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The Origin of the Term “The Gilded Age” and the Appropriateness of the Metaphor for the United States in the Late 1800s Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 17th, 2021

Introduction

The era of the Gilded Age, which occurred in the USA in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, was characterized by contradictory phenomena. On the one hand, there was a rapid growth in industrialization that led to the improvement of people’s lives due to economic growth. On the other hand, however, there was the impoverishment of many citizens and immigrants who moved to more industrialized parts of the USA in search of better wages and living conditions. The massive gap that existed between these groups of individuals gave the name to the epoch: ‘gilded’ was a satirical term used to denote that bad issues were covered with more pleasant ones to present an overall positive image of the country. The present paper aims at illustrating the appropriateness of the metaphor for the USA in the late 1800s through the use of primary sources and complementary secondary ones.

One Country, Two Worlds

The main characteristic feature of the Gilded Age was striking inequality. It is quite common to remember the era as the period when material excess was most noted. The production of everyday goods was much more extensive and elaborate than in previous centuries.1 The country celebrated the peak of its development with impressive cultural growth, material prosperity, and economic excellence. However, the majority of goods that were manufactured at that period were meant to be consumed by the representatives of the middle and upper classes.2 Meanwhile, the working class individuals also wanted to relish the advantages of innovative products. Thus, the production of cheap equivalents to expensive goods developed gradually.

Such a disparity between the rich and the poor existed in different aspects of the material culture, including housing, cooking, clothing, and other dimensions. The poorest of native citizens were accompanied in their social status by immigrants who arrived in the country in large numbers. As Orser argues, immigrants lacking money were “racialized as poor.”3 Hence, the Gilded Age gave life to yet another form of racism besides the one based on skin color: the one driven by poverty. During the Gilded Age era, new arrangements in social life emerged. According to Orser, there was a close connection between the evolving capitalistic politics in the country and social relations within it.4 The major component of social ties is represented by class relations. In the Gilded Age USA, the division of people not only by skin color but also by their wealth or poverty status was observed rather acutely.

Poverty among some Americans and immigrants in the era of the Gilded Age had a structural nature. Orser noticed a close relationship between financial hardship and the development of capitalism.5 Although poverty existed earlier than capitalism evolved, it was one of the constituting elements of the USA’s prevailing form of the economic system. As well as successes, failures under capitalism were viewed as entirely personal. Among other groups of underprivileged people, immigrants from China were the most frequent victims of injustice and discrimination.6 Many Americans considered the Chinese as “subhuman” and referred them to the same “racially inferior” category as Indians and African Americans.7 While performing some of the most difficult jobs, Chinese immigrants were underpaid and did not receive sufficient respect or support from native citizens. This was one of the most striking examples of inequality persisting during the Gilded Age. Hence, the epoch’s name was justified through building invisible walls between people belonging to different nationalities and social classes. While for some the times were gold, others had no choice but to survive in the layer of dust under the gilded covering.

The Corrupted Political Life

The Gilded Age takes its name from the title of the novel written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, in which the authors criticized the country’s politics after the Civil War as excessively corrupted. The USA was gilded in numerous business opportunities and moneymaking possibilities. However, the gold was hiding “an uglier society” of insensitive greed and extravagance.8 The so-called robber barons were the dominating branch in the USA’s political structure. These industrial leaders overcharged citizens through unreliable business practices, which led to growing wealth among the former and increasing poverty among the latter.

The understanding of the political situation in the Gilded Age America may be easier through the use of original artwork of that period. Keppler’s 1889 political cartoon “The Bosses of the Senate” reflects the public opinion of trusts.9 The caricature depicts trusts much larger than the Senate itself. The illustration of corporate interests is emphasized by huge figures representing various kinds of trusts: steel, copper, nail, oil, sugar, iron, coal, paper salt, and others. Below these gargantuan figures, small and modest members of the Senate are sitting. Some of the senators look up to the “giant money bags” as if searching for support or approval.10 Meanwhile, trusts representatives look down on senators with dull, contemptuous, and disrespectful expressions.

