The Gilded Age refers to a brief time in American history after the Civil War Restoration era. During this time, the United States experienced a population and economic boom, leading to the creating of an incredibly wealthy upper class. The era lasted only a few short years, from 1877-1893, before the market crash of 1893 brought a severe depression to the entire country.
With the success of Western expansion, the California gold rush and the incredible supply of natural resources in Western North America, the demand for railroads led the way for much of the Gilded Age. Improved technology in factories and mining operations also led to incredible profits for the visionary owners of the large companies. The upper class was suddenly rolling in money, and an elitist culture began to evolve around expensive taste and possessions.
Mark Twain gave birth to the term by paraphrasing Shakespeare in King John, which says that “to paint the lily is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” The term was meant ironically and used the title of a book the humorist wrote with Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The irony of the term also came to symbolize the contrast between the pampered upper class and the increasingly poor immigrant and working classes.
Coinciding with this era of wealth and materialism was a population explosion in the United States, as waves of immigrants sought freedom and a better life in America. In a decade, nearly 140,000 Chinese immigrants entered the country, most to work on the Western railroads. Since the Potato Famine in the 1840s, Irish immigrants had begun arriving in droves to escape the starving countryside of their homeland, a trend that continued throughout era. In 1890, a census showed 190,000 Irish-born immigrants in New York City alone.
Immigrants were often looked down on by American-born citizens, and relegated to bad jobs, low pay, and squalid living conditions. The explosion in population led to severe housing shortages, leading many to live in badly constructed tenement buildings, with high risks of fire and other disasters. The irony of The Gilded Age is metaphorical: a thin covering of fake gold over a dirty and terrible situation.
Governmental corruption was another feature of this dynamic era in American history. After the assassination of the idealistic President Lincoln, the concept of morals in government took a sharp downward turn. The famous William “Boss” Tweed used his political power to defraud New York State of millions of dollars to enrich himself and his political partners. Even in the White House, under President Ulysses S. Grant, scandal after scandal seemed to rock Washington and shock the world.
The era was a complicated time, brought back into balance only through a sudden and extreme economic depression. From a historical perspective, the Panic of 1893 and the depression that followed prevented America from creating a true aristocratic class and falling into the modes that had convinced America to cede from Britain in the first place. The Gilded Age did firmly establish a rather unfortunate American cultural reality, that wealth is power and is meant to enrich the possessors, rather than the community.