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Overview of the Gilded Age
Digital History ID 2916

Mark Twain called the late 19th century the "Gilded Age." By this, he meant that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath. In the popular view, the late 19th century was a period of greed and guile: of rapacious Robber Barons, unscrupulous speculators, and corporate buccaneers, of shady business practices, scandal-plagued politics, and vulgar display.

It is easy to caricature the Gilded Age as an era of corruption, conspicuous consumption, and unfettered capitalism. But it is more useful to think of this as modern America's formative period, when an agrarian society of small producers were transformed into an urban society dominated by industrial corporations.

The late 19th century saw the creation of a modern industrial economy. A national transportation and communication network was created, the corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations.

An era of intense partisanship, the Gilded Age was also an era of reform. The Civil Service Act sought to curb government corruption by requiring applicants for certain governmental jobs to take a competitive examination. The Interstate Commerce Act sought to end discrimination by railroads against small shippers and the Sherman Antitrust Act outlawed business monopolies.

These were turbulent years that saw labor violence, rising racial tension, militancy among farmers, and discontent among the unemployed. Burdened by heavy debts and falling farm prices, many farmers joined the Populist Party, which called for an increase in the amount of money in circulation, government assistance to help farmers repay loans, tariff reductions, and a graduated income tax.

Closing the Western Frontier

In 1860, most Americans considered the Great Plains the “Great American Desert.” Settlement west of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana averaged just 1 person per square mile. The only parts of the Far West that were highly settled were California and Texas. Between 1865 and the 1890s, however, Americans settled 430 million acres in the Far West--more land than during the preceding 250 years of American history. By 1893, the Census Bureau was able to claim that the entire western frontier was now occupied.

The discovery of gold, silver, and other precious minerals in California in 1849, in Nevada and Colorado in the 1850s, in Idaho and Montana in 1860s, and South Dakota in the 1870s sparked an influx of prospectors and miners. The expansion of railroads and the invention of barbed wire and improvements in windmills and pumps attracted ranchers and farmers to the Great Plains in the 1860s and 1870s. This chapter examines the forces that drove Americans westward; the kinds of lives they established in the Far West; and the rise of the "West of the imagination," the popular myths that continue to exert a powerful hold on mass culture.

The Tragedy of the Plains Indians

The 250,000 Native Americans who lived on the Great Plains were confined onto reservations through renegotiation of treaties and 30 years of war. This section examines the consequences of America's westward movement for Native Americans.

The Gilded Age

The 1880s and 1890s were years of unprecedented technological innovation, mass immigration, and intense political partisanship, including disputes over currency, tariffs, political corruption and patronage, and railroads and business trusts.

The Making of Modern America

The late 19th century saw the advent of new communication technologies, including the phonograph, the telephone, and radio; the rise of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines; the growth of commercialized entertainment, as well as new sports, including basketball, bicycling, and football, and appearance of new transportation technologies, such as the automobile, electric trains and trolleys.

Industrialization & the Working Class

This chapter examines the impact of and responses to industrialization among American workers, including the attempt to form labor unions despite strong opposition from many industrialists and the courts.

The Huddled Masses

Around the turn of the 20th century, mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe dramatically altered the population's ethnic and religious composition. Unlike earlier immigrants, who had come from Britain, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia, the “new immigrants” came increasingly from Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Russia. The newcomers were often Catholic or Jewish and two-thirds of them settled in cities. In this chapter you will learn about the new immigrants and the anti-immigrant reaction.

The Rise of Big Business

Between the Civil War and World War I, the modern American economy emerged. A national transportation and communication network was created, the corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the 20th century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States exceeded that of any other country except Britain.

Unlike the pre-Civil War economy, this new one was dependent on raw materials from around the world and it sold goods in global markets. Business organization expanded in size and scale. There was an unparalleled increase in factory production, mechanization, and business consolidation. By the beginning of the 20th century, the major sectors of the nation's economy--banking, manufacturing, meat packing, oil refining, railroads, and steel--were dominated by a small number of giant corporations.

The Rise of the City

This section traces the changing nature of the American city in the late 19th century, the expansion of cities horizontally and vertically, the problems caused by urban growth, the depiction of cities in art and literature, and the emergence of new forms of urban entertainment.

The Political Crisis of the 1890s

The 1880s and 1890s were years of turbulence. Disputes erupted over labor relations, currency, tariffs, patronage, and railroads. The most momentous political conflict of the late 19th century was the farmers' revolt. Drought, plagues of grasshoppers, boll weevils, rising costs, falling prices, and high interest rates made it increasingly difficult to make a living as a farmer. Many farmers blamed railroad owners, grain elevator operators, land monopolists, commodity futures dealers, mortgage companies, merchants, bankers, and manufacturers of farm equipment for their plight. Farmers responded by organizing Granges, Farmers' Alliances, and the Populist Party. In the election of 1896, the Populists and the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for president. Bryan’s decisive defeat inaugurated a period of Republican ascendancy, in which Republicans controlled the presidency for 24 of the next 32 years.