Was the Gilded Age the Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

One of my favorite photos ever taken of Raymond Pitcairn, early figure in my hometown.  Also a representation of what the Gilded Age meant to a lot of people. Photo courtesy of Glencairn Museum

One of my favorite photos ever taken of Raymond Pitcairn, early figure in my hometown. Also a representation of what the Gilded Age meant to a lot of people.
Photo courtesy of Glencairn Museum

I don’t remember what the first run-in I had with the term “Gilded Age” was, but for whatever reason, it has always stuck out to me. Gilded is golden, right? Golden is good. Furthermore, the town that I grew up in was founded towards the end of the Gilded Age and shares many characteristics of the time period (even 100+ years later).

Then I found myself in college at the University of Central Florida, enrolled in a class called simply “The Gilded Age”. It’s the only History class I have ever dropped in my life. Why did I drop it? Because the professor took the stance that the Gilded Age was a time of misery and corruption, when wealthy men (like the man who founded my hometown) oppressed the poor as grievously as any medieval baron. What? I thought gilded was good! And here I was being told the exact opposite?

So what exactly was the Gilded Age, was it a bright or a dark chapter of American history, and why is it important to us now?

Well, the term “The Gilded Age” was actually coined by none other than Mark Twain and fellow writer Charles Dudley Warner in their book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. It refers generally to the period of American history from the end of the Civil War up to the 20th century. Awesome! One of my favorite time periods of history. It includes the Second Industrial Revolution, mass immigration of Europeans attracted to the prosperity and hope of a booming economy, the growth of railroads and westward expansion. It also includes the degradation of the South after the Civil War, the gradual stripping of the rights of African Americans in the South, the struggle of women to gain the vote, and pitiful, abject poverty.

The cover of Scientific American, July of 1880, depicting a wallpaper factory.

The cover of Scientific American, July of 1880, depicting a wallpaper factory.
courtesy of Wikicommons

Sound like a mixed bag? Yep. Absolutely. Thus the term “Gilded Age”. See, what Twain and Warner were talking about in their book was that America was trapped in its own paradox. Life was moving fast and was full of promises. The rich were very rich indeed and displayed their wealth in ostentatious ways. The American Dream was touted as something anyone could have. Yet, underneath all that gilding, lay poverty, prejudice, and a life that was far more difficult for the common man than the media of the time cared to portray.

So wait, was it a good or a bad time to be alive?

Well, the Gilded Age was an era technology. A hundred years earlier, the Industrial Revolution had begun the work of redefining the way goods were made and transported. By the Gilded Age, manufacturing and transportation had kicked into overdrive in what is known as the Second Industrial Revolution. Science was advancing by leaps and bounds, each new discovery giving way to dozens more, which set the groundwork for still more innovation. Medical advances were happening at a mind-boggling rate. So were advances in textiles, chemicals, mining, and manufacturing.

Awesome, eh? And yeah, if you were in the right place during this time life would have gotten much easier and healthier.

If you were in the wrong place, however, good luck.

All of these fantastic technological inventions in manufacturing were operated by unskilled, uneducated laborers. And yes, this meant a serious social devaluation human labor. Manufacturers no longer needed skilled workers. Now they needed moving bodies that could work the machines. Compounding the problem was the fact that the great industrialists of the era figured out how to control every aspect of production in any given industry. This was monopoly before it became a fun board game. Companies like Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel Company (which later merged with a competitor to become United States Steel), and General Electric had the market so cornered that it was hard for new companies to provide competition.

John D. Rockeffeler - Robber-Baron or great Industrialist and philanthropist? Photo courtesy of Wikicommons

John D. Rockeffeler
– Robber-Baron or great Industrialist and philanthropist?
Photo courtesy of Wikicommons

This also meant that those who worked for those companies, or the railroad or coal companies of the day, owed everything to the company. The companies provided their housing, healthcare, education, you name it. Sold my soul to the company store? You bet.So it was a dismal time full of social injustice and misery, right?

Not quite. Because as powerful and frightening as a lot of those leaders of industry were, they were also great philanthropists. We know names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and J.P. Morgan today because they donated millions of dollars to social causes, building schools and museums, instituting social programs and seeking to help the poor. Those are all good things.

Of course, life and money are never black and white. These great captains of industry earned the nickname “Robber-Barons” because they seemed to steal from people with one hand and give back to them with the other. Social programs are great, but it was the imbalance of wealth and deplorable working conditions that fattened the pockets of these men that created the need to have social assistance in the first place. Industry made life better by making it worse.

So wait, I’m still confused. Was this a good time to be alive or not? Were things gilded because there were golden opportunities everywhere or was it all just a pretty façade covering a much darker truth?

I think ultimately the answer to that question is “Yes.”

The Gilded Age, my favorite age of American history, was an enigma wrapped in a paradox wrapped in a mystery, smothered in secret sauce. It is a rich period of conflicting history, questionable morality, and wildly different interpretation. Life was getting easier for some because it was getting harder for others. How people felt and continue to feel about this uncomfortable episode of our past greatly depends on how they choose to look at it.

So I’ll be taking a look at various aspects of the Gilded Age in the coming weeks, particularly (of course) as it would have affected the worlds of both my Montana Romance series of novels and a few other projects that you’ll see in the future. Sounds like fun? We’ve hardly even scratched the surface!

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3 thoughts on “Was the Gilded Age the Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

  1. From what I’ve been reading lately, Carnegie and Rockefeller were supposedly excellent bosses to work for. They compensated their workers well. Most of the real robbers of the time were the men who worked with the government to get unfair subsidies and land grants to build shoddy railroad systems and bilk the American public. Ida Tarbell’s father or brother (I forget) had a small oil company and Rockefeller’s more successful set up put him out of business so Ida wrote an “expose” that has tarred Rockefeller I think unfairly. I hate when rich people are all lumped into the same category–as if all poor or middle class people are exactly alike! I think sometimes people just get jealous of hard workers who scrimp and save and build empires. I’m not one of them 🙂 One of my book characters (who lives in 1880’s New Jersey) is struggling just now with his sense of Christian morality as he finds himself becoming increasingly successful at banking in NYC. I LOVE the Gilded Age for all of its contradictions. It’s very similar to our time in so many ways.

    • Ah! You hit the nail on the head of why I dropped that class in college! The prof tried to paint all wealthy people as being nothing but bad news when I knew full-well from the history of my hometown that some of them did amazing, generous things and were very good people. It was a time of so much contradiction though. And you’re right, it’s very much like our world today.

      Thanks!

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