- 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
Gilded Age revisionism extends to literature and art. Here progress has been slow because of the unfortunate division between historians of culture and historians of public affairs. This breach must close before a unified view of the period can emerge. Late-nineteenth-century fiction, for instance, has much to offer the historian seeking to understand the period’s intangible moods, fears, and aspirations. William Dean Howells’s prodigious output constitutes a magnificent survey of relationships among various classes. There are few better ways to understand the struggle between capital and labor than through Howells’s novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). This great story pivots on a violent streetcar workers’ strike in New York City and depicts the reactions of the new urban middle class to supposedly radical immigrants. Most of Howells’s works reflect the social, economic, and geographic interdependence and human strains that industrialization created.
Painting is an equally valuable source for historians. The canvases of the Gilded Age richly illustrate the period’s appearance, customs, and activities. Genre studies, portraits, and landscapes say much about how people saw themselves. Beginning in the late 187Os, an increasing number of young people, many of them women, chose art as an alternative to business or a professional career. Study in Paris, London, or Munich offered them an artistic tradition as well as technical training.
New York became the nation’s cultural capital during the era, but the arts flourished in most large cities. Gradually a clientele of middle-class buyers emerged, along with professional critics who described and analyzed artistic developments in the popular press and magazines. The art world was the scene of debates as fierce as those that raged in politics and economics, and the succession of styles—realism, impressionism, abstractionism—reflected social as well as aesthetic changes. Viewed in its full context, the art world of the Gilded Age poses fascinating questions for the student of American society.
Buildings have faced a harsher test, being more durable and visible, and until recently historians were unkind to much of the era’s architecture. The period’s transitional nature showed in its buildings. The new industrial order based on machine goods and congested cities called for new kinds of factories and commercial edifices, but people were more traditional when it came to designing homes or public structures. A need for reassurance and familiarity made historical associations popular in architecture. The society’s fluidity and individualism also enhanced the appeals of eclecticism, so that Grecian, Gothic, and other historical styles each had a day, sometimes all at once. Meanwhile, both patrons and architects sought a form of expression that would be appropriate to American ideals and practices and would express modern energy yet would not leave the mainstream of Western history and culture.
The result was often a jumble. Many houses and skyscrapers boasted the latest mechanical contrivances on the inside—central heating, electric lighting, and a planned flow pattern—while juggling a variety of tastes and associations with the past on the outside. They were not organic, according to many contemporary critics and later historians, and therefore were not genuine or suited to modern times. As one Gilded Age observer said of the so-called Queen Anne style, which incorporated many echoes of the past, it was Queen Anne in front and Mary Anne behind. Much urban housing, built hastily and without planning, took on a sameness in the brownstone front. Yet these buildings seem both suitable and charming todav. At its best, well-made middle-class housing allowed for color, variety, and even whimsy, traits lacking in the styles that followed, when standardization triumphed.
In public building, the period produced several important architects. Henry Hobson Richardson’s use of rough stone and his emphasis on mass reflected a national respect for power and scope and thus more than echoed the Romanesque style that inspired him. McKim, Mead and White’s urbane variations on Italian Renaissance Classicism reflected an attachment to grand ideals in a time of rapid change. Many architects hoped to soften the commercial spirit with historical associations in architecture. They also wanted buildings to function in an emotional as well as technical sense. A university, for instance, should reflect inherited ideals about learning. Government buildings should express traditional ideas of legitimacy and power. At the same time, many architects were trying to adapt to the new demand for tall buildings in confined spaces, designing structures that used familiar ornament and proportion to reassure both the passerby outside and the worker inside.
Historians have criticized this conflict of styles and purposes, but the triumph of the later International style, making almost every city in the country look somewhat alike, has finally provoked a reexamination of Gilded Age building. A strong public preservation movement has arisen to save and use many of the artifacts in question, and the best Gilded Age architecture has become both more understandable and more attractive.
Despite all the interesting work that has been done on the Gilded Age in recent years, a sense of uncertainty dominates the field. No fresh synthesis of information and ideas has appeared. The historians have shaken old generalizations but have produced no totally convincing new ones and have too often made the period seem bland or abstract.