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 extensive British investment in American industry made it a rich country, which was eventually reflected in its military spending and pursuit of formal and informal dominion over the Americas. This coincided with the era of mass immigration from Europe and (to a far lesser extent) Asia, with largest single ethnicity changing from English to German and the British ethnic groups (English, Scots, Irish) becoming a minority.
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 Tsarist Russia. Particularly alarming to White America was the large influx of Jews and Chinese. While anti-miscegenation laws making Chinese-European and African-European marriages illegal were successfully enacted in a number of states, there was no success with preventing intermixing between European 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, 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 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.
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 (mostly from the Russian Empire, some from 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 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.
- Eagleland: Type 2. The first record of the term "Ugly American" is from about this era.
- The Gay '90s: Form 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.
- 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. Consuelo Vanderbilt is a Real Life example, being forced to marry the Duke of Marlborough.
- Nouveau Riche: The "robber barons" were rarely well-off to begin with.
- Pimped-Out Dress: Crinoline and bustle dresses were often loaded with fancy decorations.
- 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.
Works set in this time period
- Gone with the Wind, the parts after the war.
- The Birth of a Nation (1915)
- 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 (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.
- 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.
- About 9/10 of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.