American History
The Gilded Age

*In 1873, Mark Twain wrote a novel entitled The Gilded Age.  It described American society as gleaming on the surface, but rotten at the core.  It was true that America had many problems—violent labour relations, corrupt politicians, increasing poverty in crowded cities, discrimination—but on the surface, America was prosperous and Americans had more to buy and do then ever before.

*As more and more people worked for wages or salaries rather than raising their own food on farms, they had more money to spend.  As industry became more successful, people had more things to buy and at lower prices than ever before.  This led to a culture of conspicuous consumption, in which people wanted to buy the newest, best, and most things simply to have them.

*Conspicuous consumption was popularised by department stores.  In 1858, Rowland H. Macy opened the first department store in New York City, and soon it was the largest store in the country.  Other big cities, and eventually smaller ones, followed suit. 

*When John Wanamaker, a department store owner from Philadelphia, became US Postmaster-General, he lowered the rates on bulk mail (junk mail) and started rural free delivery, which led to the spread of mail-order shopping.  Soon, nation-wide advertising (with recognisable logos and trademarks) and shipping made the same products available across the country.

*For example, as clothing became easier to make and cheaper to sell, styles converged:  soon the middle class and even the poor could wear the same style clothes as the rich (although the quality of cloth and stitching might still vary).  Many different products were soon the same across the country.  This is known as mass culture, when most people own and do the same kinds of things.

*Some of the things that were most advertised and most sold were household appliances.  Stoves and later iceboxes, vacuum cleaners, and other appliances made housework easier for women, and they were often the ones who made the decisions about what to buy, particularly as many men had longer trips to work on streetcars then they had when they still walked to work. 

*One reason advertising became so widespread was the growth of newspapers.  Newspapers had been important in American life since the colonial period, but in the 1880s, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst made newspapers into big business.  They got a lot of income from advertisers, but got people to buy their papers by stirring up controversy, publishing sensational stories, criticising (and investigating) big business and corrupt politicians, and even inventing the comic strip. 

*More and more Americans could read, too.  By the late 1800s, most places offered some public education and in most of the North and parts of the South, attendance was compulsory.  Educators tried new teaching methods and were able to learn them as many more teaching colleges opened across the country (East Tennessee State Normal School opened in 1911).  By 1900 about 90% of Americans were literate.

*Not only did many more high schools and colleges open (and colleges began creating modern curricula), but people found other ways to educate themselves.  In 1874, a series of lectures and entertainment organised sort of like a religious revival or a summer camp was offered at Lake Chautauqua in New York.  Similar meetings were held in subsequent years, and soon similar lecture series toured the country, where they were known as Chautauquas.  In some ways, it was education as mass culture.

*Mass culture also included entertainment.  As people crowded into cities, they wanted ways to escape from the as well.  In 1884 the first roller coaster opened at Coney Island just outside New York City.  Coney Island soon added a hotel, a horse-racing track, and many other attractions, becoming the first amusement park.  Other cities soon had them, too.

*For the first time, people began to attend professional sports.  The National League organised baseball as a business in 1876.  College football became popular, although people worried that it was too violent.  Professional football began in 1892, but did not become nearly as popular as college ball until the late 1950s.  Basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891, and professional teams appeared not long afterwards (although the Basketball Association of America was not formed until 1946 and was renamed the NBA in 1949).  Boxing was extremely popular, particularly among immigrants who would root for boxers of their own ethnicity.

*By the end of the 1900s, Americans across the country were more connected and lived more similar lives than they ever had before.



This page last updated 19 August, 2009.