 2005. 1256 pp. in three volumes. ISBN 0-7656-8051-3; 900 essays by 200 scholars
  • Cohen, Nancy; The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914 University of North Carolina Press, 2002; history of ideas online edition
  • Faulkner, Harold U.; Politics, Reform, and Expansion, 1890-1900 (1959), scholarly survey, strong on economic and political history online edition
  • Fine, Sidney. Laissez Faire and the General-Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought, 1865–1901. University of Michigan Press, 1956. History of ideas
  • Garraty, John A. The New Commonwealth, 1877-1890, 1968)scholarly survey, strong on economic and political history
  • Jensen, Richard. "Democracy, Republicanism and Efficiency: The Values of American Politics, 1885-1930," in Byron Shafer and Anthony Badger, eds, Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775-2000 (U of Kansas Press, 2001) pp 149–180; online version
  • Josephson, Matthew; The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861- 1901 (1934), business history from the Left
  • Kleppner; Paul. The Third Electoral System 1853-1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures U of North Carolina Press, (1979) online version
  • Morgan, H. Wayne. From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896 (1969) online edition
  • Morgan, H. Wayne ed. The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal Syracuse University Press 1970. interpretive essays
  • Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Modern America, 1865-1878 (1933) ISBN 0-403-01127-2, social history
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Rise of the City: 1877-1898 (1933), social history
  • Shannon, Fred A. The Farmer's Last Frontier: 1860-1897 (1945) survey of economic history online edition
  • Smythe, Ted Curtis; The Gilded Age Press, 1865-1900 Praeger. 2003. [online edition]

Further reading

External links


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