- Historic Sites
The Gilded Age
For years it was seen as the worst of times: bloated, crass, witlessly extravagant. But now scholars are beginning to find some of the era’s unexpected virtues.
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
Historians’ treatments of business and economic development during the Gilded Age have changed as much as their ideas about politics. Most scholars remain suspicious of large corporations and continue to disapprove of the great wealth that a few industrialists acquired during the period. Standard accounts usually have contained descriptions of lavish mansions where the feckless rich disported themselves, oblivious of the working classes. But such types no more reflect the typical entrepreneur of the time than flashy jet setters reflect most businessmen of today. The typical Gilded Age businessman ran a small company, and many of the antisocial actions of businessmen large and small resulted less from greed or malice than from a desperate need to “meet the competition.”
The country was wealthier than ever, but it went through cycles of boom and bust that made planning difficult and the future uncertain.
Josephson’s The Robber Barons , a best seller in the 1930s, soundly established the antibusiness view. Once again Nevins provided a corrective, with his monumental biography of the era’s most famous entrepreneur, John D. Rockefeller (1940). Nevins did not whitewash Rockefeller or the practices of the Standard Oil Company, but he pointed out that Rockefeller and his partners faced ruthless competition and an uncertain economy and worked in a milieu that emphasized struggle, not regulation. Nevins portrayed the corporation as a complex institution. Not all big businesses were entirely honest, in his view, but the scope and complexity of the Gilded Age economy had made their evolution inevitable.
NEVINS’S BOOK ON Rockefeller sparked considerable controversy, and many historians did not approve of it. But like it or not, the book forced them to reconsider their moralistic ideas about business history. The most impressive economic revisionist of Nevins s generation was probably Edward C. Kirkland. In Dream and Thought in the Business Community, 1860-1900 (1956), he showed how bewildered businessmen had had to adapt their inherited attitudes and ideals, rooted in a world of farms and small towns, to modern industrial society. His magisterial work Industry Comes of Age (1961) is basic to understanding the era.
Kirkland excelled at dealing with important subjects that earlier scholars had slighted. He showed how the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse, and Thomas A. Edison created entire industries, and how improvements in education helped prepare a generation of workers for the kinds of jobs the new economy required. He pointed out that while the country was wealthier than ever in the Gilded Age, it went through cycles of boom and bust that made planning difficult and the future uncertain. Productivity increased, but too often profits declined. Businessmen were not the lords of creation that Josephson had described but fallible human beings at the mercy of inscrutable market forces.
Kirkland also shifted the focus in economic studies, making the total economy the star of the show. He noted that the new industrial order was much too large and complex for any one set of people to understand or control. He showed the cumulative nature of much economic development—Edison’s work on electricity, for instance, produced not only a successful electric light bulb, with all its ramifications in human affairs, but also a whole range of new industries that relied on electrical power. Time and again Kirkland demonstrated how economic processes had changed society at large, and he revealed the difficulties inherent in trying to predict or manage these changes. He was especially careful to remind readers that less noticed developments, such as expanded educational facilities, had often aided growth and diversification as much as had widely touted and debated public policies.
As time passed and the literature on economic development grew in volume and sophistication, historians turned from tycoons and corporations to the anonymous people who had made the economy work. Alfred D. Chandler, in The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977), described the activities and ideas of corporate managers who had often been below-decks engineers rather than captains, yet had made the ships go. Chandler’s approach made business history more human and portrayed both the individual business and the total economic system as much more complex and tenuous than had earlier studies.
Parallel tendencies animate modern labor history. Strikes and union organization marked the Gilded Age, but nowadays historians look beyond these events to the social composition of the labor force, the nature of the workplace, and economic mobility. They have shown how workers influenced economic development, how accommodation often modified the antagonism between capital and labor. Trade unionism did improve the workers’ lot, but fraternal and community organizations also helped them cope with social and economic change. And most workers believed that they, or at least their children, could move up the ladder, not necessarily to be a boss, but at least to be a foreman. Historians’ emphasis on how workers lived has made the labor movement more real, more personal, and more logical in its relationship to later labor matters.