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The Gilded Age

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Matthew E. Stanley, The Gilded Age, Journal of American History , Volume 105, Issue 3, December 2018, Pages 772–774, https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jay435

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The producer-director Sarah Colt's new documentary describes a society of widespread poverty amid unprecedented plenty—a society in which the richest four thousand families amassed as much wealth as the remaining 11.6 million families combined. No, it is not a survey of the post–great recession United States. Rather, The Gilded Age examines the period between Reconstruction and the end of the nineteenth century, when bloodshed over slavery and civil rights in the postwar South were replaced by new battles—both political and literal—between capital and labor. Wealth inequality, the role of the state, corporate money in politics, a living wage, and how American citizens should deal with the deficiencies of capitalism have recently become the prevailing themes of Occupy Wall Street, Fight for $15, and the movement politics of Bernie Sanders. The Gilded Age presents popular audiences with a cogent account of the past that also speaks to the present by contextualizing the history of material disparities, economic volatility, and class division in American life.

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Stanford historian reexamines United States’ Reconstruction, Gilded Age in new book

Stanford’s Richard White, an American historian, analyzes the United States’ history from 1865 to 1896 and provides a fresh perspective on the time period, which was marked by rising inequality and corruption.

The issues of inequality and divisiveness that the United States faces today share many parallels with a period of time after the Civil War which also faced rising inequality, heavy immigration and partisan deadlock.

Richard White

Richard White (Image credit: Jesse White)

Between the end of the war in 1865 and the start of the 20th century, a time that encompasses two periods historians call the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age, the newly united, post-slavery U.S. saw rapid and disorienting technological change and the country’s largest wave of migration, as well as weak presidents, corruption and bribery.

Stanford historian Richard White analyzes that historical period in his new book The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 , which is the latest installment in Oxford University Press’ multi-volume series on narrative history of the United States. White argues that the seeds of the modern U.S. were planted during this time period and that a better understanding of the societal and political struggles of the time could shed light on issues being debated today.

Stanford News Service interviewed White about his research.

What is the biggest takeaway from your research about this period of time?

Toward the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans had a clear vision of what they wanted the country to be. They sought to make the republic a replica of Springfield, Illinois, a Midwestern town that embodied free labor and the middle class. By 1896, it was clear that they had helped produce a very different world. The book seeks to explain how this happened.

The “American dream” during this time was about attaining a “competency” rather than great riches. A competency meant having enough to secure independence, security in times of crisis and old age and the means to start children out in life. Previous historians have described Reconstruction and the Gilded Age as a time of individualism. But it was less about individualism than cooperation. These alternate American values are something we forget today.

How and why did you start working on this book?

David Kennedy, who is also a professor of history at Stanford, asked me to take this on years ago, and I initially said no. When he came back later with the same request, I said yes because my mother became ill with dementia and I needed the book’s advance to help with her expenses. She died more than a year before this book was finished.

I’ve written widely about different topics and issues from this era, but I became increasingly fascinated with the period while working on this volume. I realized that just because I taught and studied this period didn’t mean that putting this book together would be easier. Integrating so much diverse material turned out to be a challenge.

In describing the era, I realized I was describing the world into which my own family came. One of my grandparents was the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland who arrived during the Gilded Age. My Jewish grandfather came from what is now Belarus around the turn of the century. My maternal grandmother came from Ireland about the same time. My Irish grandfather, following his relatives, came later. One grandfather was an illegal immigrant; the other was nearly deported back to Russia; both my Irish grandparents returned to Ireland.

How was the Reconstruction and the Gilded Age viewed before by most historians and how is your interpretation different?

Sometimes a generation of scholarship becomes so influential that it kills a field. That’s what happened here. Influential 20th-century historians, such as Pulitzer-Prize winning Richard Hofstadter and Robert Wiebe, described the United States as a fragmented republic searching for order and dismissed the presence of corruption during the Gilded Age. They described the era as one of laissez-faire and weak government. Only recently have historians started to challenge that portrayal.

I found a different country than the one Hofstadter and Wiebe described. I see a strong government that repeatedly intervened in the economy with tariffs, subsidies and social welfare programs. It had power – but without administrative capacity – so it granted authority to private bodies and relied on fees and subsidies rather than bureaucracy. This contributed a great deal to the corruption about which Americans complained.

In trying to evaluate arguments over whether industrialism and urbanization improved the lives of Americans, I turned to demographic studies. They showed that American lifespans declined as did average height. Large numbers of children died. It is hard to argue that conditions for ordinary Americans improved. Those benefits were largely reserved for the 20th century.

Are there any other misconceptions about this period? Any unheralded events or outcomes that we should pay more attention to?

Hofstadter and other historians also see the Gilded Age as an age of individualism. My research shows that’s not the case. The key idea then was one of home. Americans thought of the republic as a collection of homes.

Most people organized their lives around the home. Real men defended and supported a home; true women maintained and reproduced the home.  Men who could not do this did not deserve full citizenship and the vote. That was the argument used to deny citizenship to Chinese and voting rights to black people and “tramps,” a term used then to describe workers traveling in search of a job. These groups supposedly threatened homes rather than supported them. Similarly, a real woman maintained a home and a family.

Why is it important for us to understand and learn about that particular period of history? What are some of the lessons that are relevant to today’s America?

The parallels between then and now are striking.  In part, the seeds of the modern United States were planted during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Many debates over today’s policy recommendations on how to solve American problems go back to the debates over Gilded Age policies. People who talk about immigration or governance today really need to take a careful look at the Gilded Age. Chances are if policies failed then, they are not going to work now.

But, in another sense, the opposite is also true. The best reason to study history is to discover past possibilities that are not apparent today. The idea of a competency rather than endless material accumulation, of cooperation rather than individualism, and of collectives like the home rather than personal self-fulfillment are Gilded Age ideals that deserve reconsideration.

Richard White is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University. He is a MacArthur Fellow and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The Gilded Age and Progressive Era: Student Research Projects

Andrew carnegie.

Representing the two sides of Andrew Carnegie. His side during his rise in business and his other side of philanthropic work. 1892

Andrew Carnegie giving to colleges. 1901

           Andrew Carnegie a name infamous with big business.  He is seen as one of the great business moguls of America. He came from rags to riches, and eventually dominated the steel industry. Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835 in Scotland, where he spent much of his childhood tell his early teens.  He then immigrated to America and began working for $1.20 a week.[1]  He rose up in business fairly quickly after meeting Thomas Scott a leading member of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  With Scott he ventured into different aspects of business instead of just working as a hired hand.  He invested a good sum of money into the steel industry.  Which eventually would pay off greatly. 

             Once he did make it into the steel industry he adapted the style of vertical integration.  This this business style can be seen as a monopoly due to its control of the complete process of a product.  This meant that he controlled every aspect from the barges, steel mills, the mines, and the transportation of the product.[2]  This created a vast network for Carnegie’s industry as well as a guarantee for his product. 

             With his company being a monopoly there are many negative aspects that people see about.  One can begin treatment of the workers, this due to the time when the mass amounts of people who immigrated to the United States. At the height of his business Carnegie employed 40,000 men.  These men worked in all aspects of the business process.  Not all of them were happy about the conditions that they worked in, which can be seen in the Homestead strike of 1892.  This strike put the workers of one of his steel mill against the steel mill’s foreman.  The workers wanted to unionize while Andrew Carnegie and the foreman or against the unionization of their workers.  This led to a large-scale conflict between the workers and those who the foreman, Henry Clay Frick, called in such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency.[3]  However the strike did not end well for the workers nor for their trade union ally the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.   Although this paints Carnegie and his company with distrust there was still a light at the end of the tunnel for Carnegie.

             This light at the end of the tunnel was his philanthropy work.  Carnegie created the Gospel of Wealth.  This was a book that documented how the rich should not die rich and that they should give back to those that help them.  Over the course of his business he gained a vast amount of money that he eventually gave back to those who helped him.  He reportedly gave away 90% of his wealth towards the end of his life.  He gave back to those who helped him throughout the years specifically workers.  He also gave back to those who served in war with his Hero Fund.  Lastly he gave generously to public libraries.  Which he believed that you must be educated, in total he gave 2,811 libraries to communities.[4]  As well as countless other donations he gave during the end of his life. 

             Andrew Carnegie can be seen as a peculiar figure in business history.  The first came from nothing to be one of the biggest businessman of the time.  One that revolutionized business industry as well as caused many changes to business.  In this he can be seen as almost a villain for his treatment of workers as well as the lower class.  Yet towards the end of his life he is seen as a generous man gave away almost all his wealth. This two different people from all walks of life.  He also repaid those that he wrong so much, the workers.  Carnegie can be seen as a giant contradiction due to his early life being so drastically different to that of the later course of his life.  

[1]Krass, Peter. Carnegie . New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. 22-23

[2]Andrew Carnegie: The Gospel of Wealth. Learning Corp. of America, 1974.

[3]Wolff.  Lockout : The Story of the Homestead Strike of 1892 : A Study of Violence, Unionism and the Carnegie Steel Empire . 135

[4]Wall, Joseph Frazier.  Andrew Carnegie.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. 829

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RPW 2610W A Hands-On History of the American Research University - Loss, Meadows: The Gilded Age

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Introduction

The Gilded Age spans the years 1870 to 1900.  The term for these years is taken from a satirical novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner titled, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.   Published in 1873, the novel depicts a post-Civil War America as an age of corruption populated by robber barons, corrupt politicians, and dishonest bankers.

This era also sees the rise of a middle class, many of whom sought to improve their own lives and those of their children through education.  Explore the resources below for primary and secondary sources on this era.  Additional resources can be found through the library catalog , the Collections Guides database , and by working with one of your course librarians .

