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American Business History in “The Gilded Age”

Illustration shows a diminutive President Theodore Roosevelt standing on Wall Street, holding a large sword labeled "Public Service" before giant capitalist ogres labeled "J.J. Hill" holding a club labeled "Merger", "Morgan" holding a club labeled "High Finance", and "Rockefeller, Oxnard, [and] Gould"

Jack and the Wall Street giants, 1904. Illustration shows a diminutive President Theodore Roosevelt standing on Wall Street, holding a large sword labeled “Public Service” before giant capitalist ogres labeled “J.J. Hill” holding a club labeled “Merger”, “Morgan” holding a club labeled “High Finance”, and “Rockefeller, Oxnard, [and] Gould” Udo J. Keppler, artist.

Given its underlying business themes, The Gilded Age, which premiered on HBO in January 2022, quickly caught my attention. The show’s first season, which is set in 1882 in the rapidly changing New York City landscape, revolves around the clash between the mores of old New York society and the emerging world of newly rich industrialists and financiers.

The show’s title, Gilded Age, references the period in American history from approximately 1870-1900, but where did the phrase itself come from, and what is so special about this time in American history?

The term, which wasn’t widely used to describe the period until the 20th century, was taken from the title of an 1873 novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The novel – which has two major story lines: one revolving around a poor rural family looking to become affluent by selling land and the other focusing on two young upper-class men seeking their fortunes in land speculation – satirizes the greed and corruption of politicians and the social pretensions of the newly rich.

This book’s two plotlines reflected broader social trends of the time including rapid economic growth in the United States fueled by the growth of capital, an increase in manufacturing capacity, wall street panics, and the spread of railroads. In addition to being a time when many of the men running companies amassed previously unimaginable amounts of wealth, the period was also marked by the increasing strength of the labor movement, as reflected in such events as the Haymarket riot and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.

You are likely to recognize many of the people associated with this period, some of whom have been the subjects of This Month in Business History entries or Inside Adams posts, including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, George Westinghouse, Jay Gould, James Fisk Jr., Hetty Green, and others - as well as those involved in the labor movement such as Mother Jones.

This seminal period of American history is one that people are still interested in studying. For those who would like to learn more about the period, there is no shortage of books. Below we have listed a few.

Illustration shows a gigantic J. Pierpont Morgan clutching to his chest with his right arm large New York City buildings labeled "Billion Dollar Bank Merger"; in the foreground, a young child puts a coin in a "Toy Bank" as Morgan's left arm reaches around the buildings to grab the toy bank for himself.

The Central Bank, 1910. Frank A. Nankivell, artist.

For anyone interested in an economic picture of the period, the FRASER project from the St. Louis Federal Reserve has many digitized materials. It includes titles like the Statistical Abstract (also available through the Census) and other publications focused on the economy and banking. There are some great publications like the Commercial and Financial Chronicle and material from the Bureau of Labor Statistics like the Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Library also has a variety of online resources for anyone studying this period.

 

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