In part one of our miniseries on The Edge of Anarchy, author Jack Kelly describes America's love affair with capitalism in the Gilded Age.
It was Mark Twain who coined the term Gilded Age. He made it the title of a satirical novel about corruption and excess after the Civil War. Later, the Gilded Age became a label for years from about 1870 to 1900 and highlighted the period’s excesses and inequality.
One thing to remember is that the Gilded Age was not the Golden Age. It was a time of prosperity but the wealth was not evenly shared. Although it was a time of opulence, it was also a time of great hardship and destitution. Economic growth was matched by tremendous inequality. The result was a period of contention, turmoil, corruption, political rancor, and even doubts about whether American democracy was viable. If that sounds familiar to us today—well, our own era is often referred to as the New Gilded Age.
One of the main dynamics of the Gilded Age had to do with scale. Before the Civil War, Americans lived in a small-scale world—farms, villages, small cities. What we might call the Tom Sawyer world that Mark Twain remembered from his youth. Food was local. Manufacturing was local. News was local. People were provincial. Travel was by stagecoach, which has a romantic image in the movies but was a god-awful way to get around.
Then came the railroads. The golden spike was pounded to complete the first transcontinental line in 1869, and suddenly citizens could cross the country in a week instead of months, and the scale of America was forever changed. The frontier, which had always defined what America was about, disappeared. Businesses became national in scope. By the 1890s, three quarters of all the meat in the country came from a few enormous slaughterhouses in Chicago—our first industrial scale food.
We can’t overlook the great strides the country made during the period in spite of rampant inequality. The middle class benefitted. Who wouldn’t want electric lights and indoor plumbing? Telephones and train travel? Even the first moving pictures?
The gilding of the Gilded Age was supplied by the wealthy. Having succeeded in business either by hard work or sheer luck, they imagined themselves a class apart—privileged, pampered, and powerful. They owned gaudy mansions, had plenty of servants, and generally lived the American version of royalty. One couple in New York gave a five-hour party for 800 guests that cost $400,000—that’s $9 million in today’s money. They downed an average of five bottles of vintage champagne per person—so it was quite a party.
This was in a day when the average laborer made less than $10 a week to feed his or her family. In 1890, four thousand families had the same wealth as 11 million less fortunate citizens and the top 1 percent held 90 percent of the nation’s wealth. In fact, it was during the Gilded Age that folks began referring to the “one percent,” a term that has made a comeback in our own time.
Not that the rest of the population didn’t work hard. It wasn’t unusual for workers to put in 12-hour days six days a week. And about every ten years there was a serious recession that created homelessness and unemployment and actual hunger in an era when the social safety net was nonexistent.