U.S. History from 1865-1945
Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” in 1873 to refer to not only the name of his novel, but to the excessive greed and corruption he witnessed during that time. “Gilding” referred to adorning something further that is beautiful to begin with — in other words, in Twain’s mind — excessive and wasteful, which characterized the era in the U.S.
The greater part of the nineteenth century saw significant change in the United States, perhaps the last third of that one hundred year period most of all. The country began that time period as an agrarian, unpopulated, spread-out, local-oriented, isolated group of individual states.
By 1900, the U.S. grew to be one of the great powers of the world — industrial, urban, modern, and national-oriented country of states spread from sea to shining sea. (Calhoun, 2006, p.1)
The growth of big business represented the dominant economic fact of the era. An expanding railroad network brought the nation together and created a national market. In the process, the railroads emerged as the nation’s first big business. They employed thousands of people, created bureaucratic structures to carry on their operations, and posed large policy issues for the political system. The iron and steel, petroleum, and electrical industries all loomed large in the economy. Consumers used processed foods in tin cans, ready-made clothing, and telephones. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O119-FarmMachinery.html” Farm machinery spurred productivity in the agrarian sector. (Boyer 2, 2001)
The definition of mass society from The Encarta dictionary is: A society in which the national or global nature of the influences on life, e.g. mass production and the mass media, has stripped the population of its diversity.
Alexis deTocqueville toured the U.S. during the gilded age of the 1800’s. His classic description of what he found he described as: “mass society has echoed through the whole subsequent history of social theory: ‘…an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.
Nineteenth-century sociologists shared many of de Tocqueville’s concerns about the emerging culture of industrial societies. (Marshall, 1998)
On the farms of the South and Midwest, populist protest erupted over the power of the railroads, the financiers, and the middlemen who in the eyes of angry farmers were nothing but parasites who fed off their harvests. (enotes.com, n.d.)
In 1890, twelve per cent of the population controlled eighty-six per cent of the growth, while the top two per cent earned fifty per cent of all income in the U.S. In this climate of growing social disparity, “reformers” did the work of the wealthy who wished to keep the wages of the workers low and their own profits high. Misery and impoverishment became evident at levels never seen before in this country. (Friedman, 2007, p.252)
The last quarter century was an era of big business domination, expanding railroads, huge steel factories, and rampant oil production. Mass production and mass distribution lowered price levels. Deflation and falling prices defined the economic situation during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. And with economic growth came huge social inequities between the working class and the wealthy owners. (Boyer, 2001)
Sixty-hour weeks, no insurance, no compensation for injuries or overtime, and no pensions symbolized the workers’ plight. And when the workers went on strike over the inequities, the government sided with the owners.
The mass society of the late nineteenth century had no diversity. It was a society in which the rich and powerful manipulated the existence of the politically and economically powerless mass through overwhelming mass production, mass communication, and mass distribution.
Examples (Boyer 2, 2001) Mass production transformed the way Americans lived and worked at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thanks to its role in creating mass consumer culture (mass society), it constitutes a vital part of contemporary life. It was responsible for the dehumanizing assembly-line work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as well as the physical comfort enjoyed by most people in industrialized countries. The 1926 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica formally introduced the term in an article titled “Mass production.” The article appeared over Henry
Ford’s name, for he is indeed recognized as the man who popularized the term and, more important, made mass production work. (Calhoun, C.W. 2006, p. 62-63) When a bomb exploded in Harmarket Square in Chicago in 1886 during a labor demonstration in support of miserably paid strikers who wanted an 8-hour day, the police blamed, without evidence, the striker’s “anarchist” leaders. The dominant business creed of the Gilded Age celebrated the unabated acquisition of material wealth. It was a system that brutalized labor and dismantled the achievements of American democracy.
Enotes.com, n.d.) The last decade of the nineteenth century, despite American triumphs overseas, had been a decade of sometimes violent upheaval and social crises. The worst depression in the nation’s history prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s struck in 1893, throwing millions out of work when such things as unemployment insurance and old-age pensions were unheard of. Violent strikes against the Pullman Company in Chicago and Carnegie Steel in Homestead, Pennsylvania, seemed to signal to an anxious middle class a dawning era of bitter class conflict. Urban political machines and bosses ruled, votes were bought and sold, insiders reaped windfalls from corruption, and the desperate needs of urban residents for clean air and water, were ignored.
Boyer, P.S. (2001). Early republic, era of the. Retrieved February 20, 2009, from encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O119-EarlyRepublicEraofthe.html
Boyer, P.S. 2 (2001). Gilded age. Retrieved February 23 from encylcopedia. com, 2009, from The Oxford companion to U.S. history: h ttp:/ / www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O119-GildedAge.html
Calhoun, C.W. (2006). The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the origins of modern America. New York: Rowman and Littlefield. (http://books.google.com/books?id=XrZTTCaCRAUC&printsec=frontcover) enotes.com. (n.d.). Overview: 1900’s. Retrieved February 25, 2009, from Enotes.com:
Friedman, L.J. (2007, February). History reference center. Retrieved February 23 from American Historical Review, 2009, from EBSCO data base: http://ezproxy.ppld.org:2054/ehost/pdf?vid=12&hid=4&sid=eecb2480-38e8-4a0a-b188-df555b7a5a56%40sessionmgr9
Marshall, G. (1998). A dictionary of sociology. Retrieved February 23, 2009, from encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O88-masssociety.html
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