The Gilded Age is the era of rapid economic and population growth in the United States after the U.S. Civil War and the Reconstruction of the South. The name comes from the book The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Warner.
The Gilded Age in the U.S. history was a time of transformation of the state into a world power, an era of the greatest prosperity of the American nation, but it was characterized by class division, racial discrimination, women’s struggle for their rights, and regions’ segregation.
It is believed that the modern American economy was built in the era of the Gilded Age. In the 1870-1880s, the economy, wages, wealth, national product, and capital in the U.S. grew at the fastest pace in the nation’s history. The Gilded Age was based on industrialization, especially in the development of heavy industry: factories, railways, and coal mines. Industrialization in the American North was accompanied by urbanization. The population of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other major industrial centers exceeded one million. Population growth was accompanied by changes in architecture and urban transport. Crude steel production in the United States during this period exceeded total production of the steel industry in the UK, Germany, and France.
The peculiarity of the economy of the Gilded Age was an increasingly high degree of mechanization of production in order to lower production costs. Mechanization allowed hiring low-skilled workers who produced the same simple operations under the guidance of experienced craftsmen and engineers. Skilled workers were needed for engineering plants. The number of hired workers, both skilled and unskilled, was growing. To meet the growing needs of industry for skilled labor, a lot of engineering colleges were opened. A complex bureaucratic apparatus with a hierarchy of command and statistical reporting designed for the management of railways was also introduced in the rest of the economy. In large corporations, there was a system of career growth. Thus, employees in relatively high positions in terms of income caught up with the owners of small businesses, creating a middle class. The Gilded Age was a long period of sustainable development of the American economy, which was interrupted by a short economic crisis only once, in 1873.
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The U.S. political life in the era of the Gilded Age mainly consisted in the struggle between the Republican and Democratic parties, which was occasionally joined by other parties. Almost all the influential people in American politics belonged to either one or other party. The most secured class of American society lived in luxury, but it did not forget about philanthropy, supporting thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, theaters, libraries, orchestras, and charities.
After 1870, there was a formation of trade unions in the Northeast. To achieve wage increases and better working conditions from owners, they often resorted to strikes. One of the most famous was the great railroad strike in 1877, which lasted for 45 days and was accompanied by violent attacks on railway property. In addition to the performances of workers, American public opinion was shocked by the scandals of an earlier era of Reconstruction: corruption of senior officials, mass bribery, shady deals in the distribution of government contracts, and the generally scandalous reputation of the administration of President Grant. The public inclined to believe that government intervention in economic activity inevitably led to corruption, favoritism, bribery, inefficiency, and overspending of public funds. The Gilded Age’s ideal was a free market. Democrats also demanded a reduction of customs tariffs, taxes, and government spending and the termination of foreign expansion and American imperialism. The transfer of power from Republicans to Democrats was accompanied by the promotion of people to public office in local, regional, and national bodies along party lines.
In the era of the Gilded Age, about ten million immigrants came to the United States. This wave of immigration was called new as opposed to old immigration of 1791-1849 years. Some of new immigrants were successful farmers who wanted more land for their farms. Others were poor peasants, attracted by the American dream, who found work at mills, mines, and factories.
There was a great social division during the Gilded Age. Andrew Carnegie states that wealth segregation is an essential issue for modern society, considering the fact that the conditions of life have changed a lot over the past few hundred years.
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In former days there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food, and environment of the chief and those of his retainers…The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us today measures the change which has come with civilization. (Carnegie n. p.)
At the end of the nineteenth century, the theory of Charles Darwin about natural selection gained much popularity. This theory justifies social inequality. The ideas of social Darwinism were combined with the concept of free-market policies and Laissez-faire. Although the theory of Social Darwinism was not accepted by all in America, it became extremely popular. In opposition to it, the ideas of helping the poor were spreading. People who had more money lived in better conditions with all commodities and variety of food. Newly arrived immigrants usually settled in the poorest urban areas. Crime flourished in those regions. The living standards were low; families lived in overcrowded houses. These people did not have running water, electricity, and sometimes even furniture. They had to work long hours in low-paid jobs. The society was separated into two social parts: the rich and the poor.
