The Gilded Age is the period of American history from 1870 to 1900 that was an age of rapid growth and industrialization whereby the United States emerged as the World's largest economy. The following are the basic characteristics of the gilded age.
In the Gilded Age, the United States experienced rapid economic growth that allowed it to pass China to become the worlds largest economy. This was largely driven by immigration, industrialization and infrastructure building. As you can see in this chart, US growth far exceeds that of European and Asian economies in this period.
(GDP in millions of 1990 International Dollars)
By the 1920s, it was common to refer to the late 19th century as a "golden age." The term Gilded Age originates with the 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which satirized an era of social problems and poverty masked by a thin gold gilding. For example, while the Northern economy thrived the South continued to struggle in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Indigenous peoples were decimated in this period. Life for most Gilded Age immigrants to America was bleak with harsh work, low wages and crowded living conditions.
Around 12 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1870 and 1900. These were mostly from Germany, Ireland and England. At the end of the century, immigration had shifted with more immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. These waves of immigration helped to drive economic growth and build a rich multicultural environment, particularly in New York City. At the end of the Gilded Age in 1900, the population of the United States had reached 76 million.
American cities such as New York and Chicago grew rapidly. The first "skyscrapers" appeared such as the Equitable Life Building in New York built in 1870 that was apparently impressive at the time with its nine stories. Cities became extremely dense but rural life also thrived with farmland rapidly expanding with the railroads.
The railways lead the economic boom of the Gilded Age with miles of track increasing by 567% between 1865 and 1898. This allowed connected cities to grow and trade. The farming, ranching and mining industries grew quickly.
The social, cultural and economic system known as the American Frontier, or Wild West, still existed in the Gilded Age but was rapidly shrinking as stable settlements and transportation infrastructure reached further into the Midwest,Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southwest and West Coast. The American frontier ended with the admission of New Mexico and Arizona into the United States in 1912.
Second Industrial Revolution
The economic growth of the Gilded Age was fueled by the Second Industrial Revolution that represented a shift to production at great scale using machines powered by coal. The economy also started to use petroleum and electricity in this period. Steel, iron and coal were produced at great scale and these were used to build and power infrastructure, machines and vehicles.
The American Bison was hunted to near extinction. Where they had once numbered 25 million on the Great Plains they were decimated down to a herd of 100 by 1883. This eliminated the livelihood of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains.
In the Gilded Age, the American industrial machine produced immense wealth. Class consciousness was high and unions were active in trying to secure a share of this for workers. Strikes were so large that they resembled mini-revolutions. For example, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 involved open combat between government troops, private militia hired by companies and workers. These brutal and costly struggles did eventually produce results as the average annual wage of industrial workers rose from $380 in 1880 to $564 in 1890, a gain of 48% in a decade. The American middle class of the 20th century rose out of these hard won gains.
Political corruption, cronyism, bribery and outright embezzlement ran rampant in the Gilded Age. To make matters worse, regulations in areas such as anti-trust, anti-corruption, employment law and consumer protection were lacking such that the economy was perceived as corrupt. Voter turnout was high and there was a perception that special interests were able to circumvent the popular will.
The Gilded Age produced thousands of American millionaires and several individuals such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who were billionaires but only on an inflation adjusted basis to the current values of their fortunes. The Gilded Age produced great homes and stories of lavish spending and lifestyles. However, wealth disparity in the Gilded Age was lower than current levels. For example, the top 2% owned approximately 33% of wealth. A September 2017 study by the Federal Reserve found that the top 1% now own 38.5% of wealth.
The Gilded Age saw two economic depressions known as the Panic of 1873 and the Panic of 1893. Both lasted about 4 years. The Panic of 1873 was known as the Great Depression until the longer and more severe depression of 1929-39 took this title. In the Panic of 1873, unemployment peaked at 8.25%. Compared to unemployment in 1933 at 24.9% this looks somewhat mild. However, there was no social safety net and the unemployed depended on private charities. This made the situation quite severe for many people resulting in protests of unemployed workers that were occasionally violently repressed.
A defacto policy of forced family separation of Indigenous peoples was pursued towards the end of the 19th century in the United States and Canada. This was specifically designed to extinguish Indigenous culture and languages and to "civilize" and Christianize indigenous populations. In many cases, students were given new Christian names, prohibited from using their native language and contact with family was minimized. At the time, the indigenous population was in rapid decline and assimilation was presented as the solution.
Nadir of American Race Relations
After the Civil War, there was a brief period known as the Reconstruction-era of 1863-77 wherein the federal government heavily intervened in Southern states to reconstruct the economy and to try to provide freedom and constitutional equality for African Americans. This was followed by a period known as the Nadir of American Race Relations whereby African Americans faced harsh racism, violence, loss of rights and poor labor conditions such as the sharecropping system.
In France, the Gilded Age was known as the Belle Époque. This was a relatively peaceful time in European history whereby the European powers had stopped fighting each other in favor of conquering the developing world. The Belle Époque was the peak age of European imperialism and European nations controlled vast regions of the world. For example, the population of the British Empire in 1900 was 384,000,000 but the population of the United Kingdom itself was only 39,875,900 such the UK controlled regions 10 times larger than its own population.
The Gilded Age occurred in the late Victorian age known for its somber and highly formal fashions. Young upper class women wore elaborate, frilly and colorful dresses to formal engagements. Black was the dominant color on the street and all social classes tended to wear the most formal and ornate fashions they could afford.
Art Nouveau was a late 19th century movement in art, architecture and design that was highly stylized and ornate. It captures the spirit of the Gilded Age as it embraced contemporary scenes and design. This can be contrasted with Victorian Architecture and Academic Art of the same time period that were based on a revival of historical styles, designs and scenes.
Some sources extend the Gilded Age to 1913 whereby it ends at WWI. It is also common to label the period 1886-1913 as the Progressive Era as this was a period of social activism that sought women's suffrage, racial equality and an end to the monopolies and corruption that dominated American politics in the Gilded Age. The progressives also embraced problematic causes such as eugenics and a prohibition on alcohol that would both go on to have dark associations later in the 20th century.
This is the complete list of articles we have written about history.
Broadberry, Stephen, and Alexander Klein. "Aggregate and per capita GDP in Europe, 1870–2000." Scandinavian Economic History Review 60.1, 2012.Kennedy, Paul. The rise and fall of the great powers: economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000. Vintage, 2010.Kelthe, Sir John Scott. The Statesman's Year-book: Statistical and Historical Annual of the States of the World for the Year 1900-1903. MacMillan, 1900.Fraser, Steve (2015). The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Little, Brown and Company.