To be gilded refers to something being adorned or highlighted with gold, or anything of golden color. It has a beautiful or spectacular appearance that masks the fact that it is worthless.
The Gilded Age is the name given to the period in American history between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century when economic growth was rapid. It was characterized by several factors, including the rise of big business, the growth of cities, and the rise of a new class of millionaires.
The Gilded Age is credited with making America a wealthy and powerful nation, but it had a dark side. That is why American author and humorist Mark Twain called the late 19th century the “Gilded Age.” By this, he meant that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath. This was a period when greedy, corrupt industrialists, bankers, and politicians got very rich while the working class suffered.
It was wealthy tycoons who had the most political power during the Gilded Age, not politicians. By 1890, the richest 1% of Americans owned more than half of all wealth in the United States. Meanwhile, the richest 12% owned an astounding 86%. The rest of America was much poorer—the bottom 44% only had 1.2% of all wealth.
The Homestead Act
The Homestead Act, which allowed individuals to claim land in the western United States, was one of the most significant causes of the concentration of wealth during this era. This prompted a large movement of Americans to the West, where they could establish farms. The homesteaders were given 160 acres of land if they agreed to live on it and cultivate it for five years. The goal of the Homestead Act was to promote westward expansion and to increase the amount of farmland in America. However, it had the unintended consequence of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. The reason for this is that many of the homesteaders were unable to successfully farm their land.
While 160 acres may have been sufficient for an eastern farmer, it was simply not enough to sustain agriculture on the dry plains, and scarce natural vegetation made raising livestock on the prairie difficult. As a result, in many areas, the original homesteader did not stay on the land long enough to fulfill the claim. They didn’t have the money or the experience to do so. As a result, they were forced to sell their land to the wealthy capitalists who did. This resulted in a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. People who stuck it out and kept their homesteads were rewarded with new opportunities as transportation got easier.
Federal Indian policy also contributed to the accumulation of wealth during this period. The United States government forcibly removed Native Americans from their ancestral lands to make room for white settlers. This process, known as Indian removal, was devastating for Native American tribes. Many were forcibly relocated to reservations, where they were often unable to sustain themselves. The United States government also appropriated Native American land for various development projects, such as the building of the transcontinental railroad. This process led to the displacement of Native Americans and the concentration of their land in the hands of a few.
The Transcontinental Railroad
The Transcontinental Railroad was a major project that was completed during the Gilded Age. It connected the East and West coasts of the United States, making it easier for people and goods to travel between these regions. The completion of the railroad led to increased trade and commerce, which further enriched the already wealthy class of Americans. It spurred economic growth and led to the development of new cities, such as Omaha, Nebraska, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
The new railroads also provided relatively easy transportation for homesteaders, and new immigrants were lured westward by railroad companies eager to sell off once-public land at inflated prices. The Homestead Act and other land grants had already enticed settlers to move west, but the railroad made it much easier for them to do so. The railroad companies advertised the West as a land of opportunity, and many Americans were eager to take advantage of these opportunities. Consequently, the population of the American West grew rapidly during the late 19th century.
The Transcontinental Railroad project was made possible by the Homestead Act and several other state and federal land grants, including the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864. These land grants allowed the railroad companies to build their tracks across public lands. The 1864 law also gave the railroad the mineral rights to their land as well, which were valuable because of the California Gold Rush.
The Union Pacific Railroad, which built the eastern portion of the transcontinental railroad, was the biggest beneficiary of these land grants. It received more than 8 million acres of land, worth an estimated $100 million. The company also received $27 million in government loans. This made Union Pacific one of the richest and most powerful corporations in America. Railroad barons such as Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt became some of the richest men in America.
The Growth of Cities
The Gilded Age ushered in the development of new cities and the growth of existing ones. This was largely due to the industrialization of America and the influx of immigrants. New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston all experienced population growth during the late 19th century. New York City’s population more than tripled, from 1 million in 1860 to 3.4 million in 1890. Chicago’s population grew from 300,000 to 1.7 million during the same period. These cities became centers of commerce and industry, and they attracted people from all over the world.
