Editor’s Introduction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although there are some differences of opinion among historians on the matter, most would agree that the range of years forming the core of the present work, the 1880s through the 1910s, represents not one but two identifiable historical periods: the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. The Gilded Age, so-named because an 1873 novel by Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, seemed to capture the spirit of the times, ran roughly from the end of Reconstruction (mid-1870s) through the decade of the 1880s. Some would include most of the 1890s, as well. The Progressive Era, on the other hand, which takes its name from the prominence of social and political reform efforts during that period, is generally regarded as extending from the early 1890s to about 1920. Again, different historians would make different adjustments on either side of the range of years comprising these eras, but it is safe to say that the two together spanned the time between Reconstruction and World War I (including, some would say, the postwar years).

Dealing with the two periods together is a useful undertaking, because there was considerable continuity between them and, besides, the notion of historical periods or eras (or “periodization,” as it is called) refers not to the experience of the people living in these years but rather to a set of dynamics, problems, and solutions that researchers have identified as characteristic of the time. The years covered in this volume were years in which the world indeed saw the emergence of modern America through its creation of large-scale industrial enterprises, its welcoming of masses of immigrants, its imperialistic tendencies abroad (aimed at ensuring markets and gaining power), and its social, political, and economic reform efforts aimed at reducing poverty and inequality and making the nation a fairer and more representative place.

The Gilded Age (and After)

Much of the industrial growth that gave birth to the Gilded Age was centered on the expansion of the railroads. Not only did the railroads themselves employ huge numbers of people–more than any other industry up to that time–but various industries associated with the building of railroads did likewise. Iron and steel factories rose up to supply the hardware used in laying track and constructing locomotive engines and cars. Coal plants and oil refineries grew in response to the need for fuel. Electric power lines spread out from the main cities, often along rail lines, and were later used as a source of power for commuter trains. And, as somebody had to finance it all, banks and the banking industry grew rapidly, as well. Industrial growth occurred in other, unrelated areas, too, such as the garment industry, agriculture, construction, and machinery manufacturing. Many have referred to the technological progress that took place then as the Second Industrial Revolution.

With such massive growth came great wealth for the individuals, corporations, and family dynasties that owned these works. Men like Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Cornelius Vanderbilt, James Hill, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Leland Stanford made vast fortunes during this period. Benefitting, too, were the politicians and middlemen who lubricated the wheels of the system and facilitated the business expansion. The somewhat cynical label “Gilded Age,” after all, was meant by its authors to suggest a fancy façade hiding an ugly reality beneath, one where corruption, bribes, kickbacks, and thuggish pressure techniques were commonplace. When, for example, a shady land deal was arranged to support railroad expansion, the owners of the railroad, along with their bankers and political backers, could be fairly certain that they would come out ahead, even if the deal soured and led to bankruptcy of the business because, with the proper payoffs in place, a federal bailout of one type or another would likely be forthcoming. There was more than one way to get rich during the Gilded Age.

Equally characteristic of the era was the great increase in immigrants arriving on U.S. shores. Before 1890, most of the new arrivals were from the countries of Northern and Western Europe–principally England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. The year 1882 was a peak year: about 750,000 immigrants. Even then, a portion of the new arrivals were from Southern and Eastern Europe–Italy, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, Russia, and Romania–numbers that only increased after 1890. On average some 350,000 immigrants per year arrived in the United States. During the decade between 1901 and 1910, some 8.5 million new immigrants arrived, most of them from Southern and Eastern Europe. Employers in the major urban centers of the north welcomed them.

However, there was another ugliness lurking in the shadows in this period: the conditions faced by the immigrant workers and their families. The work week was long (50 to 60 hours), the pay was minimal, the benefits nonexistent, and there were no protections in place in the event of injuries or layoffs (both of which were fairly common). Employers hired and fired workers as they saw fit, based on the business cycle; and sometimes they adjusted workers’ pay to reflect ups and downs in the same cycle. Labor unions, such as they were, were young and had yet to make any headway in building networks of union members and union shops. When necessary, business owners might hire gangs of special agents to break up workers’ strikes or shield their factories against union activity.

On the home front, inside ethnic districts within the cities, life could be equally ugly. Childhood labor was prevalent, and school attendance was dismal. While older children might work in factories, younger children worked either in factories or in various “home industries.” In general, the tenement buildings in which these young people and their families lived and worked embodied the idea of squalor. Most were unsafe and unsanitary. They were jam-packed with human beings–kids routinely sleeping three and four to a bunk. The psychological impact on children was troublesome, as well, as they and their parents and relatives coexisted throughout much of the day in small quarters, sleeping, eating, laboring, and so on, to make ends meet. The roots of the Progressive Era that followed were planted in the 1890s when reformers such as Jane Addams sought to address these kinds of urban social ills.

Populism

One response to the economic growth in the cities, and to the political and financial arrangements lying behind that growth, was what came to be known as the Populist movement. The Populists represented a loose coalition of farmers’ alliances, labor groups, utopian idealists, and middle-class reformers who wanted a new approach to doing business. They objected to the prevailing philosophies of laissez-faire and Social Darwinism–“survival of the fittest”–and argued that more could be done to make society just and equitable. To that end they founded the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, in 1891 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Populism was, in essence, an agrarian, Midwest protest movement, but one that found strong interest and participation elsewhere in the country.

