Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age (1873), a satire of Americans’ rush for material gain and political corruption in the years immediately following the Civil War, provided succeeding generations with a ready frame of reference for this period. Many historians’ examinations of this era emphasized the political parties’ keen competition and how the ruthless, if innovative, industrialists that Matthew Josephson dubbed “the robber barons” used a complaisant federal government to build vast fortunes from the United States’s abundant natural resources. For several generations the Gilded Age (1866–1900) received far less attention from students of history than other eras in American history. But in recent years historians have argued that, together with the decades known as the Progressive Era (roughly 1900–1919), it represents a central chapter in the history of the United States. Examining aspects of American life beyond the robber barons and party politics, these accounts have shown how in these years Americans built a modern nation and grappled with its consequences.
The Gilded Age marked a major watershed in the history of American race relations. Historians have shown how in the period between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century white Americans decisively rejected the Civil War and Reconstruction’s seeming promise of racial equality, and subjected African Americans, Chinese Americans, and other racial minorities to new systems of segregation, discrimination, and domination, as well as elaborate cultural rationales for their development.
In an industrial economy marked by severe depressions, a growing number of wage laborers found themselves seemingly consigned to lives of bitter toil with little hope for advancement. Many responded by struggling to build trade unions to represent their interests in dealings with employers, but faced judges and other public officials eager to promote business interests as representing the common good. In this context, employers and workers engaged in a series of violent clashes. These episodes led many intellectuals and members of the well-to-do and middle classes to perceive a fundamental crisis in American public life, a sentiment that informed both government officials’ vigorous repression of strike activities and the rise of movements seeking reform through legislation and voluntary action.
An urban-industrial society characterized by increased wage labor and salaried professional work also manifested major changes in gender relations. Earlier in the nineteenth century many women had identified themselves as occupants of a “separate sphere” quite removed from public life and characterized by child-rearing and moral insight. But in the Gilded Age, growing numbers of women used their imputed status as moral arbiters to assert themselves in public life, even if they could not vote. While some continued to seek the ballot, others constructed reform organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to influence individual behavior and public policy through persuasion.
A new synthesis of scholarship on the Gilded Age has identified this period’s nation-building dynamic as a multifaceted process of “incorporation.” In addition to establishing effective control over many of their wage workers, managers of many large corporations also used their size and scope to establish significant advantages over their suppliers and customers in the marketplace. Government officials systematically removed Native Americans from the American West’s more attractive locales to a set of reservations in this period. American officials extended this geographic dynamic of incorporation by making the Hawaiian Islands a territory and assuming Spanish colonial possessions, most notably the Philippines, after a onesided conflict in 1898. In one sense these activities represented a nation-state exerting control over captured territories. But white Americans’ development of elaborate theories for the subjugation of members of other races also represented a cultural process of incorporation. Many historians have concluded that these activities represented a desperate attempt to lend some semblance of hierarchy to a modernizing, democratic society increasingly breaking down more familiar sources of order, ranging from simple geographic isolation to differences in education and literacy to slavery itself. Where many earlier scholars of the period described political corruption largely redeemed by the Progressive Era’s reforms, the emerging synthesis has elaborated an alternative view of American national development, highlighting pervasive patterns of exclusion and injustice only partly mitigated by federal regulations and the mass social movements of the mid- to late twentieth century. A significant number of scholars continue to examine the dynamics of political corruption and reform, as well as other aspects of political, economic, and intellectual history. But in the early years of the twenty-first century this new synthesis has placed the Gilded Age firmly at the center of American historical discourse.
SEE ALSO Beard, Charles and Mary; Cross of Gold; Industrialization; Nast, Thomas; Populism
Josephson, Matthew. 1934. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Trachtenberg, Alan. 1982. The Incorporation of America: Society and Culture in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang.
Drew E. VandeCreek
GILDED AGE. Named after an 1873 social satire by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the Gilded Age encompasses the years from the 1870s to 1900. Scholars tend to see the legacies of the Civil War and Reconstruction as important contributors to the transformations that took place in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.
