Study Guide

The Gilded Age People

  • Andrew Carnegie

    Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was a Gilded Age industrialist, the owner of the Carnegie Steel Company, and a major philanthropist. He epitomized the Gilded Age ideal of the self-made man, rising from poverty to become one of the wealthiest individuals in the history of the world. 

    Born into a humble family in Scotland, Carnegie came to the United States with his impoverished parents at the age of 13. He worked as a bobbin boy and a telegraph messenger before taking a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad at the age of 18. By the Civil War, he held an administrative position with the railroad. At the war's end, Carnegie entered the iron industry, and recognizing that steel rails would soon replace iron rails, he invested in the steel business.

    Carnegie utilized the newest technologies, like the Bessemer blast furnace, to expand his steel company. He also employed "vertical integration"—control over every aspect of the industry from the mining of iron ore through the production and distribution of steel—to increase his control over the industry and the profitability of his firm.

    By the turn of the century, Carnegie Steel was the largest steel company in America. In 1901, financier J.P. Morgan acquired Carnegie Steel in the process of building U.S. Steel. Andrew Carnegie retired to Scotland and dedicated his time and money to various philanthropies consistent with the philosophy that he advanced in "The Gospel of Wealth." Among these philanthropies were the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

  • John D. Rockefeller

    John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) was a Gilded Age industrialist and the founder of Standard Oil. Born in New York, he was trained as a bookkeeper but entered the oil business shortly after the discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. In 1869, he formed the Standard Oil Company, and within 15 years, Standard Oil had acquired near-monopoly control over the American petroleum industry, refining 90% of the nation's oil.

    Rockefeller's strategy of establishing a virtual monopoly over one aspect of the production process—in his case, oil refining—was labeled horizontal integration. To eliminate his competitors, Rockefeller used his firm's superior size to negotiate preferential rates from the railroads that transported both his and his competitors' oil, making it nearly impossible for his competitors to stay in business.

    Due to its controversial monopolistic control over the oil industry, Standard Oil faced a series of legal battles. The company was declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Ohio in 1892 and dissolved in 1899. It was then reorganized as a holding company, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. But the United States Supreme Court ruled that this also constituted an illegal monopoly and ordered the company dissolved in 1911.

    By this point, John D. Rockefeller had largely retired from active management of the company. With personal assets estimated at a billion dollars, he supported several philanthropies including the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Various Rockefeller-funded charities continue to make important contributions in the philanthropic field today.

  • George Washington Plunkitt

    George Washington Plunkitt (1842–1924) was an influential leader in Tammany Hall, New York's Democratic political machine. He served as a state senator and a representative to the New York Assembly. But he exercised greater political influence through his work as a ward boss in New York's Fifteenth Assembly District.

    Plunkitt was born in poverty and only received three years of formal education. But he rose through the ranks of Tammany Hall by building a following among the working-class Irish of the Fifteenth District. 

    Plunkitt also acquired considerable personal wealth by trading his political support for information. In return for useful inside information, he guaranteed that his loyal followers would vote as he directed.

    In 1905, reporter William Riordon published "a series of very plain talks" in which Plunkitt frankly described his political methods and philosophy. In explaining the difference between "honest and dishonest graft," and the legitimacy of using political power to advance his own personal interests, Plunkitt challenged conventional ideas about corruption and disinterested public service.

  • George Pullman

    George Pullman (1831–1897) was an industrialist, the designer of the Pullman Palace sleeping car, and the developer of a set of labor practices labeled "industrial paternalism." Born in New York, Pullman left school when he was 14 to help support his family. He eventually became a cabinet maker and a contractor. He began experimenting with a sleeping car before the Civil War, but his business didn't experience much success until after the war.

    Pullman moved his manufacturing plant from Detroit to Chicago in 1880. There, troubled by the poor quality of housing available to his workers, he built his own worker village, complete with homes, schools, churches, and parks. While Pullman's intentions were partially philosophical and humanitarian—he believed that improved conditions would raise worker morale and generate positive labor relations—his village was also designed to operate at a profit. 

