The Gilded Age

36. The Gilded Age

Golden Spike
Roadside America
The Golden Spike: Does it really symbolize the completion of the transcontinental railroad?

From the ashes of the American Civil War sprung an economic powerhouse.

The factories built by the Union to defeat the Confederacy were not shut down at the war's end. Now that the fighting was done, these factories were converted to peacetime purposes. Although industry had existed prior to the war, agriculture had represented the most significant portion of the American economy.

After the war, beginning with the railroads, small businesses grew larger and larger. By the century's end, the nation's economy was dominated by a few, very powerful individuals. In 1850, most Americans worked for themselves. By 1900, most Americans worked for an employer.

The growth was astounding. From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the disastrous Panic of 1893, the American economy nearly doubled in size. New technologies and new ways of organizing business led a few individuals to the top. The competition was ruthless. Those who could not provide the best product at the cheapest price were simply driven into bankruptcy or were bought up by hungry, successful industrialists.

Uncle Sam killed by trusts.
Courtesy of Francois Micheloud
The cartoon reads "One sees his (Uncle Sam's) finish unless good government retakes the ship"

The so-called captains of industry became household names: John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, Andrew Carnegie of Carnegie Steel, and J. Pierpont Morgan, the powerful banker who controlled a great many industries. Their tactics were not always fair, but there were few laws regulating business conduct at that time.

Coffin notice
The "Molly Maguires" were a band of 19th century Irish immigrant laborers who struggled to survive in American industry. They organized labor unions and were not averse to violence, as this "coffin notice," delivered to three bosses, suggests.

Industrial Strength

Nevertheless, the American economy grew and grew. By 1914, the small nation once seen as a playground for European empires had now surpassed them all. The United States had become the largest industrial nation in the world.

However, the prosperity of America did not reach everyone. Amid the fabulous wealth of the new economic elite was tremendous poverty. How did some manage to be so successful while others struggled to put food on the table? Americans wrestled with this great question as new attitudes toward wealth began to emerge.

What role did the government play in this trend? Basically, it was pro-business. Congress, the Presidents, and the Courts looked favorably on this new growth. But leadership was generally lacking on the political level. Corruption spread like a plague through the city, state, and national governments. Greedy legislators and "forgettable" Presidents dominated the political scene.

True leadership, for better or for worse, resided among the magnates who dominated the Gilded Age.

On the Web
Millionaire's Row
In less than 25 years, America's brand-new millionaires like Vanderbilt, Astor and Carnegie turned New York City's Fifth Avenue from a rutted, dirt road into a magnificent street lined with palatial homes.
As 27 million visitors proved, Chicago was THE place to be in 1893 when America hosted the World's Columbian Exposition. The extravagant celebration of American culture and society lasted 6 months. Tour it here!
Learn More...
The Iron Horse Wins
Horses were the best means of land transit for thousands of years before the railroad came along. It didn't take long for the new technology to replace the old. All horses on the B&O Railroad were replaced by steam locomotives on July 31, 1831

If you like our content, please share it on social media!

Facebook reddit