Modern history

Society and Culture in the Gilded Age

Wealthy people in the late nineteenth century used their fortunes to support lavish, indulgent lifestyles. For many of them, especially those with recent wealth, opulence rather than good taste was the standard of adornment. This tendency inspired writer Mark Twain and his collaborator Charles Dudley Warner to describe this era of wealth creation and vast inequality as the Gilded Age.

Twain and Warner had the very wealthy in mind when they coined the phrase, but others further down the social ladder found ways to participate in the culture of consumption. The rapidly expanding middle class enjoyed modest homes furnished with mass-produced consumer goods. Women played the central role in running the household, as most wives remained at home to raise children. Women and men often spent their free time attending meetings and other events sponsored by the many social, cultural, and political organizations that flourished during this era. Such prosperity was, however, largely limited to whites. For the majority of African Americans still living in the South, life proved much harder. In response to black aspirations for social and economic advancement, white politicians imposed a rigid system of racial segregation on the South. Although whites championed the cause of individual upward mobility, they restricted opportunities to achieve success to whites only.

Wealthy and Middle-Class Pleasures

In Chicago’s Gold Coast, Boston’s Back Bay, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, San Francisco’s Nob Hill, Denver’s Quality Hill, and Cincinnati’s Hilltop, urban elites lived lives of incredible material opulence. J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller built lavish homes in New York City. William Vanderbilt constructed luxurious mansions along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. High-rise apartment buildings also catered to the wealthy. Overlooking Central Park, the nine-story Dakota Apartments boasted fifty-eight suites, a banquet hall, and a wine cellar. Famous architects designed some of the finest of these stately homes, which their millionaire residents furnished with an eclectic mix of priceless art objects and furniture in a jumble of diverse styles. The rich and famous established private social clubs, sent their children to exclusive prep schools and colleges, and worshipped in the most fashionable churches.

Second homes, usually for use in the summer, were no less expensively constructed and decorated. Besides residences in Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island, the Vanderbilts constructed a “home away from home” in the mountains ofAsheville, North Carolina. The Biltmore, as they named it, contained 250 rooms, 40 master bedrooms, and an indoor swimming pool. Edward Julius Berwind of Philadelphia, who made his fortune in coal, constructed a magnificent summer residence in Newport. Modeled after a mid-eighteenth-century French chateau, The Elms cost $1.4 million (approximately $38.6 million in 2012) and was furnished with an assortment of Renaissance ceramics and French and Venetian paintings.

The wealthy also built and frequented opera houses, concert halls, museums, and historical societies as testimonies to their taste and sophistication. For example, the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Goulds, and Morgans financed the completion ofthe Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1883. When the facility opened, a local newspaper commented about the well-heeled audience: “The Goulds and the Vanderbilts and people of that ilk perfumed the air with the odor of crisp greenbacks.” Upper-class women often traveled abroad to visit the great European cities and ancient Mediterranean sites.

Industrialization and the rise of corporate capitalism also brought an array of white- collar workers in managerial, clerical, and technical positions. These workers formed a new, expanded middle class and joined the businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and clergy who constituted the old middle class. More than three million white-collar workers were employed in 1910, nearly three times as many as in 1870.

Middle-class families decorated their residences with comfortable, mass-produced furniture, musical instruments, family photographs, books, periodicals, and a variety of memorabilia collected in their leisure time. They could relax in their parlors and browse through mass-circulation magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and The Delineator, a fashion and arts journal. They might also read a wide variety of popular newspapers that competed with one another with sensationalist stories. Or they could read some of the era’s outpouring of fiction, including romances, dime novels, westerns, humor, and social realism, an art form that depicted working-class life.

In the face of rapid economic changes, middle-class women and men joined a variety of social and professional organizations that were arising to deal with the problems accompanying industrialization (Table 16.1). During the 1880s, charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross were established to provide disaster relief. In 1892 the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded to improve women’s educational and cultural lives. Four years later, the National Association of Colored Women organized to help relieve suffering among the black poor, defend black women, and promote the interests of the black race. Many scholarly organizations were formed during this decade, including the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, and the American Mathematical Society.

TABLE 16.1 An Age of Organizations, 1876-1896


Year of Founding




American Red Cross



Charity Organization Society



Educational Alliance



National Council of Jewish Women



National League of Baseball



Knights of Columbus



National Council of Women



General Federation of Women's Clubs



National Association of Colored Women



Modern Language Association



American Historical Association



American Economic Association



American Mathematical Society

During these swiftly changing times, adults became increasingly concerned about the nation’s youth and sought to create organizations that catered to young people. Formed before the Civil War in England and expanded to the United States, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) grew briskly during the 1880s as it erected buildings where young men could socialize, build moral character, and engage in healthy physical exercise. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) provided similar opportunities for women. African Americans also participated in “Y” activities through the creation of racially separate branches.

