Place: United States
Significance: Taking its name from an 1874 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the Gilded Age was a period of rapid economic growth accompanied by a host of serious social problems and chronic economic dislocation. It gave way to the Progressive Era, a period in which selective federal regulation of American business became widespread.
The most spectacular growth in the United States during the Gilded Age occurred in heavy industry, transportation, and banking. Steel led the way, as new technology made steelmaking more economical than before. The major innovator was the United States Steel Corporation, led by the dynamic Andrew Carnegie, whose rags to riches story captivated the nation. Cornelius Vanderbilt was his counterpart in railroads and shipping, and J. P. Morgan reorganized American banking and finance on a massive scale.
American railroads grew at a dizzying pace during the Gilded Age. The major transcontinental lines received the most attention, but smaller railroads brought coal, iron, and food to factories and cities across the country. Many farmers decried the predatory freight prices but ultimately benefited from a national market for their products.
Labor unions never matched the pace of development of their management counterparts. The Knights of Labor grew rapidly at first but declined after the strike of 1877 failed. Samuel Gompers was a dynamic organizer of the American Federation of Labor during the 1880’s, but he focused his efforts on skilled labor. Eugene V. Debs brought a militant approach to union organizing during the 1890’s but found his efforts stymied by federal antistrike laws.
The Gilded Age is a generally neglected topic, and most studies of the era emphasize the aspects of capitalism gone wild and the resulting human cost. An objective view of the Gilded Age rests on the conclusion that rapid economic growth inevitably is accompanied by widespread human suffering.
French, Bryant Morey. Mark Twain and “The Gilded Age”: The Book That Named an Era. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1965.
Summers, Mark Wahlgren. The Gilded Age: Or, The Hazard of New Functions. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997.
Wicker, Elmus. Banking Panics of the Gilded Age, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
See also: American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations; Jay Gould; labor history; Literary works with business themes.