Primary Sources

  • Manuscript Collections
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  • Charles Crain Garr Collection Scope and Content This collection contains contains photographs, negatives, clippings, and correspondence from Charles Garr, a Vanderbilt student and football player in the early 1900s. Dates 1880 - 1923
  • Florence Teague Collection Scope and Contents This collection contains materials related to Florence Teague, and her family. It contains the original 1883 handwritten essay by Mary Summers Conwell, her school certificates, and a newspaper clipping regarding her prize. Florence Teague wrote the family biography. Dates 1883 - 1968
  • James Hampton Kirkland Papers Scope and Content Note The Papers of James Hampton Kirkland, the second chancellor of Vanderbilt University, are composed of eighteen cubic feet of material that represent Kirkland’s life, particularly his tenure at Vanderbilt (Professor of Latin, 1886 - 1893, Chancellor, 1893 - 1937, Chancellor Emeritus 1937 - 1939). Dates 1859 - 1939 more... less... Offsite storage
  • Landon Cabell Garland Papers Scope and Contents The Landon Cabell Garland Papers (1830-1993) includes correspondence, diaries, speeches, sermons, a report to the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust, and personal and biographical materials. These are personal papers of Chancellor Garland and are not to be confused with his university papers. This collection is a small snapshot of Chancellor Garland's personal life, with the family correspondence providing the main interest. Dates 1830 - 1958 more... less... Offsite storage
  • Newton Ford Raines Collection The collection contains an Order For Matriculation for N. F. Raines, October 5, 1875 and report cards 1875-1876.
  • Vanderbilt Aid Society Collection Scope and Content This small collection consists of 0.63 linear feet of materials relating to the founding of the Vanderbilt Aid Society, or the Ladies Aid Society for the Students of Vanderbilt University as it was called at the beginning. The collection contains correspondence, brief historical notes about the Society by various people connected with it, and the records that have been kept concerning the Treasurers’ reports and the loan fund reports, as well as the minutes from the meetings, 1894 - 1950. Dates 1894 - 1950
  • Waller Project Collection Scope and Content A variety of resources collected and used by William Waller for his books on the history of Nashville. Includes essays of the history of Price's School for Girls. Dates 1853 - 1954
  • Vanderbilt Austral Call Number: LH1.V25 V344 Publication Date: 1879-03-01 First newspaper published by student of Vanderbilt University. March-June, 1879.
  • Vanderbilt Observer Call Number: LH1 .V24 V35 Publication Date: 1882-1917 Literary journal published by the literary societies of Vanderbilt University. It also includes news about happenings at Vanderbilt University.
  • Central University: Charter, Proceedings of the Board of Trust, and Adress of the Board. The planned institution called in these documents Central University was organized later in 1873 as Vanderbilt University. Includes a historical sketch of the work so far toward the establishment of Central (i.e. Vanderbilt) University), "taken from the Address issued by the Board, at its meeting in Iuka, Miss., August, 1872"; the text of the Charter of the Central University, certified Aug. 19, 1872; proceedings of a meeting of the Board of Trust, held Jan. 16, 1873; and an Address of the Board, dated Jan. 17, 1873.
  • The Comet/Commodore, 1887-2017 Vanderbilt University student annual.
  • Faculty Senate Minutes, 1879-1885, 1903-1926 Vanderbilt University Archives Record Group 505 Faculty Senate Box 0487
  • Minutes of the Executive Board of Trust of Vanderbilt University more... less... Special Collections and University Archives Library

You will need to log into the Sanborn Maps database before following these links to individual pages. 

  • Key to Map Illustrations, 1888 (Digital Sanborn Maps, 1888, page 0a) This key to the map illustrations shows how the volume designates streets and architectural features of buildings.

Sanborn Maps

  • Vanderbilt University, 1888 (Digital Sanborn Maps, page 38b) Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1888 showing the Vanderbilt University campus. Detailed drawings show such items as underground coal sheds, wells, and faculty houses with separate kitchen structures. more... less... Home page for the Digital Sanborn Maps database: http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/eres?id=1083
  • Key to Map Illustrations, 1897 (Digital Sanborn Maps, 1897 Volume 2, page 0b) This key to the map illustrations shows how the volume designates types of roofs, walls, and other building features.
  • Vanderbilt University, 1897 (Digital Sanborn Maps, 1897 Volume 2, page 192) These maps show an expanding campus, including additional faculty houses, West Side Row dormitories, and a Machine Shop.

Secondary Sources

research papers on gilded age

  • History of Vanderbilt University by Edwin Mims Call Number: LD5588 .M5 Publication Date: 1946 An early history of Vanderbilt University from its beginning in 1873 up to the end of World War II.
  • Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University by Paul K. Conkin Call Number: LD5588 .C66 1985 ISBN: 087049452X Publication Date: 1985-06-01 A comprehensive history of Vanderbilt University, from its beginnings in 1873 to 1982.

research papers on gilded age

  • Schools for All by William P. Vaughn Call Number: LC2802 .S9 V38 ISBN: 0813113121 Publication Date: 1974-06-01 In an extensive study of records from the period, William Preston Vaughn traces the development -- the successes as well as the failures -- of the early attempts of the states to promote education for African Americans and in some instances to establish integration. While public schools in the South were not an innovation of Reconstruction, their revitalization and provision to both races were among the most important achievements of the period, despite the pressure from whites in most areas which forced the establishment of segregated education.
  • Nashville in the 1890s by William Waller (Editor); S. Horn (Foreword by) ISBN: 0826511651 Publication Date: 2009-06-15 In the 1890s Nashville, Tennessee had already developed into a bustling center of trade and industry. NASHVILLE IN THE 1890s is a memento of that era. An outgrowth of the Vanderbilt Oral History project, established in 1950, this book tells the events large and small--the cataclysms and commonplaces--that distinguished life in the nineties. From mumblety-peg to the Centennial, from a "storebought" jacket to the Panic of 1893, from filling coal boxes to the Spanish-American War, this book recreates the aura of Nashville's elegant era.
  • Nashville 1900-1910 by William Waller (Editor); S. Horn (Foreword by) Call Number: F444 .N2 W26 ISBN: 0826511651 Publication Date: 1970-11-01 History of Nashville, Tennessee 1900-1910 as related in written memoirs and oral history interviews with local residents.

Twain, Mark and Charles Dudley Warner.  The Gilded Age : A Tale of To-Day. Hartford: American Pub. Co., 1874. Call Number: PS1311 .A1 1874 For more information on fore-edge painting, please see:

  • Wonders of the Hidden Edge: Fore-Edge Paintings from the N-YHS Library
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research papers on gilded age

Two of the many primary documents available from the Early American Imprints database."

Locating Primary Souces in Library Databases

  • Adam Matthew Explorer This link opens in a new window Collections spanning the social sciences and humanities, developed in collaboration with leading libraries and archives. Includes unique primary source content with a wealth of additional features to enhance engagement.
  • American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I This link opens in a new window Based on the American Antiquarian Society's landmark collection -- the most extensive in existence -- American Broadsides and Ephemera offers fully searchable facsimile images of approximately 15,000 broadsides printed between 1820 and 1900 and 15,000 pieces of ephemera printed between 1760 and 1900. Featuring many rare items, the pieces of ephemera include clipper ship sailing, theater and music programs, stock certificates and more.
  • Black Drama: Third Edition This link opens in a new window Black Drama, now in its expanded third edition, contains the full text of more than 1,700 plays written from the mid-1800s to the present by more than 200 playwrights from North America, English-speaking Africa, the Caribbean, and other African diaspora countries. Many of the works are rare, hard to find, or out of print.
  • Dissertations and Theses (ProQuest) This link opens in a new window With more than 2.3 million entries, PQDT is the database of record for doctoral dissertations and master's theses. The database represents the work of authors from over 1,000 graduate schools and universities in North America and from around the globe. Over 60,000 new dissertations and theses are added to the database each year.
  • Historical Statistics of the United States This link opens in a new window Presents mainly US census data for the nation as a whole, such as immigration statistics by country of origin or mortality rates by disease, ranging back to the 1800s.
  • Historic Pittsburgh This link opens in a new window Historic Pittsburgh is a digital collection that provides an opportunity to explore and research the history of Pittsburgh and the surrounding Western Pennsylvania area on the Internet. It is a joint project of the University of Pittsburgh and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. Most of the materials in Historic Pittsburgh's Full-Text Collection were published or produced before the early 1920s and are out of print or not readily accessible.
  • North American Women's Letters and Diaries This link opens in a new window When complete this collection will include approximately 150,000 pages of published letters and diaries from individuals writing from Colonial times to 1950, plus 4,000 pages of previously unpublished materials. Drawn from more than 1,000 sources the collection represents all age groups, ethnicities, regions and the famous and the not so famous.
  • Slavery and Anti-Slavery This link opens in a new window A digital archive in four parts devoted to the study and understanding of the history of slavery in America and the rest of the world from the late 15th through the early 20th century.
  • U.S. Declassified Documents Online This link opens in a new window U.S. Declassified Documents Online provides immediate access to a broad range of previously classified federal records spanning the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The collection brings together the most sensitive documents from all the presidential libraries and numerous executive agencies in a single, easily searchable database. Former title: Declassified Documents Reference System (DDRS).
  • Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 This link opens in a new window WSM brings together books, images, documents, scholarly essays, commentaries, and bibliographies, documenting the multiplicity of women’s reform activities and examines perspectives on women’s social movements from Colonial times to the present.
  • African American Newspapers This link opens in a new window Rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day, including the Mexican War, Presidential and congressional addresses, Congressional abstracts and business and commodity markets this enormous collection of African-American newspapers contains a wealth of information about the cultural life and history during the 1800s. It also contains large numbers of early biographies, vital statistics, essays and editorials, poetry and prose, and advertisements, all of which embody the African-American experience.
  • Atlanta Daily World This link opens in a new window The Atlanta Daily World had the first black White House correspondent and was the first black daily newspaper in the nation in the 20th century.
  • Baltimore Afro-American This link opens in a new window The most widely circulated black newspaper on the Atlantic coast. It was the first black newspaper to have correspondents reporting on World War II, foreign correspondents, and female sports correspondents.
  • Chicago Defender This link opens in a new window A leading African-American newspaper, with more than two-thirds of its readership outside Chicago.
  • HarpWeek This link opens in a new window The HarpWeek database contains all the pages of Harper's Weekly for the Civil War Era and Reconstruction (1857-1912) as scanned images, together with a series of indexes. HarpWeek provides information on domestic and foreign news, editorials, and people during the Civil War era.
  • New York Times (Historical) This link opens in a new window The New York Times from 1851-2013 with searchable full text, full page, and article-level images.
  • Philadelphia Tribune This link opens in a new window The oldest continuously published black newspaper, it was dedicated to the needs and concerns of the fourth largest black community in the U.S. During the 1930s the paper supported the growth of the United Way, rallied against the riots in Chester, PA, and continuously fought against segregation.
  • Pittsburgh Courier 1911-2002 This link opens in a new window The Pittsburgh Courier was one of the most nationally circulated Black newspapers and reached its peak in the 1930s. A conservative voice in the African-American community, the Courier challenged the misrepresentation of African-Americans in the national media and advocated social reforms to advance the cause of civil rights.
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Historical) This link opens in a new window This database provides full page and article images with searchable full text for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1786-2003). The collection includes digital reproductions of every page from every issue in PDF format.
  • Washington Post (Historical) This link opens in a new window The Washington Post from 1877-2000
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What Was the Gilded Age?

Economic and industrial developments, social stratification and inequality, economic impact and legacy, are there gilded age mansions left, what was the worst scandal of the gilded age, when did the gilded age start and end, the bottom line.

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The Gilded Age Explained: An Era of Wealth and Inequality

research papers on gilded age

Katie Miller is a consumer financial services expert. She worked for almost two decades as an executive, leading multi-billion dollar mortgage, credit card, and savings portfolios with operations worldwide and a unique focus on the consumer. Her mortgage expertise was honed post-2008 crisis as she implemented the significant changes resulting from Dodd-Frank required regulations.

research papers on gilded age

Investopedia / Mira Norian

The Gilded Age, which roughly spanned the late 1870s to the early 1900s, was a time of rapid industrialization , economic growth, and prosperity for the wealthy. It was also a time of exploitation and extreme poverty for the working class.

