The late 19th century was a pivotal time in American history, and is remembered as a time of prosperity and expansion despite the fact that the Civil War had just devastated the country. On the contrary, it was a contentious time period, with struggles between the rich and the poor, European “natives” vs. minorities and immigrants, and overall struggles for power and wealth. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner gave the time period it’s name in their 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which is a story of greed, power, and corruption. They chose the term “Gilded Age” as gilding is the technique of applying gold leaf to wood, stone, or another, less valuable metal in order to give it a golden appearance. Twain and Warner felt that on the surface, the late 19th century appeared to be a golden age in America, but the truth was hidden just below the surface. So, in what ways were the late 19th century similar to the late 20th/early 21st century?

Spread of Industry

  • Then: The late 19th century was marked by a rapid expansion of industry. This expansion created the modern industrial economy and gave rise to the dominance of the corporation.
  • Now: It’s the expansion of another “I” that has transformed the U.S. economy. This time it’s the Internet which has solidified the U.S. economy as a service-based economy. In addition, within the last ten years, mergers and acquisitions have created some of the largest corporations in history.

Wealth Polarization

  • Then: The rich got richer while the poor got poorer. With the expansion of industry came an expansion of wealth for the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, while the poor wallowed in slums and worked to death for the robber barons. With this increase in wealth came great displays of opulence, such as the Biltmore Estate, which is still the largest private residence in America. As one would expect, the middle class was incredibly small. However, the time period did lend itself to great acts of philanthropy; Andrew Carnegie donated $350 million of his $400 million fortune in his lifetime.
  • Now: The super-rich have wealth in the billions of dollars, while the average American (not counting the super-rich) has a net worth in the negative due to debt obligations. As a result, the middle class is indeed shrinking. Similar to the Gilded Age, many wealthy businesspeople have donated large sums of money to charity. Bill Gates retired from Microsoft to head the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Warren Buffett has agreed to donate $40 billion to the Gates’ charity.

Labor Issues

  • Then: American workers were taken advantage of in a manner that led to the rise of labor unions. Whether it was working long hours for little pay, or working in hazardous conditions, the workers of the Gilded Age were definitely oppressed. As a result, Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor in 1886, and the era was marked by a series of strikes, most notable of which being the 1894 Pullman Strike.
  • Now: Labor unions have been pretty well marginalized by recent presidential administrations. As such, corporations again began taking advantage of the American worker, although not necessarily in such a hazardous fashion. For example, companies such as Electronic Arts and Microsoft forced their employees to work overtime without an overtime incentive; something which the former was sued for in 2004. Similar to the Gilded Age, only a small percentage of American workers are represented by labor unions, with only 7.6% represented in the private sector.

Politics

  • Then: The Gilded Age was marred by corruption on both sides of the aisle, and a dominance of local politics by political machines. As a result, many of the elections were extremely close and often resulted in extremely high voter turnout. Additionally, the presentation of facts during political campaigns took a backseat to more sensationalistic mudslinging.
  • Now: With the exception of George H.W. Bush, Sr., each of the last four presidencies has been marred by some sort of scandal. Also, we’ve witnessed an increase in voter turnout in addition to very close elections since 2000. Furthermore, there has been a dominance of local party political by national machines. If you’ve ever been to a precinct meeting, you know what I’m talking about. It seems that nothing at the local level reaches the national platform of either of the major political parties.

How it Ended

  • Then: Most historians agree that the Gilded Age came to an end with the Panic of 1893, an economic depression that lasted for 4 years. This depression was caused by unsound monetary policy, overbuilding of the railroads, and questionable financing of the railroad companies. Thus, Americans were forced to be more thrifty as guarantees of wealth disintegrated. In fact, between 1893 and 1897 over 500 banks failed and the economy was in such bad shape that the Panic of 1893 was originally called the Great Depression!
  • Now: The current economic crisis was marked by unsound monetary policy, overspeculation in real estate, and questionable financing of said real estate. As a result, Americans’ savings accounts have grown over the past year, while spending has decreased. And what have we been comparing this economic crisis to? The Great Depression.

You can definitely draw a parallel between the Gilded Age and the current era. One interesting thing to note is that the tumultuous end of the Gilded Age brought about the Progressive Era, which was very much a backlash against the Gilded Age.

The Progressive Era saw the implementation of many reforms that were largely based on the events of the late 19th century, and were meant to counter some of the policies of the Gilded Age.

The same can be said about the economic, environmental, and social reforms currently being sought by Congress. What do you think? Have we been living in a new Gilded Age, is the new Gilded Age drawing to a close, or am I totally off base?

Trivia: Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s wives actually dared them to write a better novel than what they were used to reading, and they came up with The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Interestingly, it is Mark Twain’s only collaborative novel.