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The Gilded Age

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"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 until the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century. During this period, the expansion of industrialization in the United States initiated a period of rapid economic growth. Due to American wage levels increasing at a much higher level compared to that of Europe, extensive European immigration (primarily from Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe) caused significant changes to the demographics of the United States.

The "native" WASPs welcomed the 'pure' Nordic and Germanic immigrants but lamented the racial watering-down that came with the influx of Irish, Italians, and various groups from Southern and Eastern Europe. Particularly alarming to WASP America was the large influx of Ashkenazi Jews (many of whom were trying to escape a series of especially violent pogroms in Tsarist Russia after Tsar Alexander II was assassinated) and Chinese (many of whom were fleeing from extreme poverty and instability caused by the deterioration of the dying Qing dynasty). While anti-miscegenation laws making Chinese-White and Black-White marriages illegal were successfully enacted in a number of states, there was no success with preventing intermixing between European emigrant ethnicities - though immigration quotas restricting their numbers were soon implemented. 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 City, 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 for Republicans who supported Cleveland (it's a long story, but in essence people who used the term "mugwump" accused them of being Holier Than Thou).

In the South, there is Reconstruction and then its end: the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, with Carpetbaggers coming from the North to take advantage of business opportunities and African-Americans 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 1890s. 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. The Steampunk and its offshoot, Gaslamp Fantasy, can take place in this period.

Not be confused with the HBO series of the same name, though it does take place during that period. No relations to the Gilded Cage trope either.

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 on that page.

Tropes associated with that period in fiction include:

  • 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 (mostly from the Russian Empire, some from Austria-Hungary) changed that perception.
  • Big Fancy House: The affluent nouveau riche started to build mansions all over the country, whose styles include a mishmash of every trendy European architecture packed together in one house, much like the McMansions of the 2000s. Due to the changing tastes of a new generation of elites for simpler aesthetics, and due to their size and upkeep, by the end of the era, those houses were difficult to maintain and were considered hazardous due to the usage of gaslight, asbestos, and toxic materials containing lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic in paint and fabric dyes, and much of the owners were forced to abandon or demolish those houses. Such houses in this era were given reputations as gaudy, excessive, and haunted by anyone in the 1920s onwards.
  • 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 corporations grew to even greater heights in 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.
  • Dime Novel hero Nick Carter was created in The Gilded Age.
  • The Gay '90s: From the last full decade of the era (all definitions of the Gilded Age have it end during TR's administration).
  • High-Class Gloves: The old money decided the type of gloves to wear at certain events. Opera gloves, not seen since the end of the Regency/Federal era, came back in style, and remained in evening wear up until the 1960s.
  • 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 mostly too illiterate to write—the better-educated 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 were saved from poverty by marrying into wealthy American families. Consuelo Vanderbilt is a Real Life example, marrying the Duke of Marlborough in an arranged marriage. These women were known as "dollar princesses".
  • Nouveau Riche: The "robber barons" were rarely well-off to begin with.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: After the crinolines of the Civil War era, came the bustle dresses of the most sumptuous of fabrics and they were often loaded with fancy decorations.
  • Railroad Baron: The period saw the beginning of the golden age of American railroading, with both eras being inspeparately interweaved. The term "Robber baron" originated in this era, a recent new kind of dishonest industrialist, with many of them being railroad tycoons who purportedly used exploitative practices to amass their wealth. The page image, the cartoon "Modern Colossus of (Rail) Roads", features William Henry Vanderbilt, President of the New York Central Railroad, Cyrus West Field, who controlled the New York Elevated Railroad Company, and Jay Gould, who controlled the Union Pacific Railroad and other western railroads, depicted as puppet masters and highwaymen robbers.
  • 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.
  • "Ugly American" Stereotype: The first record of the term "Ugly American" is from about this era.

Works set in this time period

  • The Gilded Age, for obvious reasons.
  • Gone with the Wind, the parts after the war.
  • The Birth of a Nation (1915)
  • Many of the works of Mark Twain (who, as noted, named the era with his book The Gilded Age).
  • An American Tail
  • BioShock Infinite (especially since Columbia seemed to be made to extend this era)
  • 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.
  • From the Earth to the Moon, and its sequel, takes place shortly after The Civil War where the Baltimore gun Club, faltering after their services are no longer needed, plan to win the admiration of the world with a grand plan to shoot a rocket to the moon.
  • Crash Course US History has an episode on this period. (Actually, it has a few.)
  • Most of The Age of Innocence, except the last chapter.
  • About 9/10 of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck revolves around Scrooge trying to make his fortune in turn-of-the-century America.
  • Disney Theme Parks: The American "Main Street USA" areas are completely designed around the most nostalgic version of this time; the international ones also use it as a starting point but diverge to greater or lesser degrees. The American Waterfront at Tokyo DisneySea has a New York area set around this time period, with a Tower of Terror based around a robber baron explorer.
  • The Outer Worlds takes place in an alternate universe where the Gilded Age never ended, even after achieving interstellar colonies.
  • The Buccaneers, following five "dollar princesses" who, after being deemed too new-money for New York City's social set, marry into English nobility.