Gilded Age

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In American history, the "Gilded Age" refers to the post-Civil War era, from 1865 to 1901, which saw unprecedented economic, industrial, and population expansion. The era overlaps with Reconstruction (1863-1877) and includes the Panic of 1873. The era was characterized by an unusually rapid growth of railroads, small factories, banks, stores, mines and other family-owned enterprises, together with dramatic expansion into highly fertile western farmlands. There was a great increase in ethnic diversity from immigrants drawn by the promotions of steamship and railroad companies which emphasized the availability of jobs and farmland.

The entrepreneurs of what might be called "the Second Industrial Revolution" created rich, fast-growing industrial cities in the Northeast brimming with new factories, and contributed to the rise of super-rich industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Their critics called them "robber barons", an artful term combing crime (robber) and un-American aristocracy (barons), to denounce their use of overpowering and sometimes unethical financial manipulations. There was a small, growing labor union movement, led by Terence Powderly and Samuel Gompers.

Politically the Gilded Age was part of the Third Party System and featured very close contests between the Republicans and Democrats, with occasional third parties. Nearly all the eligible men were political partisans, and voter turnout often exceeded 90% in some states. Partisanship was based on historic and ethnic loyalties, and saw the moralistic ("pietistic") evangelical Republicans pitted against the liturgical Democrats. The Populist Party had considerable support in 1892 among cotton and wheat farmers, as well as coal miners and silver miners.

The wealth of the period is highlighted by the American upper class's opulent self-indulgence, but also the rise of the American philanthropy (Andrew Carnegie called it 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.

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 and the [Fourth Party System]]. The end of Reconstruction in 1877, race relations deteriorated as African Americans lost their voting rights in the 1890s and became second class citizens legally. Racial violence escalated with lynchings peaking in the 1890s.

The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). The term comes from Shakespeare: "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily... is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

Agriculture and the American west

During the era there was a dramatic expansion in agriculture, especially in the Plains states, which attracted large numbers of immigrants from Europe, especially German Americans and Scandinavian Americans. The government issued 160 acre (64 hectare) tracts either free or at nominal cost to qualifying persons moving to the west under the Homestead Act. Even larger numbers purchased lands at very low interest from the new railroads, which were trying successfully to create markets for their transportation services. The number of farms tripled from 2.0 million in 1860 to 6.0 million in 1905. The number of people living on farms grew from about 10 million in 1860 to 22 million in 1880 to 31 million in 1905. The value of farms soared from $8.0 billion in 1860 to $30 billion in 1906.[1] A few thousand of the Native Americans resisted, notably the Lakota, who were reluctant to settle on reservations.

The 1869 opening of the Central Pacific Railroad- Union Pacific Railroad gave the nation fast transcontinental service (six days from New York to San Francisco) and integrated the fast growing economy of the Far West into the national economy, and opened vast tracts of farming, ranching and mining lands to settlement.

Industrial and technological advances

The Gilded Age was rooted in industrialization, especially heavy industry like factories, railroads and coal mining. During the Gilded Age, American manufacturing production surpassed the combined total of 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: the Bessemer steel making processes. 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 other entrepreneurs.

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. 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.

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). Alexander Graham Bell's revolutionary telephone came into use, and Theodore Vail establishes 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.


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, including 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. Led by the Bourbon Democrats, especially Samuel J. Tilden and Grover Cleveland, there was a call for reform, such as Civil Service Reform. More generally, there was a sense that government intervention in the economy resulted in 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 also denounced imperialism and overseas expansion. Many business and professional people supported this approach, although most Republicans continued to argue for a high protective tariff to encourage rapid growth of industry and protect America's high wages against the low wage system in Europe. Labor activists and agrarians expressed the same spirit but focused their attacks on monopolies and railroads as unfair to the little man; they 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" (of the rebel flag) in much the same way Republicans "waved the bloody shirt".

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.

Influential figures

Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were amongst the most influential industrialists during the Gilded Age. Carnegie was born into a poor Scottish family; at age 14 he became secretary to railroad manager 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.


During the Gilded Age, approximately 10 million immigrants came to the United States, 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 (U.S. state) and Nevada was handled largely by American engineers and Chinese laborers. In the 1870 census there were 58,000 Chinese men and 4,000 women in the entire country; these numbers grew to 100,000 men and 4,000 women in the 1880 census. [2] 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; 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. Many returned to China (a greater proportion than most other immigrant groups) yet 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.

Labor unions

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 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.

The Pullman factory in Chicago, with a paternalistic policy of company housing, laid off employees during the Panic of 1893 but did not cut rents, angering workers. Eugene Debs moved onto the scene in 1894, ordering his American Railroad Union (ARU) members to stop handling Pullman rail cars, effectively halting the movement of passenger trains across the U.S. The established railway brotherhoods and the AFL rejected the ARU as dual unionism. President Grover Cleveland secured federal court orders to stop blocking the U.S. mail. Debs refused to obey, federal troops broke the illegal strike, and Debs went to prison for six months. Debs later founded the Socialist Party of America, which advocated a peaceful end to capitalism.

See also


  1. Historical Statistics (1975) p. 437 series K1-K16
  2. See [1]