Study Guide

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age Introduction

Reconstruction was, in the words of a respected historian, "just a major bummer." The nation was split into two halves that hated each other, nobody had enough money, and every effort to make things better seemed to blow up in everyone's faces.

So, when the country began to pull out of the Reconstruction Era in the mid-1870s, they were not foolin' around. Progress! Industry! Invention! Bajillions of dollars! The last three decades of the 19th century are called the Gilded Age, one of the most dynamic, contentious, and volatile periods in American history. 

And as you should have figured out by now, there have been quite a few unpredictable periods in our short history. Nobody expects the uh, nullification crisis.

Anyway, during the Gilded Age, America's industrial economy exploded, generating unprecedented opportunities for individuals to build great fortunes but also leaving many farmers and workers struggling merely for survival. Overall national wealth increased more than fivefold, a staggering increase, but one that was accompanied by what many saw as an equally staggering disparity between the rich and the poor. 

Industrial giants like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller revolutionized business and ushered in the modern corporate economy, but also, ironically, sometimes destroyed free-market economic competition in the process. Record numbers of citizens voted in national elections, but the politicians they voted for were often lackluster figures who turned a blind eye to the public interest.

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.

What is The Gilded Age About and 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 also 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.

So, the Gilded Age, 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 30 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 socioeconomic scale have remained flat for decades, with many ordinary people feeling 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 have seen echoes of the late-19th 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-19th century, we might consider whether there's a creative subtext to our own "gilded age," if we are indeed living in one. Are we on the verge of another progressive era? If so, how should we define progress?

And do the Americans who lived through the original Gilded Age have anything useful to teach us?

The Gilded Age Resources

Books

Charles Calhoun, ed., The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (2007)
This handy collection of essays provides a nice introduction to various aspects of the Gilded Age. Written by scholars, the essays are authoritative, but they're written for students—not other academics—and provide the necessary narrative coverage as well as analysis.

Sean Dennis Cashman, America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1984)
This book is aimed at a general audience but the scholarship is sound, and while there are no footnotes, there is a useful bibliography. Readers interested in an intelligent overview of the period with a strong narrative should start with this book.

Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (1981)
This fascinating book explores the multifaceted critique of American culture constructed in the closing decades of the 19th century and the various ways in which Americans sought to restore more intense and "authentic" experience to their "weightless" lives.

Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (2007)
This award-winning book offers a fresh take on the farmers' movement of the late-19th century. Differing from other studies that have tended to treat Populists as either unrealistically utopian or hopelessly nostalgic, Postel's book suggests that the Populists offered a realistic and modern approach to politics and government.

William L. Riordan, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics (1905)
Plunkitt's blunt discussion of his political philosophy is simultaneously funny, infuriating, and provocative. His views on public service, his advice to would-be politicians, and his description of his own political rise and methods provide a fascinating and shockingly honest contrast to conventional political autobiographies.

Images

Crazy Charlie
Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James Garfield.

Iron Man of the Steel Industry
Henry Frick, plant manager of the Homestead Steel Plant.

Paradise or Prison?
George Pullman's company town, designed to be an idyllic answer to labor discontent, left many Pullman employees resentful of GP's "industrial paternalism."

Pullman Strike
Pullman workers walk off the job in protest to company policies in 1894.

My Pa's Gone to the White House
Political carton lampooning Grover Cleveland sexual indiscretions, 1884.

Prairie Grass Roots Politics
Farmers gather for a Populist Party Convention in Nebraska, 1890

The "Strenuous Life"
Theodore Roosevelt, living in the Dakota Territory in 1885, the year after his wife died.

The Father of American Football
Walter camp, Yale's innovative coach, during his playing days.

Oil Czar
John Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, in 1885.

The New American Statesman
George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.

Movies & TV

The Rockefellers (2000)
Another episode in the PBS documentary series, American Experience, The Rockefellers examines the life of the oil tycoon, and the problematic legacy he left his heirs. After tracing the rise and reputation of John D. Rockefeller, this film explores the efforts of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to reconstruct the family's image through public service and philanthropy.

Fight Club (1999)
This David Pincher film suggests that 20th-century American culture is shallow and emasculating. Late-19th-century audiences would have found much of the film's critique appropriate to their own times, and surely, they would have enjoyed meeting Brad Pitt.

The Richest Man in the World: Andrew Carnegie (1997)
This episode from the award-winning PBS series American Experience explores the life of the Gilded Age industrialist from his impoverished Scottish birth through the construction of his steel empire to his philosophy and work as a philanthropist.

The Molly Maguires (1970)
This film plays fast and loose with the historical details, but the story about Pinkerton Detective James McParland, who goes undercover to infiltrate the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish society believed responsible for attacks on coal industry property, is based on real events.

Websites

Portrait of a Strike
This website on Pennsylvania's history maintains an image gallery for the railroad strike of 1877.

Gilded Age Presidents
The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia maintains a thorough online resource on our presidents. Here you can find material on all of the presidents of the Gilded Age—brief essays on their lives and presidencies, as well as biographical information on their cabinet officers and vice presidents.

Pullman Town
The American Studies Department at the University of Virginia has constructed a small site on Pullman. It includes a short history of the town, images, letters from residents, and brief biographies of critical figures in the town's history.

Historical Documents

Garfield's Assassin Speaks
On trial for the assassination of President James Garfield, Charles Guiteau testified with a poem. Background and a full transcript has been made available by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Theodore Roosevelt's Speeches
Several speeches and essays by Theodore Roosevelt, including "The Strenuous Life," are available at this site.

"The Man with the Muckrake" Speech
We have an entire learning guide on this Teddy Roosevelt speech given in 1906, a time when tensions between the rich and poor were especially high.