The Gilded Age In American History

by Vincent P. DeSantis

The Gilded Age in American history originally meant the years of the Grant Presidency. In fact, it received its name from the title of an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that satirized the excesses of that much maligned era in our history. But in time the Gilded Age was expanded to include the period from the end of Reconstruction to the early twentieth century. Once it was considered to be merely a transitional era between Reconstruction and the Progressive Movement. But now it is regarded as covering the period during which we have the beginnings of modern America - our modern industrialization and urban society.

A sampling of a few recent college textbooks in American history shows how modern historians vie with one another to find suitable words or phrases to introduce the Gilded Age to their readers or to say why these years have been called the Gilded Age. Arthur S. Link and his co-authors contend that the last quarter of the nineteenth century has been called the Gilded Age "largely because of the crass materialism common to the new class of wealthy businessmen, who often displayed their wealth blatantly."1 Norman K. Risjord writes about the Gilded Age, "Those were boisterous years," and the period "was a noisy, uncouth, bombastic, exhilarating time."2 John M. Blum and his co-authors say it was the crassness and materialism of the period that earned it the name of the Gilded Age.3 Robert Kelley sees these years presenting "a paradoxical picture of booming growth streaked with crisis and ruined hopes."4 And Morison and Commager and Leuchtenburg conclude it was "a period of relentless tawdriness and vulgarity" that coarsened much of American society.5

During the Gilded Age the United States became the leading industrial nation in the world, built a powerful navy, defeated a world power, and acquired a large overseas empire. It was also transformed by the values of a new industrial and urban society. The most important and most influential development for Gilded Age America was the rise of industrial capitalism and the burgeoning of corporations that controlled nationwide industries and that supplanted the small, locally owned factories and businesses around which the national economy had hitherto been constructed. American life in this era was also fundamentally altered by other far-reaching developments: the passing of the physical frontier with the settlement of the last American West, the eclipsing of countryside and farm by city and factory, the tremendous urban growth with all its accompanying problems, the significant changes in communications and transportation through the telephone and the transcontinental railroads, the revolutionary innovations in agriculture, the new blood added to the American life by a huge influx of immigrants, the rise of large scale labor unions, and the emergence of the United States as a world power. Everything in these years seemed to be in motion and it was, as Howard Mumford Jones tells us, the Age of Energy. It was these developments that gave the Gilded Age its dramatic character and its importance in American history. They also established the foundations of modern America.

But to Twain and Warner, and to many of their contemporaries, the Gilded Age was basically acquisitive and corrupt, with little cultural depth. They saw the era as a time of hypocrisy and of political indifference and irresponsibility. America's politicos, to them, were mercenary and neglectful of the public welfare. And the period's business leaders exploited the country's resources and workers and accumulated huge fortunes from government aid and favors.

The book's title, The Gilded Age conveys the message intended by the authors. The term caught on and was used by contemporaries and has been used by historians and other writers ever since to describe these years. It seemed a fitting epithet for the tawdry gilt that appeared to characterize many features of American life in this era. It reflected the cynical spirit and crudeness of the new age and the graft, corruption, and material values that accompanied it.

Seldom has any period in American history been maligned as much as the Gilded Age. Prominent contemporaries and reformers, seeking public support for their own reform programs, were largely responsible for the harsh and distorted assessment of these years. Even before Twain and Warner's scornful novel, E.L. Godkin, probably the most influential publicist in the Gilded Age, portrayed America in the Nation in 1866 as a "gaudy stream of bespangled, belaced, and beruffled barbarians." Godkin spoke for a number of thoughtful Americans who were appalled by what they regarded as the materialism, coarseness, and immorality of the new urban-industrial society. They were especially alarmed that the men of new wealth, the "Captains of Industry" as they called themselves or the "Robber Barons" as their critics labeled them, lacked the restraints of culture, experience, and the pride and caution of class or rank. The ideals, character, and moral values of a rural and agrarian America seemed outmoded in industrial America.

Walt Whitman, one of America's great poets of the post-Civil War years, had hailed "with pride and joy," America's "unprecedented materialistic advancement" at the end of the Civil War. Later he lamented that "Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present.... Genuine belief seems to have left us...we live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout... The official services of American, national, state and municipal," he continued, "in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted."6

Other leading contemporaries severely criticized the public and political life of the Gilded Age which seemed to many then and ever since to lack the vitality of the earlier days of the Republic. Most thoughtful Americans in these years believed that at no other time in the nation's history was the moral and intellectual tone of public and political life so uniformly low. "No period so thoroughly ordinary has been know in American politics since Christopher Columbus first disturbed the balance of power in American society," wrote Henry Adams in his celebrated Education. "Even among the most powerful men of that generation," continued Adams, there was "none who had a good word for it." And James Bryce in his perceptive and influential The American Commonwealth contended that the two major parties in the Gilded Age were in danger of losing their functional usefulness because they failed to offer the electorate an opportunity to vote on the issues of the day and because they used public office to reward party workers. "Neither party has any principles, any distinctive tenets," Bryce noted.7

Now history is often not what actually happened but what historians say happened and at the hands of historians and other writers after Adams and Bryce the Gilded Age has fared badly until recently. When twentieth century American historians began to reexamine the Gilded Age with the benefit of more sources and perspective, most of them followed the interpretations of the era's contemporaries and unfortunately judged the period largely, if not solely, on its seemingly dismal political record and its exploitative economic performance.

