The Gilded Age: Introduction
In the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, many Americans--especially white northern Republicans--sought to put conflict behind them and look to business and industrial development. Between 1877 and 1896, the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, along with the corporation as a newly-strengthened legal entity, led to the massive growth of large factories and companies. And as available land on the western frontier became more and more scarce, a majority of Americans found that the dream of being an independent farmer or business person had turned into a hard reality of wage labor. Economic inequality grew, with a tiny elite of wealthy "Captains of Industry" (or "Robber Barons" as their critics called them) looming over an increasing number of impoverished workers. The writer Mark Twain termed this period, "The Gilded Age," suggesting gleaming wealth on the outside of society that hid poverty underneath.
Conditions for workers during the Gilded Age were frequently harsh. Unemployment was high, child labor common, and work hours were long. In 1870 the average worker could expect a seventy-two-hour work week--twelve hours per day, Monday through Saturday--for a daily wage. Benefits such as overtime or workman's compensation for injuries were almost nonexistent. On average, 35,000 people a year were killed on the job, with little compensation paid to their families. In reaction to these conditions, workers began to form unions, using strikes to demand improved conditions and shorter hours. Some even called for a socialist revolution.
Meanwhile, those seeking the last open western lands or riches in gold and silver mines continued to infringe on Native American reservations. Despite multiple treaties between the U.S. government and Indian nations, white settlers who came into conflict with Native Americans were usually backed by military force. By 1890, most of the productive land west of the Mississippi River was in the hands of white settlers, leaving Native Americans with few independent resources. Conflicts over economic resources (combined with racism) also drove the first immigration restriction under federal law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
These documents capture the contradictions of this period, in which the U.S. grew to become a huge econimic power, even as so many Americans were denied the benefits of prosperity or citizenship.
"The Gilded Age: Introduction" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license by Prof. Stephen Duncan at Bronx Community College.