    Consequently, the rents and utility prices he charged his workers to live there tended to be higher than in surrounding areas. When Pullman reduced wages at his plant in 1894, he rejected worker requests that rent and utility bills also be reduced. So, the workers went on strike.

    The Pullman strike, supported by the American Railway Union, crippled America's railroads for more than a month. Rioting in Chicago killed 30, and the strike ended only after a court order backed by 14,000 federal and state troops forced workers back to work. Among the many losers in the strike were George Pullman and his labor theories. The model of "industrial paternalism" Pullman had long advanced failed miserably to prevent the exact type of desperate labor conflict it was designed to avoid.

  • Eugene Debs

    Eugene Debs (1855–1926) was the president of the American Railway Union and a founding member of the Social Democratic Party of America. Born in Indiana, he dropped out of high school and went to work for the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad at the age of 14. 

    He soon became active in the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1893, he helped organize the American Railway Union and became its first president.

    During the Pullman strike of 1894, Debs instructed members of the ARU to support Pullman employees by refusing to handle Pullman cars, which were a vital part of the nation's passenger rail system. Debs defied a court order demanding that union leaders cease in their encouragement of the strike and was subsequently sentenced to six months in jail. Shortly thereafter he embraced socialism, helped found the Social Democratic Party of America, and ran for president five times as a socialist candidate.

    During World War I, Debs publicly opposed American intervention in the war and consequently, was convicted under the 1918 Espionage Act, which imposed sweeping restrictions on speech and actions deemed detrimental to the war effort. Imprisoned in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, Debs ran for president from his jail cell and received more than 900,000 votes in 1920.

  • Frank Norris

    Frank Norris (1870–1902) was an author whose major works include McTeague (1899), The Octopus (1901), and The Pit (1903). 

    Norris was born in Chicago but moved west with his family and attended the University of California in 1890. Intent on a literary career, he accepted a job with the San Francisco Chronicle in 1895 and traveled to South Africa to cover the Boer War.

    As a novelist, Norris explored the impact of emerging economic forces on the individual. In The Octopus, for example, he chronicled the conflict between California ranchers and the railroads. On a deeper level, Norris was among a group of turn of the century writers who rebelled against the "overcivilized" conditions of late-19th-century America, and the "feminized" literature that these conditions produced. 

    In his works, the harsher realities of "real life" are exposed and often celebrated as sources of insight into the more authentic and vital character of human existence.

  • Frederick Winslow Taylor

    Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) was an inventor and engineer who became famous as the father of scientific management, also called Taylorism. The organization of modern industry, management, and much of daily life in industrial societies reflects his immeasurable influence.

    Taylor was the 19th century's most ardent champion of efficiency in industry. He ostensibly set out to raise both productivity and wages (and thereby ease the explosive tension between industrial labor and management). But Taylor's theories heavily skewed the benefits of increased productivity in favor of management. The theory of the differential rate, for example, "scientifically" linked backbreaking production quotas to supposedly "fair" wage increases that were rarely proportional. 

    In effect, Taylor utterly lacked the ability to understand his workers as anything other than underperforming cogs in a great industrial machine. Once remarking that he couldn't "look any workman in the face without seeing hostility," he was every bit as personally resented by the men he supervised as he was famous with the captains of industry.

  • Theodore Roosevelt

    Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was the 26th President of the United States, a leader of the Republican Party and, later, the Progressive movement. He was the first president to become a truly "popular" leader by using the media to appeal directly to the American people.

    Roosevelt, who became a national hero for his leadership of the "Rough Riders" regiment in the Spanish-American War, ran as William McKinley's running mate in the presidential election of 1900. When McKinley was assassinated by a crazed anarchist in 1901, the young Roosevelt suddenly became president. 

    Unlike his conservative predecessor, Roosevelt shared many of the goals of the Progressive movement and might fairly be considered the first Progressive president. In his own time, Roosevelt was one of the most popular presidents in American history.