Reconstruction preceded the Gilded Age, when factories built as part of the North’s Civil War effort were converted to domestic manufacturing . Agriculture, which had once dominated the economy, was replaced by industry. Ultimately, the Gilded Age was supplanted by early 20th-century progressivism after populism failed.

The term “gilded age” was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in a book titled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today . Published in 1873, the book satirized the thin “gilding” of economic well-being that overlaid the widespread poverty, corruption, and labor exploitation that characterized the period.

Key Takeaways

  • The Gilded Age lasted from the late 1800s to the early 1900s and was characterized by economic growth for the wealthy and extreme poverty for the working classes.
  • A societal shift from agriculture to industry resulted in a movement to the cities for some and westward migration for others.
  • The beginning of organized labor, investigative journalism, and progressive ideologies began to spell the end of the Gilded Age and its rigid class structure.
  • The Gilded Age marked the beginning of industrialization in America—a time of innovation, transportation growth, and full employment. It was also a time of economic devastation and dangerous working conditions for labor.

As the United States began to shift from agriculture to industry as a means of economic growth, people began to move from farms to urban areas. Railroads expanded, industry began to mechanize, communication improved, and corruption became widespread.

Railroad Expansion

Railroads expanded dramatically in the U.S. in the 1870s. From 1871 to 1900, 170,000 miles of track were laid in the United States, most of it for constructing the transcontinental railway system. It began with the passage of the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 , which authorized the first of five transcontinental railroads.

Mechanization of Industries

The late 19th century saw an unprecedented expansion of industry and production, much of it by machines. Machines replaced skilled workers, reducing labor costs and the ultimate selling price of goods and services. Instead of skilled workers seeing a product through from start to finish, jobs were often limited to one task repeated endlessly. The pace of work increased, with many laborers forced to work longer hours.

Communications Networks

Technological advancements, including the phonograph and the telephone, came into existence during the Gilded Age. So did the advent of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines. Professional entertainers quickly adopted these new forms of communication, making listening and reading news new leisure activities.

Monopolies and Robber Barons

During the Gilded Age, many businessmen became wealthy by gaining control of entire industries. Controlling an entire sector of the economy is known as having a monopoly . The most prominent figures with monopolies were J.P. Morgan (banking), John D. Rockefeller (oil), Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads), and Andrew Carnegie (steel).

Because of the way they exploited workers with low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions, these wealthy tycoons were often referred to as robber barons , a pejorative term used to describe the accumulation of wealth through that exploitation.

Rural Life and Urban Life—Gilded Age Homes

Homes during the Gilded Age reflected the lifestyle and wealth of the homeowner. While the wealthy built magnificent mansions with stately names like Vanderbilt Mansion, Peacock Point, and Castle Rock, many of the less fortunate lived in tenement buildings in cities, where they flocked for jobs, or in the West, in claim shanties—small shacks built to fulfill Homestead Act regulations.

The Gilded Age saw rapid growth in the economic disparities between workers and business owners. The wealthy lived lavishly, while the working class endured low wages and horrid conditions.

Real Wage Increases

The technological changes brought about by industrialization are thought to be largely responsible for the fact that real wages of unskilled labor grew 1.43% per year during the Gilded Age vs. 0.56% per year during the Progressive Era and just 0.44% per year from 1990 to 2005.

By those measures and comparisons, the Gilded Age would seem to be a success. In 1880, for example, the average earnings of an American worker were $347 per year. That grew to $445 in 1890, an increase of more than 28%.

Abject Poverty

“While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags.” This summarizes the income and lifestyle disparity that characterized the Gilded Age. In 1890, 11 million of the nation’s 12 million families (92%) lived below the poverty line. Tenements teemed with an unlikely combination of rural families and immigrants who came into urban areas, took low-paying jobs, and lived in abject poverty.

Though wages rose during the Gilded Age, they were deficient initially. As noted above, in 1880, the average wages of an American worker were $347 per year ($10,399 today, as of this writing) but had risen to $445 by 1890 ($14,949 in today’s dollars). Given today’s federal poverty level (FPL) , which is $30,000 for a family of four, most Gilded Age Americans were excessively poor despite the impressive wage growth of the time.

Labor Unions

The rise of labor unions was neither sudden nor without struggle. Business owners used intimidation and violence to suppress workers, even though they had a right to organize. By 1866, there were nearly 200,000 workers in local unions across the United States. William Sylvis took advantage of these numbers to establish the first nationwide labor organization, named the National Labor Union (NLU).

Unfortunately, Sylvis and the NLU tried to represent too many constituencies, causing the group to disband following the Panic of 1873 when it couldn’t serve all those competing groups. The NLU was replaced by the Knights of Labor, started by Uriah Stephens in 1869. Stephens admitted all wage earners, including women and Black people.

The Knights of Labor lost members and eventually dissolved for two reasons. First, Stephens, an old-style industrial capitalist, refused to adjust to the changing needs of workers. Second, a bomb thrown into a crowd at a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, was blamed on the union, driving even more members away.

By December 1886, labor leader Samuel Gompers took advantage of the vacuum left by the demise of the Knights and created a new union based on the simple premise that American workers wanted just two things: higher wages and better working conditions. Thus was born the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Corruption and Scandals—Muckrakers

Another product of the Gilded Age was investigative journalism. Reporters who exposed corruption among politicians in the wealthy class were known as muckrakers for their ability to dig through the “muck” of the Gilded Age to uncover scandal and thievery.

Notable muckrakers included Jacob Rils, who in 1890 exposed the horrors of New York City slum life. In 1902, Lincoln Steffens brought city corruption to light with a magazine article titled “Tweed Days in St. Louis.” Ida Tarbell put her energy into exposing the antics of John D. Rockefeller; her reporting led to the breakup of Standard Oil Co. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to expose conditions in the meatpacking industry. This led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Immigration

Many immigrants came to North America during the Gilded Age, with 11.7 million of them landing in the United States. Of those, 10.6 million came from Europe, making up 90% of the immigrant population. Immigrants made it possible for the U.S. economy to grow since they were willing to take jobs that native-born Americans wouldn’t .

While factory owners welcomed these newcomers, who were willing to accept low wages and dangerous working conditions, not all Americans did. So-called nativists lobbied to restrict certain immigrant populations, and in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed Congress. But millions came despite the obstacles. The Statue of Liberty beckoned, and the “huddled masses” responded. The children of immigrants began to assimilate, despite their parents’ objections. Another hallmark of the Gilded Age was born, as America became a true melting pot.

Women in the Workforce

Industrialization created jobs outside the home for women. By 1900, one in seven women were employed. The typical female worker was young, urban, single, and either an immigrant or the daughter of immigrants. Her work was temporary—just until she married. The job she was most likely to hold was that of a domestic servant.

The Gilded Age also saw an increase in college-educated women. Colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Mount Holyoke, opened their doors to women in the post-bellum years. This did not happen without some incredible chauvinism. Scientists of the era warned that women’s brains were too small to handle college work without compromising their reproductive systems. Many, it turned out, took that risk. The predominant fields held by female college graduates were nursing and teaching.

The Black Experience

As reconstruction ended on a state-by-state basis, Black people could migrate away from plantations and into cities in search of economic opportunity, or to move west or south in search of land that they could work for themselves. From 1870 to 1900, the South’s Black population went from 4.4 million to 7.9 million. People found jobs in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, working on railroads and in mines, lumber, factories, and farms. For some, however, sharecropping replaced slavery, keeping Black workers tied to the land without ownership.

For a small set of others, this period led to the foundation of what’s known as the Black elite or “the colored aristocracy,” as was noted by Willard B. Gatewood in Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 . Among this group were members such as Blanche Bruce, a Republican senator from Mississippi; Josephine Beall Willson Bruce, a women’s rights activist in Washington, D.C., and the wife of Blanche Bruce; and Timothy Thomas Fortune, economist and editor of The New York Age , the nation’s leading Black newspaper at the time.

The Gilded Age saw the transformation of the American economy from agrarian to industrial. It saw the development of a national transportation and communication network. Women began to enter the workforce as never before. Millions of immigrants took root in a new land. Enterprising industrialists became titans and wealthy beyond measure.

Production and per capita income rose sharply, albeit with great disparity among wealth classes. Earlier legislation, like the Homestead Act, motivated the movement westward of millions of people to lay claim to land that would give them a new start and a chance at the American dream. As America became more prosperous, some of its citizens fell victim to greed, corruption, and political vice. This combination of extraordinary wealth and unimaginable poverty was the ultimate juxtaposition of capitalism and government intervention. The debate continues today.

You can still see and even visit some of the most opulent examples of Gilded Age domicile excess today. In New York City, for example, you can drive past the Vanderbilts’ Plant House, the Carnegie Mansion, the Morgan House, and others, if you know where to look.

The Gilded Age gave birth to enough scandals to create competition for the worst of the lot, but many historians agree that the transcontinental railroad scandal was the cream of the crop, so to speak.

The federal government, in deciding to underwrite a transcontinental railroad, created an opportunity for corruption that it did not anticipate. As builder of the railroad, the Union Pacific company engaged in price fixing and bribery that affected members of the Ulysses S. Grant presidential administration. The corruption was uncovered by investigators, bringing the scheme to an end.

The Gilded Age in America refers to the period from the end of Reconstruction to the turn of the century (1870 to 1901). Some extend the period into the early 1900s, but most agree that the beginning of the Progressive Era in the early 1900s is the ultimate ending point.

The Gilded Age was critical to the growth of the United States by introducing industrialization and technological advances. It was also a time of political turmoil, greed, and extreme income inequality. The U.S. became the most economically powerful country in the world due to the era. It was a time of unprecedented progress and unimaginable poverty.

The wealth gap between the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Morgans, and Vanderbilts and the rest of the country was palpable. With wealth came greed. With innovation came corruption. Muckrakers, the first investigative journalists, helped uncover the graft, and unions helped labor even the playing field. Ultimately, this “best and worst” of times became another important chapter in the American saga.

American History: From Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. “ The Gilded Age .”

American History: From Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. “ The Growth of Populism .”

American History: From Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. “ Progressivism Sweeps the Nation .”

History. “ Gilded Age .”

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, via Google Books. “ The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today .” Penguin Publishing Group, 2001 (originally published in 1873).

Library of Congress. “ Railroads in the Late 19th Century .”

Library of Congress. “ Work in the Late 19th Century .”

Digital History, University of Houston. “ An Age of Innovation .”

Dupont Castle. “ Castle Rock .”

Preservation Long Island, via ArcGIS StoryMaps. “ Peacock Point .”

South Dakota State University. “ South Dakota Claim Shanty .”

Hugh Rockoff, via National Bureau of Economic Research. “ Great Fortunes of the Gilded Age .” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 14555, December 2008, Page 32.

Clarence D. Long, via National Bureau of Economic Research. “ Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860–1890: Chapter 3, Annual Earnings .” Princeton University Press, 1960, Page 41 (Page 4 of PDF).

PBS. “ American Experience: The Gilded Age .”

CPI Inflation Calculator. “ $347 in 1880 Is Worth $10,399.49 Today .”

