This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age

Larry Holzwarth - March 30, 2019

The late 19th century in the United States was a period of rapid change which affected all elements of American life. Cities began to grow upwards as well as outwards. The railroads became the engine of the national economy, which grew to become one of the strongest in world. The railroads became attractive investments for overseas speculators, by 1890 British investments in American railroads was its greatest of any in the world, including its own on the African continent and the Indian subcontinent. Immigration boomed. Farming became commercially viable as an industry. Electrification of cities and eventually remote rural areas moved at a pace unforeseeable only a few years earlier.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
The Gilded Age was a period of divide between the haves and have-nots unlike any other in American history. Wikimedia

From roughly 1870 -1900, though some historians date the beginning and end of the Gilded Age more loosely, American class divides deepened. The wealthy, with no income tax to hinder them, built vast estates while the urban working class struggled to eke out a meager living. A middle class began to emerge as employers, again following the example of the railroads, began to create what became known as career paths for workers. Engineering schools established at many of the land grant colleges and universities produced civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers who created innovations which changed the American landscape. By the end of the Gilded Age the United States was a world power, economically, militarily, and internationally. Here are some of the events and facts about the Gilded Age in the United States.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
It was the might of American railroads which drove the Gilded Age as they drove the American economy. Wikimedia

1. The railroads changed American industry, agriculture, and corporate culture

When the Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869 it was possible to travel from New York City to San Francisco in the theretofore unheard of time of six days. Shippers and passengers flocked to the railroads and the railroads expanded rapidly to accommodate them. As they expanded their routes and enlarged their fleets, the railroads introduced an innovation to American industry, a path which clearly delineated the projected career of an employee with the company, including the expected time to be spent on each rung of the corporate ladder. A new term entered the corporate lexicon – middle management. The system was applied to both blue collar labor and to white collar administration and technical paths.

The expansion of the railroads also drove the steel industry, which in addition to providing the rails adopted the career paths pioneered by the railroads for their own employees, adjusting them to accommodate the emerging labor movement as necessary. By the end of the Gilded Age, around 1900-1910, American steel output exceeded that of Great Britain, France, and Germany combined, with productivity levels enhanced by the new type of personnel management which had originated with the railroads. Men (few women were subject to career paths) could reasonably estimate what their income would be in the future, rather than rely on a set wage indefinitely, and plan their futures accordingly. The American middle class was born.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Rails changed the American landscape both between and within its cities and towns. Wikimedia

2. Rails changed the landscape of cities

Even before the Civil War larger American cities and even some medium size towns were equipped with streetcars, mostly privately owned, which followed their routes on rails, pulled by horses or mules. The horses of course left behind their waste on urban streets, and their presence, as well as those pulling private carriages and taxis, caused laws to be enacted in most cities banning the presence of noisy and frightening steam engines to pull the streetcars. Most streetcars moved at a sedate walking pace and were thus easy for pedestrians to espy and avoid. With electrification all of that changed. Streetcars and trolleys could then move at higher speeds, and the obvious problems interacting with pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicle quickly presented themselves.

The cities and towns equipped with streetcars began looking for alternatives other than intermingling horse drawn vehicles with streetcars. Larger cities began to elevate the tracks above the streets, with elevated station platforms connected to the streets with stairways. Boston began building the first underground urban rail network in the 1890s, New York followed about a decade later. The railways also expanded outwards from the cities to nearby towns, and dwelling outside of the main business district, able to commute to work by reliable and affordable transportation, became an option for more and more workers and families. Most unskilled hourly laborers continued to reside close enough to their place of employment to walk to work.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Wanamaker’s Manhattan location on the right, with Grace Church in the background and streetcars intermingled with horse drawn conveyances, circa 1900. Library of Congress

3. The emergence of the department store during the Gilded Age

Department stores in the United States predated the Civil War, but it was during the Gilded Age which followed that they became a major factor of American urban life. As a middle class emerged during the Gilded Age shopping was the duty of middle class women, and they found themselves served in the stores by younger middle class, or aspiring to the middle class, women, most of whom were unmarried. Competition among the stores was fierce, and the development of loyal clientele led the stores to provide a variety of services to make them stand out. In New York a string of competing stores uptown was known as the “Ladies Mile”, and included Tiffany’s, Bergdorf & Goodman, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman among others, supported by upscale restaurants and tea rooms.

