Far too often, United States history curricula race through the fifty years between the Civil War and Reconstruction on the one end, and the Great Depression and World War II on the other—but the tumultuous, crisis-filled, frequently violent, and wholly transformative Gilded Age (1870s-1890s) and Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) deserve our focused consideration. As the country closed out the nineteenth century and moved into the twentieth, its economy, governance, polity, culture, and position on the international stage were forever altered. Explore this digital primary source guide to learn more—and begin making your own contribution to this developing historical literature.

The Gilded Age entered the lexicon and the annals of American history through Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s satirical 1873 novel of the same name, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The tale’s “moral was the danger of privileging speculation over honest labor”; the plot’s machinations “exposed the rot beneath the gilded surface.” To contemporary observers and historians alike, there was no better metaphor for the corruption and inequality that then suffused American politics and industry.

Beginning in the 1870s, thanks to a “modern corporate form of ownership,” a new “merger movement,” and a dominant form of “competitive, proprietary capitalism,” industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, James Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt—known as “captains of industry” or, more derogatively, as “robber barons”—rose to unprecedented heights of prosperity and power. More and more, wealth was concentrated in the hands of the few—but many ordinary citizens flourished, too, and per capita wealth generally increased throughout the age. Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse began bringing electricity to the public, while innumerable less famous, perhaps even more diligent “tinkerers” invented new devices and procedures that drastically reordered American society and culture. The Gilded Age was a period of mass immigration and urbanization, and new city-dwellers—anxiously but rapidly—integrated “streetcars and elevators…packaged processed foods and machine-made clothing” into their daily lives.

Not all of the changes were positive. During the Gilded Age, America—and the world—experienced a series of periodic economic crises, including a devastating Wall Street crash that inaugurated the Panic of 1873. “Recurrent cycles of boom and collapse” wrought dramatically different consequences for those at the top and bottom rungs of the economy. As industrial workers faced wage cuts and untenable living conditions, labor unrest spread across the nation, including the 1886 Haymarket Affair and the 1894 Pullman Strike. These persistent conflicts gave strength to myriad labor unions, an insurgent Populist Party, and even radical revolutionaries and anarchists, “dedicated not to the reform of capitalism but to its abolition,” who wielded bombs and sticks of dynamite alongside their “fierce editorials…and soapbox oratory.” At the turn of the century, political violence was unsettlingly common. President James A. Garfield was assassinated in 1881, and President William McKinley in 1901; eleven years later, former President Theodore Roosevelt survived a shot to the chest.

Less gruesome, if no less contentious, the social reforms and protective legislation that typified the Progressive Era also constituted concerted attempts to “limit the social costs of aggressive, market capitalism.” Increasingly, crusaders of all stripes lobbied local, state, and federal government officials to step in and address their concerns, from temperance, to agricultural subsidies, to monetary policy. In concert with their counterparts across the North Atlantic world, American civil servants and policymakers worked to ameliorate “the problems and miseries of ‘great city’ life, the insecurities of wage work, the social backwardness of the countryside, [and] the instabilities of the market itself.” Though they could not yet vote in most of the country, middle-class women directed settlement houses, women’s clubs, and social movements “for compulsory public education, regulation of sweatshop labor, public sanitation, and the arbitration of strikes.” Throughout this “veritable ‘golden age’ of women’s politics,” maternal social reformers helped “recas[t] the welfare of mothers and children as an issue for public policy” while also creating new, viable spaces for women to operate outside the home. That women could affect positive social change was a guiding premise of the movement for women’s suffrage—and in 1920, the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

Scholars continue to debate whether the mantle of progressivism can and should apply to the American South. Beginning in the 1890s, southern legislatures passed “Jim Crow” laws that mandated racial segregation, creating whites-only restaurants, schools, bathrooms, and other public spaces. Across the South, states instituted poll taxes, literacy tests, and discriminatory grandfather clauses that systematically stripped black men of their right to vote. It was precisely at this moment, historian Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore explains, that middle-class black women “became the black community’s diplomats to the white community” and “built social service and civic structures that wrested some recognition and meager services from the expanding welfare state,” enacting their own version of progressive politics. If not as voters then as “clients” of the welfare state, black women led various successful education and public health and safety campaigns.

These fifty years witnessed a dramatic expansion of American empire. After four hundred years of strife, the United States devastated its Native American population and in 1887, the Dawes Act bestowed the president with the power to break up Indian reservations among individuals. In 1898, the nation annexed Hawaii; that same year, it waged the Spanish-American War, bringing Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines under American control; and between 1903 and 1914, it constructed the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1917, after three years of bloody war in Europe, the U.S. military entered the Great War, helping to ensure Allied victory over the Central Powers and rocketing the United States to a new status as a global superpower.

As Americans encountered the Roaring Twenties and—unbeknownst to them—stood on the precipice of the Great Depression, they inhabited an utterly transformed nation. How they got there—the stuff of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era—demands deep, critical analysis. Find more resources below:

Everyday Life and Leisure in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era

National Politics

American Inventors and Technological Change

Industrialists and Industry

Labor History

Social Reform

The American West, the Frontier, and Native American History

Immigration

Jim Crow, Segregation, and Black History

American Imperialism and Foreign Relations

World War I

Women’s Suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment

Works Cited

  1. Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 2.
  2. Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) 4; Richard Schneirov, “Thoughts on Periodizing the Gilded Age: Capital Accumulation, Society, and Politics, 1873-1898,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5, no. 3 (2006): 196, accessed August 30, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25144440196.
  3. Trachtenberg, Incorporation of America, 39
  4. White, Republic for Which It Stands, 4
  5. White, Republic for Which It Stands, 4; Trachtenberg, Incorporation of America, 45
  6. Trachtenberg, Incorporation of America, 40
  7. Beverly Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 2, 3.
  8. Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 2.
  9. White, Republic for Which It Stands, 865
  10. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings, 3
  11. Schneirov, “Periodizing the Gilded Age,” 220
  12. Kirsten Marie Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 2, 3.
  13. For many American women, the Nineteenth Amendment was a hollow victory. Black women across the South, for example, remained disenfranchised until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1865.
  14. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), xxi, 148.
  15. Ibid., 148
  16. White, Republic for Which It Stands, 4-5
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Serena Covkin is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States history. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in History. In 2013, her U.S. History Scene article on Civil War photography was cited in an amicus curiae brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court.