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The Gilded Age

July 2024
13min read

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.



ANYONE WHO RECALLS the Gilded Age from an American history course taken twenty or more years ago would be surprised at how the treatment of that era has changed. Most historians used to hold a rather low opinion of the period. Remember Grover Cleveland’s illegitmate child, who figured in the campaign of 1884? And how business appeared dominant in every sphere of life? How Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller amassed huge fortunes with monopolistic “trusts”? And how, toward the era’s end, when lightning seemed to strike everywhere at once, farmers staged a revolt that frightened almost everyone else half to death?

The facts about the Gilded Age have not changed, but historians’ views have. The first scholarly interpretations of any period have a lasting impact, and every generation tends to be critical of its immediate predecessor. In this case, the determining views first came from some famous contemporaries. Mark Twain gave the period (which lasted roughly from 1868 to 1900) its textbook name in The Gilded Age (1873), the novel he wrote with Charles Dudley Warner. As literature it was a weak performance, but it produced some durable images of social climbing and shady political dealings. The book also encapsulated the country’s traditional boomer spirit based on mindless expansion, which the period seemed to typify. The English diplomat James Bryce added the weight of analytical thought to that stereotype with The American Commonwealth (1888). Bryce admired the nation’s economic dynamism and social flexibility but feared that democracy too often bred mediocrity and wondered if a civilization that so emphasized material gain could produce any true culture. Above all American tolerance of weak and shabby behavior in public life disturbed him.


The first historians of the Gilded Age built upon these contemporary views. Early textbooks couched the period in terms of wars between labor and capital, of settled Americans rising against immigrants, of outmoded ideas facing new social problems. They described politics as corrupt, and government, especially the federal government, as weak and unconcerned with human problems. The nation’s blacks had been trapped in segregation and poverty, and the surviving Indians had been isolated on reservations. Perhaps most disturbing to early historians, the period had begun with a society on a scale that people could comprehend, yet it ended with an economic system based on corporations, chaotic cities, and feeble government at all levels. The historian Charles Beard maintained much of the stereotype in The Rise of American Civilization (1927) and America in Midpassage (1939), which influenced generations of college students. The radical writer Matthew Josephson excoriated the period in two widely read books, The Robber Barons (1934), whose thesis was its title, and The Politicos (1938), which depicted Gilded Age politicians as the flunkies of the corporations.

There was an alternative viewpoint, a thoughtful approach, which Allan Nevins, more than any other student of the period, fostered. Influential both as a biographer and as a professor of history at Columbia University, Nevins edited a major group of books about the era’s leading figures. His own Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932), was the most famous of these, and many others remain the standard biographies of their subjects. Nonetheless, the pace of development in Gilded Age studies was slow, partly because historians emphasized other periods and problems.

By the late 1950s, a new generation of scholars started to rethink the issues of the Gilded Age. Their first focus was on politics. No era had debated partisan questions more fervently. The issues had seemed remote and unimportant to scholars later, but they had fascinated and moved voters at the time.

On such issues as the levying of tariffs on foreign imports, which the early historians portrayed as simply a tool for helping big business, the new writers pointed out that this protection had not especially benefited the railroads or the oil industry, two of the supposed villains of the age. Supporters of high tariffs, who included workers in many industries, had defended them as a means of safeguarding American jobs, of helping producers of certain raw materials, and of shielding small business from foreign competition. Politically, the policy had been central to the Republican coalition, since it promised to promote economic growth among various likely GOP voters.

The political debate over the currency—tight money versus easy money—had equally bewildered early historians. Many Gilded Age farmers favored inflation to counteract the growing value of their debts after wheat and cotton prices nose-dived; some businessmen also liked easy money because low interest rates enabled them to expand operations. This issue tended to pit Westerners and Southerners, who needed cash for economic development, against the East, but it also had a powerful moral component. Those who favored a currency based on some intrinsic value such as gold stood divided from those who saw money as a flexible device for regulating the nation’s economic health. In the broadest sense, the currency debate highlighted the complexity of the national economy and the growing difference of opinion over the role of government in it. In 1964 Irwin Unger elucidated the subject in a Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis, The Greenback Era.

