An Objective Look at the Gilded Age

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The idea behind the cartoon is that big business controlled government during the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons”, the name given to railroad company 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. 

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

“‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 2837)

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post taking a personal look at the era which I chose to place my Waxwood Series. This post is a sort of prequel to that. 

I love this opening quote from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, published in 1873, as it personifies one of the main philosophies of that era – it was all about faking it until you made it. Indeed, the Gilded Age wasn’t so much about how much success or wealth you had as how well you made everyone think you had.

There is some dispute as to what timeframe constitutes the Gilded Age. Many historians and scholars agree the era began in the 1870’s (with the publication of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book). But as to its end, that’s up for debate. Some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push its end all the way to 1900. Bcause the new century brought about the Progressive Era and its backlash ideals of the Gilded Age, I prefer to consider the era as ending at the turn of the century.

Ironically, the title of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book wasn’t intended as a label (just as no one intended to put labels on our more modern eras, such as the Lost Generation, the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials). Since both writers were well-known humorists, the title their book is a tongue-in-cheek dig against the social and political events of the second half of the 19th century. But, like many humorists, their dig turned out to be wildly accurate. Twain and Dudley Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction, as many writers do. They had a keen eye toward not only toward the staggering opulence and excess of this period but also its more parasitic cousins, greed, graft, and corruption.

When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America had just gone through a rather heavy recession that ended in the Panic of 1873. Americans intended to bounce back, financially and politically, with full force, showing that the United States could compete with any other global power. The problem was that, in politics and finance, many used ingenious but dirty methods to do it. Well known was the political corruption of the Grant administration and the graft and crime prevalent in “Boss” Tweed’s administration in New York City, for example. If you’ve been reading my books, you know I am largely a San Francisco/Bay Area writer and San Francisco didn’t exactly escape these more devious characteristics in the Gilded Age. Many of the well-known San Francisco millionaires were made in the city during this time, such as “the Big Four” railroad barons Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. In addition there flourished of one of the most infamously sin-laden spots in America at that time, the Barbary Coast

This painting represents the kind of gaudy glitter and extravagance common among the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of wealth. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about “old money” families who were forced to make way for the nouveau riche. Interestingly, San Francisco was both similar and different in this respect. Gertrude Atherton’s book The Sisters-in-Law https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Law-Gertrude-Franklin-Atherton-ebook/dp/B0082SWSW0/, which I’ve mentioned on my blog before, gives an interesting snapshot of Bay Area aristocrats during this time and at the turn of the century who held on to strict codes of society (such as snubbing any woman who wanted to build her own business) but accepted more readily the nouveau riche because the youth of the west made old money families more scarce than they were in the east. 

The rich in America considered it their privilege to flaunt their wealth with lavish homes and summer homes, balls and social events, and an outrageously expensive lifestyle that most could only gape at. 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 violence and social change herding America in the Progressive Era.

The Gilded Age, then, became notorious for gaudy, show-offish displays of the socially privileged. Shady dealings made millionaires out of people of humble origins who were eager to get into society and, in fact, one might argue the opulence of the age prompted this widespread corruption as making money became “the thing”. A notorious example of this sort of personage is Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Rosedale is rather aggressive, seedy character whose rags-to-riches rise to fame made him an unavoidable parasite in the New York social circle in which the protagonist Lily Bart moves. 

The more I write of the Waxwood Series, the more the realities of the Gilded Age come into conflict with who the characters are. This happens with Vivian, the unofficial protagonist of the series. She begins as a Gilded Age debutante of a wealthy San Francisco family (whose wealth was actually made well before the age) and gradually realizes the expectations put on her by her social status and the separate spheres conflict with her psychological reality and her journey through the last years of the century bring her to a different place in the world. Similarly, in my work-in-progress, Tales of Actaeon, Jake, Vivian’s younger brother, comes of age in a skewed and chaotic era when the meaning of masculinity was transitioning from the Victorian gentleman of honor, responsibility, and hard work to a more Teddy Roosevelt ideal of aggression, sportsmanship, and ambition.  

To read more about The Specter and order your copy, check out this link.

To learn more about the Waxwood Series, click here.

And if you’d like to get your hands on a short story that is all about Vivian’s revelations as a debutante during her coming out ball, sign up for my newsletter here.

Works Cited

Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Project Gutenberg, 2006 (original publication date: 1873). Kindle digital file.

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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes historical and contemporary fiction about characters who must examine their past and the time in which they live to move on to the future. Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available for preorder. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.