It was during the Gilded Age that the practice of creating lavish Christmas displays in street level windows to celebrate the season (and attract customers) began. By the 1890s many of the displays were animated, and additional displays were prominent within the stores themselves, on all floors, carefully placed to route customers desirous of seeing them past prominently presented merchandise. The downtown shopping districts of all American towns eventually adopted the practice, emulating the larger and well known stores such as Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Wanamaker’s, Bon Marche, and Marshall Field’s. The middle class built the chains which were originally built for them, and when they abandoned the cities for the suburbs they took the department stores with them.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
John D. Rockefeller, a leading figure of the Gilded Age (left), and his son, John Jr. Wikimedia

4. It was the wealthy who gilded the age through their extravagances

It was during the Gilded Age that the gap between the very rich and the rest of America was displayed with a prominence never before demonstrated in American society. The rich built huge mansions, often called cottages, at Newport, Rhode Island and Massachusetts’ Berkshire Hills. They resorted to spas in upstate New York and other desirable sites, getting away from the cities where they built their fortunes to spend them freely and lavishly. New York’s Fifth Avenue was lined with huge palatial residences built by the great names of American industry. The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers; the tobacco and cotton giants of the resurging south; the oil and coal barons, all created an American aristocracy which had not existed before the Civil War.

Ostentatious displays of wealth were not limited to summer homes. Those with the means built and raced yachts, traveled in richly appointed private rail cars, and rode the newly paved city streets in expensive carriages and motorcars. They dined in sumptuous surroundings in restaurants like New York’s Delmonico’s, which operated in multiple locations, where they could be seen with personages from politics, the theater, and the arts. Meals themselves were displays of conspicuous consumption, a series of courses served accompanied by a series of champagnes and other wines, followed by lavish desserts and aperitifs. The middle and working classes were far removed from the wealthy elite, and the distance between them grew throughout the Gilded Age.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
The advent of the safety bicycle during the Gilded Age led to a nationwide cycling craze. US Federal Highway Administration

5. The Gilded Age included America’s first bicycle craze in the 1890s

In 1895 an editor for the New York Tribune wrote, “The discovery and progressive improvement of the bicycle is of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon…” The 1890s was the decade in which the newly developed safety bicycle took over the hearts and minds of Americans. Though it lasted only about five years, petering out by the end of the decade, the demand was so great for bicycles that over 300 manufacturers of the machines were in place at the turn of the twentieth century, among them the Wright brothers in Dayton, Ohio, who were already experimenting with a flying machine.

Bicycles seized the public’s imagination for several reasons, as they still do, which included exercise, the ability to move about on one’s own schedule, and the ability to travel longer distances in shorter time. Bicycle clubs opened in American cities and towns, many still in existence. The clubs lobbied for the creation of special lanes for bicycles at the end of the nineteenth century, an activity which would be repeated a century later in many communities. Women’s fashions featured slightly shorter skirts to protect them from chains and the pavement when riding. During the bicycle craze of the Gilded Age the majority of riders were adults, rather than children, in large part because bicycles were relatively expensive for the time, as few were mass produced.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
During the Gilded Age the quality of urban life depended on the class and financial standing of the individual. The building under construction is the Vanderbilt Hotel. Library of Congress

6. Life in the cities during the Gilded Age was diverse and often challenging

Urban living during the Gilded Age was a challenging affair regardless of class, though less so the further up the scale one found oneself. In the mid-1880s cities began to build themselves upwards, with the center of the emerging skyscraper developments in Chicago, which was surrounded by railyards, meat processing centers, and manufacturers. Immigration to the cities brought with it poverty and often squalid living conditions in tenements and slums, and cities developed areas which others scrupulously avoided. Within, gangs formed in areas such as Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan and in the Bowery, both of which attained national disrepute.

