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“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”— William Jennings Bryan, 1896

The Gilded Age in America is characterized by the rapid changes brought about by industrialization, immigration, the settlement of the far west and the disappearance of the frontier, and the challenges that all of those developments created for American society. The sudden advance of industry penetrated millions of American homes, with new consumer products, mechanical devices and ready-made clothing. It was an era in which fabulous wealth was created for some while oppressive poverty was the plight of thousands of others. It was an age that called for revolution as the American people decided that brakes needed to be applied to the rapid transformation of their lives.

steel millThe symbol of the Gilded Age was the steel mill, filling the air with noise, the skies with smoke, the lungs with poison. Yet the steel mill was the symbol of progress, a source of national wealth and strength as it provided the necessary material for the railroad, the bridge and the skyscraper. It bespoke the age of great factories, where hundreds labored around the clock, often in appalling conditions and on barely enough pay to survive.

At the other end of the scale were the huge achievements of the “Robber Barons,” who built the great transcontinental railroads, huge factories, fabulous mansions and immense fortunes. Ruthless in their pursuit of business interests, they ran roughshod over their workers and cared little for the small businessmen whom they trampled into the ground. It was the age of “Social Darwinism,”—dog eat dog, no holds barred, hell for leather. At the same time, they did things for which they are remembered to this day—museums, universities, concert halls, hospitals and libraries bear their names.

Off to the side was the worker, the “man with the hoe,” humble, sore oppressed, struggling to keep himself and his family alive. The was the time of the “war between capital and labor,” and for a time it seemed that labor must lose. The period has been called the Age of exploitation, and everything was exploited: humans being and the environment.

The end of the Gilded Age era was what historian H.W. Brands called the“The Reckless Decade,” the 1890s, when, had it not been for the Progressive movement which began around the turn of the century, the country could easily have erupted into serious disturbances if—not outright rebellion—against the excesses of big capital. More change, but of a different nature, was necessary.

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Sage History Home Reconstruction Progressive Era World Power Updated March 24, 2020