Gilded Age

Gilded Age, a term used to describe a period in United States history—from roughly 1870 to 1900—when the wealthy elite consisted of industrialists who amassed their fortunes and boasted significant wealth vis-à-vis the rest of the population. This era saw extensive cultural, economic, political, and social transformations. The phrase "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twainand Charles Dudley Warnerin their 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, although contemporary Americans did not actively use the expression during the time. By this term, Twain implied that the period was glittering on the exterior but corrupt beneath. In the popular view of the press, the Gilded Age was a period of greed, graft, and corruption. Generally defined as the period following the Civil War, although more specifically between the election of Rutherford Hayesand the end of Reconstructionin 1876 and the Panic of 1893, these years were defined by economic growth. Industrialists and magnates gained their wealth in railways and communications, and in sectors like iron, coal, steel, and oil. The 1880s and 1890s were also years of exceptional technological innovation, mass immigration, and extreme political partisanship. The economy industrialized dramatically due to new forms of economic organization, and immigration increased from eastern and southern Europe. Between 1860 and 1900 an estimated fourteen million immigrants came to the United States.

Gilded Age is often described as an era of "conspicuous consumption"—a term used by economist Thorstein Veblen to represent the money spent on luxury and leisure during this period—and unfettered capitalism. But it was also a formative period in the United States, when the country went from an agrarian country to an urban society dominated by industrial corporations. The fortunes of people like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegiewere vast, and many historians highlight the inequality of the era. However, these so-called robber barons and captains of industry were also philanthropists and often used their wealth to construct libraries, parks, museums, and theatres in major cities. The late 19th-century United States saw the creation of a modern economy. By the beginning of the 20th century, increasing economic independence and more educational opportunities for women enlarged their social freedom and widened their range of public activity. The Gilded Age was also an era of political reform, seeing the passage of the Civil Service Act, the Interstate Commerce Act, and the Sherman Antitrust Act. The social and political progress made during the Gilded Age was substantial even amidst significant inequalities.

See M. F. Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues (2000); N. Cohen, The Reconstruction of American Liberalism (2002); J. Beatty, Age of Betrayal (2007); M. Flanagan, America Reformed (2007); H. C. Richardson, West from Appomattox (2007); J. Lears, Rebirth of a Nation (2009); R. Edwards, New Spirits (2d ed. 2010); L. Fink, The Long Gilded Age (2015); R. White, The Republic for Which It Stands (2017); G. E. Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow (2d ed. 2019); A. Offenburger, Frontiers in the Gilded Age (2019).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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