Mark Twain described the main actions of the Gilded Age in his book The Gilded Age and Later Novels, showing how the United States became an arena of unrestricted and encouraged by the government private capitalist enterprise. The author used samples of political bribery and commercial robbery. Mark Twain represented that period of time as follows:
It is a time when one is filled with vague longings; when one dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea, or folds his hands and says, What is the use of struggling, and toiling and worrying anymore? Let us give it all up. (432)
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The title of the novel is directed against the apologists of capitalism who suggested considering this period of rapacious moneymaking as the golden age of American history. The credibility of sociopolitical material of The Gilded Age has no doubt. Such a broad, teeming with bright paintings and convincing details of predation of private capital and the expansion of political power in the United States, piece of writing, American literature had not seen before. The writer opposed the government and the inequality of the Gilded Age: “No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more” (Twain 216).
Many poor workers, who faced injustice in their working places, directed all their anger at the top of the corporation. As a result of such opposition, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen’s Monthly Magazine (1878) printed ten workingman’s commandments. Those commandments were written by an anonymous writer, who claimed that these “ten commandments” were “written down in the Statute-Books of Railroad Officials and idle Monopolists, and Jay Gould Aristocrats” (History Matters n. p.). They reveal the attitude of the upper class of corporations to their employees: “Thou shall not incite riots with intent to kill. If you do, I will have you arrested and make you give bonds for three thousand dollars and promise of good behavior in the future” (History Matters n. p.).
Despite all promises of prosperity and equality given to African Americans, the Gilded Age was characterized by huge racial segregation. African Americans suffered from taken voting rights, limited education, and low-paid jobs. Their lives differed a lot from the lives of Whites. Despite all the achievements of the Gilded Age, white people felt anger towards people of other skin colors. White Americans believed that the African-American part of the population took their jobs. It was one of the most common reasons for riots, lynching, and violence directed towards African Americans. White officials prevented African Americans from prestige work through legal restrictions and violence. David Roediger argues, “Working class whiteness reflects, even in the form of the minstrel show, hatreds that were profoundly mixed with a longing for values attributed to Blacks” (69).
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The Gilded Age was also characterized by the segregation of regions. The South was poorer than the West or the North. It was mainly rural. The population was unable to receive proper education. Mississippi, South Carolina, and Arkansas were considered to be in the deepest poverty. The daily life of this region was accompanied by racial discrimination and inequality. The majority of Afro-Americans lived in the South. The white government passed Jim Crow legislation, according to which African Americans were separated from White Americans in hospitals, schools, transport, and even some restaurants. They had not the right to vote and serve on juries. As a result, many Afro-Americans moved to the North in order to find better conditions. This process was known as the Great Migration. Erik Larson describes the Gilded Age as a complex process, accompanied by poverty, depravity, and violence: “It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history” (12).
Women’s social movement played an important role during the Gilded Age. Despite the prosperity of American society, women’s position had not changed a lot. The majority of women worked in shops or as servants until their marriage. Then, they became housewives. However, there was racial discrimination as well: African-American, Swedish, and Irish women worked as servants even after marriage. Moreover, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution did not give a voting right to women. As a result, women became very active. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was joined by many women abolitionists who wanted to return morality in American society. Besides, they struggled for their voting right. It was their main issue. Women also struggled against alcohol. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union supported alcohol prohibition. Suffrage movements became prominent during the Gilded Age as well.
Despite the fact that the Gilded Age is considered to be the age of economic opportunities and growth, it was one of the darkest periods of the U.S. history, characterized by corruption, greed, discrimination, inequality, and industrial competition. The insecurity of the Gilded Age inspired a new period in history – the Progressive Era. Its leaders and activists tried to correct troubling inequalities of the U.S. society, economy, and politics.
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