The Gilded Age is a period of U.S. History from roughly 1877 to 1900.1 The term “Gilded Age” was conceived by Mark Twain. To “guild” is to take a cheap base metal then dip it in gold or silver to give it the look of wealth or prestige.2 Struck by what was seen as greed of the marketplace, the corruption in national politics, and a social disaster for those in the midst of the turmoil, Twain mocked a society whose serious problems, he felt, had been masked by a thin coating of gold. This essay will examine why historians found a great deal of validity in Twain’s characterization based on the events that took place.
During the late nineteenth century, the economy and civilization was growing at an exponential rate. One major demonstration of this was the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The fair showcased the diverse cultures of the world and the many accomplishments of society by bringing science and culture to the masses in a way that excited popular interest.3 There were so many innovative products that came from the fair that we still use today; pancake mix in a box, dishwashers, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Shredded Wheat, and vertical filing systems are just a few examples. These products led to major industries that created many jobs for Americans. While job creation should be seen as having a positive impact on the American dream, it caused much strife and grief amongst the people. Overcrowding was a major problem near factories, which led to further problems such as the quality and quantity of clean air and water.4 This caused disease and sickness to run rampant throughout the cities. As a city continues to grow, one must take into account the need for basic services such as public protection, schools, sanitation, and fire departments. Given the rapid and largely unplanned nature of most urban growth, city governments usually had difficulty meeting all these demands.5 Without a way to safely dispose of garbage, it would often catch fire and send nearby buildings into flames. There were few fire departments to extinguish the fires and this led to a massive death toll, The Great Fire of Peshtigo, and further widespread carnage. Almost everything had to be rebuilt. While the silver lining is the fact that it did allow a city to rebuild using more fire-retardant steel and brick, the tragedy was the loss of so much life before the situation became better.
Further turning points for the Gilded Age were two major depressions (1873 and 1893), that contributed to 355 bank failures. Since banks provided a key role in funding and growing businesses, thousands of business failed. Workers who kept their jobs saw their daily wages fall 17-18 percent.6 Families literally had to keep their children home from school because they could not afford the latest editions of textbooks. This occurred simultaneously with the reduction of the already-minimal amounts of food families could gather. The financial panic of 1893 lasted four and a half years and began when the Reading Railroad declared bankruptcy. This bankruptcy caused widespread panic and industrial plants shut down in large numbers. More than fifteen thousand businesses failed in 1893.7 This sudden collapse in the economy was devastating to Americans and immigrants who had come to America for work. Despite Reading’s bankruptcy, the railroad industry remained a major driving force for the industrial economy. The agricultural industry, however, suffered greatly during these years. The financial uncertainty combined with widespread drought had farmers facing increased global competition, flooded markets, and declining prices for their goods. Their share of the national wealth was declining and their iconic place in the American imagination was at risk.
Dross is the opposite of gold.8 This is the state in which many Americans were simply surviving, not thriving. Once the gold layer was scratched away, the dull gray was present. Child labor