In United States history, the Gilded Age was an era extending roughly from 1870 to 1900. It was a time of rapid economic growth, especially in the Northern and Western United States. As American wages grew much higher than those in Europe, especially for skilled workers, and industrialization demanded an ever-increasing unskilled labor force, the period saw an influx of millions of European immigrants.
|1870s – c. 1900|
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The rapid expansion of industrialization led to real wage growth of 60% between 1860 and 1890, and spread across the ever-increasing labor force. The average annual wage per industrial worker (including men, women, and children) rose from $380 in 1880, to $564 in 1890, a gain of 48%. Conversely, the Gilded Age was also an era of abject poverty and inequality, as millions of immigrants—many from impoverished regions—poured into the United States, and the high concentration of wealth became more visible and contentious.
Railroads were the major growth industry, with the factory system, mining, and finance increasing in importance. Immigration from Europe, and the Eastern United States, led to the rapid growth of the West, based on farming, ranching, and mining. Labor unions became increasingly important in the rapidly growing industrial cities. Two major nationwide depressions—the Panic of 1873 and the Panic of 1893—interrupted growth and caused social and political upheavals.
The South remained economically devastated after the American Civil War; the region's economy became increasingly tied to commodities, cotton, and tobacco production, which suffered from low prices. With the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877, African-American people in the South were stripped of political power and voting rights and were left economically disadvantaged.
The political landscape was notable in that despite some corruption, election turnout was very high and national elections saw two evenly matched parties. The dominant issues were cultural (especially regarding prohibition, education, and ethnic or racial groups) and economic (tariffs and money supply). With the rapid growth of cities, political machines increasingly took control of urban politics. In business, powerful nationwide trusts formed in some industries. Unions crusaded for the eight-hour working day, and the abolition of child labor; middle class reformers demanded civil service reform, prohibition of liquor and beer, and women's suffrage.
Local governments across the North and West built public schools chiefly at the elementary level; public high schools started to emerge. The numerous religious denominations were growing in membership and wealth, with Catholicism becoming the largest. They all expanded their missionary activity to the world arena. Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians set up religious schools, and the larger of those set up numerous colleges, hospitals, and charities. Many of the problems faced by society, especially the poor, gave rise to attempted reforms in the subsequent Progressive Era.
The "Gilded Age" term came into use in the 1920s and 1930s and was derived from writer Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which satirized an era of serious social problems masked by a thin gold gilding. The early half of the Gilded Age roughly coincided with the mid-Victorian era in Britain and the Belle Époque in France. Its beginning, in the years after the American Civil War, overlaps the Reconstruction Era (which ended in 1877). It was followed in the 1890s by the Progressive Era.