Changing Gender Roles

Middle-class wives generally remained at home, caring for the house and children, often with the aid of a servant. Whereas in the past farmers and artisans had worked from the home, now most men and women accepted as natural the separation of the workplace and the home caused by industrialization and urbanization. Although the birthrate and marriage rates among the middle class dropped during the late nineteenth century, wives were still expected to care for their husbands and family first to fulfill their feminine duties.

Even though daughters increasingly attended colleges reserved for women, such as Smith, Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Mount Holyoke, their families viewed education as a means of providing refinement rather than a career. One physician aptly summed up the prevailing view that women could only use their brains “but little and in trivial matters” and should concentrate on serving as “the companion or ornamental appendage to man.”

Middle-class women were now confronted with the new consumer culture. Department stores, chain stores, ready-made clothes, and packaged goods, from Jell-O and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to cake mixes, competed for the money and loyalty of female consumers. Hairdressers, cosmetic companies, and department stores offered a growing and ever- changing assortment of styles, even as they also provided new jobs to those unable to afford the latest fashions without a weekly paycheck. The expanding array of consumer goods did not, however, decrease women’s domestic workload. They had more furniture to dust, fancier meals to prepare, changing fashions to keep up with, higher standards of cleanliness to maintain, and more time to devote to entertaining. Yet the availability of mass-produced goods to assist the housewife in her chores made her role as consumer highly visible, while making her role as worker nearly invisible.

For the more socially and economically independent young women—those who attended college or beauty and secretarial schools—new worlds of leisure opened up.

Shopping in a Department Store In cities around the country, department stores offered a variety of items appealing to middle-class consumers, especially women. In this photograph from 1893, shoppers interested in purchasing gloves receive personal attention from well-dressed salesclerks behind the counter of Rike's Department Store in Dayton, Ohio. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Bicycling, tennis, and croquet became popular sports for women in the late nineteenth century. So, too, did playing basketball, both in colleges and through industrial leagues. Indeed, womens colleges made sports a requirement, to offset the stress of intellectual life and produce a more well-rounded woman. Young women who sought an air of sophistication dressed according to the image of the Gibson Girl, the creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. In the 1890s, the Gibson Girl became the model for the energetic, athletic “new woman,” with her upswept hair, fancy hats, long skirts, flowing blouses, and disposable income.

Middle-class men enjoyed their leisure by joining fraternal organizations. Writing in the North American Review in 1897, W G. Harwood commented that the late nineteenth century was the “Golden Age of Fraternity.” Five and a half million men (of some 19 million adult men in the United States) joined fraternal orders, such as the Odd Fellows, Masons, Knights of Pythias, and Elks. These groups offered middle-class men a network of business contacts and gave them a chance to enjoy a communal, masculine social environment otherwise lacking in their lives.

In fact, historians have referred to a “crisis of masculinity” afflicting a segment of middle- and upper-class men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Middle-class occupations whittled away the sense of autonomy that men had experienced in an earlier era when they worked for themselves. The emergence of corporate capitalism had swelled the ranks of the middle class with organization men, who held salaried jobs in managerial departments. At the same time, the push for women’s rights, especially the right to vote, and women’s increasing involvement in civic associations threatened to reduce absolute male control over the public sphere.

Responding to this gender crisis, middle-class men sought ways to exert their masculinity and keep from becoming frail and effeminate. Psychologists like G. Stanley Hall warned that unless men returned to a primitive state of manhood, they risked becoming feminized and spiritually paralyzed. To avoid this, they should build up their bodies and engage in strenuous activities to improve their physical fitness. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes (1912) extolled primitive manhood and contrasted its natural virtues with the vices of becoming overcivilized.

Men turned to sports to cultivate their masculinity. Besides playing baseball and football, they could attend various sporting events. Baseball became the national pastime, and men could root for their home team and establish a community with the thousands of male spectators who filled up newly constructed ballparks. These fields of dirt and grass were situated amid urban businesses, apartment buildings, and traffic and served as a metaphor for the preservation of an older, pastoral life alongside the hubbub of modern technology. Baseball, which had started as a game played by elites in New York City in the 1840s, soon became a commercially popular sport. It spread across the country as baseball clubs in different cities competed with each other. The sport came into its own with the creation of the professional National League in 1876 and the introduction of the World Series in 1903 between the winners of the National League and the American League pennant races.

