Big businesses controlled the government in the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons,” the name given to railroad tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money, lording over the tiny mice of the senate.
I’ve been fascinated by the Gilded Age since 2009 when I went back to school for a short time, intending to get a Master’s degree in history, and took a course on the Gilded Age. For some reason, the Gilded Age got buried in the annals of American history in favor of other eras. Most notable were the 1920s, which made a comeback ten years or so ago when the film The Great Gatsby was released, and World War II, which still dominates the bestseller lists in the historical fiction genre.
There is some dispute as to the time frame we know of as the Gilded Age. Most historians and scholars don’t dispute it began in the 1870s. But some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push the end to 1900. For my purposes, because the new century brought about the Progressive Era, I consider 1900 as the stopping point.
The publication of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in 1873 coined the term. Ironically, the title wasn’t meant as a label for the era but as a tongue-in-cheek dig against it that turned out to be wildly accurate. When we think of the word “gilded” we think of something that is bright and shining but also fake and misleading. With a sharp eye and sardonic humor, Twain and Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction. The book, which is actually my favorite of all Twain’s work, depicts various scoundrels, fools, and charlatans who seek success and prosperity by taking advantage of the era’s propensity for “wheeling and dealing” — and getting away with it because the American public was too naive or ignorant or both to see through them (this would be rectified in the Progressive Era).
What was happening in America was, in the context of the time, understandable. When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America was going through a recession that ended with the Panic of 1873. People were determined to bounce back financially and politically to show the world the United States was anything but finished. Since finance and politics are, let’s face it, inherently dirty, many used dirty methods to do it. Stories of graft, greed, and corruption permeated every corner of American life. Money and commercial interests ruled. In an effort to encourage the kind of economic growth that could rival European markets, America became, as the saying goes, too big for its britches.
This painting represents the kind of gaudy extravagance common with the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.
As many of us know, when Americans have money, they aren’t shy about spending it. All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of aristocrats. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about the nouveau riche (people who had recently become wealthy through business rather than inheritance) infiltrating the established societies of big cities like New York and San Francisco where “old money” families dictated what was and wasn’t socially acceptable. The recently launched series The Gilded Age is all about a young woman trying to break into the heavily guarded New York upper class.
The Gilded Age became notorious for the gaudy displays of the socially privileged. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working-class resentments that would explode into the unions and reforms of The Progressive Era.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Twain and Warner’s book did not do well when it was published. An important critic of the day, author William Dean Howells, thought it degenerative and disgusting. In the 21st century, the book gives us a new way of looking at social, economic, and political life with an eye toward not repeating the same mistakes (we hope!).
If you’re interested in the Gilded Age, you’ll want to check out my Waxwood Series, a family saga set in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s a great time to do that because I’ve just updated and revised Book 1, The Specter, to make it even better! And you can get it for FREE on all book vendors. For more details, go here.
If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!