In American history, the “Gilded Age“ refers to the post-Civil War era, from 1865 to 1901, which saw unprecedented economic, industrial, and population expansion in a mostly conservative political environment. The era overlaps with Reconstruction (1863-1877) and ended with the depression of the 1890s, the presidential election of 1896, and the new Progressive Era.
The Gilded Age was characterized by an unusually rapid growth of railroads, small factories, banks, stores, mines and other family-owned enterprises, together with the start of millions of new farms, especially in the prairie region. Very rapid economic and population growth made the U.S. economy the largest and richest in the world.
Cities grew enormously in size and importance—and offered new political opportunities for corruption in the form of ward-based party machines and powerful bosses who controlled city contracts and city jobs. Reform efforts centered on civil service reform and, at the local and state level, prohibition of the sale of whiskey, beer and wine.
Ethnic diversity increased dramatically as millions of new immigrants arrived from Europe drawn by the promotions of steamship and railroad companies which emphasized the availability of jobs and farmland.
The entrepreneurs of America’s “the Second Industrial Revolution” created rich, fast-growing industrial cities in the Northeast brimming with new factories, and contributed to the rise of super-rich industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Their critics on the left called the entrepreneurs “robber barons”, an artful term combing crime (robber) and un-American aristocracy (barons), to denounce their use of overpowering and sometimes unethical financial manipulations.
There was a small, growing labor union movement, led by Terrence Powderly and Samuel Gompers; unlike Europe, the labor unions supported capitalism, not socialism.
Politically the Gilded Age was part of the Third Party System and featured extremely close contests between the Republicans and Democrats, with occasional third parties such as the Greenbackers, Prohibitionists and Populists.
Nearly all the eligible men were political partisans, and voter turnout often exceeded 90% in some states. Partisanship was based on historic and ethnic loyalties, and saw the moralistic (“pietistic”) evangelical Republicans (who favored prohibition and reform) pitted against the liturgical Democrats (who strongly opposed prohibition). The short-lived Populist Party had considerable support in 1892 among cotton and wheat farmers, as well as coal miners and silver miners.
The wealth of the period is highlighted by the American upper class’s opulent self-indulgence, but also the rise of the American philanthropy (Andrew Carnegie called it the “Gospel of Wealth”) that endowed thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities. The “Beaux-Arts” architectural idiom of the era clothed public buildings in Neo-Renaissance architecture.
The end of the Gilded Age coincided with the Panic of 1893, a deep depression. The depression lasted until 1897 and marked a major political realignment in the election of 1896. After that came the Progressive Era and the Fourth Party System. The end of Reconstruction in 1877, race relations deteriorated as African Americans lost their voting rights in the 1890s and became second class citizens legally. Racial violence escalated with lynchings peaking in the 1890s.
The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). The term comes from Shakespeare: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily… is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
Industrial and Economic Growth
The Gilded Age was rooted in industrialization, especially heavy industry like factories, railroads, and coal mining. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.
America’s steel production surpassed that of Britain, Germany, and France combined.
Mechanization of industry increased greatly, opening machine shops with highly skilled workers and engineers. Engineering colleges were established to meet the enormous demand for expertise.
Companies developed systems, such as railroad systems with clear chains of commands within.
From 1860 – 1890 over 500,000 patents were issued for new inventions to men such as:
- George Westinghouse – air brakes on trains
- Theodore Vail – American Telephone & Telegraph Company
- Thomas Edison – co-founder of General Electric Corporation
- John D. Rockefeller – founder of the Standard Oil Company.
The Gilded Age saw the greatest period of economic growth in American history, producing over one-third of international goods such as oil and steel.
From 1869 -1879, the US economy grew at a rate of 6.8 % for NNP (GDP minus capital depreciation) and 4.5 % for NNP per capita.
The nation’s wealth grew at an annual rate of 3.8 % during the 1880s while the GDP doubled.
Gilded Age politics featured close contests between the Republicans and Democrats with voter turnout exceeding over 90 percent in some states.
During the Reconstruction era, Americans had seen corrupt state governments, massive fraud in cities controlled by political machines, political payoffs to secure government contracts, such as the financing of the transcontinental railroad, and evidence of government corruption during the Ulysses S. Grant Administration.
There was a sense that government intervention in the economy inevitably led to favoritism, bribery, kickbacks, inefficiency, waste, and corruption.
Democrats led the call for a free market, low tariffs, low taxes, less spending, and a hands-off government while denouncing overseas expansion.
Many businessmen and professional people supported this approach, however, most Republicans supported high tariffs to protect the high wages in America from the low wage system in Europe.
Some Republicans said that high tariffs benefited the rich industrialist over their middle-class employees.
The Republican and Democratic political platforms remained remarkably constant during the Gilded Years. Republicans generally favored inflationary, protectionist policies while Democrats favored hard-money, free trade, and other libertarian policies.
During the Gilded Age, approximately 10 million immigrants came to the United States. Some were prosperous farmers looking for fresh lands, and many were impoverished peasants looking for the American Dream in mills, mines, and factories.
Most stayed away from the poverty-stricken south.
To accommodate the heavy influx from Europe, the federal government in 1892, opened a reception center at Ellis Island near the Statue of Liberty.
The construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in California and Nevada was handled largely by Chinese laborers. Labor union strongly opposed their presence.
Congress banned Chinese immigration with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
The population of Northern cities began to swell, as a result of the need for factory workers and the massive influx of European immigrants.
The rapid growth of cities brought about modern architectural and transportation changes. Steel frames used in skyscrapers with new safety measures on elevators helped buildings reach new heights.
The American cities expanded from horse-drawn carriages to electric streetcars and subways.
As immigration increased in cities so did poverty, forcing immigrants to live in the poorest urban areas, such as Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.
These areas were quickly overtaken by crime gangs like the Bowery Boys.
During the Gilded Age, many new social movements took hold in the United States.
Women were disappointed that the Fifteenth Amendment did not extend voting rights to them remained active in politics. Women joined together in an attempt to bring back morality to America with organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Other women took the issue of women’s suffrage, with leaders like Susan B. Anthony of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to secure the right of women to vote.
The development and acceptance of the sewing machine changed the domestic lives of women. According to the Singer Corporation, by 1889, over 3 million homes had a sewing machine.
During the Gilded Age, social Darwinism was introduced to America, by an English philosopher, Herbert Spencer. The new concept justified the stratification of the wealthy and poor and coined the term “survival of the fittest.”
During this period were discussed topics such as assistance to the poor actually weakens their ability to survive in society and poverty causes crime, not biology.
Not everyone agreed with the social Darwinists and organizations to help the poor were formed such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army.
The wealth of the Gilded Age was highlighted by the American upper class’ opulence, but also by the rise of American philanthropy that used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities.
John D. Rockefeller donated over $500 million to various charities, which was over half his net worth.
The Gilded Age coincided with the Panic of 1893, resulting in a deep depression, which lasted until 1897 and marked a major political realignment in the election of 1896.