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Learn About the Gilded Age

The late 19th century witnessed the birth of modern America. It saw the closing of the Western frontier. Between 1865 and the 1890s, Americans settled 430 million acres in the Far West--more land than during the preceding 250 years of American history. But to open lands west of the Mississippi River to white settlers, the Plains Indians were pushed in a series of Indian wars onto restricted reservations.

This period also witnessed 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. By the beginning of the twentieth century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States exceeded that of any other country except Britain. Long hours and hazardous working conditions, led many workers to attempt to form labor unions despite strong opposition from industrialists and the courts.

An era of intense political 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 years also saw the rise of the Populist crusade. 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.

Mark Twain called the late nineteenth 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 nineteenth 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 was transformed into an urban society dominated by industrial corporations.

East and West: Completion of the Great Line Spanning the Continent
More documents from the Gilded Age

Handouts and fact sheets:

  • African Americans After Slavery
  • Indian Policy
  • Changing Status of Women
  • Farmers' Revolt
  • Responses to Industrialization
  • Recommended lesson plan:

    Gilded Age Lesson Plans from the Illinois Historical Digitization Projects


    Test your knowledge about the Gilded Age

    Recommended books:

    Leon Fink, Ed., Major Problems in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: Documents and Essays.

    Recommended film:

    Molly Maguires
    This historical film tells the story of late nineteenth century Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania who are accused of using terrorist tactics to win better working conditions and higher wages.

    learn more film

    Recommended Website:

    1896: The Presidential Campaign
    Extensive resources on the pivotal presidential election of 1896.

    Cartoons of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
    Political cartoons from the late 19th and early 20th century.


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