Congressional laws helped lay the groundwork for change. Whereas the Homestead Act (1862) opened the West for settlement by individual farmers, other laws, such as the Railroad Enabling Act (1866), the Desert Land Grant Act (1877), and the Stone and Timber Land Act (1878), transferred millions of acres of land and the resources and raw materials below ground into the hands of cattlemen, railroads, and mining and land development companies. Railroad expansion in combination with government land policies and the breaking of Native American resistance on the Plains in the 1870s and 1880s opened up the trans-Mississippi West for settlement and economic usage.
Constitutional change, too, contributed to this process. Between 1875 and 1900 the Supreme Court removed many state laws restricting interstate commerce but also blocked federal attempts at regulation. The Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887, but its limited powers were further circumscribed by Court decisions. Legal change helped to create a political environment in which forces of social change could unfold.
Innovations in manufacturing and communication joined by demographic changes led to a fusion of population growth, urbanization, and industrialization. Technological changes, such as the introduction of the Bessemer converter in steelmaking; the telegraph and the telephone, the latter invented in 1875 by Alexander Graham Bell; the discovery of electricity as an energy source by Thomas A. Edison; and developments in transportation and mass transit made possible the concentration of manufacturing consumption in cities. After 1880, the socalled "new immigration" from southern and southeastern Europe along with rural-urban migration within the United States provided workers and consumers for burgeoning urban marketplaces. Mass marketing companies like I. M. Singer, mail-order houses like Sears, Roebuck, and department stores like Wanamaker's catered to American consumer needs. By 1900, participation in national and urban markets was no longer a matter of choice.
Rapidly advancing industrialization led to the emergence of economies of scale. In 1850, the average capital investment in a company amounted to $700,000. In 1900, average investment had risen to $1. 9 million. To remain competitive and to satisfy investors and shareholders, companies needed to increase the return on investments. Manufacturers began to replace craft techniques with routinized and segmented work processes aided by new production technologies. New technologies enabling manufacturers to produce goods and to provide services at an unprecedented scale accelerated the swings in the boom-and-bust cycle of the U. S. economy.
A cycle of global capitalist expansion begun in the 1820s came to a halt in the 1870s and crashed in the 1890s. In 1873, the Credit Mobilier scandal and the collapse of Jay Cooke's Northern Pacific Railroad resulted in a recession from which the country only recovered four years later in 1877. In May 1893, the collapse of the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad and of the National Cordage Company led to a stock market crash and a prolonged recession. Before the year was over, five hundred banks and sixteen thousand businesses had failed. At the height of the depression four million workers lost their jobs.
What had happened? New technologies of mass production and mass distribution had consistently driven down prices. Between 1873 and the late 1890s, commodity prices had dropped by 80 percent. At the same time, "sound money" politics had kept the currency supply tight, putting the squeeze on workers and farmers especially.
Banking and monetary policies contributed to this problem. The National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864 introduced order into banking through a federally chartered banking system but also kept the money supply tight. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which enabled the government to buy silver in proportion to gold, was designed to increase the money supply, but it was repealed at the most inappropriate moment, the onset of the depression in 1893. The economic policies of the presidencies from Ulysses S. Grant to William McKinley were grounded in fiscal conservatism, economic individualism, and market liberalism, which neither anticipated such problems nor adequately solved them.
Workers and farmers met such policies with some resistance. Mostly unsuccessfully, workingmen challenged railroads and manufacturers in the Great Strike of 1877, the 1886 railroad strike, the 1892 Homestead Strike, and the 1894 Pullman Strike. Workers organized in the Knights of Labor and after 1889 in the newly founded American Federation of Labor, which advocated a more cautious business unionism. Agrarian resistance gained momentum with the People's, or Populist, Party, founded in 1890. The Populists experienced a meteoric rise in political fortunes at the ballot boxes in several southern and western states. Although the Populists were successful in several state and gubernatorial elections, their attempt to take control of the presidency through a "fusion ticket" with the Democrats failed in 1896, and the party disappeared thereafter.