No era ever debated partisan questions more fervently. The issues now seem remote, but they fascinated and moved voters at the time.

By the 1960s some historians had begun to argue that scholars in the 1930s, who revered a powerful Executive and an interventionist federal government, had read their biases into the study of the Gilded Age. Congress had remained more powerful than the Presidency during the period, and as often as not, one or both houses had not been of the President’s party; this explained the partisan deadlocks and compromises of the time. The national political scene had been one long struggle to build a new majority, a battle the Republicans finally won in 1894 and 1896. The highest rate of voter participation in American history occurred in the 188Os and 189Os, and the closeness of most elections and the sense of a major struggle for power reflected people’s intense interest in politics. If voting, public discussion of issues, and legislative enactments constitute democracy, the Gilded Age was one of the most democratic periods in American history.

In 1963 I published a symposium, The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal , in which leading young scholars presented new views of the era’s major public issues. (A second edition appeared in 1970.) Then in 1969 I brought out a narrative account of Gilded Age politics, From Hayes to McKinley . I liked the Republicans better than the Democrats because of their record against slavery and because they had attempted to build a truly national economy during the late nineteenth century. The Democrats seemed to me to have been a loose coalition of local and often conflicting interests. The party had feared and opposed federal authority because it threatened Democratic urban machines in the North and white rule in the South.

The traditional historian’s criticism of the lack of federal action in solving social problems during this period was ahistorical. Neither the consensus nor the machinery for such activity was available. Most Gilded Age Americans were content to leave such matters as public health, housing, and welfare to local government and private philanthropy. The typical citizen thought of the federal government only when picking up the mail, paying a modest excise tax on whiskey or tobacco, or seeing a serviceman in uniform. Nonetheless, the government did slowly get more involved in social problems, with much debate, as Ari Hoogenboom noted when delineating the struggle over civil service reform in Outlawing the Spoils (1961), and as Morton Keller recounted in Affairs of State (1979). Congress laid substantial groundwork for expanded action with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and civil service reform.

In the 1960s and 1970s the computer allowed historians to ask and answer many new questions about Gilded Age politics. Using methods of quantification borrowed from other social sciences, some scholars turned from studying party battles to analyzing the composition of the electorate, and from the national to the local scene. They concluded that political preferences had often been rooted less in economic positions than in ethnic and religious tensions. Tariff and currency questions had not been as important to voters as the compulsory teaching of English in public schools or the drive for Prohibition, which touched deeply held beliefs. (Catholics, for instance, had tended to oppose Prohibition, which they saw as an attempt to make them conform to a standard of personal conduct that Protestants upheld, and since Prohibitionists were often Republicans, Catholics usually voted Democratic.) The most influential scholar promoting this new theory has been Samuel P. Hays, author of American Political History as Social Analysis (1980).

BY THE 1980S THIS approach was widely accepted but had its critics. It was based mostly on studies of Midwestern states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Would it appear equally valid elsewhere? The quantifiers had produced a sharper picture of who voted but not necessarily of why they voted as they did. And did it really follow that national politics was secondary to local affairs? Perhaps the two were merely different. The quantifiers’ books were filled with statistics and complicated jargon and focused on groups and trends rather than on individuals. Surely something was missing. Their tone was that of the metronome, but Gilded Age politics had marched to the sound of the calliope and brass band.

Any new synthesis of Gilded Age politics will be convincing only if it recognizes voting behavior as both culturally determined and a product of the complex national political system. It is important to remember, for instance, that politicians of the Gilded Age set the agenda. And people responded strongly to personalities, just as they do today. Furthermore, people’s hopes and fears about their own jobs were important. Local contests and presidential elections had different dynamics, and voters, as always, had multiple personalities. The best syntheses of the various new approaches are found in Richard J. Jensen’s The Winning of the Midwest (1971) and R. Hal Williams’s Years of Decision (1978).

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.


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.

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.

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