The portrayal of entrances to the hall is also rather pronouncing. The small gallery door, which is signed as the “People’s Entrance,” is barred and bolted.11 Meanwhile, a huge “Entrance for Monopolists” is wide open, letting in more and more trusted’ representatives. The two gateways highlight the striking contrast in the Gilded Age politics. Small enterprises had no opportunity to develop due to the overwhelming presence of large monopolies in each of the most vital spheres. Even the motto in the cartoon depicts the state of affairs prevailing in the USA’s politics during the Gilded Age: “This is the Senate of the Monopolists by the Monopolists and for the Monopolists!”12

To reveal the truth about monopolists, journalists developed an innovative genre of their profession known as muckraking. One of the most scandalous revelations was associated with Rockefeller, a popular businessman who, according to investigations, turned out to be a monopolist.13 Journalists noted that while millions of Americans used kerosene, hardly any of them realized that Rockefeller’s organization, the Standard Oil Company, was the sole controller of kerosene’s production, manufacture, and export, as well as its cost in the USA and abroad.14 Therefore, Keppler’s cartoon reflects the conditions in which people lived and businesses operated in the Gilded Age.

The Development of Railroads

One of the most prominent inventions of the Gilded Age era was railroads. With the help of this innovative transportation technique, many new opportunities became available. Specifically, people could travel faster, goods could be delivered easier, and products could be distributed to different parts of the country. One of the witnesses of California railroads’ construction, David L. Phillips, remarks that the emergence of new railroads led to considerable advantages.15

First of all, as Phillips notes, the cost of transit from New York to San Francisco was reduced from $300 to $140. Such a simplified possibility to travel allowed California, which had been rather poor agriculturally, to arrange new trade connections with Japan, China, and the Pacific Ocean islands. The movement within the country became easier as well, making it much cheaper to get from San Francisco to New York and Chicago. Philips notes that he witnessed “train-loads of tea” coming from Japan and China and going to New York and Chicago.16 The next opportunity referred to farmers who could earn more from their hard work due to the increased value of the land. Phillips remarks that whereas before the railroad was constructed, one acre of land cost nearly $1.25, its price grew considerably after the construction, and it now constituted about $8 per acre.17

Another benefit of California railroads, according to Phillips, was that by opening many additional lines, they added “tens of millions to the permanent wealth of the State.”18 As a result, people’s quality of life increased to a great extent. Despite all of the positive things, Phillips mentions, there were those dissatisfied with exorbitant ticket prices. Also, the railroad’s owners were considered monopolists, which made the author of the account feel sorry for them. Phillips explains that while railroad charges were high, they were not disproportional to prices on other services in the state. Also, the author argues, it was natural for the owners to become rich since they had made considerable investments in their business.

Taking into consideration the analysis of Keppler’s cartoon, it seems reasonable to disagree with Phillips’s arguments defending the railroad monopolists. Furthermore, there is an account of an interview that was held with John Grosvenor, who had worked on the railroad in the 1880s.19 The man recollects how strenuous his work there used to be. The working day lasted for ten hours, and conditions of work were unbearable. Grosvenor and other laborers had to work in any weather conditions despite not having any special clothes. The payment constituted $1.10 per day, and it was barely enough to buy food and save something to send to his family.20 Thus, this is yet another justification of the appropriateness of the epoch’s title. Whereas some people could afford to travel by using the newly opened opportunities, the ones creating those opportunities could barely survive.

Alcoholism in the Epoch of the Gilded Age

The disparity between social classes in the Gilded Age USA could be traced not only in people’s work activities but also in their leisure time. The upper and middle classes spent their free time playing sports and attending various entertainment shows.21 Meanwhile, working-class people had neither time nor strength or money to amuse themselves in such elaborate ways. Therefore, the majority of poor Americans consumed alcohol for relaxation and fun. However, not only poor citizens engaged in drinking – wealthy individuals took up the habit and combined it with gambling or rooting for their favorite sports teams.22