Economic changes may have helped undermine support for such a third party as they aided in the recovery. In the late 1890s, poor European harvests increased demand for grain and cereals, and new gold discoveries in Alaska, Colorado, South Africa, and Australia created enough inflation to raise prices out of the doldrums.
This era that experienced social and economic change on a massive scale was marked by many contradictions. Along with the beginning of the modern American labor movement and a resurgence of the movement for women's rights, the age saw the implementation of rigid race segregation in the South through so-called Jim Crow laws, sanctioned by the Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Gilded Age also witnessed the emergence of the United States as an imperialist foreign power. Desire for greatness on the seas, partially spawned by Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), led the United States into war with Spain in 1898 and into a subsequent war in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902. The Gilded Age saw the birth pangs of the United States as a global power, an urban, industrial society, and a modern, liberal corporatist state. Many problems remained unsolved, however, for the Progressive Era and New Deal reform policies to address.
Cherny, Robert W. American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868– 1900. Wheeling, Ill. : Harlan Davidson, 1997.
Faulkner, Harold Underwood. Politics, Reform, and Expansion, 1890–1900. New York: Harper, 1959.
Garraty, John A. The New Commonwealth, 1877–1890. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.
Summers, Mark Wahlgren. The Gilded Age, or, the Hazard of New Functions. Upper Saddle River, N. J. : Prentice Hall, 1997.
Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.
The Gilded Age was an era in history following the American Civil War (1861–65) and Reconstruction (1866–77, the period after the American Civil War during which the Southern states were reorganized and brought back into the Union). Spanning approximately 1877 to 1900, it was a time of economic expansion and development, due primarily to the Industrial Revolution . The United States transformed itself from an agrarian (agricultural)-based economy to one rooted in industry and business.
With the advent of technology came the need for laborers, workers who could run the machines, man the factories, and work demanding schedules. These workers would be known as the working-class poor. In order to keep the various industries and factories operating smoothly, managers and office staff were required. Thus was born the middle class. Someone had to own the businesses, and that privilege belonged to a handful of men who were, for the most part, relentless in their pursuit of wealth. They grew rich at the expense of the working class and believed that was exactly as it should be. For this attitude, they were given the nickname robber barons . These select elite made up the upper class.
A characteristic of the Gilded Age was the tendency of the upper classes to go to great lengths to demonstrate and prove their wealth and position in society. Grandiose mansions and estates were built using ornate and detailed architecture. If big would suffice, gigantic was even better, and soon New York became home to most of the millionaires in the United States.
Yet while most of the nation's wealth was held by a small percentage of the population, the majority of Americans lived in poverty. Never before in the history of the United States had there existed so great a gap between those who had enough and those who had next to nothing. The working class began to fight back, and the Gilded Age was rife with labor strikes in which workers refused to do their jobs until industries met certain conditions. Unfortunately, decades would pass before the working class achieved the justice they were seeking.
Mark Twain and the Gilded Age
The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), better known to his readers as Mark Twain. Twain and his novelist neighbor Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900) were attending a dinner party one evening. After hearing the two men complain about the low quality of the novels their wives were reading, someone challenged the duo to write something better. The men accepted the challenge and in 1873 published a novel titled The Gilded Age. The book was about a time when the United States was run by powerful but corrupt politicians and big businesses. The rich increased their wealth through corruption while the poor got poorer. The novel turned out to be an eerily accurate foretelling of the future. It proved to be exactly how the late nineteenth century would be remembered.
Aside from The Gilded Age as well as hundreds of short stories, essays, and lesser-known novels, Twain penned the popular novels Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The author earned a place in history as one of the writers whose works reflect the era in which he lived.
Whenever power and wealth lie in the hands of a select few, corruption at any given level will often manifest. The Gilded Age was a time of intense political corruption. Favors were given and payment was expected, either in the form of jobs, money, or the passing of particular laws. Big business relied on political corruption to keep the wealth and power in the control of owners. In return, politicians got the support of big business by way of votes as well as huge monetary donations. It was a system that worked well for both parties, but which required the exploitation and suffering of the very people who ran the factories and businesses.