For example, Vernon Louis Parrington in his widely read and influential third volume of his Main Currents in American Thought set a modern tone for the Gilded Age when he wrote about it, "Exploitation was the business of the times." Two other writers, Charles A. Beard and Matthew Josephson, strengthened and expanded Parrington's view of the period. The Beards labeled it "the age of negation" because of the few major or important laws enacted in the generation and condemned "the cash nexus pure and simple" that produced the era's vulgarities and inequities. Josephson also regarded the politics of the Gilded Age as little more than sound and fury and the economic life as one of exploitation of the many by the few, whom he damned with the telling and popular phrase "Robber Barons."8

Thus, historians and other writer have competed with one another to find suitable disparaging phrases to censure the political and economic life of the Gilded Age. It became a historical convention to condemn the politicians of this era for evading the "real" issues, for failing to enact the needed major legislation, and for being merely a group of spoilsmen. And the business men were more often portrayed as Robber Barons exploiting the nation's resources and workers rather than as Captains of Industry building up the country and making it the world's leading industrial nations.

Unfortunately for the Gilded Age, these unfavorable views of its political and economic life overshadowed other aspects and developments of that generation and served as a basis for determining its place in American history. For this reason then the Gilded Age was for many years reproached for being barren, sterile, corrupt, indifferent, negative, monotonous, and so on and on as writers sought to find even more ways to defame it. Seldom was anything said about the creative and solid achievements of the period that has had a lasting impact upon American life. And so the Gilded Age labored under a heavy cross of reproof.

In recent years, however, historians have taken a closer look at the Gilded Age, uncovering its cultural, literary, and technological achievements long overshadowed by the emphasis on its unfortunate political and economic life. These impressive accomplishments have shown that the Gilded Age was not the sterile and barren period that so many contemporary and subsequent critics said it was. To the contrary it was one of the most intellectually fertile eras in all of American history.

Yet, despite the new studies of the Gilded Age, a number of stereotypes of its business and political leaders have persisted. Still, without glossing over the flaws and shortcomings of Gilded Age businessmen, historians in recent years have sought to present a fuller, more balanced picture of them by stressing the important contributions they made to the economic development of the country, the new technology they introduced in industry, and the social good they sometimes did with their wealth. While still showing the business moguls to be destructive, later historians also have portrayed them as creative pioneering entrepreneurs. This re-evaluation of American business leadership launched by Allan Nevins, Thomas C. Cochran, and Edward Kirkland has largely continued. Recent historians have also emphasized the impersonal forces and standardization of life in the new urban-industrial society of the Gilded Age, the growing dependence of people upon one another, the increasing feeling of insecurity, and the increasing interest in material things, all still characterizing and affecting our lives today.

Likewise, some modern historians such as H. Wayne Morgan, Thomas Reeves, and Allan Peskin, in an effort to counterbalance the traditional censure of Gilded Age politics, have tried to show the importance of politics to Americans of that period. They have pointed out that public interest in government and politics was very much alive and that, contrary to the conventional view, political issues were significant, attesting to the emergence of the United States as a great industrial nation. They have dismissed the traditional judgement of Gilded Age politics that no basic issues divided the major parties and have argued in the words of Morgan that politics "was an ever-present, vivid, and meaningful reality to that generation. Men believed fervently that wide differences separated Republicans and Democrats."9 Foreign visitors marveled at the ability and patience of American audiences to sit through lengthy political speeches on such abstruse topics as the silver or tariff question. Modern historian now contend that probably no other generation than the Gilded Age has been so knowledgeable about its political issues and that at no time in American history were the voters more mobilized and more directly involved in governing the country.10

Also recent studies by Paul Kleppner, Richard Jensen, and Samuel McSeveney have altered old assumptions about voter behavior and party alignment in the later nineteenth century, at least in the middle west and the northeast. They show that voters were more sharply divided on issues than historians traditionally gave them credit for and were more interested in local questions such as prohibition and public schools than in national issues such as the tariff, civil service reform, and the currency. These historians contend that voter behavior and party alignment revolved primarily around ethno-cultural issues and responses, mostly religious and sectarian. They also show that party loyalty was stronger and voter turnout higher in the last third of the nineteenth century than has been in the case since.11

The major findings of Kleppner, Jensen, and McSeveney, therefore, challenge the conventional view that class consciousness and economic radicalism were the principal characteristics of American voters in the late nineteenth century. If these conclusions are correct, particularly the one that local issues were more important than national issues in voter behavior and party alignment, then there could be a reconsideration of the importance and play of the national issues usually associated with the Gilded Age. Yet, as Geoffrey Blodgett points out in a perceptive essay in a "New Look" at the Gilded Age, this recent scholarship, by its very nature, "renders generalizations about the operations of national politics more hazardous than ever." And he raises a thoughtful point when he observes, "How the discoveries of Kleppner, Jensen, and McSeveney relate for instance to the perpetual congressional dance around the protective tariff is a puzzle which neither they nor anyone else has entirely solved."12

But despite the significant reexamination and revision of the traditional interpretations of the Gilded Age in recent years, many of the old views about the period persist especially about politics and especially in those writings where the great majority of Americans still learn their American history - the college textbook.