Boxing also became a popular spectator sport in the late nineteenth century. Bareknuckle fighting—without the protection of gloves—epitomized the craze to display pure masculinity. A boxing match lasted until one of the fighters was knocked out, leaving both fighters bloody and battered.

During the late nineteenth century, middle-class women and men also had increased opportunities to engage in different forms of sociability and sexuality. Gay men and lesbians could find safe havens in New York City’s Greenwich Village and Chicago’s North Side for their own entertainment. Although treated by medical experts as sexual “inverts” who might be cured by an infusion of “normal” heterosocial contact, gays and lesbians began to emerge from the shadows of Victorian-era sexual constraints around the turn of the twentieth century. “Boston marriages” constituted another form of relationship between women. The term apparently came from Henry James’s book The Bostonians (1886), which described a female couple living together in a monogamous, long-term relationship. This conjugal-style association appealed to financially independent women who did not want to get married. Many of these relationships were sexual, but some were not. In either case, they offered women of a certain class an alternative to traditional, heterosexual marriage.

Black America and Jim Crow

While wealthy and middle-class whites experimented with new forms of social behavior, African Americans faced greater challenges to preserving their freedom and dignity. In the South, where the overwhelming majority of blacks lived, post-Reconstruction southern governments adopted various techniques to keep blacks from voting. To circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment, southern states devised suffrage qualifications that they claimed were racially neutral, and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. They instituted the poll tax, a tax that each person had to pay in order to cast a ballot. Poll taxes fell hardest on the poor, a disproportionate number of whom were African American. Disfranchisement reached its peak in the 1890s, as white southern governments managed to deny the vote to most of the black electorate (Map 16.2). Literacy tests officially barred the uneducated of both races, but they were administered in a manner that discriminated against blacks while allowing illiterate whites to satisfy the requirement. Many literacy tests contained a loophole called a “grandfather clause.” Under this exception, men whose father or grandfather had voted in I860—a time when white men but not black men, most of whom were slaves, could vote in the South—were excused from taking the test.

In the 1890s, white southerners also imposed legally sanctioned racial segregation on the region’s black citizens. Commonly known as Jim Crow laws (named for a character in a minstrel show, where whites performed in blackface), these new statutes denied African Americans equal access to public facilities and ensured that blacks lived apart from whites. In 1883, when the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act (see chapter 14), it gave southern states the freedom to adopt measures confining blacks to separate schools, public accommodations, seats on transportation, beds in hospitals, and sections of graveyards. In 1896 the Supreme Court sanctioned Jim Crow, constructing the constitutional rationale for legally keeping the races apart. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the high court ruled that a Louisiana law providing for “equal but separate” accommodations for “whites” and “coloreds” on railroad cars did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In its decision, the Court concluded that civil rights laws could not change racial destiny. “If one race be inferior to the other socially,” the justices explained, “the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” In practice, however, white southerners obeyed the “separate” part of the equation but never provided equal services. If blacks tried to overstep the bounds of Jim Crow in any way that whites found unacceptable, they risked their lives. Between 1884 and 1900, nearly 1,700 blacks were lynched in the South. Victims were often subjected to brutal forms of torture before they were hanged or shot.

MAP 16.2

Black Disfranchisement in the South, 1889-1908 After Reconstruction, black voters posed a threat to the ruling Democrats by occasionally joining with third-party insurgents. To repel these challenges, Democratic Party leaders made racial appeals to divide poor whites and blacks. Chiefly in the 1890s and early twentieth century, white leaders succeeded in disfranchising black voters (and some poor whites), mainly by adopting poll tax and literacy requirements.

In everyday life, African Americans carried on as best they could. Segregation provided many African Americans with opportunities to build their own businesses, control their own churches, develop their own schools staffed by black teachers, and form their own civic associations and fraternal organizations. Segregation, though harsh and unequal, did foster a sense of black community, promoted a rising middle class, and created social networks that enhanced racial pride. Founded in 1898, the North Carolina Life Insurance Company, one of the leading black-owned and black-operated businesses, employed many African Americans in managerial and sales positions. Burial societies ensured that their members received a proper funeral when they died. As with whites, black men joined lodges such as the Colored Masons and the Colored Odd Fellows, while women participated in the YWCA and the National Association of Colored Women. A small percentage of southern blacks resisted Jim Crow by migrating to the North, where blacks still exercised the right to vote, more jobs were open to them, and segregation was less strictly enforced.


• What role did consumption play in the society and culture of the Gilded Age?

• How did industrialization contribute to heightened anxieties about gender roles and race?

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