The Gilded Age was given its name by Mark Twain, an observer disgusted by the social and political decadence he believed filled America. But while accurate in capturing the underside of the era—desperate poverty, crowded cites, unsafe factory conditions, political corruption—it fails to acknowledge that there was an upside to the period as well. Most dramatically, industrialists developed new production, distribution, and organizational strategies that ushered in the American corporate economy and provided new products and new levels of wealth for an expanding middle class.
Within this unit we have tried to do justice to both the upside and underside of the Gilded Age. As a result, your students should come away with an appreciation for the complexities of this period and history more broadly. In fact, this unit might provide you with an opportunity to explore with your students the nature of historical change. Is it always tumultuous, or can major economic, social, or political changes occur without dislocation and cost?