Cities spread outwards as well, reaching outlying smaller communities and annexing them, placing greater demand on services as well as obtaining new tax revenues. Since many of the outlying communities contained eligible voters, rather than non-eligible immigrants, they received a greater share of the attention of community leaders and local governments, at the expense of the residential areas of the urban core. The situation in the slums deteriorated throughout the Gilded Age, while that of the outer areas improved in nearly all aspects of life. The emerging middle class celebrated the improvements with parks and community festivals and holidays, and the band concerts of fame in community band shells were very much a reality of the time.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
It was Mark Twain who gave the Gilded Age its name, though he was inspired by a verse from Shakespeare. Library of Congress

7. Mark Twain gave the era its name, though he borrowed it from Shakespeare

Samuel Clemens was living in Hartford, Connecticut in 1873 when he and a neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, were teased by their wives into writing a novel which described the era in which they lived. Twain was not ordinarily a collaborationist, but the two responded by producing a novel of which he composed the first eleven chapters and worked with his co-author on several others. At least twelve chapters of the book were written by Warner working alone. The result was a novel which was poorly received by critics who called it disjointed, though its humor was regarded well at the time. The novel was entitled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.

Which writer came up with the title is not known definitively, but it is generally attributed to Twain, and it became the name for the era which it partially describes. Its meaning came from the Shakespeare tragedy King John, which describes gilding a lily as “wasteful and ridiculous excess”. The novel was mainly satire, especially in its depictions of the political and social activities of Washington DC at the time it was written, which was during the administration of Ulysses Grant, a longtime friend of Twain’s. Much of what defines the era called the Gilded Age, such as the growth of industry and American imperialism, occurred in the years which followed publication of the novel in 1873, and are not a focus of either the story’s rambling plotlines nor its satirical viewpoint of American society.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and AT&T led to long distance telephony during the Gilded Age. Library of Congress

8. The Gilded Age included the creation of a national telephone system

In 1874 the Bell Patent Association was formed to protect the patents owned by the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. In 1885 the association formed a new company with the intent of creating long distance telephone service across the United States, by connecting extant local networks or creating new companies to service communities across the nation through exchanges. The company was named the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. By the end of 1892 the system of interconnected exchanges had extended to Chicago, by the end of the century the nation was linked by telephone from New York to Los Angeles, and cables were either installed or in the process of installation to the Hawaii Territory and other overseas possessions.

AT&T, as it came to be called, also got into the radio business and, as its name implied, telegraphs, though it never really rivalled Western Union in the sending of wire messages. Its entry into radio was a result of its partnership with RCA, and for a time the company owned and operated a toll radio station in New York. AT&T did not broadcast any original programming of its own, instead it allowed others to lease the facilities for a fee and broadcast their programming or messages. The idea proved unworkable, and AT&T later began broadcasting amateur programs produced by its own employees. In the early twentieth century AT&T gave up competing with Western Union and instead purchased the company, as well as many smaller telephone companies, and by the beginning of the First World War monopolized the telephone system in America.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was a virtual monopoly before there was a market for gasoline. Wikimedia

9. John D. Rockefeller created the oil monopoly despite little market for gasoline

During the Gilded Age the oil boom in the United States began, and it was driven by one man whose name remains synonymous with wealth and business monopoly, John D. Rockefeller. While many associated his name and the oil business in general with the automobile, he grew to dominate the industry before there were enough automobiles to make the refining of gasoline profitable. During the days of its early growth the oil industry typically burned off gasoline as a waste byproduct when refining crude oil. The product which went to market and which built Rockefeller’s fortune was kerosene, for which demand grew until electrification provided another source of light.

