In American history, the Gilded Age refers to major growth in population in the United States and extravagant displays of wealth and excess of America's upper-class during the post-Civil War and post-Reconstruction era, in the late 19th century (1877-1890). The wealth polarization derived primarily from industrial and population expansion. The entrepreneurs of the Second Industrial Revolution created industrial towns and cities in the Northeast with new factories, and contributed to the creation of an ethnically diverse industrial working class which produced the wealth owned by rising super-rich industrialists and financiers such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flagler, and J.P. Morgan. Their critics called them "robber barons", referring to their use of overpowering and sometimes unethical financial manipulations. There was a small, growing labor union movement, led in part by Samuel Gompers, who created the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886. It featured very close contests between the Republicans and Democrats, with occasional third parties. Nearly all the eligible men were political partisans and voter turnout often exceeded 90 % in some states.
This period also witnessed the creation of a modern industrial economy. A national transportation and communication network was created, the corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the twentieth century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States exceeded that of any other country except Britain. Long hours and hazardous working conditions, led many workers to attempt to form labor unions despite strong opposition from industrialists and the courts.
The wealth of the period is highlighted by the American upper class's opulent self-indulgence, but also the rise of the American philanthropy (Andrew Carnegie called it the "Gospel of Wealth") that endowed thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities. The Beaux-Arts architectural idiom of the era clothed public buildings in Neo-Renaissance architecture.
The end of the Gilded Age coincided with the Panic of 1893, a deep depression. The depression lasted until 1897 and marked a major political realignment in the election of 1896. After that came the Progressive Era. This period overlaps with the nadir of American race relations, during which African Americans lost many of the civil rights obtained during the Reconstruction period. Increased racist violence, as well as exile of African Americans from the Southern states to the Midwest, started as soon as 1879.
During the era there was a dramatic expansion in agriculture, especially in the Plains states, which attracted large numbers of immigrants from Europe, especially German Americans and Scandinavian Americans. The government issued 160 acre (64 ha) tracts either free or at nominal cost to qualifying persons moving to the west under the Homestead Act. Even larger numbers purchased lands at very low interest from the new railroads, which were trying to create markets. This expansion into the west created a need for workers in the area to build railroads and facilitate trade. The number of farms tripled from 2.0 million in 1860 to 6.0 million in 1905. The number of people living on farms grew from about 10 million in 1860 to 22 million in 1880 to 31 million in 1905. The value of farms soared from $8.0 billion in 1860 to $30 billion in 1906.
Increased mechanization of industry is a major mark of the Gilded Age's search for cheaper ways to create more product. Frederick Winslow Taylor observed that worker efficiency in steel could be improved through the use of machines to make fewer motions in less time. His redesign increased the speed of factory machines and the productivity of factories while undercutting the need for skilled labor. This mechanization made some factories an assemblage of unskilled laborers performing simple and repetitive tasks under the direction of skilled foremen and engineers. Machine shops grew rapidly, and they comprised highly skilled workers and engineers. Both the number of unskilled and skilled workers increased, as their wage rates grew. Engineering colleges were established to feed the enormous demand for expertise. Railroads invented complex bureaucratic systems, using middle managers, and set up explicit career tracks. They hired young men at age 18-21 and promoted them internally until a man reached the status of locomotive engineer, conductor or station agent at age 40 or so. Career tracks were invented for skilled blue collar jobs and for white collar managers, starting in railroads and expanding into finance, manufacturing and trade. Together with rapid growth of small business, a new middle class was rapidly growing, especially in northern cities.
The United States became a world leader in applied technology. From 1860 to 1890, 500,000 patents were issued for new inventions—over ten times the number issued in the previous seventy years. George Westinghouse invented air brakes for trains (making them both safer and faster). Theodore Vail established the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. Thomas A. Edison invented a remarkable number of electrical devices, as well as the integrated power plant capable of lighting multiple buildings simultaneously; he founded General Electric corporation. Oil became an important resource, beginning with the Pennsylvania oil fields. Kerosene replaced whale oil and candles for lighting. John D. Rockefeller created Standard Oil Company to consolidate the industry.
By the scandals associated with the Reconstruction era, including corrupt state governments, massive fraud in cities controlled by political machines, political payoffs to secure government contracts (especially the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal regarding the financing of the transcontinental railroad), and widespread evidence of government corruption during the Ulysses S. Grant Administration, Americans' sense of civic virtue was shocked. Led by the Bourbon Democrats, especially Samuel J. Tilden and Grover Cleveland, there was a call for reform, such as Civil Service Reform. More generally, there was a sense that government intervention in the economy resulted in favoritism, bribery, kickbacks, inefficiency, waste and corruption. The Bourbon Democrats led the call for a free market, low tariffs, low taxes, less spending and, in general, a Laissez-Faire (hands-off) government. They denounced imperialism and overseas expansion. Many business and professional people supported this approach, although, to encourage rapid growth of industry and protect America's high wages against the low wage system in Europe, most Republicans advocated a high protective tariff. Labor activists and agrarians expressed the same spirit but focused their attacks on monopolies and railroads as unfair to the little man; they also complained that high tariffs for instance on British steel benefited industrialists like Carnegie more than his employees who even at the time were regarded by many as being pitifully exploited.