A small sampling of some of the leading college textbooks in American history reveals the persistence of some of the old views about the politics of the Gilded Age.13 Morison, Commager, and Leuchtenburg still say about the Gilded Age "There is no drearier chapter in American political history.... National politics became little more than a contest for power between rival parties waged on no higher plane than a struggle for traffic between two railroads."14 John M. Blum and his associates write that "Great issues were sometimes debated" in the Gilded Age, "but most of them were settled around the council tables of industrialists and financiers rather than in the halls of legislatures and in the meetings of cabinets."15

"Most political discussions [in the Gilded Age] revolved around essentially trivial matters," remarks John Garraty, and "millions of voters turned out enthusiastically to choose essentially, between Tweedledum and Tweedledee." Oscar Handlin says the ritual of the Presidential elections in the Gilded Age "seemed to settle nothing," because "The issues were rarely clear-cut, and the outcome made little difference in the actual conduct of government." Graebner, Fite, and White conclude that the main concerns of most politics then were obtaining and holding office and that "Congress gave more attention to politics and power than to dealing with national problems." Hicks, Mowry, and Burke tell us that the party platforms revealed "no real awareness of the problems that confronted the nation," and that when "real issues" were recognized, which was rare" they "tended to be evaded or ignored." And George B. Tindall believes that "On the national issues of the day the major parties [in the Gilded Age] pursued for the most part of a policy of evasion," because as Lord Bryce had in the 1880s pointed out, "neither party has any principles, any distinctive tenets," and what interests they have "are in the main interests of getting or keeping the patronage of government."16

The old views of the Gilded Age also persist in the general accounts of the period, and a look at some of the leading ones shows how generations of historians have reinforced the judgements of the novelists Twain and Warner and the other critics like Adams, Bryce, Parrington, Beard, and Josephson. Harold U. Faulkner's volume on the late nineteenth century in the New American Nations series and Leonard D. White's administrative history of the post-Civil War generation restate the traditional views of these years on "the essential similarity of the two parties and their candidates," on the "intellectual stagnation" and party perversion of this era."17

Robert Wiebe's book, The Search for Order, praised by some as the most important volume in the sixties and seventies for understanding the Gilded Age, repeated the conventional wisdom by describing the United States during this period as a nation of "massive political indifference" when "the primary responsibilities of the national government...were gathering income and appropriating funds."18 Likewise John Garraty in his New American Nation volume for the post-Reconstruction years found that Gilded Age politics "seemed so unrelated to the important problems of the day," and John Dobson in his book on politics and reform in the Gilded Age concluded that the party system then was corrupt, meaningless, inefficient, and unresponsive to public problems.19

So, despite recent scholarship and revisions, the traditional views of Gilded Age politics have had an impressive durability in many of the general accounts and textbook chapters on the era. A Rip Van Winkle who awoke from a twenty year sleep in the late 1950s would not have found Faulkner's or White's Gilded Age much different from the one by Josephson or Beard or even the one by Adams, Bryce, or Twain. And if Rip Van Winkle had resumed his nap after Faulkner and White to awaken during the seventies he would not have found the Gilded Age of Wiebe, Garraty, and Dobson much different from the traditional one portrayed by many writers from Twain and Warner on.

Fortunately for the Gilded Age, not all historians have continued to accept the conventional views about it. Increasingly, a number of them, and especially those who write about the Gilded Age in college textbooks, have been influenced by the recent and revisionist literature changing a number of traditional views and stereotypes about it. Some now believe the traditional picture of the Gilded Age is fundamentally miscast and that we should no longer be impatient or critical of Gilded Age leaders for not having discovered the Welfare State. Others argue that historians should suspend moral judgements about the Gilded Age, and instead of putting it on the scrap of heap of moral discards, they should focus attention on the innovative features of social and economic life in this age. Still others contend that we should stop looking at the Gilded Age with modern day views and standards and see it as it actually was to its contemporaries. Seen in that way, the apparent impotence of government in the Gilded Age was in line with a generally held opinion of laissez-faire in America at that time, that government should "let well enough alone." Consequently, government then rarely concerned itself with social and economic matters as it does so frequently now. And there were limits to what could be done about relieving social discontent, limits imposed on political leaders and government by the courts, wealthy party supporters, and the voters. Those interested in reform did not always give consistent support to either party, and voters even chastised some political leaders for attempting reform. The hopeful union of idealism and practical politics could not always be consummated in the face of hostility from voters.20

