The Gilded Age Introduction
In A Nutshell
- The Gilded Age lasted from 1870-1900
- The name came from the title of a Mark Twain book
- "Gilded" means covered with gold on the outside, but not really golden on the inside
- The Gilded Age was a period of rapid economic growth but also much social conflict
It was, as Dickens might have said, the best of times and the worst of times.
But even that Dickensian understanding of the Gilded Age isn't quite right. It's not enough to say that the Gilded Age was a time of high highs and low lows; the highs and lows were actually often deeply intertwined parts of the exact same developments. In other words, the highs often were the lows, and vice versa. In the Gilded Age, every dark cloud had its silver lining… and every silver lining had its dark cloud. For more than a hundred years, critics have been ripping the business strategies that allowed big industrialists to build powerful monopolies—but those much-maligned monopolies brought desperately needed order to America's immature economic system. Many have also long resented the immense fortunes of personal wealth that a handful of big businessmen were able to acquire—but that wealth paid for a huge surge in philanthropy, building hundreds of libraries, schools, museums, and other public facilities still enjoyed by the American people even today. Reformers decried the way urban politicians turned corruption into a way of life—but those same crooked politicians also provided vital services to working-class and immigrant neighborhoods.
The Gilded Age was a dynamic age of incredible economic opportunity, just as it was a harsh era of incredible economic exploitation. Any version of this tale that includes only the exploitation but not the dynamism—or vice versa—is missing half the story.
Why Should I Care?
The Gilded Age has been often portrayed as one of those dark periods in American history—a period of greed and corruption, of brutal industrial competition and harsh exploitation of labor.But buried beneath this one-dimensional portrait is a much more complex set of facts. For starters, even the harshest aspects of the period possessed their more positive elements. Monopolies brought order and efficiency, and wealth allowed philanthropy. But perhaps even more important, oppression itself inspired creative responses that helped to build modern America. Industrial workers were exploited, but they responded by forming the organizations that would gradually improve their wages and working conditions. Farmers lost money and much of their traditional influence on national affairs, but they too worked to establish the organizations and methods that would preserve their place in American life. Businessmen faced devastating competitive forces and financial chaos in the marketplace, but they developed the new structures and strategies that would allow modern American corporate capitalism to flourish. And citizens endured antidemocratic rule by corrupt machine politicians, but they began to push for the reforms that would soon restore a measure of democracy to urban politics.
The Gilded Age, therefore, may be educative—especially since many people believe that we have been living in something like our own "gilded age" in recent decades. Over the past thirty years, national wealth has grown exponentially, as has the opportunity for successful entrepreneurs to achieve stratospheric wealth. That very real opportunity to strike it rich has driven a stunning amount of technological and cultural innovation, transforming the way all of us—rich and poor alike—live our lives. At the same time, however, wages and incomes at the middle and lower ends of the socio-economic scale have remained flat for decades, with many ordinary people feeling now less and less secure in their ability to keep their jobs, pay their mortgages, afford their retirements, or even see their doctor when they're sick or injured. In our own era's simultaneous growth in both opportunity and insecurity, many see have seen echoes of the late nineteenth century.
Eventually the pervasive insecurity of the original Gilded Age inspired a major period of reform known as the Progressive Era. Many of the solutions earlier advanced by workers and farmers were adopted by middle-class activists and reform-minded leaders within business and government, all of them anxious to correct what they saw as troubling inequities in America's economic and political order. (Of course, the Progressives' solutions often created entirely new problems of their own—but that's a different story, one you can read here.)
More to the point: as we examine the complexity of the late nineteenth century, we might consider whether there is a creative subtext to our own "gilded age," if indeed we are living in one. Are we on the verge of another "progressive era"? If so, how should we define "progress"?
Do the Americans who lived through the original Gilded Age have anything useful to teach us?