Kerosene lamps were the main source of illumination in homes, businesses, and streetlamps, until the electrification began to dominate the market during the latter portion of the Gilded Age. It was Rockefeller’s extraordinary good fortune that just as the demand for kerosene began to recede late in the century, the automobile industry grew to provide a market for gasoline, and his companies were in place to produce and market it, though it was some time before the availability of gasoline was commonplace. Early motorists, as they came to be called, often had to resort to a dry cleaner or a pharmacist to obtain fuel for their horseless carriages, an inconvenience which led to the creation of gasoline stations beginning in 1905.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
The parlor was the pride of middle class homes during the Gilded Age, where families displayed their status and welcomed guests. Wikimedia

10. The Gilded Age saw the rise of the bedroom community

The emerging middle class during the Gilded Age followed the mores of their cousins, the Victorians across the ocean in London. Despite the protestations of the temperance and suffragette movements, the husband and father was expected to provide a living for his family, the wife and mother was to remain home and supervise the household and the children. As incomes grew, bedroom communities away from the foul air of the city, as well as its population of suspect immigrants speaking various tongues, grew rapidly. The house was a symbol of status as well as a home, and the room which reflected this status most openly was the parlor.

The parlor was the showpiece for the lady of the house, where she received visitors and practiced the art of taking tea. It was furnished with her most prized pieces of furniture and objets d’art, as well as newly acquired items which may have been purchased from local department stores or the catalogues issued periodically by Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward. Gentlemen callers pitched their woo to eligible young ladies in the parlor when inclement weather prevented them doing so on the front porch, another common feature of middle class homes of the Gilded Age. Often they were entertained by the viewing of stereographic picture slides which depicted the sights of Europe, the Orient, or scenes from the American west, or listened to Edison’s new phonograph.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Some cook books, including Mrs. Seely’s from which this picture of a dining room was taken, included chapters on the hiring and retention of domestic servants. Wikimedia

11. The Gilded Age was an age of household servants for the middle class

During the Gilded Age it was common for homes of the middle class to be employers of servants, often from the ranks of the immigrants which sought a new life in the United States. At the very least, a middle class home employed a maid, and usually a cook. A rise in status was reflected by the addition of a gardener and coachman/chauffeur, though it was not uncommon for that role to be combined. The servants worked under the supervision of the lady of the house, who thus free from the more mundane work of housekeeping was able to concentrate her time and attention to social activities in which she was interested.

It was the last period in American history of which household servants were common among those other than the wealthy. The introduction of many products which began during the Gilded Age rendered many servants unnecessary. Modern stoves and electrical appliances, and especially the manner in which they were marketed, made cooking more accessible. Electric cleaning tools such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines gradually replaced maids and laundresses. While servants remained common in American homes for decades, it was during the Gilded Age that their employment reached its peak, before modern conveniences and public attitudes caused their number to dwindle.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia celebrated the first American century at the dawn of the Gilded Age. Wikimedia

12. The Centennial Exposition of 1876

The Gilded Age was only beginning when the United States celebrated its centennial in 1876, which was marked by the first World’s Fair ever held in America. From May to November, 1876, the anniversary was celebrated at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, with 37 countries participating in exhibits and activities which entertained more than 10 million visitors. Much of the sinew of the Gilded Age was on display in support of the exhibition; the city operated special streetcars to convey visitors to and from the site; the Pennsylvania Railroad operated special trains to New York, Baltimore, Washington, and Pittsburgh. Steam ferries approached the Exposition grounds via the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia.

