- 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
Transition is a catchword for describing confusing epochs, but it fits this one perfectly. In one generation a nation of farms, workshops, and small towns became a society of cities, factories, and complex social and economic organizations, whose operations challenged inherited ideals. The people of the Gilded Age displayed great energy and were certain of themselves in some spheres while very uncertain in others. They produced and acted upon familiar compromises and struggled to balance individualism with the ever-growing tendency toward mass in an industrial society.
In politics, parochial interests confronted the need for national policies, and contesting groups often prevented planned responses to crises. But the political system remained flexible; no group was permanently alienated, and that was no mean achievement. In the economic-sphere people hoped to retain the advantages of competition while enjoying the benefits of large-scale production. The system produced about as much regulation as the general public wanted and allowed the rise of the world’s most productive economy. In cultural affairs, the generation could boast many distinctive figures, a broad range of activity in the literary and plastic arts, and a steadily growing level of public appreciation.
Studying this fascinating era reminds us of how slowly people adapt to change. It is a great mistake to suppose that the Gilded Age could somehow have prevented the problems that confront us today, but it merits close attention because in many ways it resembles our own generation. We, too, are moving rapidly into a new economy, with all the consequent human and societal upheavals. Many of the public questions we grapple with today resemble those of the Gilded Age—the place of minorities in society; the problems of a wave of foreign immigration; women’s rights; government’s role in shaping social development. Questions of monetary policy and tariff protection are also very much alive. Like our predecessors in the Gilded Age, we face a changing social and economic order whose future seems glamorous and filled with potential for good but is also tinged with danger and uncertainty.