Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner were the first to call the years after the Civil War the "gilded age." Struck by what they saw as the rampant greed and speculative frenzy of the marketplace, and the corruption pervading national politics, they satirized a society whose serious problems, they felt, had been veiled by a thin coating of gold.
The label has stuck. Now usually applied to the period extending from the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 to the elevation of reformer Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency at the turn of the twentieth century, the term "Gilded Age" has survived because historians have found a great deal of validity in Twain's and Dudley's characterization of their own time.
During those years, America's economy did grow at an extraordinary rate, generating unprecedented levels of wealth. Railroads, and soon telephone lines, stretched across the country, creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs and cheaper goods for consumers. But a nation that had long viewed itself in idyllic terms, as a nation of small farmers and craftsmen, confronted the emergence of a society increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots—a society in which many poor workers struggled just to survive while an emerging industrial and financial aristocracy lived in palatial homes and indulged in opulent amusements. Some Americans celebrated the new wealth, others lamented it; all could agree that profound changes were taking place in the country.
During these years, American politics were dynamic and exciting. Voter participation rates were extraordinarily high and national elections were decided by razor-thin margins. But corruption also plagued American politics. At the national level, the administration of Ulysses S. Grant was a cesspool of graft and maladministration. Succeeding presidential administrations were less corrupt—but the influence of America's rapidly expanding wealth did leave its mark on public life, as many politicians embraced a governing philosophy rooted in the premise that this economic elite should be allowed to pursue its endeavors with minimal government interference.
At the municipal level, this was the era of the political machine. Urban politics were dominated by powerful organizations that exchanged jobs and contracts for political loyalty—and to the surprise of no one, the politicians running those organizations always managed to skim a little off the top for themselves. The most infamous of these machines was New York's Tammany Hall—but corrupt urban politics did not end at the Hudson River. On the other side of the country, Boss Ruef ran San Francisco, and even in America's heartland, Tom Dennison ran Omaha (Nebraska's version of a big city) in much the same fashion.
While economic and political elites capitalized on America's rapidly expanding wealth, industrial workers struggled to survive the bleak conditions often hidden behind the nation's glittering façade. Industrial wages were low and hours were long in factories that were typically dangerous and unhealthy. But perhaps worse, the restructuring of work—the subdivision of labor into its unskilled parts—left many workers with few marketable skills and little hope for occupational or social mobility. One consequence of all this was a budding labor movement, as workers banded together to try to force their collective will upon the industrial giants that had dominated them as individuals. Workers' efforts to organize frequently led to long and violent strikes, rocking the economic landscape and even raising the frightening specter of outright class warfare.
America's farmers also suffered during these years. Initially, they too capitalized on the new technologies and new markets of America's growing economy. But soon they faced increased competition, saturated markets, and falling prices for their produce. By the last decades of the century, their share of the national wealth had precipitously declined and their iconic place in the American imagination was at risk.
This was the Gilded Age that Mark Twain lampooned so viciously.
Of course, many of Twain's contemporaries disagreed with his characterization of the period. Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner argued that the turbulence and casualties of economic development were unfortunate but necessary. Development depended on competition; economic and social progress brought failure as well as success. Economic inequalities were not only inevitable, they were essential to material progress. And any government interference with the natural course of social and economic development would impede, not advance, progress.
Most modern historians are less willing to accept the period's casualties quite so philosophically, but many have concluded that the economic forces unleashed during these years were crucial to the development of American society. While these historians concede that many suffered through this transitional period, while they acknowledge that wages were low, farmers' status was precarious, and urban conditions were deplorable, American entrepreneurs, large and small, were building a national economy that would deliver better goods, improved lifestyles, and eventually higher wages for the vast majority of Americans.
Yet whether Gilded Age contemporaries condemned or defended the social and economic forces at play, and whether historians find Twain's or Sumner's assessment of the period more compelling, almost all agree that things began to change around the turn of the century. A common interpretation of these years suggests that in 1901, industrialists and politicians who had long operated without restraint suddenly faced a new president and an increasingly concerned middle class anxious to reform the abuses they perceived in American economic and political life. The reform period they ushered in—the Progressive Era—recast the role of government and laid the groundwork for the modern state within an industrial economy.
There is much truth in this interpretation. At the turn of the century, we can detect a shift in the public consensus, a growing sense that earlier confidences that industrial leaders would build a prosperous and equitable society may have been misplaced. As the strikes multiplied and grew more violent, as farmers bolted from the traditional political parties and launched one of their own, as political machine operatives boldly articulated new governing philosophies that violated traditional conceptions of disinterested public service, America's large middle class did embrace a new understanding of government and its role in society.
But if we look closely at the Gilded Age itself, we can see considerable discomfort with the direction of American life much earlier than 1900. Twain and Warner wrote their satire of the times in 1873, and they were not alone. Social critics and reform politicians appeared on the scene relatively early, voicing concerns about what they saw as economic exploitation and political corruption surrounding them. And well before 1900, labor organizers and agrarian reformers experimented with various organizational and political approaches to increasing their own power.
Perhaps more interesting, many of the most successful players within the new economic order of the Gilded Age revealed their own discomfort with the times as well. John D. Rockefeller, the most powerful industrialist of the era, recognized that he needed to defend his practices and the enormity of his oil empire. Andrew Carnegie realized that he needed to articulate a philosophy that defended the size of the personal fortunes he and his friends were accumulating. Both realized that America's republican traditions had to be mollified, not recklessly ignored. And so both sought to soften the roughest edges of the period, through philanthropy and philosophy, even at the same time as their own firms were thriving in the harshest corners of the marketplace.
The years between 1868 and 1901 can, with some justice, be labeled a "gilded age." A glittering façade did indeed cover a host of social and economic problems. But merely labeling the period a gilded sham, à la Mark Twain, doesn't truly capture all that was going on. These years saw Americans struggling to come to terms with the size, wealth, political needs, and new labor relations of their changing nation. Beneath the nation's golden façade—whether we think that façade fairly captured the underlying reality or not—Americans were already at work on the answers to the social and economic challenges of the new era.