Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Gilded Age

In United States history, the Gilded Age refers to the era of rapid economic and population growth in the United States during the post–Civil War and post-Reconstruction eras of the late 19th century. The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The name refers to the process of gilding an object with a superficial layer of gold and is meant to make fun of ostentatious display while playing on the term "golden age".

The Gilded Age is most famous for the creation of a modern industrial economy. During the 1870s and 1880s, the U.S. economy grew at the fastest rate in its history, with real wages, wealth, GDP, and capital formation all increasing rapidly. For example, between 1865 and 1898, the output of wheat increased by 256%, corn by 222%, coal by 800% and miles of railway track by 567%. Thick national networks for transportation and communication were created. The corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the 20th century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States led the world, with per capita incomes double that of Germany or France, and 50% higher than Britain. The businessmen of the Second Industrial Revolution created industrial towns and cities in the Northeast with new factories, and hired an ethnically diverse industrial working class, many of them new immigrants from Europe. The super-rich industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flagler, Henry H. Rogers, J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt of the Vanderbilt family, and the prominent Astor family were attacked as "robber barons" by critics, who believed they cheated to get their money and lorded it over the common people. There was a small, growing labor union movement led especially by Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) after 1886.

Gilded Age politics, called the Third Party System, featured very close contests between the Republicans and Democrats, and, occasionally, third parties. Nearly all the eligible men were political partisans and voter turnout often exceeded 90% in some states.

The wealth of the period is highlighted by the American upper class' opulence, but also by the rise of American philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the "Gospel of Wealth") that used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities. John D. Rockefeller, for example, donated over $500 million to various charities, slightly over half his entire net worth.

The Beaux-Arts architectural idiom of the era clothed public buildings in Neo-Renaissance architecture.

The end of the Gilded Age coincided with the Panic of 1893, a deep depression, which lasted until 1897 and marked a major political realignment in the election of 1896. This productive but divisive era was followed by the Progressive Era.

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