These historians also question the long held view that Gilded Age politics were boring and bland, and point out how aroused the voters were and what a high percentage of them took part in Presidential elections - about 80 per cent of the eligible voters compared with less than 60 per cent for most of the twentieth century. They have also questioned such conventional views (1) that Gilded Age Americans were petty, self-seeking, and corrupt, (2) that the industrialists were "Robber Barons" who brutalized the workers, (3) that massive immigration and urbanization altered American life considerably, and (4) that the cultural life of the Gilded age was sterile and without depth. Instead they point out (1) that corruption in the Gilded Age simply showed the inability of the existing government framework to deal with the kinds of ambitions prevalent in the post-Civil War years, (2) that modern judgement of dull politics in these years is not in line with the views of the Gilded Age contemporaries, (3) that American industrialism in the late nineteenth century has come to be regarded as comparatively painless and commendably successful, and (4) that the great immigration influx and new city life did not change life in the Gilded Age as much as expected.21

Still, the traditional views of the Gilded Age in both scholarly and popular writings have not entirely passed away and are not likely to pass away. The Gilded Age is still seen by many, possibly most, modern Americans as it was seen by two of its most thoughtful and knowledgeable contemporary critics, Mark Twain and Henry Adams. Why these conventional views and "distorted caricature of the Gilded Age should exert such a persistent hold on the historical imagination despite the corrective efforts of a host of revisionist scholars," wrote Allan Peskin "is a question for cultural analysts to a grapple with."22

It is really a question for everyone who thinks and writes about the Gilded Age. Perhaps the traditional views of the Gilded Age coming from some of its eminent contemporary writers as Twain, Bryce, and Adams have so influenced our thinking and writing about the period that no amount of revisionism of it, convincing or not, is likely to change our minds about what we learned from these perceptive critics of this restless age.

Then, of course, there is often a considerable gap between recent scholarship and revisionism, and what is found in college textbooks and classrooms. We also have to remember that the latest scholarship is not always the best or the most widely accepted scholarship. The thinking of writers and teachers does not always change with the appearance of new findings and views about an era or a subject, and to be aware of them is not the same as using them or incorporating them in one's own work.

Whatever its flaws and shortcomings and whatever our views about it may be, the America of the Gilded Age believed in itself and believed it was grappling with "real" issues and "real" problems. And, unlike the America of today, the Gilded Age was virtually free of involvement in international affairs and devoted itself to its own self-interest.

The Gilded Age was one of the most remarkable generations in American history. It was a time of exciting and important scientific and technological inventions and improvements, such as the electric light, the telephone, and the typewriter, which have had and continue to have a profound impact upon American life. The Gilded Age was also a significant and fertile period in intellectual and cultural matters with the birth of new social sciences, the founding of major museums, the organization of the American Library Association, the establishment of graduate degree programs, and the formation of professional groups like the American Historical Association. These were singular and stimulating years in many ways and in many endeavors, and to say the Gilded Age was a era of only false glitter, jobbery, dullness, blandness, self-seeking, and so on, flies in the face of overwhelming, but much neglected, evidence to the contrary.

There was such a rapid and vast industrial growth in the country during the Gilded Age that the United States, as already noted, became the world's leading industrial power. As Michael G. Mulhall, an eminent statistician, declared in 1895, the United States "possesses by far the greatest productive power in the world," and "this power has more than trebled since 1860."23 Since the United States was also the largest producer of food and raw materials, it was now potentially the richest and most powerful nation in the world. In addition to all this, there was almost a doubling of the population from 40 million in 1870 to 76 million in 1900.

Accompanying this enormous industrial expansion and helping to push it on were major advances in every field of science, especially in chemistry and physics, that provided the principles for the new technology. Inventions that spurred industrial growth were made in transportation, communications, electrical power, the production of steel, and the use of oil.

The adoption of a standard-gauge track, and the use of steel in railroad tracks and rolling stock, greatly facilitated the shipment of goods. Americans could also communicate more easily. The telegraph was in use before the Civil War, and in the following decades came the submarine cable, the telephone, the stock ticker, the typewriter, and Marconi's wireless telegraphy, from which came the radio, television, and radar. Of major importance was the use of electricity. Thomas Edison's practical incandescent light bulb in 1879 and his system of central power stations a few years later led to a workable electric railway and a practical dynamo and electric motor in the 1880s. These brought a revolution in transportation, in the home, and in the factory where electric motors replaced the steam engine.

Equally revolutionary was the development of ways to mass-produce steel through the open-hearth or Bessemer process, an invention in the 1850s that gradually won acceptance from the Gilded Age steel magnates. What had previously been a rare metal could now be mass-produced. Historians regard the rapid expansion of the steel industry (from only 77,000 tons in 1870 to nearly 11.4 million tons by 1900) as one of the key reasons for the American Industrial Revolution of the Gilded Age. At the same time the oil industry went from a few gallons a year before the Civil War - when oil was used as a medicinal potion for ailments ranging from whooping cough to acne - to about 50 million barrels annually by the 1890s when it became an illumination fuel.