CPI Inflation Calculator. “ $445 in 1890 Is Worth $14,948.63 Today .”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. “ Federal Poverty Guidelines .”

Khan Academy. “ Labor Battles in the Gilded Age .”

American History: From Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. “ Early National Organizations .”

American History: From Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. “ American Federation of Labor .”

Washington State University Libraries, Digital Exhibits. “ Immigrant Factory Workers .”

American History: From Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. “ The Rush of Immigrants .”

Stacy A. Cordery (editor: Charles William Calhoun), via Google Books. “ The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America ,” Chapter 6: Women in Industrializing America, Pages 119–121. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

Leslie H. Fishel Jr. (editor: Charles William Calhoun, via Google Books. “ The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America ,” Chapter 7: The African-American Experience in the Gilded Age, Page 144. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

Willard B. Gatewood, via Google Books. “ Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite 1880–1920 (p) .” University of Arkansas Press, 1990.

Town and Country. “ 10 Gilded Age Landmarks in New York City Still Standing Today .”

History. “ Crédit Mobilier .”

The History Junkie. “ The Gilded Age Facts and History .”

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Great Fortunes of the Gilded Age

This paper explores the origins of the great fortunes of the Gilded Age. It relies mainly on two lists of millionaires published in 1892 and 1902, similar to the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans. Manufacturing, as might be expected, was the most important source of Gilded Age fortunes. Many of the millionaires, moreover, won their fortunes by exploiting the latest technology: Alfred D. Chandler's "continuous-flow production." A more surprising finding is that wholesale and retail trade, real estate, and finance together produced more millionaires than manufacturing. Real estate and finance, moreover, were by far the most important secondary and tertiary sources of Gilded Age fortunes: entrepreneurs started in many sectors, but then expanded their fortunes mainly through investments in real estate and financial assets. Inheritance was also important, especially in older regions

I thank my colleagues Michael Bordo, Carolyn Moehling, and Eugene White for comments on a previous draft. I also thank the participants in a conference at Chiba University on America's New Economy in December 2007 for comments on a related paper. The remaining errors are my responsibility. Nuttanan Wichitaksorn provided able research assistance. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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" Great Fortunes of the Gilded Age. " Journal of American Economic History , a publication of the 2 American Economic History Association, Japan. No. 9, March, 1 - 18, (in Japanese).

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By: History.com Editors

Updated: June 13, 2023 | Original: February 13, 2018

HISTORY: The Gilded Age

“The Gilded Age” is the term used to describe the tumultuous years between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today was a famous satirical novel by Mark Twain set in the late 1800s, and was its namesake. During this era, America became more prosperous and saw unprecedented growth in industry and technology. But the Gilded Age had a more sinister side: It was a period where greedy, corrupt industrialists, bankers and politicians enjoyed extraordinary wealth and opulence at the expense of the working class. In fact, it was wealthy tycoons, not politicians, who inconspicuously held the most political power during the Gilded Age.

Transcontinental Railroad

Map of the Transcontinental Railroad

Before the Civil War , rail travel was dangerous and difficult, but after the war, George Westinghouse invented the air brake, which made braking systems more dependable and safe.

Soon, the development of Pullman sleeping cars and dining cars made rail travel comfortable and more enjoyable for passengers. It wasn’t long before trains overtook other forms of long-distance travel such as the stagecoach and riding horseback.

In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was finished and led to rapid settlement of the western United States. It also made it much easier to transport goods over long distances from one part of the country to another.

This enormous railroad expansion resulted in rail companies and their executives receiving lavish amounts of money and land—up to 200 million acres, by some estimates—from the United States government. In many cases, politicians cut shady backroom deals and helped create railroad and shipping tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould . Meanwhile, thousands of African American—many of them former slaves—were hired as Pullman porters and paid a pittance to cater to riders’ every need.

Robber Barons

Railroad tycoons were just one of many types of so-called robber barons that emerged in the Gilded Age.

These men used union busting, fraud, intimidation, violence and their extensive political connections to gain an advantage over any competitors. Robber barons were relentless in their efforts to amass wealth while exploiting workers and ignoring standard business rules—and in many cases, the law itself.

They soon accumulated vast amounts of money and dominated every major industry including the railroad, oil, banking, timber, sugar, liquor, meatpacking, steel, mining, tobacco and textile industries.

Some wealthy entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie , John D. Rockefeller and Henry Frick are often referred to as robber barons but may not exactly fit the mold. While it’s true they built huge monopolies, often by crushing any small business or competitor in their way, they were also generous philanthropists who didn’t always rely on political ploys to build their empires.

Some tried to improve life for their employees, donated millions to charities and nonprofits and supported their communities by providing funding for everything from libraries and hospitals to universities, public parks and zoos.

Industrial Revolution

The Gilded Age was in many ways the culmination of the Industrial Revolution , when America and much of Europe shifted from an agricultural society to an industrial one.

Millions of immigrants and struggling farmers arrived in cities such as New York , Boston , Philadelphia, St. Louis and Chicago , looking for work and hastening the urbanization of America. By 1900, about 40 percent of Americans lived in major cities.

Jacob Riis Tenement Photographs

Most cities were unprepared for rapid population growth. Housing was limited, and tenements and slums sprung up nationwide. Heating, lighting, sanitation and medical care were poor or nonexistent, and millions died from preventable disease.

Many immigrants were unskilled and willing to work long hours for little pay. Gilded Age plutocrats considered them the perfect employees for their sweatshops, where working conditions were dangerous and workers endured long periods of unemployment, wage cuts and no benefits.

Gilded Age Homes

Homes of the Gilded Age elite were nothing short of spectacular. The wealthy considered themselves America’s royalty and settled for nothing less than estates worthy of that distinction. Some of America’s most famous mansions were built during the Gilded Age such as:

Biltmore , located in Asheville, North Carolina , was the family estate of George and Edith Vanderbilt. Construction started on the 250-room chateau in 1889, prior to the couple’s marriage, and continued for six years. The home had 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, a dairy, a horse barn and beautiful formal and informal gardens.

The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island , is another Vanderbilt mansion. It was the summer home of railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Italian-Renaissance style home has 70 rooms, a stable and a carriage house.

Rosecliff , also in Newport, was completed in 1902. The oceanfront home was contracted by Theresa Fair Oelrichs and built to resemble the Grand Trianon of Versailles. Today, it’s best known as the backdrop for movie scenes in The Great Gatsby , High Society , 27 Dresses and True Lies .

Whitehall , located in Palm Beach, Florida , was the neoclassical winter retreat of oil tycoon Henry Flagler and his wife Mary. The 100,000 square foot, 75-room mansion was completed in 1902 and is now a popular museum.

Income Inequality in the Gilded Age

The industrialists of the Gilded Age lived high on the hog, but most of the working class lived below poverty level. As time went on, the income inequality between wealthy and poor became more and more glaring.

While the wealthy lived in opulent homes, dined on succulent food and showered their children with gifts, the poor were crammed into filthy tenement apartments, struggled to put a loaf of bread on the table and often accompanied their children to a sweatshop each morning where they faced a 12-hour (or longer) workday.

Some moguls used Social Darwinism to justify the inequality between the classes. The theory presumes that the fittest humans are the most successful and poor people are destitute because they’re weak and lack the skills to be prosperous.

Muckrakers

Muckrakers is a term used to describe reporters who exposed corruption among politicians and the elite. They used investigative journalism and the print revolution to dig through “the muck” of the Gilded Age and report scandal and injustice.

In 1890, reporter and photographer Jacob Riis brought the horrors of New York slum life to light in his book, How the Other Half Lives , prompting New York politicians to pass legislation to improve tenement conditions.

In 1902, McClure Magazine journalist Lincoln Steffens took on city corruption when he penned the article, “Tweed Days in St. Louis.” The article, which is widely considered the first muckracking magazine article, exposed how city officials deceitfully made deals with crooked businessmen to maintain power.

Another journalist, Ida Tarbell , spent years investigating the underhanded rise of oilman John D. Rockefeller. Her 19-part series, also published in McClure in 1902, led to the breakup of Rockefeller’s monopoly, the Standard Oil Company.

In 1906, activist journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to expose horrendous working conditions in the meatpacking industry. The book and ensuing public outcry led to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Labor Unions Rise

It soon became obvious that the huge disparity between the wealthy and poor couldn’t last, and the working class would have to organize to improve their working and living conditions. It was also obvious this wouldn’t happen without some degree of violence.

Much of the violence, however, was between the workers themselves as they struggled to agree on what they were fighting for. Some simply wanted increased wages and a better working environment, while others also wanted to keep women, immigrants and blacks out of the workforce.

Although the first labor unions occurred around the turn of the nineteenth century, they gained momentum during the Gilded Age, thanks to the increased number of unskilled and unsatisfied factory workers.

Railroad Strikes

On July 16, 1877, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company announced a 10-percent pay cut on its railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia , the second cut in less than eight months.

Infuriated and fed up, the workers—with the support of the locals—announced they’d prevent all trains from leaving the roundhouse until their pay was restored.

The mayor, the police and even the National Guard couldn’t stop the strike. It wasn’t until Federal troops arrived that one train finally left the station.

The strike spread among other railroads, sparking violence across America between the working class and local and federal authorities. At its peak, over 100,000 railroad workers were on strike. Many of the Robber Barons feared an aggressive, all-out revolution against their way of life.

Instead, the strike—later known as the Great Upheaval—ended abruptly and was labeled a dismal failure. Yet it showed America’s tycoons there was strength in numbers and that organized labor had the potential to shut down entire industries and inflict major economic and political damage.

As the working class continued to use strikes and boycotts to fight for higher wages and improved working conditions, their bosses staged lock-outs and brought in replacement workers known as scabs.

They also created blacklists to prevent active union workers from becoming employed elsewhere. Even so, the working class continued to unite and press their cause and often won at least some of their demands.

Gilded Age Cities

Innovations of the Gilded Age helped usher in modern America. Urbanization and technological creativity led to many engineering advances such as bridges and canals, elevators and skyscrapers, trolley lines and subways.

The invention of electricity brought illumination to homes and businesses and created an unprecedented, thriving night life. Art and literature flourished, and the rich filled their lavish homes with expensive works of art and elaborate décor.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and made the world a much smaller place for both individuals and businesses. Advances in sanitation and housing, and the availability of better quality food and material goods, improved quality of life for the middle  class.

But while the middle and upper classes enjoyed the allure of city life, little changed for the poor. Most still faced horrific living conditions, high crime rates and a pitiable existence.

Many escaped their drudgery by watching a vaudeville show or a spectator sport such as boxing, baseball or football, all of which enjoyed a surge during the Gilded Age.

Women in the Gilded Age

Upper-class women of the Gilded Age have been compared to dolls on display dressed in resplendent finery. They flaunted their wealth and endeavored to improve their status in society while poor and middle-class women both envied and mimicked them.

Some wealthy Gilded Age women were much more than eye candy, though, and often traded domestic life for social activism and charitable work. They felt a new degree of empowerment and fought for equality, including the right to vote through women’s suffrage groups.