Visitors to the Exposition during the summer of 1876 were presented with the Gilded Age at its height, in fashion and social behavior, technological achievements, advances in transportation, in medicine, and in entertainment. They were awed by the massive Corliss Steam Engine, which provided the power for the rest of the Exposition. They viewed examples of the technological progress of humanity, including typewriters, dishwashers, sewing machines, a mechanical calculator, and Gatling guns. While Gatling’s were on display at the Exposition in Philadelphia in June 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer left his behind when he pursued the Sioux to the Little Big Horn. The news of his and his command’s demise shocked visitors to Philadelphia from around the world.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Ivory Soap, and Heinz 57 Catsup were all first marketed to consumers during the Gilded Age. Wikimedia

13. The Gilded Age saw the birth of several well-known consumer products

At the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia visitors were treated to a new condiment from Pittsburgh, a catsup named Heinz 57. They were able to wash it down with another new product, a beverage made from sassafras root prepared by Hires, and sold as Hires Root Beer. It was during the Gilded Age that John Pemberton began selling Coca-Cola as a patent medicine. In 1879 Cincinnati’s Proctor and Gamble marketed a new soap, which they named Ivory, and which was highly touted by the company for its purity. Kellogg’s patented a process for the manufacturing of Corn Flakes in 1896 and began manufacturing and selling Kellogg’s Corn Flakes that same year.

During the Gilded Age the famed red and white Campbell’s Soup can design was created for its growing line of condensed soups, the colors were inspired by those of Cornell University’s football uniforms. Another product marketed with a red and white label, Budweiser Beer, was introduced in 1876, and served at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Milton S. Hershey developed his process for making milk chocolate near the end of the Gilded Age, after first achieving considerable success as a manufacturer of caramels. Professional baseball was born in the Gilded Age, and the game exploded in popularity as barnstorming teams began to be replaced with locally based permanent teams playing in organized leagues.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Segregation and “separate but equal” facilities for blacks in former Confederate states began during the Gilded Age. Wikimedia

14. The Gilded Age saw the introduction of the Jim Crow era in the American South

The Gilded Age coincided with the end of Reconstruction and the removal of the occupying Union forces in the former Confederate states. With their removal in 1877 came the end of northern influence in southern governments at the local and state levels, and the introduction across the south of segregation. The south was much poorer than the states of the north, still mainly agricultural, and far less cash circulated among the population, among blacks and whites. Southern whites, especially poorer sharecroppers, blamed the widely spread poverty on the black population and the northerners who had set free the former slaves.

The concept of separate but equal access to facilities available to the general public became law across the southern United States. Segregation was legally mandated and the right to vote was denied to over 90% of black Americans through the introduction of poll taxes and other laws which restricted them. The overwhelming majority of blacks in the United States continued to reside in the southern states during the period of the Gilded Age, and the problems being encountered following the end of Reconstruction were not widely known in the north, where the larger cities were more concerned with the issues of immigration and the conditions in the ethnic neighborhoods which immigrants created during the era.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
The Gilded Age occurred simultaneously with the death of Custer and the final wars against the Indians on the American plains. Wikimedia

15. The settlement of the west took place during the Gilded Age

What is considered the Gilded Age was also the time during which the United States settled much of the country between California and the Mississippi River, with homesteaders scratching out farms and cattle ranchers establishing empires in the Great Plains, often in enmity to each other. The final years of the American Indian Wars occurred during the same time that electrified streetcars and elevated railways appeared in the major cities of the East, and in those of California. Gold and silver rushes in Nevada, Montana, Colorado, South Dakota, and other locales lured many others to the west, where they established businesses and communities.