All these inventions and developments increased productivity. They also offered opportunities for great wealth to entrepreneurs with drive, initiative, and the courage to compete in a free-enterprise system that accepted graft, corruption, and the worship of material goods. Many took the chance, and a number of them acquired huge fortunes.

At the top of the social and economic structure in the United States in the Gilded Age were the Captains of Industry, the new rich. Rockefeller led the way with his nearly $900 million. By the 1900, it was estimated, one-tenth of the population owned nine-tenths of the wealth in the country, and the few millionaires at the time of the Civil War had increased to 3,800.

One of the symbols of the great capitalists' position in society was their style of living, which included palatial mansions and gold-trimmed carriages. Their big houses had libraries, billiard rooms, art galleries, several dining rooms, even small theatres and chapels. They lived in brownstone houses in the large cities and in manor houses in the suburbs or in the country. Built in virtually every known style and copied from those of the Europeans and Persians, these residences often showed bad, even vulgar taste. It was a time when the jig-saw, the cupola, and the mansard roof with its dormer windows, and an orgy of decoration were in vogue. Historian and socioliterary critic Vernon L. Parrington described it as "flamboyant lines and meaningless detail" with "tawdry decorations" and "a stuffy and fussy riot of fancy."24

Unsure of themselves, the new rich used gaudy display to impress others. The conspicuous waste of money was the measure of social status. This prompted the craze of wealthy Americans for European antiques and art collections and launched perhaps the greatest plunder of the continent since the sacking of Rome.

Though perceptive social critics assailed the new rich for their coarse taste and lack of business ethics, the ordinary American saw the rich as respected members of society, pillars of the churches, and philanthropists who occupied positions of prestige and power both at home and abroad. Thus, large numbers of Americans, possibly most of them, admired and emulated the successful businessmen and hoped to duplicate their success. And Parrington, though sharply critical of the period, was also fascinated. He interpreted the Gilded Age as one in which the energies damned up by the limitations of frontier life and the inhibitions of backwoods religion had been suddenly released.25

Probably too much has been made of this conspicuous display of wealth. More representative of the American lifestyle of these years was that of the middle class - the clerks, professional people, shopkeepers, and lower-level executives. For these people, home was a simple house or an apartment (something rather new then) with heavy furniture and draperies, marble-topped tables, and considerable bric-a-brac. Their standard of living was usually better than that of their parents. They could educate their children, and they could hope and work for a better status. They enjoyed the increased comforts resulting from the inventions of the day: the telephone in the seventies, the electric light in the eighties, and the gas burner after 1890. If they lived in a city, they might enjoy, for the first time in American history, the benefits of electric trolley cars, elevated railways, better sewage disposal, improved water distribution plants and street paving, and more efficient fire departments. But they would also suffer the dreadful noise of the "el," the congested traffic of wagons and hacks, and the constant danger of fires, such as the great Chicago fire of 1871.

And, like today, walking on city streets was risky, especially at nights, and prudent residents stayed at home after darkness. In the Centennial Guide to New York City and Its Environs published in 1876, travelers were advised to "reach the city in the day-time," to "avoid being too free with strangers," to "avoid all crowds, particularly at night," and, if they were obliged to make inquiries on the street, to "apply to a policeman or go into a respectable place of business." Present-day Americans may find some comfort in the knowledge that the dangers of urban living are not new.

In contrast with the visible wealth and comfort of the new entrepreneurs were the wretched living conditions of the workers, brought in great numbers to the cities by the lure of jobs. Many of them lived in tenements that were cheerless, cold, frequently without running water, and cut off from the sun and air. Tenements were built to crowd as many people as possible into the smallest possible space. For block upon block in the slum areas, these ugly structures were to be found covering every inch of building space. Jacob Riis, the reformer, estimated in 1890 that about 330,000 persons were living in one square mile on the lower East Side of New York City. Even the stables of the rich cost more and were more comfortable than the tenements of the poor.26

Despite these miserable living conditions, the industrial growth of the Gilded Age did bring material benefits for American workers. The technological advances expanded production and thus made higher wages possible. Between 1870 and 1890 both money and real wages increased, the former by more than 10 per cent, the latter from 10 to 25 per cent. In the same decades the cost of living fell, with the price index (taking 1860 as 100) going down from 141 to 98.

But whether the worker received a fair share of the great economic growth of the last quarter of the nineteenth century is a debatable matter. With half of the period in a depression or recession it is uncertain how many workers shared the benefits. And the benefits were unequal even among those receiving them. Skilled and white-collar workers received the highest wages. Adult males received about 75 per cent more for similar work than women, and two to three times as much as children.

According to the folklore of the times, opportunity for advancement knew no limit. This popular belief was expressed in typical fashion in 1883 by a New York banker and manufacturer, John M. Britton. "A man here may be a common laborer," he said, "but if he has the right material in him there is no reason why he should not occupy the best place in the nation."27 But there is not much evidence to support such optimism. On the contrary, the available evidence indicates that only an unmeasurable minority of unskilled workers achieved the rags-to-riches rise that so many Americans in the Gilded Age assumed to be so common.