Some created homes for destitute immigrants while others pushed a temperance agenda, believing the source of poverty and most family troubles was alcohol. Wealthy women philanthropists of the Gilded Age include:

Louise Whitfield Carnegie , wife of Andrew Carnegie, who created Carnegie Hall and donated to the Red Cross, the Y.W.C.A., and other charities.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller , wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who helped create hotels for women and solicited funds to create the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Margaret Olivia Sage , wife of Russell Sage, who after the death of her miserly husband gave away $45 million of her $75 million inheritance to support women’s causes, educational institutions and the creation of the Russell Sage Foundation for Social Betterment, which directly helped poor people.

Many women during the Gilded Age sought higher education. Others postponed marriage and took jobs such as typists or telephone switchboard operators.

Thanks to a print revolution and the accessibility of newspapers, magazines and books, women became increasingly knowledgeable, cultured, well-informed and a political force to be reckoned with.

Jane Addams

Jane Addams is arguably the best-known philanthropist of the Gilded Age. In 1889, she and Ellen Gates Star established a secular settlement house in Chicago known as Hull-House .

The neighborhood was a melting pot of struggling immigrants, and Hull-House provided everything from midwife services and basic medical care to kindergarten, day care and housing for abused women. It also offered English and citizenship classes. Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Carrie Nation

research papers on gilded age

Temperance leader Carrie Nation gained notoriety during the Gilded Age for smashing up saloons with a hatchet to bring attention to her sobriety agenda. She was also a strong voice for the suffrage movement.

Nation’s belief that alcohol was the root of all evil was partially due to her difficult first marriage to an alcoholic, and her work with women and children displaced or abused by over-imbibing husbands.

Convinced God had instructed her to use whatever means necessary to close bars throughout Kansas , she was often beaten, mocked and jailed but ultimately helped pave the way for the 18th Amendment (prohibiting the sale of alcohol) and the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote).

Limits to Power

Many other pivotal events happened during the Gilded Age which changed America’s course and culture. As muckrakers exposed corrupt robber barons and politicians, labor unions and reformist politicians enacted laws to limit their power.

The western frontier saw violent conflicts between white settlers and the United States Army against Native Americans. The Native Americans were eventually forced off their land and onto reservations with often disastrous results. In 1890, the western frontier was declared closed.

Populist Party

As drought and depression struck rural America, farmers in the west—who vilified railroad tycoons and wanted a political voice—organized and played a key role in forming the Populist Party.

The Populists had a democratic agenda that aimed to give power back to the people and paved the way for the progressive movement, which still fights to close the gap between the wealthy and poor and champion the needy and disenfranchised.

End of the Gilded Age

In 1893, both the overextended Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company failed, which set off an economic depression unlike any seen before in America.

Banks and other businesses folded, and the stock market plunged, leaving millions unemployed, homeless and hungry. In some states, unemployment rose to almost 50 percent.

The Panic of 1893 lasted four years and left lower and even middle-class Americans fed up with political corruption and social inequality. Their frustration gave rise to the Progressive Movement which took hold when President Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901.

Although Roosevelt supported corporate America, he also felt there should be federal controls in place to keep excessive corporate greed in check and prevent individuals from making obscene amounts of money off the backs of immigrants and the lower class.

Helped by the muckrackers and the White House , the Progressive Era ushered in many reforms that helped shift away power from robber barons, such as:

  • trust busting
  • labor reform
  • women’s suffrage
  • birth control
  • formation of trade unions
  • increased conservation efforts
  • food and medicine regulations
  • civil rights
  • election reform
  • fair labor standards

By 1916, America’s cities were cleaner and healthier, factories safer, governments less corrupt and many people had better housing, working hours and wages. Fewer monopolies meant more people could pursue the American Dream and start their own businesses.

When America entered World War I in 1917, the Progressive Era and any remnants of the Gilded Age effectively ended as the country’s focus shifted to the realities of war. Most robber barons and their families, however, remained wealthy for generations.

Even so, many bequeathed much of their wealth, land and homes to charity and historical societies. And progressives continued their mission to close the gap between the wealthy and poor and champion the needy and disenfranchised.

research papers on gilded age

HISTORY Vault: The Astors

A look at five generations of the colorful and wealthy family. Follows their story from its 18th-century beginnings, when fur trader John Jacob Astor became the richest man in the world.

Chicago Workers During the Long Gilded Age. The Newberry. Gilded Age Reform. University of Virginia. The Doll House: Wealth and Women in the Gilded Age. Journeys Into the Past: An Online Journal of Miami University’s History Department . The Gilded Age. Scholastic. About Jane Addams. Jane Addams Hull-House Museum . Carrie A. Nation (1846-1911). The State Historical Society of Missouri: Historic Missourians . Lincoln Steffens Exposes “Tweed Days in St. Louis.” History Matters . The Breakers. The Preservation Society of Newport County . The Progressive Era (1890-1920). The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project . Biltmore Estate History. Biltmore . Margaret Olivia Sage. Philanthropy Roundtable .

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America Emerging into The "Gilded Age"

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c. 1871 - c. 1880

United States

The Gilded Age in the United States refers to the period from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, characterized by rapid industrialization, economic growth, and social transformation. Several key prerequisites set the stage for the emergence of this era: Industrial Revolution: The Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 18th century, laid the groundwork for the Gilded Age. Advances in technology, such as the steam engine and mechanized production, fueled industrialization and transformed the American economy. Westward Expansion: The settlement of the American West played a crucial role in the Gilded Age. The discovery of gold and other natural resources attracted migrants, leading to the development of industries like mining, agriculture, and railroads. Immigration and Urbanization: The Gilded Age witnessed a massive influx of immigrants from Europe and Asia seeking economic opportunities. This wave of immigration fueled population growth and contributed to the rapid urbanization of cities. Rise of Big Business: The Gilded Age saw the emergence of powerful industrialists and business tycoons who accumulated immense wealth and influence. Entrepreneurs like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan built vast business empires, monopolizing industries and shaping the economy. Social Inequalities: The era was characterized by stark social disparities. While the upper class enjoyed extravagant wealth and opulence, the working class faced poor working conditions, low wages, and limited rights.

Industrialization and Technological Advances: The Gilded Age witnessed a rapid expansion of industrialization, with the rise of industries such as steel, oil, and railroads. Technological advancements, such as the telegraph and electric power, transformed the nation's infrastructure and communication systems. Labor Movements and Strikes: The Gilded Age was marked by labor unrest, as workers protested poor working conditions, low wages, and long hours. Strikes such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Pullman Strike of 1894 demonstrated the growing power of organized labor. Immigration and Urbanization: The Gilded Age saw a significant influx of immigrants, primarily from Europe. This led to rapid urbanization, as cities grew and faced challenges related to overcrowding, poor living conditions, and social tensions. Political Corruption: The era was marred by political corruption and the influence of money in politics. The infamous Tammany Hall political machine in New York City and scandals like the Credit Mobilier exposed the corrupt practices of politicians. Progressive Reforms: As a response to the inequalities and social issues of the Gilded Age, the Progressive movement emerged. Reformers sought to address issues such as political corruption, child labor, and worker rights through legislation and social advocacy.

Andrew Carnegie: A Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist, Carnegie built a vast steel empire and became one of the richest individuals in history. He advocated for the concept of the "Gospel of Wealth" and donated his wealth to support education and libraries. John D. Rockefeller: An American business magnate, Rockefeller co-founded the Standard Oil Company, which dominated the oil industry. He amassed immense wealth and became known as one of the wealthiest individuals in history. Rockefeller also engaged in philanthropy and established the Rockefeller Foundation. J.P. Morgan: An influential financier and banker, Morgan played a significant role in shaping the American economy during the Gilded Age. He was involved in numerous business ventures, including the formation of U.S. Steel, and played a pivotal role in stabilizing the financial system during economic crises. Mark Twain: A celebrated writer and humorist, Mark Twain captured the essence of the Gilded Age through his works. His novels, such as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," provided social commentary and satire on the era's excesses and social inequalities. Jane Addams: A social reformer and activist, Addams co-founded Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago that provided services to immigrants and the poor. She worked tirelessly for social justice, women's rights, and the improvement of living conditions for the urban poor.

"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Although set in the 1920s, "The Great Gatsby" reflects the excesses and social stratification of the Gilded Age. The novel explores themes of wealth, materialism, and the pursuit of the American Dream against the backdrop of the Jazz Age. "The Octopus" by Frank Norris: This novel delves into the conflicts between farmers and railroad monopolies during the late 19th century. It portrays the ruthless nature of corporate power and its impact on ordinary people, highlighting the economic struggles and corruption of the Gilded Age. "How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob Riis: Riis's work is a pioneering example of photojournalism that exposes the living conditions of impoverished immigrants in New York City during the Gilded Age. His photographs and accompanying text shed light on the social inequality and housing crisis faced by the urban poor. "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair: Although set in the early 20th century, Sinclair's novel offers a grim depiction of the working and living conditions in the Chicago stockyards. It exposes the exploitation of workers and the unsanitary practices in the meatpacking industry, shedding light on the darker side of industrialization during the Gilded Age.

1. The population of the United States nearly doubled during the Gilded Age, fueled by immigration and internal migration from rural to urban areas. 2. The Gilded Age witnessed the rise of powerful industrialists, often referred to as "captains of industry" or "robber barons," such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, who amassed enormous wealth and power. 3. Income inequality was prevalent during the Gilded Age. By 1890, the richest 10% of Americans controlled over 80% of the nation's wealth.

The topic of the Gilded Age holds significant importance for studying and understanding a crucial period in American history. Exploring the Gilded Age through an essay provides valuable insights into the economic, social, and political dynamics that shaped the nation during this time. First and foremost, the Gilded Age was marked by tremendous economic growth, industrialization, and the rise of powerful industrialists. It offers an opportunity to examine the impact of rapid industrialization, the consolidation of wealth, and the unequal distribution of resources. This era also witnessed the struggles of the working class, the formation of labor unions, and the fight for workers' rights, shedding light on the evolving dynamics of the labor movement. Moreover, the Gilded Age provides an understanding of the political landscape, including the influence of money and corruption on governance, the role of government in regulating business practices, and the push for progressive reforms. It was a time of significant social change, with advancements in technology, urbanization, and shifting gender roles. By studying the Gilded Age, we gain insights into the consequences of rapid industrialization, wealth inequality, labor unrest, and political corruption. It helps us reflect on the challenges and reforms of that era and draw parallels to contemporary issues, making it a crucial topic to explore in an essay.