The electrification of America created a demand for copper for wires and cables, as did the expanding telephone systems and telegraph lines. The mines for copper, gold, silver, iron, and coal, drew many of the immigrants in the crowded eastern cities to the west, and with them went the labor organizers and unions. The Gilded Age was a period of significant labor strife, with several disturbances leading to open warfare among mercenaries hired by the mining and railroad companies and the workers attempting to organize into unions. Several of the worst were at the mines owned by men dressed in evening clothes enjoying dinner at Delmonico’s and other establishments of luxury in the East.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Washington Duke, whose fortune stemmed largely from tobacco, helped found Duke University, ironically now one of the major cancer research centers in the world. Wikimedia

16. Philanthropy led to the founding of several of America’s great universities

In 1873 one of America’s earliest successful entrepreneurs and a leading investor in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad left a bequest in his will which led to the founding of Johns Hopkins University, named in his honor. It was one of many such acts of philanthropy from wealthy Americans which created schools during the Gilded Age. Washington Duke, a tobacco magnate, liberally endowed the university which bears his name with the proviso that the school “open its doors to women, placing them on an equal footing with men”. Leland Stanford made his fortune in railroads and politics and despite being considered among the most notorious of the robber barons, endowed what is now Stanford University, where the first student admitted was a man by the name of Herbert Hoover.

William Marsh Rice was a Texas politician and businessman who left a large part of his considerable fortune to endow Rice University, which opened a dozen years after his death under mysterious circumstances, later determined to be murder. Ezra Cornell, the founder of Western Union, which in turn became the foundation of his fortune, provided the bulk of the funds for the creation of Cornell University at the beginning of the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was a time of considerable philanthropy, with much of it accomplished in a conspicuous manner, as those who had achieved great wealth created lasting memorials to themselves, though the memorials have certainly benefited all who followed.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Basketball was invented as part of the Social Gospel during the Gilded Age, and by the 1900s was an intercollegiate sport. This is the 1899 Kansas team. Wikimedia

17. The emergence of the Social Gospel during the Gilded Age

The Civil War was preceded and followed in the United States by a period of religious revival known as the Third Great Awakening. In turn, the largely Protestant Awakening spawned the Social Gospel, which directed attention to the problems of the slums in large cities by applying what its proponents called “Christian ethics” to what they believed were the true causes of the squalid living conditions; alcohol, crime, inadequate and unequal distribution of wealth, poor schools, and so on. Preachers of the Social Gospel aligned themselves with the temperance movement, the suffragist movement, and other groups bent on social reform, including the socialists and anarchists.

The YMCA and YWCA grew significantly in size and influence during the Gilded Age, particularly in the cities and towns across the United States, where it strove to create alternatives to the recreation offered by taverns and brothels. During the Gilded Age the game of basketball was invented at a YMCA training center in Springfield, Massachusetts. Another New England YMCA saw the invention of the game of volleyball, originally known as Mintonette. The YMCA was an example of the Social Gospel which was based on the principle of muscular Christianity, which gained support during the Gilded Age, often from the poor as an attack against the excesses of the wealthy. Nonetheless many wealthy industrialists and financiers also supported the Social Gospel as a form of 19th century faith based initiative.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Edward Bellamy envisioned America as a socialist utopia with all property owned by the state, rather than by individuals or corporations. Library of Congress

18. A Gilded Age novel predicted American society in the 21st century somewhat inaccurately

In 1888 a journalist in Massachusetts published a science fiction novel entitled Looking Backward: 2000 – 1887, which was based in the year 2000. It became to its time the third best-selling novel of novel of American history, surpassing the works of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and others. Only Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, sold more copies of the works which had preceded it. It presented American history by looking backwards from the year in which it was set, 2000, using a protagonist who fell asleep in 1887 and awoke over a century later, in an America which had become a socialist utopia. Over 150 Bellamy clubs – named for the book’s author, Edward Bellamy – formed to discuss the significance of the book.

