Gilded Age

From roughly 1870 to 1900, the United States transformed from a rural economy of regional communities into the world's leading industrial nation. The country's ample land, natural resources, diverse climates, and navigable geography created optimal conditions for the extraction, production, and transportation of goods. New technologies in iron-making (such as the Bessemer process), printing, and other innovations produced more goods faster than had been possible prior to the Civil War. This mass production of books, steel, iron, and other commodities gave American industrialization new energy. New communication technologies, including the telegraph and telephone, and the scientific rationalization of factory work, typified by Taylorism, allowed for coordinated, nationwide management and efficiently organized labor that further increased production. Eventually, companies evolved into corporations and expanded in new legal arrangements such as trusts, pools, or monopolies to finance large-scale enterprise. These large entities, while fostering productivity and capital accumulation, also became associated with abusive business practices, using their economic and political power to exclude competition and commit corrupt labor practices. These injustices motivated the passing of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890—the first federal antitrust law—and the onset of the trust-busting Progressive Era ushered in by presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Only a fraction of the public enjoyed the economic and social benefits of the Gilded Age. Large populations of immigrants, people of color, and the working classes experienced hardships. The Reconstruction era (1865–1877) and the enacting of Jim Crow laws (1876–1965) during the Gilded Age heightened race-based tensions and segregation within local communities, and many African Americans (along with other people of color) were socially and physically persecuted by vigilantes in its aftermath. The first federal immigration laws took effect during the Gilded Age, specifically targeting Asian immigrants as “undesirable.” For the working classes, many corporations and other businesses took advantage of the era's unregulated labor practices to exploit their workers. The Haymarket Riot of 1886 was one of many organized working-class protests for better labor laws and an eight-hour work day. Finally, Susan B. Anthony and others introduced the Nineteenth Amendment in 1887, but Congress flatly denied its passage. Women would have to wait nearly 30 more years for suffrage.

Colleen Marie Tripp

See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; Crédit Mobilier Scandal ; Democratic Party ; Depression of 1873 ; Depression of 1893 ; Drought ; Electricity ; Farmers’ Alliance ; Farmers’ Clubs ; Granger Movement ; Haymarket Riot (1886) ; Homestead Strike (1892) ; Progressivism ; Pullman Strike (1894) ; Robber Barons ; Sinclair, Upton (1878–1968) ; Twain, Mark (1835–1910) ; Tweed, William M. (1823–1879)


Cherny, Robert. American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868–1900. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1997.

Lears, Jackson. Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Trachentenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Twain, Mark, and Charles Warner. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.