1. Brands, H. W. (2017). The age of gold: The California Gold Rush and the new American dream. Anchor Books. 2. Carnegie, A. (2019). The gospel of wealth: Essays and other writings. Penguin Classics. 3. Cherny, R. W. (1996). American politics in the Gilded Age, 1868-1900. Bedford Books. 4. Folsom, B. W., & Meehan, K. D. (2019). The robber barons and the Sherman Antitrust Act: Reshaping American business. Palgrave Macmillan. 5. Hofstadter, R. (2012). The age of reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. Vintage. 6. Krause, S. D., & Hart, C. R. (Eds.). (2019). The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the origins of modern America (3rd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield. 7. Summers, M. A. (1995). The Gilded Age: The origins of modern America. Ivan R. Dee. 8. Trachtenberg, A. (2007). The incorporation of America: Culture and society in the Gilded Age (25th anniversary ed.). Hill and Wang. 9. White, R. (2017). The republic for which it stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. Oxford University Press. 10. Zinn, H. (2005). A people's history of the United States. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

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Interesting American History Research Paper Topics

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In this page, we present a comprehensive guide to finding and selecting interesting American history research paper topics . Whether you are a history student or an academic researcher, this resource aims to provide you with a wealth of options and insights to uncover the captivating stories and significant events that have shaped the American experience. With a focus on engaging and thought-provoking subject matter, our list of interesting American history research paper topics covers a wide range of categories and subtopics. By delving into these captivating areas, you can delve into the rich tapestry of American history and develop a research paper that offers fresh perspectives and compelling narratives.

100 Interesting American History Research Paper Topics

Exploring the fascinating realms of American history offers students and researchers a multitude of opportunities to delve into captivating topics. In this section, we present a comprehensive list of interesting American history research paper topics, carefully organized into 10 categories. From political milestones to social movements, cultural shifts, and economic transformations, these topics provide a broad spectrum of ideas for conducting in-depth research and analysis. Let’s dive into the rich tapestry of interesting American history research paper topics and discover the intriguing topics that await exploration.

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  • The impact of the Mayflower Compact on the development of self-governance in early America
  • The Salem Witch Trials: Causes, consequences, and the cultural context of witchcraft accusations
  • The role of religious freedom in the establishment of the thirteen colonies
  • Slavery in Colonial America: Origins, expansion, and resistance
  • The influence of the Great Awakening on the religious landscape of Colonial America
  • The founding of Jamestown: Challenges, triumphs, and the establishment of the first permanent English settlement
  • The interaction between Native American tribes and European colonizers in early America
  • The impact of the French and Indian War on the relationship between the American colonies and the British Empire
  • The evolution of the Puritan society in New England: Ideals, conflicts, and legacy
  • The Boston Tea Party: Causes, significance, and its role in igniting the American Revolution

Revolutionary Era and the Founding of the Nation

  • The ideological roots of the American Revolution: Enlightenment philosophy and its influence on the Founding Fathers
  • The role of women in the American Revolution: Activism, contributions, and challenges
  • The drafting and impact of the Declaration of Independence: Ideas, influences, and its enduring legacy
  • The Constitutional Convention: Debates, compromises, and the creation of the U.S. Constitution
  • Alexander Hamilton and the economic policies that shaped early America
  • The Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist debates: Perspectives on government and the formation of political parties
  • The impact of the American Revolution on slavery and the abolitionist movement
  • The Battle of Yorktown: Turning point of the Revolutionary War and its consequences
  • The emergence of political cartoons during the Revolutionary Era and their role in shaping public opinion
  • The Whiskey Rebellion: Causes, consequences, and its significance in early American history

Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny

  • The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Goals, challenges, and their impact on westward expansion
  • The Louisiana Purchase: Motivations, negotiations, and the consequences for American expansion
  • The Oregon Trail: Challenges, hardships, and the experiences of pioneers
  • The Mexican-American War: Causes, outcomes, and its impact on territorial expansion
  • The Gold Rush of 1849: Socioeconomic effects and its influence on westward migration
  • Native American displacement and resistance during westward expansion
  • The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad: Technological advancements, economic implications, and cultural transformations
  • The Homestead Act of 1862: Promises, challenges, and its effects on settlement in the West
  • The Battle of Little Bighorn: Perspectives, myths, and the clash of cultures
  • The closing of the American frontier: Consequences and the legacy of westward expansion

Civil War and Reconstruction

  • The causes and consequences of the Civil War: Political, economic, and social factors
  • The Emancipation Proclamation: Impact, limitations, and its significance for African Americans
  • The role of women during the Civil War: Nurses, spies, and activists
  • Abraham Lincoln: Leadership, speeches, and the legacy of his presidency
  • Reconstruction policies: Successes, failures, and their long-term effects on the nation
  • The impact of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments on the rights of African Americans
  • The Freedmen’s Bureau: Mission, challenges, and its efforts to assist newly emancipated slaves
  • The Ku Klux Klan: Origins, activities, and its influence on racial tensions during Reconstruction
  • The assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Conspiracies, aftermath, and its impact on national healing
  • The Compromise of 1877: Resolving the disputed presidential election and its implications for Reconstruction

Progressive Era and the Gilded Age

  • The rise of industrialization in America: Technological advancements, urbanization, and social transformations
  • The Progressive Movement: Goals, reforms, and its impact on American society and politics
  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire: Tragedy, labor activism, and the fight for workplace safety regulations
  • The Populist Party: Origins, demands, and its influence on political discourse
  • The role of women in the suffrage movement: Leaders, strategies, and the fight for voting rights
  • Theodore Roosevelt and the conservation movement: Policies, national parks, and environmental advocacy
  • The Haymarket Affair: Labor unrest, anarchist influences, and the impact on labor movements
  • The Spanish-American War: Motivations, outcomes, and its impact on American imperialism
  • The Great Railroad Strike of 1877: Causes, consequences, and its significance in labor history
  • The Panama Canal: Construction, geopolitical implications, and its role in international trade

World War I and the Roaring Twenties

  • America’s entry into World War I: Motivations, consequences, and the impact on American society
  • The Treaty of Versailles: Negotiations, implications, and the U.S. decision not to ratify
  • The Harlem Renaissance: Cultural movements, artistic achievements, and the African American experience
  • Prohibition and the rise of organized crime: Causes, enforcement, and social consequences
  • The Scopes Trial: Evolution vs. creationism, the clash of science and religion, and its legal ramifications
  • The Red Scare: Anti-communist hysteria, political repression, and its effects on civil liberties
  • The Jazz Age: Music, fashion, and the changing social dynamics of the 1920s
  • Women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment: Struggles, victories, and the changing role of women in society
  • The Great Migration: Causes, experiences, and the impact of African Americans moving from the South to urban centers
  • The Wall Street Crash of 1929: Causes, consequences, and its role in the onset of the Great Depression

The Great Depression and New Deal Era

  • The causes and impact of the Great Depression on American society and the global economy
  • The Dust Bowl: Environmental disaster, migration, and government responses
  • The New Deal: Programs, policies, and their effectiveness in addressing the economic crisis
  • The role of Eleanor Roosevelt: Activism, advocacy, and her influence on social reform
  • The Bonus Army: Protests, the military response, and its impact on public opinion
  • The Federal Writers’ Project: Literary contributions, folklore collection, and the preservation of American culture
  • The art of the Great Depression: Visual expressions of hardship, resilience, and social commentary
  • The Wagner Act: Labor rights, unionization, and its impact on workers’ rights
  • The Social Security Act: Origins, provisions, and its legacy in social welfare programs
  • The Dust Bowl migration and its influence on the demographic and cultural landscape of the West Coast

World War II and Post-War America

  • America’s entry into World War II: Pearl Harbor, the home front, and the war effort
  • The Manhattan Project: Development of the atomic bomb, ethical implications, and its role in ending the war
  • Japanese internment during World War II: Causes, consequences, and the violation of civil liberties
  • The GI Bill: Educational opportunities, housing benefits, and its impact on returning veterans
  • The Marshall Plan: Reconstruction of Europe, containment policy, and America’s role in post-war recovery
  • The Cold War: Origins, conflicts, and the impact on American society and foreign policy
  • The Civil Rights Movement: Leaders, strategies, and the fight for racial equality
  • McCarthyism and the Red Scare: Communist witch hunts, political repression, and the Hollywood blacklist
  • The Korean War: Causes, outcomes, and its impact on the balance of power in Asia
  • The Baby Boom: Population growth, suburbanization, and the changing dynamics of American family life

Civil Rights Movement and Social Change

  • Brown v. Board of Education: Segregation, desegregation, and the landmark Supreme Court decision
  • The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the power of nonviolent resistance
  • The March on Washington: Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and its impact on civil rights legislation
  • The Black Panther Party: Activism, community organizing, and the struggle for racial justice
  • The Feminist Movement: Women’s liberation, reproductive rights, and the fight for gender equality
  • The Stonewall Riots: LGBTQ+ activism, the birth of the gay rights movement, and the fight for equal rights
  • The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968: Native American sovereignty, activism, and the pursuit of self-determination
  • The Chicano Movement: Immigration, labor rights, and the fight for social and political equality
  • The Counterculture of the 1960s: Anti-war protests, hippie culture, and the quest for social change
  • The Environmental Movement: Rachel Carson, Earth Day, and the fight for environmental awareness and conservation

Modern America and Contemporary Issues

  • The Watergate Scandal: Political corruption, investigative journalism, and its impact on American politics
  • The Reagan Era: Conservative politics, economic policies, and the redefinition of American conservatism
  • The 9/11 Attacks: Causes, consequences, and the impact on national security and foreign policy
  • The rise of social media: Transformations in communication, privacy concerns, and the influence on society
  • The Black Lives Matter movement: Racial justice, police brutality, and the fight against systemic racism
  • The #MeToo movement: Sexual harassment, gender equality, and the call for social change
  • The opioid crisis: Causes, consequences, and the efforts to address the epidemic
  • The presidency of Barack Obama: Historical significance, policies, and the impact on American society
  • Immigration policy in the 21st century: Debates, challenges, and the changing demographics of America
  • Climate change and environmental activism: The scientific consensus, policy debates, and the quest for sustainable solutions

This comprehensive list of interesting American history research paper topics provides a wide array of options for students and researchers to explore the captivating stories and pivotal moments in American history. From the early colonial period to modern-day issues, these topics offer abundant opportunities for in-depth research, critical analysis, and engaging writing. By selecting a topic aligned with personal interests and academic goals, students can embark on a rewarding journey of discovery and contribute to the rich tapestry of American historical scholarship.

American History: Exploring the Range of Interesting Research Paper Topics

American history is a captivating and diverse subject that encompasses a vast array of fascinating topics. From the early colonization of the continent to the modern era, the history of the United States is filled with remarkable events, influential figures, and transformative social movements. In this article, we will explore the breadth and depth of interesting American history research paper topics, providing students with a rich tapestry of subjects to investigate and analyze. By delving into these topics, students can gain a deeper understanding of the nation’s past, its complexities, and its enduring impact on the present.