In Bellamy’s utopia, America’s cities and towns are sprinkled with public kitchens where anyone can eat whenever they wished, gratis. Rather than money, everyone is provided with an equal amount of credit, used to obtain goods and services. Private property is non-existent, all property being nationalized. Criminals are treated medically rather than jailed. The only employer is the nation itself, and those employed in dangerous positions work less hours for the same pay. Bellamy used the word Nationalism to refer to socialism, and the clubs which formed to discuss and implement his views were known as Nationalist clubs. As an aside, Bellamy’s cousin and fellow socialist Francis Bellamy was the author of the Pledge of Allegiance.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
The convenience of travel on the interurban railways of the Gilded Age made them a popular means of transit. Wikimedia

19. The Gilded Age saw the introduction of the interurban railroads

Rural areas which were not served directly by the main lines of the railroads were presented with a solution to their transportation needs, for both goods and passengers, with the emergence of the interurbans during the Gilded Age. Interurban railroads were electrified for the most part, connecting smaller towns with the cities served by the larger railroads, and offered an opportunity for suburbs to extend further from the cities while providing reliable commutes to work. The first American interurban opened in 1889 in Ohio. Many radiated from an urban center like spokes in a wheel, particularly in Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

At one time, in the decade before World War I, one could travel from New York to Chicago using a series of interurban lines, rather than the Pennsylvania Railroad or the New York Central. The same could be done from Cincinnati to Chicago. The interurban lines during the Gilded Age also carried freight, including fresh produce and milk from outlying farms to markets. They were relatively inexpensive to operate, since they ran on electricity, and their fares were accordingly less expensive than the railroads, which relied on coal for fuel at the time. The interurban railroads remained a feature of the American landscape until they were killed off by the automobile and the national highway system following World War II.

This is What Life was Like During the American Gilded Age
Much of the romanticism of the Gilded Age was captured in the paintings of William Merritt Chase. Wikimedia

20. The Gilded Age ended around the turn of the 20th century

When the Gilded Age began, the United States had a mostly wooden navy, with its ships powered by both steam and sail. When it ended, three decades later, the United States Navy was a steel navy, the victor over the first colonizer of the Americas, Spain, in the Spanish-American War. The United States had joined the imperialist powers of Europe in acquiring overseas possessions. The Gilded Age yielded slowly to the reforms of the Progressive movement, and as the robber barons, corrupt officials, and political machines found their influence waning, they took steps to protect their holdings which signified the Gilded Age.

Many of the great mansions which were built during the period still stand, though few are used for their originally intended purpose. Others, such as the great row of houses along Fifth Avenue in New York are long gone. Even the railroads, which largely drove what became known as the Gilded Age, waned in importance to American passenger traffic, though they remain critical to shipping as part of the containerized shipping system. The greatest legacy of the Gilded Age was the creation of the American middle class, though at the time it was limited to white collar workers. Blue collar workers would not gain access to the middle class until the days after World War II, when the strength of the labor unions reached its peak.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad”. John F. Stover. 1987

“The Gilded Age 1877-1896”. Vincent de Santis. 1973

“Give the Lady What She Wants: The Story of Marshall Fields and Company”. Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan. 1952

“New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age”. Rebecca Edwards. 2006

“The Great Bicycle Craze”. Fred C. Kelly, American Heritage Magazine. December 1956

“The Gilded Age”. H. Wayne Morgan, American Heritage Magazine. August/September 1984

“Mark Twain: The Contemporary Reviews”. Louis J. Budd. 2011

“Telephone: The First Hundred Years”. John Brooks. 1976

“John D. Rockefeller: The Cleveland Years”. Grace Goulder. 1972

“The Parlor”. Russell Lynes, American Heritage Magazine. October 1963

“Maids in America: The Decline of Domestic Help”. Ester Bloom, The Atlantic. September 23, 2015

“Then & Now: The 1876 Centennial Exposition”. Austin Weber, Assembly Magazine. September 1, 2001

“The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America”. Charles W. Calhoun, editor. 2007

“The Origins of the New South”. C. Vann Woodward. 1951

“The Gilded Age in American History”. Vincent P. de Santis, Hayes Historical Journal. 1988

“The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal”. H. Wayne Morgan, ed. 1970

“Edward Bellamy”. Arthur E. Morgan. 1944

“Goodbye to the Interurban”. William D. Middleton, American Heritage Magazine. April 1966

“The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. Richard White. 2017