Unlike today’s Tea Party, which is sometimes compared to the Populist movement, the original members of the People’s Party sought an increase, not a reduction, in government involvement in the economy. They wanted to nationalize the railroads in order to make them subject to citizen control and lessen the amount of corruption and favoritism surrounding them. They sought to put silver on par with gold as a basis for the dollar (called bimetallism), thus lowering the value of the currency, boosting inflation, and bringing more in the way of a return to commodity producers such as themselves. They also proposed a graduated income tax, tighter restrictions on immigration, the expansion of farmers’ cooperatives, an eight-hour workday in industry, and the direct election of senators. One of their models of an effectively operating public institution was the U.S. Post Office. Additionally, the Populists advocated for improvements to infrastructure, the creation of a national weather service, an expanded and improved Census Bureau, and the establishment of common schools, teachers’ colleges, and land-grant universities. Mostly, however, Populists sought to put capital and political control in the hands of small farmers, workers, and the middle class.

Although the Populist moment was relatively brief in duration, ending by 1908, it had a significant impact on American political culture. It awakened the populace to a shortage of egalitarianism in the existing system, and it put conservatives, in particular, on notice that the status quo could not and would not prevail. It gave people a sense that, through the intelligent use of government resources, injustice, inequality, and corruption could be banished from the land. In that respect, Populism was more a precursor to the New Deal of the 1930s than to the goals of the present-day Tea Party.

As for the People’s Party itself, it fared fairly well at the congressional level, sending fifty elected representatives from sixteen states and one territory to the Capitol between 1891 and 1903. In 1896 the party joined with the Democratic Party in nominating William Jennings Bryan, a prominent “bimetal” man, for president. The election was a close one, but Bryan lost to the staunchly pro-business Republican candidate William McKinley. Thereafter, the party never quite recaptured its earlier momentum. It elected its last presidential candidate (Thomas E. Watson, congressman from Georgia) in 1908. (See Table 1.)

The Progressive Era

The reform movement that came to define the Progressive Era grew out of both the Populist impulse and the largely religious phenomenon known as the Social Gospel. The latter was a Protestant vision seeking to apply the teachings of the Bible to the social problems of modern, industrialized America. Many, but not all, of progressivism’s early leaders had Protestant, and even clerical, roots. And many of them therefore sought to eradicate the “sins” of the cities through the administration of Christian moral principles. Groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) pushed not only for the prohibition of alcohol but for improved living conditions for working families, a greater role for women in society (including women’s suffrage), and the abolition of child labor. The women’s suffrage movement itself, though generally secular, made some alliances with religious groups (including the WCTU) and had a measurable impact beyond its narrow focus on votes for women. A lesser but still salient role was played by such organizations as the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association.

In politics, progressives fought for women’s rights, the establishment of primary elections, the direct election of Senators, and the use of ballot initiatives, referendums, and recall elections. By these means they sought to have a greater say in the selection of government representatives and the establishment of government policies. They would also thereby have a way to hold government officials accountable for their actions. In economics, progressive activists supported antitrust legislation, public ownership (or regulation) of utilities, various banking industry and currency reforms, and the institution of the income tax. In education, they sought new methods of teaching as an alternative to rote memorization. John Dewey, for instance, introduced so-called “child-centered” learning, which took account of human interests and activities beyond the traditional reading, writing, and arithmetic. In journalism, “muckrakers” such as Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair revealed the depravities and excesses of the ruling class and the questionable business operations in which members of that class sometimes were engaged.

Progressivism may have got its start with Jane Addams’s Hull House experiment in Chicago in 1889, with its focus on domestic conditions, but it is primarily associated with Theodore Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, Woodrow Wilson. In the case of these two men’s presidencies, progressivism had both a domestic and an international component. Domestically, Roosevelt was in sympathy with the muckrakers and strongly supported efforts to break up corporate trusts, expand civil services (education, roads, the mail), regulate food and drugs, and protect the environment. Internationally, Roosevelt’s progressivism stood in the tradition that spawned the Spanish-American war in 1898; it was a forward-leaning political attitude that sought to put the stamp of the United States on foreign affairs and steer the course of events in America’s favor. Wilson, for his part, was more of an internationalist. His progressive vision was to move beyond the parochialism of national politics to the world stage, where he sought a League of Nations. Nevertheless, domestically he was able to achieve such successes as creating the Federal Reserve, establishing a corporate income tax, closing antitrust loopholes (left open by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890), launching the Federal Trade Commission, and a variety of others. Even so, as World War I unfolded in Europe and eventually drew in the United States, Wilsonian domestic progressivism started to draw down. The Progressive movement really ended with the war, but it is often counted as extending through the Wilson presidency, which lasted until 1921.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Calhoun, Charles W., ed. The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America, 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
  • Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Dawley, Alan. Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1993.
  • Diner, Steven J. A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era. New York: Hill & Wang, 1998.
  • Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History, rev. ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998.
  • McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920. New York: NYU Press, 2005.
  • McMath, Robert C. American Populism: A Social History, 1877–1898. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.
  • Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013.
  • Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998.
  • Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, 25th Anniversary ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 2007.
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