  • Colonial America : Colonial America serves as the foundation of American history, and exploring its various aspects can offer valuable insights. Topics in this category may include the establishment and development of the Jamestown settlement, the religious beliefs and social structure of Puritanism in early New England, the causes and consequences of the Salem Witch Trials, the impact of Native American-European encounters, and the role of women in colonial society.
  • Revolutionary Period and the Founding Fathers : The Revolutionary Period marked a significant turning point in American history. Research paper topics in this category can focus on the causes and significance of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and its impact on American identity, the role of key Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, the Revolutionary War’s military strategies and key battles, and the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny : The concept of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion played a pivotal role in shaping America. Research topics may include the motivations and impact of the Louisiana Purchase, the experiences and challenges of pioneers on the Oregon Trail, the social and economic transformations brought about by the California Gold Rush, the impact of the Mexican-American War on territorial expansion, and the resistance and struggles of Native American tribes.
  • Civil War and Reconstruction : The Civil War and Reconstruction era remain critical periods in American history. Students can explore topics such as the causes and consequences of the Civil War, key battles and military strategies, the leadership and speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation and its significance in ending slavery, and the policies and impact of the Reconstruction period on the nation.
  • Industrialization and the Gilded Age : The Gilded Age witnessed rapid industrialization and significant social changes. Research paper topics in this category may include the rise of industrialization and its technological advancements, the labor movement and the fight for workers’ rights, the Progressive Era’s social reforms and political changes, the women’s suffrage movement and the struggle for gender equality, and the challenges and contributions of immigration and urbanization.
  • World Wars and the Interwar Period : The World Wars and the interwar period shaped America’s position on the global stage. Students can explore topics such as America’s involvement in World War I, the cultural developments and societal changes of the Roaring Twenties, the causes and impact of the Great Depression, America’s role in World War II and the home front experience, and the post-war era marked by the Cold War and the rise of the United States as a global superpower.
  • Civil Rights Movement and Social Change : The Civil Rights Movement and other social movements brought about significant change in American society. Research paper topics may include key events and figures of the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for equality and justice, the impact of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., the fight for women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, and the broader social changes of the 1960s and beyond.
  • Cultural and Intellectual Movements : Exploring cultural and intellectual movements provides insights into American society. Research topics can cover areas such as the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Generation and counterculture movements, the feminist movement and women’s liberation, the impact of popular culture, and the influence of art, literature, and music on American society.
  • Economic and Industrial Development : America’s economic and industrial development has had a profound impact on its history. Research paper topics in this category can include the rise of big business and monopolies, the impact of technological advancements such as the automobile and electricity, the evolution of labor and consumerism, the Great Depression and its consequences, and the challenges and transformations of the modern economy.
  • Foreign Policy and International Relations : American foreign policy and international relations have shaped the nation’s role on the global stage. Topics in this category may include America’s involvement in wars and conflicts, diplomatic relations with other nations, the Cold War and its impact on American society, the evolution of globalization, and contemporary foreign policy challenges.

Exploring the diverse and intriguing aspects of American history through research paper topics allows students to deepen their understanding of the nation’s past. From the early colonization to modern-day challenges, the range of interesting American history research paper topics is vast and captivating. By selecting an interesting research paper topic and delving into the associated historical context, students can develop critical thinking skills, expand their knowledge, and contribute to the ongoing exploration of America’s rich and complex history.

How to Choose an Interesting Topic in American History

Selecting an engaging and thought-provoking research paper topic is essential for a successful study in American history. With such a vast and rich historical landscape, it can be challenging to narrow down your focus and choose a topic that piques your interest while offering ample opportunities for exploration. In this section, we will provide you with valuable tips on how to choose interesting American history research paper topics that align with your academic goals and captivate your audience.

  • Identify Your Interests and Passions : Start by reflecting on your personal interests and passions within American history. Are you fascinated by a particular period, such as the Revolutionary War or the Civil Rights Movement? Do you have a keen interest in social, political, or cultural aspects of American history? By selecting a topic that genuinely interests you, you will be more motivated to delve into the research and produce a compelling paper.
  • Consider Unexplored or Understudied Areas : While popular topics in American history are widely discussed, consider exploring lesser-known or understudied areas. Look for hidden narratives, forgotten voices, or overlooked events that offer new perspectives on American history. This approach not only allows you to contribute to the field but also adds novelty and intrigue to your research paper.
  • Focus on Specific Regions or Communities : American history is diverse and encompasses a wide range of regions, communities, and cultures. Narrowing down your topic to a specific geographic area or community can provide a more focused and nuanced analysis. For example, you may choose to explore the experiences of Native American tribes in a particular region, the contributions of a specific immigrant group, or the impact of a social movement in a particular city.
  • Examine Social and Cultural Aspects : American history is not just about politics and wars; it encompasses social and cultural aspects that have shaped the nation. Consider topics that delve into art, literature, music, popular culture, and social movements. Analyze the impact of cultural icons, explore the evolution of American identity, or study the connections between art and politics during a particular era.
  • Analyze Controversial Issues and Debates : Controversial issues and debates in American history offer ample opportunities for in-depth analysis and critical thinking. Select a topic that sparks debate or challenges traditional narratives. For example, you may examine the controversies surrounding the American Revolution, the complexities of Reconstruction, or the ongoing debates about immigration policies throughout history.
  • Utilize Primary Sources : Incorporating primary sources into your research can add depth and authenticity to your paper. Primary sources include documents, diaries, letters, speeches, photographs, and other materials created during the period you are studying. By analyzing firsthand accounts, you can gain unique insights and provide a fresh perspective on your chosen topic.
  • Consult Secondary Sources : Secondary sources, such as scholarly books, articles, and research papers, provide a foundation of knowledge and offer different interpretations of historical events. Consult reputable secondary sources to gain a comprehensive understanding of your topic and to situate your research within the broader historical context.
  • Consider Interdisciplinary Approaches : American history intersects with various disciplines, such as sociology, literature, political science, and economics. Consider adopting an interdisciplinary approach to your research paper by integrating insights from multiple fields. This can add depth and complexity to your analysis and contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the chosen topic.
  • Evaluate Feasibility and Availability of Sources : Before finalizing your topic, assess the feasibility of conducting research and the availability of relevant sources. Ensure that there are sufficient primary and secondary sources accessible to you. If necessary, consult librarians, databases, and archival collections to determine the availability and accessibility of materials related to your chosen topic.
  • Refine and Narrow Your Topic : Once you have identified a potential research topic, refine and narrow it down to ensure it is manageable within the scope of your research paper. Consider the time frame, geographical boundaries, and specific research questions you wish to explore. This process will help you maintain focus and produce a well-structured and coherent paper.

Choosing an interesting American history research paper topic is an exciting yet challenging task. By identifying your interests, exploring understudied areas, considering specific regions or communities, examining social and cultural aspects, analyzing controversies, utilizing primary and secondary sources, adopting interdisciplinary approaches, evaluating feasibility, and refining your topic, you can select a captivating subject that engages both you and your audience. Remember, a well-chosen topic sets the stage for a compelling research paper that contributes to the ongoing exploration of American history.

How to Write an American History Research Paper

Writing an interesting and captivating research paper on American history requires careful planning, thorough research, and effective writing strategies. Whether you are exploring a significant event, analyzing social movements, or examining the lives of influential figures, the following tips will guide you in crafting a compelling and well-structured research paper that engages your readers and showcases your understanding of American history.

  • Develop a Clear and Concise Thesis Statement : A strong thesis statement is the foundation of your research paper. It should clearly state your argument or main idea and provide a roadmap for your paper. Ensure that your thesis statement is focused, specific, and supported by evidence from your research.
  • Conduct In-Depth Research : Thorough research is crucial for an interesting American history research paper. Explore primary and secondary sources to gather relevant information, facts, and perspectives on your chosen topic. Utilize libraries, archives, databases, and reputable online sources to access a wide range of materials.
  • Analyze Primary and Secondary Sources : Examine primary sources, such as documents, letters, diaries, speeches, and photographs, to gain firsthand insights into the historical context you are studying. Analyze secondary sources, including scholarly books and articles, to understand different interpretations and scholarly debates surrounding your topic. By critically evaluating sources, you can present a well-informed and balanced argument.
  • Organize Your Research and Create an Outline : Organize your research findings and create a well-structured outline for your research paper. An outline helps you establish a logical flow and ensure that your arguments are presented coherently. Divide your paper into sections, each focusing on a specific aspect of your topic, and use subheadings to further organize your ideas.
  • Craft Engaging Introductions and Conclusions : Capture your readers’ attention with an engaging introduction that presents the significance of your research topic and provides context for your study. Introduce your thesis statement and outline the key points you will address in your paper. In your conclusion, summarize your main arguments, restate your thesis, and offer some final thoughts or insights.
  • Use Clear and Concise Language : Write in a clear and concise manner to effectively communicate your ideas. Avoid excessive jargon and complex language that may confuse your readers. Use active voice, straightforward sentences, and transition words to ensure a smooth and coherent flow of information.
  • Present Strong Evidence and Support Your Claims : Support your arguments and claims with strong evidence from your research. Cite your sources accurately using the appropriate citation style (such as APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian) to give credit to the original authors and to demonstrate the credibility of your work. Use a mix of direct quotes, paraphrases, and summaries to incorporate evidence into your paper.
  • Provide Historical Context : Place your research within the broader historical context to help readers understand the significance of your topic. Discuss relevant events, social conditions, cultural influences, and political factors that shaped the period you are studying. Providing historical context enhances the depth and understanding of your research paper.
  • Analyze and Interpret Data : An interesting American history research paper goes beyond presenting facts and data. Analyze and interpret the information you have gathered to provide insightful perspectives and draw meaningful conclusions. Consider different viewpoints, historical interpretations, and the implications of your findings.
  • Revise and Edit : Revision and editing are essential to polish your research paper and ensure its clarity and coherence. Review your paper for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure errors. Check the flow of your arguments and make sure your ideas are presented logically. Seek feedback from peers, instructors, or writing centers to gain valuable insights and improve your paper.

Writing an interesting American history research paper requires a combination of diligent research, critical thinking, and effective writing skills. By developing a clear thesis statement, conducting in-depth research, analyzing primary and secondary sources, organizing your ideas, using clear language, providing strong evidence, offering historical context, analyzing data, and revising and editing your work, you can create a research paper that engages your readers and contributes to the exploration of American history. Remember, the journey of writing a research paper is an opportunity to deepen your understanding of the subject matter and share your knowledge with others.

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research papers on gilded age

The Origin of the Term “The Gilded Age” and the Appropriateness of the Metaphor for the United States in the Late 1800s Research Paper

Introduction, one country, two worlds, the corrupted political life, the development of railroads, alcoholism in the epoch of the gilded age.

Bibliography

The era of the Gilded Age, which occurred in the USA in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, was characterized by contradictory phenomena. On the one hand, there was a rapid growth in industrialization that led to the improvement of people’s lives due to economic growth. On the other hand, however, there was the impoverishment of many citizens and immigrants who moved to more industrialized parts of the USA in search of better wages and living conditions. The massive gap that existed between these groups of individuals gave the name to the epoch: ‘gilded’ was a satirical term used to denote that bad issues were covered with more pleasant ones to present an overall positive image of the country. The present paper aims at illustrating the appropriateness of the metaphor for the USA in the late 1800s through the use of primary sources and complementary secondary ones.