Although it was generally believed at the time that workers had unlimited opportunities to advance and thus had much upward economic mobility, recent studies, especially the one by Stephen Thernstrom of Newburyport, Massachusetts, do not support this assumption. The evidence shows that few unskilled workers went beyond the ranks of the semiskilled and virtually none achieved middleclass status.

On the matters of mobility from the other end of the scale, there were the success stories of the upward mobility by poor boys such as Andrew Carnegie, but even their most sanguine contemporaries admitted that their kind of success was unusual. When the historian William Miller studied the origins of two hundred late nineteenth century business leaders, he found that a large majority came from well-to-do or middle class families of old American stock. He reported that poor immigrant boys and poor farm boys together comprised no more than three per cent of the business leaders. But the myth, popularized by the stories of Horatio Alger and others, persisted, and a number of Americans continued to believe that anyone who worked hard and was thrifty and virtuous could, with some luck, become a millionaire.

America not only became industrialized in these years but also urbanized. Some may have wondered why farm youths were so eager to "leave the country where homes are cheap, the air pure, all men equal, and extreme poverty unknown, and crowd into cities" where they seemed to find "in the noises, the crowds, the excitements, even in the sleepless anxieties of daily struggle for life, a charm they are powerless to resist."28 Yet, the growth of cities could not be checked, much less reversed, and America accepted the fact. From 1860 to 1900, the percentage of Americans living in urban areas doubled from 19.8 to 39.7. Even more so was the concentration of Americans in large metropolitan areas such as New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, which together now had millions of inhabitants.

Hordes of European immigrants also poured into the cities to meet some of the demands in non-agricultural employment that rose 300 per cent in the same decades. By the 1890s New York City had as many Italians as Naples, as many Germans as Hamburg, and twice as many Irish as Dublin. By the 1900, three-fourths of the people of Chicago were foreign-born. And by 1910, it was estimated that one-third of the inhabitants of the nation's eight largest cities were foreign-born, while more than a third were second-generation Americans.

The most important thing about this huge movement of peoples was not its size but the immigrants' origins. Previously, nearly all immigrants had come from northern and western Europe-Germany, Ireland, England, and Scandinavia. Now the tide flowed from southern and eastern Europe-particularly from Italy, Austria-Hungary, Poland, and Russia. In the 1860s these groups had constituted only 1.4 per cent of all immigrants. Their percentage rose to 7.3 in the seventies, to 18.3 in the eighties, to 51 per cent in the nineties, and to 70 per cent in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. This heavy influx, the "new immigration," brought a variety of ethnic groups who had never been here before in appreciable numbers.

Most of the "old" immigrants had been able to read and write, most were Protestants, and most settled on farms. In contrast, the newer immigrants came from "backward" countries, and most were illiterate. Most were Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Jewish, and most of them turned to industry and settled in the cities.

The influx created acute problems in the cities where great numbers of people arrived on top of one another. There were too many to be housed, too many for water or sewage or transportation facilities to accommodate, too many for the police and fire departments to look after. For employers seeking cheap labor, the situation was splendid. And so it was for the middle-class family looking for servants. An amazing number of ordinary American households had live-in maids and cooks. But for others, urban living was a horror. In 1890 the immigrant journalist Jacob Riis published his shocking report on New York's slums, How the Other Half Lives. It was in part upon this "other half" that the vast fortunes of the Gilded Age were built.

A great shock to Americans in the Gilded Age and a very strong influence on them was the theory of evolution set forth by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species. Published in 1859, it was soon applied to social and economic life by Englished philosopher Herbert Spencer. According to Darwin's theory, all complex forms of plant and animal life, including human beings, had evolved over a long period of time from lower organisms. In the process there had been a natural selection of those individual organisms best adapted to survive in their environment. As a result, there was "survival of the fittest," with the strong and hardy surviving and the weak falling by the wayside.

Darwin's theory of evolution directly challenged the Biblical story of creation, and, according to Sigmund Freud, severely wounded the self-love of human beings when they learned that the presumed gulf between themselves and lower forms of life did not really exist. The new biology of the nineteenth century, wrote Jacques Barzun, a leading cultural historian, "seemingly made final the separation between man and his soul." Naturally such a theory and such a trauma provoked considerable debate among Gilded Age Americans, especially scientists, theologians, and clergymen.

Spencer's theory, applying Darwin's biological theory to economic and social life, was invaluable to the new industrial order because it seemed to justify the acquisition of wealth and power and gave an explanation of why some became wealthy while others stayed poor. Spencer maintained that evolution was leading inevitably to a society in which people would enjoy "the greatest perfection and the most complete happiness," and that competitive struggle was the natural means whereby this would come about. The weak would fall by the wayside, while the strong and able would push forward.

The new doctrine thus opposed poor relief, housing regulations, and public education and justified poverty and slums. Any governmental attempt to alter the situation would be interfering with natural law and impeding progress.

