About the Author: Johnny Roy has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 8 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has been actively involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 3 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam.
The Gilded Age
The Gilded Age was a time of unprecedented growth of industry and technology in the United States following the Civil War and lasting until the beginning of the 20thCentury. New innovations in electricity, mechanization, and communication gave rise to industrial production never before seen in the modern world.
New innovations in electricity, mechanization, and communication gave rise to industrial production never before seen in the modern world.
As massive oil, railroad, and steel monopolies were built, millions of immigrants from all over the world flooded into the country looking for work and a better life. Urban areas grew at a nearly unsustainable rate as poor workers suffered through a lack of housing and sanitation in the under equipped cities. Political corruption further threatened the cities as political machines worked for their own interests instead of the cities inhabitants.
However, the Gilded Age created record economic growth in GDP, annual wages, and wealth for the country and its workers and eventually made the United States the most dominant industrial power in the world.
The Gilded Age created record economic growth and made the United States the most dominant industrial power in the world.
Creating a New World
There’s a way to do it better – find it. – Thomas Edison
New advances in industrial production and communication paved the way for the industrial revolution and business growth that took place during the Gilded Age.
- The Bessemer process, named for Henry Bessemer, revolutionized how steel was produced. The ability to produce greater quantities of stronger steel led to the expansion of railroad lines that crisscrossed the country.
- After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the demand for the production of railways and train cars and eventually, the transportation of goods and people, became overwhelming.
- Communication capabilities beyond the Pony Express became a necessity as businesses and people spread across the country. While Samuel Morse’s telegraph grew with the railroads and was successful, it was Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone in 1876 (patent received) that truly revolutionized country wide communication. The ability to talk directly to employees allowed businesses to expand without fear of being out of touch.
But the Biggest Innovation Was…
New inventions and technological advances improved the quality of life during the Gilded Age and while all were important in one aspect or another, it was the ability to harness electricity that had one of the most significant effects. The accomplishment of one of America’s greatest inventors Thomas Edison, and his invention of the incandescent lightbulb at his research facility in Menlo Park, NJ was instrumental in changing the workplace and domestic life.
Cities sprang to life with electricity…
Cities sprang to life with electricity powered street lamps and business signs that fostered the growth of entertainment and leisure activities. People’s homes became illuminated with light beyond a simple candle or two and the nations standard of living increased thanks to new inventions like vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and sewing machines that utilized electricity. Factories themselves could be located virtually anywhere thanks to the endless possibilities provided by the harnessing of electricity.
Innovating is Big Business
“I would rather earn 1% off of 100 people’s efforts than 100% of my own efforts”
– John D. Rockefeller
The Gilded Age saw the rise of massive corporations known as trusts. These trusts would eventually form monopolies over key segments of the American economy and wield tremendous power, both politically and economically.
Trusts would eventually form monopolies over key segments of the American economy
Fueled by the concepts outlined in the Gospel of Wealth, these industrialists believed in a survival of the fittest approach to economics that frequently led to confrontation with workers who wanted higher wages, safer working conditions, and greater worker protections. The rise of unions and increased frequency of strikes became central to the combative relationship between worker and employer.
The powerful individuals that led and created these monopolies became known as robber barons and they rose to power on the backs of the predominantly unskilled and unprotected labor force that fueled them.
The powerful individuals that led and created these monopolies became known as robber barons.
John D. Rockefeller and his corporation Standard Oil came to dominate the oil and gas industry that fed the machines of the Industrial Revolution along with Andrew Carnegie who created the largest steel producing company in the world. Others, like Cornelius Vanderbilt, oversaw the construction of thousands of miles of railroad lines and connected the country like never before and facilitating it all was J.P. Morgan who ran the nation’s banks and economic markets.
These men became some of the most powerful men in the country as they were able to create historical fortunes by bringing all these innovations to the masses at affordable prices.
These men, along with many others became some of the most powerful men in the country as they were able to create historical fortunes by bringing all these innovations to the masses at affordable prices. The standard of living in America was leaping upward. While this concentration of power enabled incredible economies of scale for, these robber barons controlled vast sectors of the American economy and control the lives of millions of laborers who became dependent on the jobs and wages that the industries provided.