In politics, the two parties engaged in very elaborate get-out-the vote campaigns that succeeded in pushing turnout to 80%, 90%, and even higher. It was financed by the "spoils system" whereby the winning party distributed most local, state and national government jobs, and many government contracts, to its loyal supporters. Large cities were dominated by political machines, in which constituents supported a candidate in exchange for anticipated patronage—favors back from the government, once that candidate was elected—and candidates were selected based on their willingness to play along. The best known example of a political machine from this time period is Tammany Hall in New York City, led by Boss Tweed.
Presidential elections between the two major parties (the Republicans and Democrats), were closely contested, and Congress was marked by political stalemate. Mudslinging became an increasingly popular way of gaining advantage at the polls, and Republicans employed an election tactic known as "waving the bloody shirt". Candidates, especially when combating corruption charges, would remind voters that the Republican Party had saved the nation in the Civil War. During the 1870s, voters were repeatedly reminded that the Democrats had been responsible for the bloody upheaval, an appeal that attracted many Union veterans to the Republican camp. The Republicans consistently carried the North in presidential elections. The South, on the other hand, became the Solid South, nearly always voting Democratic. The political humiliations of Reconstruction were still fresh in many minds. Conversely, the Democrats invoked images of the "lost cause" and the glorious "stars and bars" in much the same way Republicans "waved the bloody shirt".
Overall, Republican and Democratic political platforms remained remarkably constant during the years before 1900. The negativity and ambiguity of politics began a shift in the press to yellow journalism, in which sensationalism and sentimental stories took as prominent a role as factual news.
Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt were amongst the most influential industrialists during the Gilded Age. Carnegie was born into a poor Scottish family; at age 18 he became an assistant to railroad superintendent Thomas A. Scott in Pittsburgh. In 1870, Carnegie erected his first blast furnace. Both Carnegie and Rockefeller gave away most of their wealth in large scale philanthropy. Carnegie created the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) to upgrade craftsmen into trained engineers and scientists. Carnegie built hundreds of public libraries and several major research centers and foundations. Rockefeller retired from the oil business in 1897 and devoted the next 40 years of his life to giving away most of his money using systematic philanthropy, especially in the areas of education, medicine and race relations. "Commodore" C. Vanderbilt started out as a poor Staten Island farmer boy, then quickly through his sharp wit and lethal business policies built an enormous fortune in steamships and railroading to become the wealthiest man in the world in his day. His descendants and heirs would become famous for their ability to both increase and spend their wealth, building gigantic and lavish mansions and dominating Gilded Age high society.
The construction of the Central Pacific railroad in California and Nevada was handled largely by Chinese laborers. In the 1870 census there were 58 Chinese men and 4 women in the entire country; these numbers grew to 100,000 men and 40,000 women in the 1880 census. Labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor strongly opposed the presence of Chinese labor, by reason of both economic competition and race. Immigrants from China were not allowed to become citizens until 1950; however, their children born in the U.S. were full citizens.
Congress banned further Chinese immigration through the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882; the act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States, but some students and businessmen were allowed in. Subsequent to the act, the Chinese population declined to only 37,000 in 1940. Many returned to China (a greater proportion than most other immigrant groups) yet most of them stayed in the United States. Chinese people were unwelcome in many areas, so they resettled in the "Chinatown" districts of large cities.
Modern labor unions emerged during the Civil War era. One of the earlier attempts at a national union was the National Labor Union, formed in Baltimore in 1866. The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, had success in the late 1880s but then collapsed. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), a coalition of trades unions, became dominant in the 1890s, under Samuel Gompers. and the IWW emerged, encouraging all workers to unite. The Pullman factory in Chicago, with a paternalistic policy of company housing, laid off employees and cut wages during the Panic of 1893 but did not cut rents, angering workers. Eugene Debs moved onto the scene in 1894, ordering his American Railroad Union (ARU) members to stop handling Pullman rail cars, effectively halting the movement of passenger trains across the U.S. The established railway brotherhoods and the AFL rejected the ARU as dual unionism. President Grover Cleveland secured federal court orders to stop blocking the U.S. mail. Debs refused to obey, federal troops broke the illegal strike, and Debs went to prison for six months. Debs later founded the Socialist Party of America, which advocated a peaceful end to capitalism.