Much of the reasoning of Social Darwinism was found in the other dominant theory of the time-laissez-faire, which included ideas of the classical economists going back as far as Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776). Beyond what was necessary to maintain law and order and to protect life and property, the government was not to interfere in the conduct of business or in personal matters. According to this view, those pursuing their business interests free of government meddling would achieve the best possible use of resources, would promote steady economic progress, and would be rewarded, all according to their deserts. Acquisition of wealth was considered evidence of merit, for did not wealth come as a result of frugality, industriousness, and sagacity? Poverty carried the stigma of worthlessness, for did it not result from idleness and wastefulness? During most of the late nineteenth century these attitudes prevailed in America and were upheld by prominent educators, editors, clergymen, and economists.

Somewhat paradoxically, philanthropy also was expected to play a part in the behaviour of those who were successful in business. They were expected to be humanitarian and to relieve distress but were forbidden by the dictates of Social Darwinism from offering any aid that might undermine self-reliance, initiative, and ambition. The solution to this dilemma was offered by Andrew Carnegie in The Gospel of Wealth (1889). While asserting that wealth must necessarily be concentrated in the hand of the few, Carnegie also set forth the maxim that the man who dies rich dies disgraced. The duty of the man of wealth, he maintained, was to administer his surplus funds as a trust to yield the greatest value to the community. Funds should be given, for example, to help found public libraries, improve education, and promote world peace. To support a needy individual, on the other hand, was wrong. Carnegie argued that every person maintained by charity was a source of moral infection to the community. He asserted that of every thousand dollars spent for poor relief nine hundred and fifty would better be thrown into the sea.

In the 1880s a number of sociologists and economists revolted against the fatalism and lack of social responsibility of Social Darwinism. These "reform Darwinists" maintained that societies could command their own destinies and that human intelligence applied to social problems could improve the economic system. They also believed that a laissez-faire economic system did not necessarily advance human progress, and some of them such as Lester Ward, a prominent academic sociologist, advocated state management and social planning. Others like Edward A. Ross contended that in the new industrial society morality required the impersonal corporation to accept full responsibility for its antisocial acts.

Economists also challenged laissez-faire sentiments. In 1885 some of them organized the American Economic Association, which boldly declared that the state was "an agency whose positive assistance is one of the indispensable conditions of human progress." A number of leading academic economists such as Richard T. Ely, Simon Nelsen Patten, and John R. Commons began to dissent from the classical belief in absolute economic laws valid for all societies. They insisted that society, constantly changing, had to be examined in terms of process and growth. Using the historical approach to study economic realities, they discovered that there were great differences between what actually had happened and what, according to classical economics, was supposed to have happened.

Outside of academic circles, increasing numbers of radical reformers such as Henry George and Edward Bellamy began to attack the existing social and economic system and to propose new plans of economic organization. They too rejected Spencer's fatalism and the idea that progress resulted from the struggle for existence and the consequent removal of the unfit.

And contrary to those who have contended since Twain that the cultural life of the Gilded Age was sterile and without depth, the intellectual and artistic developments of the era were impressive. The original and creative thinkers of the 1880s and 1890s made these two decades one of the most intellectually fertile periods in American history. In scholarship, the age saw the birth of two new social sciences: Lewis Henry Morgan founded anthropology and Lester Ward fathered sociology. The era also had a revolution in higher education. Until then colleges and universities had concentrated on training ministers and lawyers, but now learning began to shake off its fetters and to range freely, especially through the elective system sponsored at Harvard by President Charles W. Eliot, in the physical, natural, and social sciences, the arts, and the humanities.

There also developed a new realism in American literature stimulated by Darwinism and by reaction against the sentimental gush that had come to dominate fiction. This new realism was manifested in the work of such writers as Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Stephen Crane, and a number of other writers in different parts of the country. Some of these narratives exposed the grime and squalor of big city life, while other deplored the evils of crass materialism and ridiculed the get-rich-quick schemes of money-mad Americans.

Two of the greatest poets in American literature lived and wrote during the Gilded Age, although one of them, Emily Dickinson, was practically unknown to her contemporaries. This is because only seven of her poems were published during her lifetime, and also because she spent the last half of her life as a recluse in Amherst, Massachusetts. In striking contrast was Walt Whitman whose revolutionary poetry was widely published and read. Although a number of critics objected to his departures from the conventions of versification and to his frankness about sex, he became for many others the very voice of America-enthusiastic, optimistic, energetic, and free.

Increasing wealth and leisure after the Civil War contributed to a new awareness of art among Americans, and the work of the artists George Inness, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and Albert Pinkham Ryder was of such high caliber that the Gilded Age could be called the most important in American painting. Two America expatriates of the era, James McNeil Whisler and John Singer Sargent, both of whom lived most of their lives in London, enjoyed international reputations. A third expatriate artist, Mary Cassatt, the sister of a railroad executive, settled in Paris and exhibited with the leading French Impressionists.