Many of these new arrivals were poor immigrants who came in search of a better life. They often found themselves working in factories or sweatshops for long hours with little pay. Life in the cities was often difficult, and poverty was widespread. Crime rates were also high, and life was often dangerous. The growth of the cities led to the development of new social problems, such as overcrowding, crime, and poverty. Wealthy Americans were insulated from the harsh realities of life in the slums, but poor immigrants and working-class Americans were forced to endure these conditions. Despite the difficult conditions of life in the cities, many Americans continued to believe in the promise of the American Dream.
The Gilded Age saw the birth of many modern-day inventions. Urbanization and technological innovation paved the way for a slew of engineering breakthroughs, including bridges and canals, elevators and skyscrapers, trolley lines, and subways. The steel industry boomed, and steel-framed buildings became the norm in American cities. The telegraph and the telephone were invented, and the first transatlantic cable was laid. The phonograph and motion pictures were also introduced during this period.
These inventions changed the way Americans lived and worked, and they had a profound impact on American culture. The invention of electricity revolutionized home illumination and created an unrivaled, flourishing nightlife. Art and literature thrived, and the wealthy filled their palatial homes with valuable works of art and expensive decorations. These advances led to a more modern and efficient America, but they also created new monopolies and increased the gap between rich and poor. The wealthy class benefited immensely from the economic growth of the cities while the poor and working-class saw little to no benefit.
The Rise of Big Business
The rise of big business was another factor that contributed to the concentration of wealth during the Gilded Age. The industrial revolution led to the development of new technologies and the growth of factories. This allowed businesses to produce more goods at a lower cost, which led to increased profits. A hands-off, laissez-faire capitalism was the prevailing economic philosophy of the time, which allowed businesses to operate without government interference. This led to a period of intense competition, as businesses fought for market share.
The government also favored business interests over those of the people. For example, the Homestead Act of 1862 gave free land to settlers who agreed to develop it. This Act led to the displacement of Native Americans and the development of large farms and ranches. The government also provided subsidies and loans to businesses, which helped them grow larger and more powerful. The size and power of these businesses increased, as did the gap between rich and poor. The owners of these businesses became very wealthy, while the workers who labored in the factories did not. Railroad tycoons, oil barons, and steel magnates were some of the most famous businessmen of the Gilded Age. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was supposed to curtail the power of monopolies, but it was poorly enforced and did little to stop the growth of big business.
A Period of Corruption
The Gilded Age was also a period of corruption. Industrialists and bankers bought off politicians to get what they wanted. They used their money to influence elections and pass laws that benefited them. This led to a government that was controlled by the wealthy, not the people. These men used union-busting, fraud, intimidation, violence, and their extensive political connections to gain an advantage over any competitors. They amassed enormous fortunes, and they used their wealth to further consolidate their power.
Some wealthy entrepreneurs, such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Frick, are often referred to as robber barons but they may not fit the mold exactly. Although they built huge monopolies, often by crushing any small business or competitor in their way, they were also generous philanthropists. They didn’t always rely on political ploys to build their empires. A few of them attempted to improve the lives of their workers, donated millions to charity and nonprofit organizations, and supported their communities by providing funding for everything from libraries and hospitals to universities, public parks, and zoos. On the whole, however, the Gilded Age was a time when the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The concentration of wealth led to increased social tensions, which would eventually erupt in the form of the Progressive movement.
The End of the Gilded Age
The Gilded Age came to an end with the Panic of 1893, which was a financial crisis that triggered an economic depression. This marked the beginning of a new era, known as the Progressive Era, which sought to address problems that had arisen during the Gilded Age and bring about social and economic reform. The Progressives advocated for the regulation of big business, protection of workers, and the passage of landmark legislation, such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The income tax was also introduced during this time. The Progressive Era also saw the rise of labor unions, which gave workers more bargaining power. These reforms helped to curb the power of big business and level the playing field somewhat between the rich and the poor, but the concentration of wealth continued. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, and this trend has continued in the United States up to the present day.