The Gilded Age
"Every age has its temptations, its weaknesses, its dangers. Ours is in the line of the snobbish and the sordid."The Gilded Age is one of the most common terms for the period in American history between the end of the Civil War and the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century. During this period, America grew to become a rich and powerful nation, began to build an empire, and saw the creations of thousands of fortunes. It also saw the era of mass immigration from Europe and (to a lesser extent) Asia, with over ten million coming in the period 1865-1896. Many of these were from countries that "native" WASPs liked even less than the Irish, such as Italy and Tsarist Russia; particularly alarming to White America was the large influx of Jews. All these immigrants came chasing the American Dream; the vast majority were treated to slums and sweatshops in America's rapidly-growing cities. It should come as no surprise, then, that the name "Gilded Age" comes from a story co-written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in 1873, and refers to the extreme opulence of the era contrasted with widespread poverty on the ground, compared to a "gilded" item: one covered in gold, but actually made of something less valuable. As you might imagine, this era is particularly rich in tropes. J. P. Morgan, Jay Gould, the Vanderbilts, and other Robber Barons populate the posh districts of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, while the poor new immigrants find life hard in the vast slums. The Republican Party runs everything in Washington as a political machine despite the protests of the reforming "Mugwumps" within the GOP. The only Democrat to win the White House during these 35 years was Grover Cleveland, a reformer who only won because he had support from the Mugwumps—indeed the term "Mugwump" arose as a term of abuse (convoluted story, but in essence it accused them of being Holier Than Thou) for Republicans who supported Cleveland. In the South, there is Reconstruction and then its end: the aftermath of the end of slavery, with Carpetbaggers coming from the North to take advantage of business opportunities and blacks getting their rights only to see them stripped away in the wake of the deal to put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in the election of 1876. Expect to see the former Southern Belle as a Princess in Rags and the Southern Gentleman as a member of The Klan. As for the economy, deflation and banking panics were huge problems, big monopolies crushed local competition, and unions and farmers struggled to find their voice. Eventually, people got so fed up with everything going on that a widespread reform movement began in the country around the 1890's. This is known as the Progressive Era, and it brought us Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Out West is The Wild West, which is of course a trope of its own. See also: Victorian Britain/Victorian London and The Edwardian Era (which covers this time period across The Pond). For Japan see Meiji Restoration. NOTE: Wild West examples should go in that page.
- All Jews Are Ashkenazi: As this is an American trope, it's tied to American history. Until the post-Civil War period, the American Jewish population was quite small and was relatively balanced—possibly even mostly Sephardi. The massive influx from the Russian Empire (and to a lesser extent Austria-Hungary) changed that perception.
- Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: "Propaganda of the deed" was very popular among anarchists everywhere, of course, but American anarchists took the cake by assassinating William McKinley at the end of this era (in 1901). Anarchism in general spread to America via the massive immigration from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe (where radical leftist ideologies were more popular).
- Conspicuous Consumption: Practiced by industrialists and other newly-rich folks; gaudy bombast was very popular then. The term "conspicuous consumption" dates from the tail end of this era, with Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: While greedy merchants are of course nothing new, the corporation only came to the fore in this era, being founded to support the new railroads and other business ventures; the first modern general incorporation statute was passed by New Jersey in 1888; Delaware passed its famously business-friendly statute in 1899, and has been the standard for large corporations ever since. Corporate executives were called "captains of industry" by those who supported them, and "robber-barons" by those who didn't. The "trusts" were probably the most famous expression; the first competition legislation—the Sherman Anti-Trust Act—appeared in this era.
- Eagleland: Type 2. The first record of the term "Ugly American" is from about this era.
- The Gay Nineties: Form the last full decade of the era (all definitions of the Gilded Age have it end during TR's administration).
- An Immigrant's Tale: They didn't first show up during this era, but the immigration boom brought millions to the United States. Although it doesn't really appear in fiction of the era quite so strongly—since said immigrants were too busy surviving to write—the better-off children and grandchildren of the immigrants who came during this period of massive immigration often set immigration stories in this time.
- The Klan: First showed up in the South during the Reconstruction period, but only lasted until 1874. The Klan didn't come back until the middle of the Wilson Administration, 10-15 years after the end of the era.
- Nobility Marries Money: Many British noble families got their fortunes restarted by marrying into robber baron families.
- Nouveau Riche: The "robber barons" were rarely well-off to begin with, making them...
- Self-Made Man: Of whom John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison were the most prominent, but really there were quite a few. Of course, there were far more who never made it, or even tried to make it...
- Dime Novel hero Nick Carter was created in The Gilded Age.
Works set in this time period
- Gone with the Wind, the parts after the war.
- The Birth of a Nation
- The Age of Innocence
- Many of the works of Mark Twain (who, as noted, named the era with his book The Gilded Age).
- An American Tail
- BioShock Infinite
- A good portion of The Emigrants, although the rural Minnesota setting straddles it with the West/frontier.
- The Jungle was written in 1906 (a few years after the accepted end of the Gilded Age), but is set a few years earlier.
- American Pop begins with the first generation arriving in the 1890s.
- Of course, Crash Course US History has an episode on this period. (Actually, it has a few.)
- The very beginning of the Vito Corleone sections of The Godfather Part II is set at the tip end of the Gilded Age, in 1901, when Vito arrives at Ellis Island.