GILDED AGE OVERVIEW
The Gilded Age took place between the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the 20th century. The time period was defined by its prosperous boom in American economy and technology. Due to the Industrial Revolution taking place throughout a similar time period, the Gilded Age is largely defined by the shift from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Millions of immigrants and struggling farmers moved into cities look for work in the new urbanized America.
It would seem to many that this time period would be remembered fondly due to the innovations and advancements in society, but that is simply not the case, as most American citizens of the time were struggling. The Gilded Age certainly had a sinister side, as the lack of internal controls in place for the new factories and political systems allowed for corrupt industrialists, bankers, politicians, and other wealthy participants to expose the working class. These men became known as Robber Barons because they used union busting, fraud, bribery, imitation and extensive political connections to gain an advantage over their competitors, and therefore controlled society as a whole. Because money hungry robber barons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads) and Jay Gould (Shipping) cared only about maintaining their personal fortunes, the general public suffered. Add in the fact that cities were simply not prepared for the mass influx of populations, and most people were living and working in horrible conditions. Housing was limited, with heating, lighting, sanitation and medical care ranging from poor to non existent. Many workers were unskilled and paid minimally for long hours in equally terrible work conditions. In summary, it was not a great time for the standard middle to lower class American during this era.
Although the time period was difficult for many, this time period provided an example for how things were not to be done for future generations. Through the use of muckrakers (media members that exposed corrupt practices) and the introduction of labor unions, many societal changes were enacted to avoid similar outcomes to the income inequality of the gilded age. Because of the working conditions, the rise of labor unions were deemed necessary by most. The unified nature of the unions in the Gilded Age (even though they had been around since the turn of the 19th century) was hugely important in gaining momentum from reformed politicians who wanted to better serve the American people.
The phrase “it must get worse before it gets better” certainly serves the end of the Gilded Age. After the Reading and Philadelphia Railroads and the National Cordage Company failed, the company went into a four year economic depression starting in 1893. This country wide depression left the lower classes in a state of being fed up with political corruption and social inequality, which gave way to the Progressive Movement, led by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. Roosevelt wanted a prosperous economy, but wanted federal regulation that prevented the corrupt nature of the Gilded Age. By the time of the 1910’s, cities were cleaner, the government was less corrupt, and everyone was getting more of a fair shake, thusly fixing the damage caused by the Gilded Age.