The Rich World of the 1880s

By KENNETH E. DAVISON



My role, to introduce the other authors, is to simply set the stage for their presentations. We are about to reexamine the rich world of the 1880s, part of America's historical past that for a long time was either avoided or misunderstood by most students of American history, including this one. Critics of the post-Civil War generation have used a variety of phrases to express their disapproval of the age. It was variously labeled a Gilded Age - a Dreadful Decade - a Great Barbecue - a Tragic Era.

Today this version of the 1870s and 1880s, with its heavy emphasis upon politics and economics, is in the discard owing to the publication of many revisionist works during the past twenty years. Even our understanding of traditional economic and political history of the late nineteenth century has changed considerably. Robert Wiebe and others have put forth an organizational synthesis of modern American history. C. Vann Woodward, one of the very first scholars to reappraise events of the Gilded Age, did so brilliantly in his still basic monograph, Reunion and Reaction, in which he developed new insights into the Compromise of 1877, the political bargain which finally confirmed Hayes's election as President of the United States.

We have seen new biographical studies of every President from Hayes to McKinley, and good works on other public figures associated with these chief executives have also appeared. Some of this interesting scholarship is featured in this collection of essays. We have witnessed, too, a striking shift in business history, away from stress on robber barons to an emphasis upon industrial statesman.

But the most fascinating research on this once ignored period has come, I think, from scholars more concerned with social, cultural, intellectual, and literary matters, from persons, in short, of an American Studies orientation - leaders like Russel B. Nye, Robert H. Walker, and Alma J. Payne who are part of this Symposium. The net effect of their work and others like them is to put quite a different stamp upon Mark Twain's "Gilded Age," so that the period emerges as a major cultural epoch in American civilization, and not simply as an era dominated by big business and handicapped by ineffective politicos.

One index of the great change in the interpretation of these late nineteenth century years is the shift in labels used to identify the period. The late Howard Mumford Jones called it an "Age of Energy." American Heritage titled its pictorial volume - "The Confident Years." Fred Shannon used the phrase - "The Centennial Years." Most of us now refer to it as "Victorian America." In each instance, the connotations are far more positive than they used to be.

One of the most strangely neglected topics of the era is the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 which symbolized America's coming of age. Despite the superb Smithsonian exhibit recreating some of the displays and some other efforts in writing, we still need a good interpretive book which effectively explains exactly what happened at the Centennial Fair and why.

Science and technology took great strides in the Victorian years. Another notable new area of activity was the founding of major museums around the country. The arts gained significantly in popular attention and achievement through the work of Old Masters and expatriate painters, the Chicago School of architecture, and the rise of serious American music to public favor. William Henry Jackson and Timothy O'Sullivan were just two of the outstanding cameramen who helped create a whole new dimension of enjoyment for Americans while recording their imperishable images of the American environment.

Social life underwent profound transformation in the Victorian years as immigration patterns altered sharply. Recreational habits changed too, as sports became standardized and professionalized. Periodicals and political cartoons surfaced as never before in American life. Women acquired new occupations, improved their educational opportunities, and gained greater leisure.

The era, of course, also created some troublesome problems not yet adequately resolved. The sudden expansion of cities and the nadir of Black experience are associated with this age. Two of our authors deal with these issues.

Yet, on balance, the richness of the period in other areas has now become apparent, and to hold a conference a century later in a lovely Victorian setting like Spiegel Grove, and to here reappraise the significance of the 1880s in American life, is indeed appropriate. While we cannot touch all of the important trends and topics even in a double issue of the Hayes Historical Journal, enough is included and analyzed to make our efforts a significant attempt to better understand American life and experience of a century ago.