The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, from the 1870s to the 1920s

The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, from the 1870s to the 1920s

The Gilded Age (1870s-1900s)

  • The Gilded Age, termed by Mark Twain, suggests that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath, characterised by rapid industrialisation, but also significant social problems and political corruption.

  • Big businesses flourished resulting in socio-economic inequality. Men such as John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil) and Andrew Carnegie (US Steel) accumulated enormous wealth while many workers lived in poverty.

  • Urbanisation accelerated with sustained immigration primarily from Europe. Cities like New York and Chicago underwent such rapid growth that they couldn’t manage sanitation, leading to squalid living conditions in slums.

  • The rise of the railway industry transformed the US economy, but was also associated with rampant corruption and notable scandals like the Crédit Mobilier scandal of 1872.

  • Labour unrest was common. Significant events included the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Haymarket affair of 1886, which highlighted the economic inequality and harsh working conditions of the time.

  • Political corruption was rampant, with political bosses and “machine politics” controlling urban centres. Notable was Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City.

The Progressive Era (1890s-1920s)

  • The Progressive Era was a reaction to the problems of the Gilded Age. Progressives sought political, economic, and social reforms to combat these problems.

  • Muckraking journalists published exposes of corruption, poverty and monopolisation. Figures such as Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair brought these issues to the forefront of public consciousness.

  • There was an attempt to combat political corruption with reforms such as the introduction of the secret ballot, primaries, and initiatives and referenda.

  • Industrial regulation included the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and antitrust laws like the Sherman Antitrust Act to break down monopolies.

  • Significant social reform occurred. The 19th amendment was ratified in 1920, giving women the right to vote. Education expansion and labour laws protecting children from unsafe and inhumane working conditions were also highlighted.

  • Despite progress, racial discrimination persisted. The Jim Crow laws dominated the South restricting the rights of African Americans, and national immigration policies reflected xenophobic attitudes.

Interconnected note: The social, economic, and political changes in these eras formed the basis for much of modern American society. It’s crucial to understand these periods in context, considering how the issues of these eras shape the present.