Working-class men frequently attended saloons, where they could communicate over a glass of liquor. Hence, when middle-class activists started a campaign on banning alcohol, the poor part of society was appalled.23 Prohibitionists claimed that attending taverns caused family disorder, corruption, and cruelty against women and children. Instead, hardworking males view barrooms as a shelter from their excruciating jobs. Saloons combined the functions of union halls, social clubs, and even political centers for working-class men. However, reformers were right in their appraisal that the nation was “saturated in alcohol.”24 The label of an anti-alcoholism cure dated by 1880 is expressive proof of the growing danger posed to the nation by alcohol consumption. “Dr. L. E. Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure for Drunkenness” was a popular treatment for alcohol-dependent individuals in the Gilded Age era.25 The label claims that two bottles of Dr. Keeley’s cure at the price of $9 could relieve the symptoms of alcoholism. The emergence of such a treatment method indicates that the age was not gold but only gilded: many people suffered from strenuous labor conditions and could find no better way of relaxation than drinking.

Conclusion

The analysis of primary and secondary sources on the Gilded Age allows inferring that the metaphor employed to create the epoch’s title was quite appropriate. There was a vast gap between the levels of life for different classes of people living in the USA in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. There were individuals whose quality of life was gold: they could afford living in large houses, consuming healthy products, and wearing expensive clothes. There were also those below the poverty line whose living arrangements varied between simple and miserable and who worked hard to afford the necessities. The hole between these two parts of society was covered by a thin gilded wrapping, which was not enough to conceal the desperate inequalities existing in the country’s political, economic, and social spheres. Thus, the title of the era, the Gilded Age, was rather suitable.

Bibliography

The National Archives, 1880. Web.

Greenwood, Janette Thomas. The Gilded Age: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Keppler, Joseph. “The Bosses of the Senate.” Digital Image. United States Senate, 1889. Web.

Kordas, Ann. “Material Culture.” In Handbook to Life in America: The Gilded Age, 1870 to 1900, edited by Rodney P. Carlisle, 37-54. New York: Facts on File, 2009.

Library of Congress, 1938. Web.

Orser, Charles E. “Beneath the Surface of Tenement Life: The Dialectics of Race and Poverty during America’s First Gilded Age.” Historical Archaeology 45, no. 3 (2011): 151-165.

Phillips, David L. “What California Railroads Have Done.” Library of Congress. Web.

Purdy, Elizabeth R., and Arthur Holst. “Cities and Urban Life.” In Handbook to Life in America: The Gilded Age, 1870 to 1900, edited by Rodney P. Carlisle, 71-86. New York: Facts on File, 2009.

Footnotes

  1. Ann Kordas, “Material Culture,” in Handbook to Life in America: The Gilded Age, 1870 to 1900, ed. Rodney P. Carlisle (New York: Facts on File, 2009), 37.
  2. Kordas, “Material Culture,” 37.
  3. Charles E. Orser, “Beneath the Surface of Tenement Life: The Dialectics of Race and Poverty during America’s First Gilded Age,” Historical Archaeology 45, no. 3 (2011): 151.
  4. Orser, “Beneath the Surface of Tenement Life,” 151.
  5. Ibid., 152.
  6. Janette Thomas Greenwood, The Gilded Age: A History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 40.
  7. Greenwood, The Gilded Age, 40.
  8. Ibid., 40.
  9. Joseph Keppler, “The Bosses of the Senate,” digital image, United States Senate, 1889, Web.
  10. Keppler, “The Bosses of the Senate.”
  11. Ibid.
  12. Keppler.
  13. Greenwood, 18.
  14. Ibid.
  15. David L. Phillips, “What California Railroads Have Done,” Library of Congress, Web.
  16. Phillips.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. “Mr. John Grosvenor,” Library of Congress, 1938, Web.
  20. “Mr. John Grosvenor.”
  21. Elizabeth R. Purdy and Arthur Holst, “Cities and Urban Life,” in Handbook to Life in America: The Gilded Age, 1870 to 1900, ed. Rodney P. Carlisle (New York: Facts on File, 2009), 83.
  22. Purdy and Holst, “Cities and Urban Life,” 83.
  23. Greenwood, 80.
  24. Ibid.
  25. “Dr. L. E. Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure for Drunkenness Label,” The National Archives, 1880, Web.
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