As economic control and political power became consolidated amongst an elite few, the federal government tried to reign power back to the government through federal legislation. The passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 and later the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914 were the government’s attempt to regulate competition amongst private enterprises.
As economic control and political power became consolidated amongst an elite few, the federal government tried to reign power back to the government through federal legislation.
These regulations initially did little to curb the power of these massive monopolies as the businessmen found loopholes to avoid it. However, the Sherman Antitrust Act was eventually used to break up the powerful Standard Oil monopoly in 1911.
Where Did All the Worker’s Go?
The slum is the measure of a civilization. – Jacob Riis
As cities grew due to industrialization, millions of immigrants flooded the cities in the search of jobs and a better way of life. Along the East coast immigrants from Europe came through Ellis Island before they moved to the already congested areas of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Immigrants from Asia passed through Angel Island near San Francisco before pursuing their own dreams in America.
By 1920 and for the first time in American history, more people in the country lived in industrialized urban areas instead of agricultural rural areas.
By 1920 and for the first time in American history, more people in the country lived in industrialized urban areas instead of agricultural rural areas. Political machines like Tammany Hall took advantage of the needs of these immigrants to consolidate political power and benefit financially from their positions, using a process known as graft. However, this dramatic move to the cities came with its own set of challenges for the political machines and city governments, especially in the poor areas of the cities that became identified as the slums.
Political machines like Tammany Hall took advantage of the needs of these immigrants to consolidate political power and benefit financially from their positions
Housing shortages plagued cities and often times multiple families would cram into small unsanitary dwellings known as tenements. The inability of people to move around cities led to innovations of mass transit. These new public transportation systems utilized new innovations in electricity and resulted in the development of an electric subway systems, streetcars, and elevated trains in order to move people around the city.
Access to clean water was available in more prosperous areas of cities, yet, many still did not have indoor plumbing or clean drinking water. The lack of clean water was a primary cause for the spread of diseases such as cholera and typhoid that spread throughout the poorer neighborhoods. As the cities continued to grow, sanitation needs were obvious as horse manure, trash, and sewage flowed through open gutters. Factories purged smoke and industrial waste into the air and water ways further damaging the surrounding environment.
The lack of clean water was a primary cause for the spread of diseases such as cholera and typhoid that spread throughout the poorer neighborhoods.
In the face of the challenges of urbanization, newspapers and reformers began to call for change. Newspaper journalists who called for social changes were known as muckrakers and advocated for social improvements throughout the city. Infiltrating the meat packing industry, Upton Sinclair exposed the unsanitary conditions in which some of the nation’s food supply was being made and packaged in his book titled, The Jungle.
In the face of the challenges of urbanization, newspapers and reformers began to call for change.
The public outrage forced the government to pass legislation to protect public interests. The emerging influence of the Progressive Movement was felt as lobbyists pushed for federal legislation resulting in the 1906 passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) was an early reform minded president advocating for preservation of natural resources as well as challenging political machines and reforming social services.
The Gilded Age brought immense economic and technological advances and thrust the United States to the forefront of economic productivity in the world.
The Gilded Age brought immense economic and technological advances and thrust the United States to the forefront of economic productivity in the world. Rapid urbanization exposed the shortcomings of city life that immigrants faced in the overcrowded and overwhelmed cities. Monopolists took advantage of the lack of regulations within the economy to build financial empires that dominated the economic and political realm for nearly a half century. Social reform efforts ushered in a new era of progressive thought and action that would become a consistent part of the national discussion throughout the 20thcentury.
Third, a clear shift from a system of indentured servants (who were expensive and became resentful) to African slave labor (cheaper and controllable) in the South began shortly after Bacon’s Rebellion. This was significant because it united the rich and poor whites of the Tidewater region and the Carolina colonies in the formation and growth of the African slave trade in America. This unification of the social classes in the desire for wealth created a growing support for the slave system in America. Throughout the 1600’s, tobacco still was the most profitable crop in the south. However, crop diversification did begin to take place. Due to the institution and expansion of the slave system, rice and indigo became profitable for planters as well, and by the turn of the century they were main crops in the south eventually giving way to cotton in the early 1800’s in what would ultimately become King Cotton.