The Gilded Age
The period that immediately followed the American civil wars is famously termed as the ‘Gilded Age’, a name coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The period roughly starts from the year 1870 and ends with the turn of the twentieth century. This age was marked by the brisk industrialization, erection of huge transcontinental rail connectivity and the enormous growth of commerce. This economic growth however showed a slump during the great depressions of 1873 and 1893. Most of this expansion and prosperity were concentrated on the Northern and Western part of the country, while the economy of the South continued to disintegrate due to the mounting prices of Cotton and Tobacco.
The most notable achievement which occurred during the Gilded Age is the scientific inventions and increased mechanization that took place during this period. During a period of 30 years between 1860 and 1890 close to 5, 00,000 new inventions were given patent rights. This number is ten times larger than the number of patents issued in the previous seventy years. Some of the important inventions include air brakes for trains, power plants with the capacity to light multiple buildings and hundreds of electrical devices that were invented by Thomas Edison. The dawn of the Gilded Age, saw the US economy rise at the fastest rate in its history. The output of agricultural products too showed a sharp increase (wheat by 256% and corn by 222%), thanks to the new fertilizers and innovative agricultural technologies.
The major political phenomenon that came out of the Gilded Age is the building of the so called “political machines” by the political parties. These bodies managed the election campaign of the presidential candidates by both rewarding their loyal supporters and buying off the opposition candidates. Even after winning the election favors were given to the ruling party supporters and government contracts and high ranking bureaucratic jobs were distributed to them without considering their qualifications or merits. Elections were contested on promises of favors in exchange of votes. The well published example of this scenario is the case of Tammany Hall which operated out of New York. (Jaycox, 2005)
This resulted in a politics of favoritism, corruption and bribery and thus there were widespread calls for an act or reform, which would regularize the Allocation of Government jobs. As a result, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was enacted in the year 1883, to regulate awarding of Government jobs. According to this act the candidate’s selection should be based on competitive exams rather than their political affiliations. (Stat, 1883)
Though the economy was growing leaps and bounds during this period, the labor conditions did not improve in the expected scale, resulting in wide scale labor unrest. The 1877 railroad strike was one of the bloodiest labor strikes during the Gilded Age. The railroad industry was one of the most competitive industries of that age and companies were competing with one another building extensive rail connections, sometimes parallel to that of their competitors. Such ruthless competition resulted in companies asking the workers to work close to fifteen hours a day, under extremely harsh working conditions (many insurance companies refused to give life coverage for railroad workers), without any significant increase in pay. This culminated in the 1877 riot which saw 25 people lose their lives and more than 39 buildings burnt. (Cashman, 1984)
During the Gilded Age almost 10 million new immigrants landing on the US soil. Scientifically Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and Herbert Spencer’s concept of Social Darwinism are the two significant theories that emerged out of this period. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive era which ushered in a new set of industrial and political developments.
- Faith Jaycox (2005). The Progressive Era. Infobase Publishing. p. 78.
- Sean Dennis Cashman (1984), America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: New York University Press. P. 245.
- The statutes at large of the United States from , Volume 22. (1883) United States. Dept. of State U.S. G.P.O.,