The main characteristic feature of the Gilded Age was striking inequality. It is quite common to remember the era as the period when material excess was most noted. The production of everyday goods was much more extensive and elaborate than in previous centuries. 1 The country celebrated the peak of its development with impressive cultural growth, material prosperity, and economic excellence. However, the majority of goods that were manufactured at that period were meant to be consumed by the representatives of the middle and upper classes. 2 Meanwhile, the working class individuals also wanted to relish the advantages of innovative products. Thus, the production of cheap equivalents to expensive goods developed gradually.

Such a disparity between the rich and the poor existed in different aspects of the material culture, including housing, cooking, clothing, and other dimensions. The poorest of native citizens were accompanied in their social status by immigrants who arrived in the country in large numbers. As Orser argues, immigrants lacking money were “racialized as poor.” 3 Hence, the Gilded Age gave life to yet another form of racism besides the one based on skin color: the one driven by poverty. During the Gilded Age era, new arrangements in social life emerged. According to Orser, there was a close connection between the evolving capitalistic politics in the country and social relations within it. 4 The major component of social ties is represented by class relations. In the Gilded Age USA, the division of people not only by skin color but also by their wealth or poverty status was observed rather acutely.

Poverty among some Americans and immigrants in the era of the Gilded Age had a structural nature. Orser noticed a close relationship between financial hardship and the development of capitalism. 5 Although poverty existed earlier than capitalism evolved, it was one of the constituting elements of the USA’s prevailing form of the economic system. As well as successes, failures under capitalism were viewed as entirely personal. Among other groups of underprivileged people, immigrants from China were the most frequent victims of injustice and discrimination. 6 Many Americans considered the Chinese as “subhuman” and referred them to the same “racially inferior” category as Indians and African Americans. 7 While performing some of the most difficult jobs, Chinese immigrants were underpaid and did not receive sufficient respect or support from native citizens. This was one of the most striking examples of inequality persisting during the Gilded Age. Hence, the epoch’s name was justified through building invisible walls between people belonging to different nationalities and social classes. While for some the times were gold, others had no choice but to survive in the layer of dust under the gilded covering.

The Gilded Age takes its name from the title of the novel written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, in which the authors criticized the country’s politics after the Civil War as excessively corrupted. The USA was gilded in numerous business opportunities and moneymaking possibilities. However, the gold was hiding “an uglier society” of insensitive greed and extravagance. 8 The so-called robber barons were the dominating branch in the USA’s political structure. These industrial leaders overcharged citizens through unreliable business practices, which led to growing wealth among the former and increasing poverty among the latter.

The understanding of the political situation in the Gilded Age America may be easier through the use of original artwork of that period. Keppler’s 1889 political cartoon “The Bosses of the Senate” reflects the public opinion of trusts. 9 The caricature depicts trusts much larger than the Senate itself. The illustration of corporate interests is emphasized by huge figures representing various kinds of trusts: steel, copper, nail, oil, sugar, iron, coal, paper salt, and others. Below these gargantuan figures, small and modest members of the Senate are sitting. Some of the senators look up to the “giant money bags” as if searching for support or approval. 10 Meanwhile, trusts representatives look down on senators with dull, contemptuous, and disrespectful expressions.

The portrayal of entrances to the hall is also rather pronouncing. The small gallery door, which is signed as the “People’s Entrance,” is barred and bolted. 11 Meanwhile, a huge “Entrance for Monopolists” is wide open, letting in more and more trusted’ representatives. The two gateways highlight the striking contrast in the Gilded Age politics. Small enterprises had no opportunity to develop due to the overwhelming presence of large monopolies in each of the most vital spheres. Even the motto in the cartoon depicts the state of affairs prevailing in the USA’s politics during the Gilded Age: “This is the Senate of the Monopolists by the Monopolists and for the Monopolists!” 12

To reveal the truth about monopolists, journalists developed an innovative genre of their profession known as muckraking. One of the most scandalous revelations was associated with Rockefeller, a popular businessman who, according to investigations, turned out to be a monopolist. 13 Journalists noted that while millions of Americans used kerosene, hardly any of them realized that Rockefeller’s organization, the Standard Oil Company, was the sole controller of kerosene’s production, manufacture, and export, as well as its cost in the USA and abroad. 14 Therefore, Keppler’s cartoon reflects the conditions in which people lived and businesses operated in the Gilded Age.

One of the most prominent inventions of the Gilded Age era was railroads. With the help of this innovative transportation technique, many new opportunities became available. Specifically, people could travel faster, goods could be delivered easier, and products could be distributed to different parts of the country. One of the witnesses of California railroads’ construction, David L. Phillips, remarks that the emergence of new railroads led to considerable advantages. 15

First of all, as Phillips notes, the cost of transit from New York to San Francisco was reduced from $300 to $140. Such a simplified possibility to travel allowed California, which had been rather poor agriculturally, to arrange new trade connections with Japan, China, and the Pacific Ocean islands. The movement within the country became easier as well, making it much cheaper to get from San Francisco to New York and Chicago. Philips notes that he witnessed “train-loads of tea” coming from Japan and China and going to New York and Chicago. 16 The next opportunity referred to farmers who could earn more from their hard work due to the increased value of the land. Phillips remarks that whereas before the railroad was constructed, one acre of land cost nearly $1.25, its price grew considerably after the construction, and it now constituted about $8 per acre. 17

Another benefit of California railroads, according to Phillips, was that by opening many additional lines, they added “tens of millions to the permanent wealth of the State.” 18 As a result, people’s quality of life increased to a great extent. Despite all of the positive things, Phillips mentions, there were those dissatisfied with exorbitant ticket prices. Also, the railroad’s owners were considered monopolists, which made the author of the account feel sorry for them. Phillips explains that while railroad charges were high, they were not disproportional to prices on other services in the state. Also, the author argues, it was natural for the owners to become rich since they had made considerable investments in their business.

Taking into consideration the analysis of Keppler’s cartoon, it seems reasonable to disagree with Phillips’s arguments defending the railroad monopolists. Furthermore, there is an account of an interview that was held with John Grosvenor, who had worked on the railroad in the 1880s. 19 The man recollects how strenuous his work there used to be. The working day lasted for ten hours, and conditions of work were unbearable. Grosvenor and other laborers had to work in any weather conditions despite not having any special clothes. The payment constituted $1.10 per day, and it was barely enough to buy food and save something to send to his family. 20 Thus, this is yet another justification of the appropriateness of the epoch’s title. Whereas some people could afford to travel by using the newly opened opportunities, the ones creating those opportunities could barely survive.

The disparity between social classes in the Gilded Age USA could be traced not only in people’s work activities but also in their leisure time. The upper and middle classes spent their free time playing sports and attending various entertainment shows. 21 Meanwhile, working-class people had neither time nor strength or money to amuse themselves in such elaborate ways. Therefore, the majority of poor Americans consumed alcohol for relaxation and fun. However, not only poor citizens engaged in drinking – wealthy individuals took up the habit and combined it with gambling or rooting for their favorite sports teams. 22

Working-class men frequently attended saloons, where they could communicate over a glass of liquor. Hence, when middle-class activists started a campaign on banning alcohol, the poor part of society was appalled. 23 Prohibitionists claimed that attending taverns caused family disorder, corruption, and cruelty against women and children. Instead, hardworking males view barrooms as a shelter from their excruciating jobs. Saloons combined the functions of union halls, social clubs, and even political centers for working-class men. However, reformers were right in their appraisal that the nation was “saturated in alcohol.” 24 The label of an anti-alcoholism cure dated by 1880 is expressive proof of the growing danger posed to the nation by alcohol consumption. “Dr. L. E. Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure for Drunkenness” was a popular treatment for alcohol-dependent individuals in the Gilded Age era. 25 The label claims that two bottles of Dr. Keeley’s cure at the price of $9 could relieve the symptoms of alcoholism. The emergence of such a treatment method indicates that the age was not gold but only gilded: many people suffered from strenuous labor conditions and could find no better way of relaxation than drinking.

The analysis of primary and secondary sources on the Gilded Age allows inferring that the metaphor employed to create the epoch’s title was quite appropriate. There was a vast gap between the levels of life for different classes of people living in the USA in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. There were individuals whose quality of life was gold: they could afford living in large houses, consuming healthy products, and wearing expensive clothes. There were also those below the poverty line whose living arrangements varied between simple and miserable and who worked hard to afford the necessities. The hole between these two parts of society was covered by a thin gilded wrapping, which was not enough to conceal the desperate inequalities existing in the country’s political, economic, and social spheres. Thus, the title of the era, the Gilded Age, was rather suitable.

“Dr. L. E. Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure for Drunkenness Label.” The National Archives , 1880. Web.

Greenwood, Janette Thomas. The Gilded Age: A History in Documents . New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Keppler, Joseph. “The Bosses of the Senate.” Digital Image. United States Senate , 1889. Web.

Kordas, Ann. “Material Culture.” In Handbook to Life in America: The Gilded Age, 1870 to 1900 , edited by Rodney P. Carlisle, 37-54. New York: Facts on File, 2009.

“Mr. John Grosvenor.” Library of Congress , 1938. Web.

Orser, Charles E. “Beneath the Surface of Tenement Life: The Dialectics of Race and Poverty during America’s First Gilded Age.” Historical Archaeology 45, no. 3 (2011): 151-165.

Phillips, David L. “What California Railroads Have Done.” Library of Congress . Web.

Purdy, Elizabeth R., and Arthur Holst. “Cities and Urban Life.” In Handbook to Life in America: The Gilded Age, 1870 to 1900 , edited by Rodney P. Carlisle, 71-86. New York: Facts on File, 2009.

  • Ann Kordas, “Material Culture,” in Handbook to Life in America: The Gilded Age, 1870 to 1900 , ed. Rodney P. Carlisle (New York: Facts on File, 2009), 37.
  • Kordas, “Material Culture,” 37.
  • Charles E. Orser, “Beneath the Surface of Tenement Life: The Dialectics of Race and Poverty during America’s First Gilded Age,” Historical Archaeology 45, no. 3 (2011): 151.
  • Orser, “Beneath the Surface of Tenement Life,” 151.
  • Ibid., 152.
  • Janette Thomas Greenwood, The Gilded Age: A History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 40.
  • Greenwood, The Gilded Age , 40.
  • Joseph Keppler, “The Bosses of the Senate,” digital image, United States Senate , 1889, Web.
  • Keppler, “The Bosses of the Senate.”
  • Greenwood, 18.
  • David L. Phillips, “What California Railroads Have Done,” Library of Congress , Web.
  • “Mr. John Grosvenor,” Library of Congress , 1938, Web.
  • “Mr. John Grosvenor.”
  • Elizabeth R. Purdy and Arthur Holst, “Cities and Urban Life,” in Handbook to Life in America: The Gilded Age, 1870 to 1900 , ed. Rodney P. Carlisle (New York: Facts on File, 2009), 83.
  • Purdy and Holst, “Cities and Urban Life,” 83.
  • Greenwood, 80.
  • “Dr. L. E. Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure for Drunkenness Label,” The National Archives , 1880, Web.
  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

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