Although in architecture the Gilded Age has been said to mark the low point in taste, there were fine and outstanding architects. Henry Hobson Richardson and Louis H. Sullivan were the first major architects to meet the demands of industrialism upon their art. For a number of architects it was a golden age. The rich commissioned them to design giant urban residences, baronial country homes, and large stone "cottages" on the shore. The imitation French chateaus and Italian palaces were sometimes ugly and often absurd. But gifted and imaginative architects like Richard Morris Hunt put the virtually limitless funds of their patrons to good use.

And thus, as Howard Mumford Jones reminds us in his Age of Energy (1970), the Gilded Age "did not exist as an imperfect prophecy of twentieth-century America; it lived in its own right." In its own right it was far more than a transitional period between Reconstruction and Progressivism as some have characterized it. It was a great age of energy in all kinds of ways. And it was an era that witnessed the emerging and shaping of modern America-the America of factories, cities, and an ethnically heterogeneous population. Gilded Age Americans took pride in a long list of accomplishments to which all, they believed, had contributed. They believed in their age, and they believed in themselves, something which not many American any longer do.


1Arthur S. Link, Stanley Coben, Robert V. Remini, and Robert C. McMath, Jr., The American People: A History (Arlington Heights, Ill., 1981), II, 523. go back

2Norman K. Risjord, America, A History of the United States (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1985), p. 480. go back

3John M. Blum, et. al., The National Experience (Fifth Edition, New York, 1981), p. 488. go back

4Robert Kelley, The Shaping of the American Past (Third Edition, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1982), II, 385. go back

5Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, and William E. Leuchtenburg, A Concise History of the American Republic (New York, 1979), pp.450-451.
go back

6Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas And Other Papers (London, 1888), pp.10-12. go back

7Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York, 1931), 294, 355; Jane Bryce, The American Commonwealth (New York, 1895), II, 3-4. go back

8Vernon Louis Parrington, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920 (New York, 1930), 10-23; Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (New York, 1933), II, 319; and Matthew Josephson, The Politicos, 1865-1896 (New York, 1938), VII. go back

9H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896 (Syracuse, N.Y., 1969), VI. go back

10See, for example, Kelley, The Shaping of the American Past, II, 427. go back

11Paul Kleppner, The Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis of Midwestern Politics, 1850-1900 (New York, 1970); Richard J. Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict 1888-1896 (Chicago, 1971); and Samuel McSeveney, The Politics of Depression: Political Behavior in the Northeast, 1893-1896 (New York, 1972). go back

12Geoffrey Blodgett, "A New Look at the American Gilded Age," Historical Reflections, II (Winter, 1974), 235-236. go back

13Vincent P. DeSantis, "The Political Life of the Gilded Age: A Review of the Recent Literature," The History Teacher, IX (November, 1975), 73-106. go back

14Samuel Eliot Morison, et. al., A Concise History of the American Republic, 409. go back

15John M. Blum et. al., The National Experience (Fourth Edition, New York, 1977), 464. go back

16John A. Garraty, The American National Since 1865: A History of the United States (New York, 1966), 179; Oscar Handlin, The History of the United States (New York, 1968), II, 135, 145; Norman Graebner, Gilbert C. Fite, and Philip L. White, A History of the American People (New York, 1971), II, 640-641; John D. Hicks, George E. Mowry, and Robert E. Burke, The American Nation (Fifth Edition, Boston, 1971), 54-55; George B. Tindall, America, A Narrative History (New York, 1958), II, 826. go back

17Harold U. Faulker, Politics, Reform and Expansion 1890-1900 (New York, 1959), 95, 128; Leonard D. White, The Republican Era: 1869-1901 ( New York, 1958), I, 10-13, 395-96. go back

18Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York, 1967), 27-32. go back

19John A. Garraty, The New Commonwealth, 1877-1890 (New York, 1969), 220-238; John M. Dobson, Politics in the Gilded Age: A New Perspective on Reform (New York, 1972). go back

20See for example, Kelley, The Shaping of the American Past (3rd ed.), 427; Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy, The American Pageant (Sixth Ed., Lexington, Mass.), II, 468; Vincent P. DeSantis, "The Politics of Conservatism," in The Democratic Experience by Carl N. Degler et. al. (Fifth Edition, Glenview, Ill., 1981), II, 94-102. go back

21Bailey and Kennedy, II, 468, 483, 505, 528. go back

22Allan Peskin, "Why The Gilded Age?" Hayes Historical Journal, V (Summer, 1986), 5. go back

23Vincent P. DeSantis, The Shaping of Modern America, 1877-1916 (Arlington Heights, Indiana, 1973, 1977), I. go back

24Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought II, 1860-1920, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America (New York; 1958), 49.
go back

25 Ibid., 11. go back

26Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (New York; 1957), 229. See also Andrew Gulliford, "Progressive Era Children and the Photographs of Jacob Riis and Louis Hine," Hayes Historical Journal Vol. V1, No. II (Winter, 1987), 7-18. go back

27Garraty, The New Commonwealth, p. 138. go back

28W. M. Springer, "City Growth and Party Politic," Forum X (1890), 474. go back

go to top of page