The Gilded Age

In American history, the Gilded Age refers to the era of rapid economic and population growth in the United States during the post-Civil War and after the Reconstruction era of the late 19th century. The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain's book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The name refers to the process of gilding an object with a superficial layer of gold and is meant to make fun of ostentatious display while playing on the term "golden age".  As Americans like Twain began to recognize the conditions in which many working class citizens dealt with a new era would stem to begin solving these problems.  Until then, many lived with the pain exposed to them during this Gilded Age.

  • Politcal cartoon of Standard Oil as an example of monopolies in America.

  • Young industrial workers in a glass factory.

  • Child labor during the Gilded Age.

  • Tenement housing in New York.

  • Excerpt from a William Jennings Bryan speech in 1896.


Political cartoons were a popular way to depict the monopolies in America.  Tycoons such as C.P. Huntington controlled the railroads and everyone who used them.  Andrew Carnegie did the same thing with the steel business, and Rockefeller with the oil industry.  This was an elite group who had more wealth and power than anyone in the nation, and were even able to control the government with it.  All of this was at the expense of the workers.  In this photograph it shows Standard Oil squeezing America, and more specifically American politics.  Monopolies like Standard Oil were able to persuade government officials with their wealth in order to control prices, interest rates, and taxes. 

The Gilded Age was a difficult time for families to make a living.  The hours were long since there was not yet an eight hour workday.  Low wages was also a common theme as owners could find cheap work as immigration continued to rise.  This was still a time where unions lacked sufficient organization to help these conditions.  Without unions, workers were subjected to long hours during a time where overtime pay did not exist.  In many places, such as coal mines or the Pullman Palace Car Company, workers were paid in company script, lived in company houses, and were forced to shop at company stores.  With limited options workers and their families were stuck with their jobs and little hope of escaping.

The picture above showing children working in a cotton mill is something that could have been seen anywhere in America during the Gilded Age.  Coal mines was another deadly place for children to work in at this time.  Many companies like this cotton mill actually preferred children because their hands were small and agile enough to do work that older employees could not do.  Even though children did just as much work, their pay scale was even lower than what their parents had.  Although having children working in these conditions is morally difficult for parents, many families needed them to work in order to make ends meet at home.  Although survival was the ultimate goal of families, many paid the deadly price to keep food on the table. 

Immigrants during the Gilded Age had little to live on.  Many had families working long hours for small wages, and no chance of bettering themselves through opportunity.  Cities sprung as millions of immigrants moved in with little room for them to stay.  Tenement housing was a way to allow immigrants to live close to work, but also a way to keep them isolated from the upper and middle class populations.  The families living in these housing complexes often took in others in order to maintain payments, and some even worked second jobs inside their apartments to supplemental income.  Adolescents living in these crowded and often loud places sought somewhere else to spend time.  Because of this, places like Coney Island became a popular outlet for teenagers to enjoy time away from their living situations. 

Document B: William Jennings Bryan, 1896 (Modified)

Democratic National Convention in July 1896. It is considered one of the most famous speeches in American history. The passage is an excerpt.

The merchant at the corner store is as much a businessman as themerchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toilsall as much a businessman as the man who [works on Wall Street].We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen....It is for thesethat we speak. We are fighting in the defense of our homes and ourfamilies. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. Wehave entreated, and our entreaties have beendisregarded. We havebegged, and they have mocked us.We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defythem!You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the goldstandard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertileprairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities willspring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass willgrow in the streets of every city in this country.Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests andall the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standardby saying to them: you shall not press down upon the brow of labor thiscrown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
Source: The speech above was delivered by William Jennings Bryan at theDemocratic National Convention in July 1896. It is considered one of the most famous speeches in American history. The passage is an excerpt.