The Gilded Age, a time of transformation for American society. The history between the 1870’s and the 1900’s in the United States transitioned the country immensely, the time period even got named for its significance. Mark Twain gave this time frame it’s popular nickname, The Gilded Age, he meant that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath (Mintz and McNeil).
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The civil war ended, the economy grew, and with that came numerous changes to society. Even though on the outside looking in, America seemed to thrive, there were countless struggles occurring as well. The Gilded Age was an era of social change, industrialization advances, as well as political corruption that made a significant impact in American society.
The beginning of the Gilded Age introduced life after the Civil War; African Americans were free, immigration increased, and the gap between rich and poor became more evident. In 1866 the Civil War officially ended (Ending the Bloodshed). With the end of the civil war, many African Americans first joined free society and this angered southerners and Americans who believed that whites were superior, so they began to enforce Jim Crow Laws. Jim Crow Laws were means of segregation, The most common types of laws forbade intermarriage and ordered business owners and public institutions to keep their black and white clientele separated (Jim Crow Laws). The various laws created a division of the races throughout America. Furthermore, division amongst Americans grew as immigration grew. Initially, most immigrants came from English speaking, predominantly white countries. Starting in the Gilded Age, immigrants began coming from southern and eastern Europe, they were people with different language and cultural backgrounds. Americans, nativists especially, were portraying them as immoral, ignorant, or unable to help themselves so immigrants often moved to cities with people of the same ethnicity (Davis). As immigration increased the population numbers in cities also increased and people living in rural areas also started moving to cities for jobs. Urban cities quickly became overcrowded and many lived in, unsanitary, crowded situations without basic services such as water and sewage. Although there were a number of wealthy individuals during the era, the gap between rich and poor widened, the working class suffered as They faced long hours, low pay, random wage cuts, periods of high unemployment, danger to life and limb on the job, lack of insurance, and lack of worker’s compensation (Davis). While more people had jobs, the conditions were dangerous and children were forced to work in risky situations.
Furthermore, at the turn of the century, there were new technological advances that changed the way people lived. New technologies appeared including the phonograph, the telephone, and radio; the rise of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines; the growth of commercialized entertainment as well as the first cars, trains, and other transportation advances (Mintz and McNeil). These new technologies increased the speed of spreading information and it created a fast-paced society that wanted goods immediately. All of these technological advances came with the Second Industrial Revolution which made fast production possible by the introduction of interchangeable parts and assembly-line production (America Moves to the City). These changes meant consumer demands rose. In fact, Newly-inexpensive magazines geared toward men, women, or children proliferated in the U.S. after 1890 and advertising within these pages was standard (Shultz). Everyday products became mass produced through new factory methods, advertised through the faster spreading of information, and demanded as Americans took part in a consumerism era.
Hand in hand with consumerism, the economy grew during the Gilded Age. After the civil war, the economy began to shift from agriculture to industry and everyone’s goal was to make money. Traditional farming began to fade, as the nation’s population grew and cities assumed increased economic importance, the dream of being in business for oneself evolved to include small merchants, independent craftsmen, and self-reliant professionals as well(Small Business and the Corporation). With all the new technological advances, population numbers rising, and factory production being more efficient, jobs were readily available. Unemployment, as measured by the official Lebergott/BL S data, averaged only 4.6 7 percent (Vedder and Lowell). Men, women, and children were all working. Even though workplace conditions were not always favorable, By the beginning of the 20th century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States exceeded that of any other country except Britain (Mintz and McNeil). The new jobs meant that more money was circulating and more people had the means to partake in the economy, thus expanding it even more.
Although many Americans aimed to go into the industry and make it, this era in history is especially noted for its major tycoons, such as John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie. Rockefeller dominated the oil industry, Gould the railroads, Morgan the banks, and Carnegie the steel industry. In fact, By 1904 the top 4 percent of American businesses produced 57 percent of America’s total industrial production (Cashman). Corporations and essentially monopolies took over the business sector. Due to this, the economy boomed and Americans realized they needed a way to back up money. Currency backed up by gold was limited and people saw that the amount of money circling was growing. Farmers and working-class citizens argued for the currency to be backed up by silver because it was more abundant and would cause inflation which was good because it decreased the value of their debt; a number also argued for silver and gold and were called Silverites. However, wealthier business owners and creditors got more value from gold so they argued for gold and thus called Goldbugs (Addis). At the end of the Gilded Age, Goldbugs won and gold backed up U.S. currency for some time.
With economic growth, comes corruption. Not only business corruption but political and government corruption, a concept the Gilded Age knew well. It all started with the end of the Civil War and the emergence of political machines, a way to have a group in power and make a profit out of it. Political machines worked by the process of graft: skimmed profit made possible by controlling the municipal government, including city hall, police, and utilities (Addis). Those who were a part of it were essentially paid to keep quiet. The whole system was an illegal way to keep certain political candidates in power so the wealthy could manipulate situations into what they wanted. Because political machines ran the government, the people wanted a party that would represent the poor, the working class, and rural farmers. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party at this time were not appealing to the people. The Populist party emerged, otherwise known as the People’s Party. They were for bimetallism, using gold and silver to back up the currency, for direct voting for the senator, and for regulating railroad costs. As most third parties find, Without big financial backing, they never actually won control of the Presidency or Congress, but they appealed to enough voters that the two-party system had to take notice of their platform (Addis). The Populist Party gave the government the push it needed to see what the people actually wanted, it set in stone a similar version of democracy practiced today.
The Gilded Age is also noted for its most famous election, the election of 1896. It all started with the Silverites verses the Goldbugs. The nation divided on its view of what should back up the currency, led to a historical election. The Republican Party nominated William McKinley, he stood for the gold standard. The Democrats nominated William Bryan, he advocated for free silver and is known for his infamous statement, ‘You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of Gold'(Addis). The Populist Party, also advocating for silver put their in support for Bryan. McKinley, the Republican nominee is supported by wealthy corporations giving him a vast amount of funding and giving corporations say in his actions. On the other hand, Bryan is traveling the country, physically campaigning for his votes. McKinley ends up winning, he secured the North East and convinced a number of Western states to support him (Addis). The election introduced new concepts to presidential campaigns that would remain. The idea of businesses funding a party and changed campaigns and the idea is still seen today.
Overall, arguments can be made that the Gilded Age is not as significant as it seems. Discrimination was still prevalent as seen by the Jim Crow Laws, and nativist attitude towards immigrants existed. However, the Gilded Age changed society, the economy, and politics in ways still seen today, For example, the Gilded Age brought on consumerism culture, still prevalent in the United States today. Factories and technology made possible fast-paced, cheap manufacturing of goods. Advertisement popularized through magazines started the advertisement-filled country that exists today. The economic boom and available jobs made it possible for individuals to participate in the economy. This impacted the United States by abandoning its agricultural economy and instead became like the economies’ of Britain and Europe. The introduction of new campaign strategies such as millions in funding is how elections work today.
Overall, the Gilded Age changed society. There were positive changes that Twain referred to as the glittering surface; there were also negative changes which were embodied as the corruption underneath (Mintz and McNeil). Positives included the increase in immigration, economics booms that made the country second to Britain, technological advances that made life simpler and fast-paced. Negative changes were the division of Americans based on race, ethnicity, or class as well, business monopolies, and political corruption. All in all, the era transformed the country in a significant way. While not all of America’s problems were solved during the Gilded Age, the time period was a step forward.
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