Gilded Age was a period of intense economic and
social change. During the years between the end
of the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century,
Americans closed the frontier, shed their agrarian
roots, and embraced new technologies.
The shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy
brought new patterns of production and created a
new class structure. Factory assembly lines replaced
apprentice workshops. Machines replaced skilled
craftsmen. A new working class of semi-skilled wage
laborers operated the machinery. By 1900, the industrial
workforce comprised one third of the population.
upper-class entrepreneurs who controlled American
industries and the middle-class managers who supported
them formed "one half" of Gilded Age society. These
businessmen promoted the doctrine of free labor
as the symbol of American democracy. Using themselves
as examples, they argued that Americans could achieve
success through hard work. They built mansions for
their families and donated funds for parks and public
architecture to display their newfound wealth and
Climbing into America,
Ellis Island, New York
"The other half" of Gilded Age
society consisted of working-class families. One
out of every three laborers was an immigrant.
Lured by the promises
of freedom and opportunity, motivated by the desire
to escape oppressive living and working conditions
at home, many immigrants sold their possessions
and moved to America. Too often, however, they found
themselves in similar situations in this country.
About 40 percent of working-class
citizens lived below the poverty line of $500 per
They faced long hours, low pay,
random wage cuts, periods of high unemployment,
danger to life and limb on the job, lack of insurance,
and lack of worker's compensation. The overcrowded
tenements in which they lived often had inadequate
sewage, heat, water, and electricity.
"the Other Half"
squalor of the working-class neighborhoods contrasted
sharply with those of the middle and upper classes.
The working-class home was the center of production;
many men, women, and children labored in tenement
sweatshops. Middle-class and
upper-class homes were centers
of consumption; men acquired art, women arranged
banquets, children read books or played with toys.
Working-class neighborhoods were often overcrowded.
In contrast, middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods
were clean and spacious.
In Poverty Gap,
an English Coal-Heaver's Home
The native customs of working-class
immigrants seemed foreign to middle-class and upper-class
citizens. Their neighborhoods seemed mysterious
and dangerous. The media reinforced the stereotype
of working-class citizens as "other," portraying
them as immoral, ignorant, or unable to help themselves.
Gilded Age reformers appealed
to the consciences and fears of these citizens,
encouraging them to serve as guardians of the poor
and protect themselves against crime.