The Gilded Age in America was the time between the 1870’s and the early 1900’s. During this period there were several significant changes happened with society, immigration, and industrialization. These three things together created a perfect storm for the lower Irish classes to rise above and become major political figures of their time. Many of these political leaders were born as Irish immigrants and were thought of as being less than the blacks who worked the plantations as slaves post-Civil War. These complete social outcasts managed to rise from being considered as less than worthy in the 1870’s to run the entire political machines of the Lower East side of New York City by the early 19th century, known as Tammany Hall.
First, the term Gilded Age was coined by Samuel Clemens, better known as, Mark Twain, for this time in his book by the same name. Twain defines in his book with the same name as, The times looked glittery and good, but hid a dark, worthless underbelly. (Mark Twain) Gilding is when you would take something worthless as a piece of wood and make it look expensive with glitter or gold plating. Twain’s reference to gilding pertained to the political machines that were running the bigger Northern cities, and its dark criminal underbelly of how the Tammany Hall districts in the Lower East side of New York City were being run at this time.
Tammany Hall, also known as the Society of St. Tammany, the Sons of St. Tammany. On May 12, 1789, the Columbian Order became a corporation, and a New York City political organization known as the Tammany Society. (Wikipedia) This mainly Democratic Party-political machine played a significant role in controlling New York City and New York State politics. They also helped immigrants, mostly Irish, rise in American politics from the 1790s to the 1960s. The Tammany Political machine was the Democratic Party helped the Manhattan Mayor Fernando Wood win in 1854. Wood’s used his resources to build a loyal, well-rewarded core of district and precinct leaders. After 1850s, the overwhelming majority voters were Irish Catholics. In the early 19th century, Tammany Society became the center for both political parties in the city. As the Society expanded its political control further with earning the loyalty of the city’s immigrant community, they also improved the way the Irish immigrants were seen in society. The Tammany Hall ward boss’ were part of the city’s smallest political units from 1786 to 1938. By the 1880’s, Tammany was building local clubs that appealed to social activists from the ethnic middle class. The ward bosses oversaw gathering local votes. In 1928, New York Governor Al Smith, won the Democratic presidential nomination. Tammany now had an Irish Catholic “boss” in public office.
Most of the people who lived in the Lower Eastside of New York City, which was part of the Tammany districts, during this time were Irish famine refugees looking for jobs, housing, and food. The Tammany Bosses knew how hard it was for the immigrants and took advantage of their dispersity and their needs to find jobs, housing, and keeping the families together. Tammany Bosses would help them as long as they remembered who it was that provided the help when it was time for them to pay for the assistance. This usually came in a subtle nudge of, You remember this when it comes time to vote. The people helped never forgot and remained loyal at the polls during elections. The Tammany candidates could depend on the high voter turnout in their favor. Along with mass immigration during this time the industrial revolution was also taking off and abled bodies were needed to fill the positions. The American industrialization came out of the invention of the light bulb and electricity. Industrialization changed the old ways of how things were done in America. Neighbors helped take care of each other. Sharing with your neighbor to make sure they had enough and vice versa. But with capitalism growing borrowing from a neighbor or bartering became a way of the past. Now there were sewing machines, railways, cheaper grains, etc. the new American dream had become to see how far you can climb within your life out of poverty with demanding work and ingenuity. This also created a larger gap between the poor and rich, skilled and unskilled, and industrial worker and farmers. (Summers 104)
These industrial changes also made up most of the monopolies and brought greater competition to the masses. Department stores also gave middle-class women something their husbands didn’t have a lot of at that time way of buying power. The wives were the ones going to the stores and purchasing all the items needed to run a clean and tidy household like linens, cleaning supplies, dresses, etc. This was a new type of power women have never had before, the say-so over their husband’s money. As the modernization of household items eased up the daily chores of the middle-class housewife this gave her more free time to socialize with her peers. But the days of sharing and taking care of one another were long gone from the good old days. Women were also now leaving the home doing traditional women’s work and had started to find jobs in the factories to also help support the families. (Schreiber- Module 3) While the Robber Barons were getting extremely wealthy they never reinvested into their companies to making work conditions of their employees safer. This type of ignorance lead to the formations of Union and laborers started to go on Strikes to improve their work environments.
Through the Gilded Age, laborers on strike discovered how many friends they had from all social classes in the city. As each industry would strike the local storekeepers and workers from other industries would stand alongside them and help them with food, money, people to help push the unions forward. The success came when all the working-class people started working together so every trade and type of work received fair wages, shorter work days, and most of all safer work environments. The Triangle Fire was a pivotal moment showing everyone their place of employment could be the next tragic accident. New York’s thriving culture of commercialism provided energy to not only garment workers, but workers general, tempting outlets (Argersinger, page 9).
Most of the working-class women lived and worked in the garment district. People would comment on the bright spirits and the enthusiastic personalities the young ladies who worked at the Triangle Waist Company had even though they were very poor. The women who worked at Triangle endured extremely long work days, and it was a very demeaning environment at the factory. The Triangle sweatshop would fine the women for the pettiest things, like the thread they used to sew the waist shirts, electricity for the sewing machines, they were not allowed to pick up their heads or speak to other employees. The women of Triangle were subjected to ridicule, sexual advances, also bosses would remind the women of their subordinate place on the floor. The women worked extremely hard and long hours, barely making enough money they needed to help support their families here in America and back home in Europe too. (Schreiber- Module-4)
Sadly, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building. A call was made to the tenth floor where the owners’ offices were to warn them, and they could escape. No one stopped or bothered to call and warn the 200 factory workers on the ninth floor about the fire. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, 123 women, and 23 men, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Italian and Jewish immigrant women aged 14 to 23. Of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was 43-year-old Providenza Panno, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese. The owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits, then a customary practice to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft, many of the workers who could not escape from the burning building jumped from the high windows to their death. The fire nets used for recuses were not strong enough to catch the jumpers and they fell through the nets and died. (Argersinger)
It was only after the tragedy did the city and the country learn the hopes, dreams, and what they had been working so hard for. Triangle women seeing how the upper-class women talked, dressed, and lived, made them want some of the same luxuries too. Living in a big beautiful Brownstones, going to the theatres to see plays, cinemas to watch movies, dressing in only the finest clothes from the store windows. Triangle women wished they could afford to buy the dresses they made or enjoy the nicer things the stores offered. Triangle women were used to being told look but do not touch, so they dreamed of one day being able to afford these luxuries. The girls from Triangle loved going on day trips to Coney Island, riding the rides, dancing in the dance halls even after an exhausting day’s work. The excitement of dance halls attracted young women workers, most of them in their teens, and they danced the new steps and put on style’ even after a day’s work. Going to the theater was a favorite pastime especially with the Excursions to Coney Island were special treats, and the introduction of the movie nickelodeons led to nickel madness’ among both men and women workers. Even window shopping at the palatial downtown department stores fascinated wage-earning women as they admired the latest fashions. They shared dime novels and traded secrets, clothes, and hats. (Argersinger, p. 9)
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