The Gilded Age

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13542

From the end of Reconstruction to the turn of the century American society rapidly began to gain wealth. However, while the lives of most Americans improved marginally, Industrialists gained billions.


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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The last few decades of the 19th century were coined "The Gilded Age" by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their novel The Gilded Age.

Their story highlighted how this time period appeared to be glittery and wealthy but was actually a corrupt time where the majority of Americans experienced none of that wealth.

“It is a time when one’s spirit is subdued and sad, one knows not why; when the past seems a storm-swept desolation, life a vanity and a burden, and the future but a way to death. It is a time when one is filled with vague longings; when one dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea, or folds his hands and says, What is the use of struggling, and toiling and worrying any more? let us give it all up.”

~ Mark Twain, The Gilded Age


statue of liberty

The Statue of Liberty was completed in 1886 during the Gilded Age.

This statue represented hope and prosperity to the millions of immigrants who entered the United States of America seeking the riches about which they had heard.

  • But what did they find when they got here?

To better understand the reality for those who made the voyage across the ocean, watch a portion of The immigrant experience at NYC's Tenement Museum from CBS Sunday Morning:

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People from Europe who immigrated to the United States during the Gilded Age did benefit heavily from the freedoms afforded to them by their new country.

  • However, did it look like they found the massive wealth they must have been expecting?

European immigrants had to work for everything they had.

  • If the lower class of people did not benefit substantially during this period, who did?

Robber Barons

The Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) introduced several new types of business into the American economy. Railroads became quintessential for growth, steel was being used for everything, and oil kept urban centers going after dark.

These industries were incredibly profitable and were often consolidated into one company. The men who came to own these monopolies were called Robber Barons, insinuating that all their gains were made on the backs of everyday workers who were robbed of extra wages.

John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller, 1885

Image by Scientific American Compiling Dep't, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

John D. Rockefeller was the owner of an oil company, Standard Oil of Ohio, who slowly acquired weaker companies. These acquisitions often cost a substantial amount of money, but it eliminated the competition, making it well worth the investment.

Simultaneously, petroleum became cheaper to process, allowing Rockefeller to charge less and less, which undercut any remaining competitors. This bankrupted any smaller oil business until, eventually, Standard Oil came to control 90% of the petroleum industry in the United States.

By 1913, Rockefeller had grown his fortune to approximately $400 billion in today's dollars. This was equal to 2% of U.S. GDP at the time, a larger share than had ever been seen before.

J. P. Morgan

J.P. Morgan, 1903

Image by Edward Steichen, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

These Robber Barons had so much wealth that they were even able to prevent economic recessions from occurring.

During the Panic of 1907, a brokerage firm was about to go under, which would have threatened the stability of the entire financial system. The federal government was not willing to bail the company out, so J.P. Morgan paid over $800 million in today's dollars to prop up the firm.

While this was an incredible expense, the Robber Barons would have lost even more if the U.S. economy had collapsed as it was feared it would.

Political Influence

theodore roosevelt

In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt rose to Governor of New York. He ran on a platform of restricting the monopolistic companies that were largely based in the financial hub of New York City.

In 1900, then-President William McKinley needed a new vice president to join his campaign for re-election. The Robber Baron industrialists convinced him to choose Teddy Roosevelt, which would then remove him from a position of power in New York.

However, when McKinley was assassinated in 1901, bankers and business tycoons realized they had just accidentally made their worst enemy the President of the United States of America.

The Gilded Age would come to a complete end as the Roosevelt Administration began to dismantle these industrial monopolies.

At the close of the century, the top 10% of wealthiest Americans owned 75% of the nation's wealth. This wealth disparity is the root of the Gilded Age.


old train

Railroads were rapidly being contrustructed across the nation by private companies. They had to buy the land before building the rails upon it, which made the entire process incredibly expensive.

However, this new means of transportation enabled new industries to rapidly sell their goods all over the country. The Robber Barons formed a vested interest in the growth and success of the many railroad companies in order to grow their own businesses.

What Was "Gilded" about the Gilded Age?

Take a look at this frame which, while made of the usual wood, has been gilded or covered in ultra-thin gold leaf:

gold frame

On the gilded surface, this frame evokes wealth, prosperity, and beauty; however, the level beneath that is completely different.

In the opening quote, Mark Twain is comparing this period of 30 years to gilded wood.

gilding a frame

The United States was becoming wealthier than ever before. However, instead of widespread prosperity, industrial growth was harboring incredible wealth disparity. The corruption and inequality detailed above were masked by a marginal increase in the quality of life for every other American.

Move to the Got It? section to review what made this age gilded while considering ways in which this traditional understanding may be flawed.

  • Did anything good happen?
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