Why Do Historians Call this Period “The Gilded Age”? Is it an Accurate Description?
The frame of reference attached to the stretch of years from 1865 to 1900 as ‘The Gilded Age,’ implies a surface gleam where a gold coating encloses a cheap metal underneath. The justification for the gilded age label comprises the rapid development and expansion of the economy, new technologies, accumulation of wealth, and the assumption of greater power amongst the emerging entrepreneurs. However, below the impressive surface lay the realities experienced by industrial workers and the difficulties facing the ethnic and racial minorities . Contrary to the attractive opportunities and urban development witnessed amongst the privileged dwellers, the pierced veil reveals disadvantaged residents suffering from increased social and economic complexity.
Many Americans equated the burgeoning cities during the nineteenth-century and the advanced technological platforms as signs of their progressing nation. Primarily, many would cite the emergence of telephone networks, technological gadgetry and street cars to signal the accomplishment of a succeeding nation . These developments would usher an attractive city environment comprising schools, exhibitions, fairs, concerts, schools, theaters, and galleries representing the impressive urban life. However, behind the gleam lay the surprising levels of repulsive poverty, crime and filth levels present in the urban regions. In particular, the outsiders and visitors would often react in horror upon learning the deplorable conditions for the disadvantaged urban dwellers in New York .
Secondly, America witnessed the mechanization of its agriculture following attempts to improve productivity and minimize labor costs. The development saw fewer workers involved in the farming activities unlike in the previous labor-intensive regime . Although presenting a silver lining for the landowners to maximize their returns, embracing it transpired into urban migration, hence yielding population pressure from the unemployed individuals. For this reason, the influx of tenants witnessed in the urban cities stimulated landlords to charge higher rents. Consequently, it subjected most tenants residing in New York to pity sanitation while struggling with poorer purses to raise the exorbitant rents .
Similar to the urban expansion rate, the large cities contributed significantly to attaining a developed manufacturing belt. The gilded age transformed the cities of Buffalo, Boston, New York, and Baltimore among others into a pool of urban-industrial core with flourishing production and finance centers . The swelling urban population would leave them as walking cities owing to the restricted heights of most buildings. The utilization of new technologies to aid construction and transportation facilitated the expansion and urban transit respectively. Particularly, the technological revolution in the latter created elaborate networks connecting all suburbs to the primary business districts. The developed infrastructure led thousands of suburbanites pouring into the city. Contrary to the benefits perceived of the connectivity, the poor occupied the clustered zones and deteriorating neighborhoods of the cities . This manifested urban life where one would witness the two extremes of the welcomed gilded age revolution.
The headlong growth subjected most cities into minimal planning during the development of the infrastructure. The local governments would rarely regulate the expansion and initiate building standards, leaving individual developers to embrace varied construction practices founded on profit calculations. For example, architects utilized varied designs, thus the construction of skyscrapers and unique skylines . The unplanned nature characterizing infrastructure developments brew difficulties to sustain expanded demand for municipal utilities and services. Predominantly, city residents experienced sanitation obstacles emerging from poor disposal of sewage, dirty streets and rotting garbage .
Besides the economic and infrastructure development, the Gilded Age conveyed significant changes across the social sphere. Initially, more Americans joined the middle-class living as they embraced various professions. It presented a distinctive scene where the aforesaid occupied the expanding suburbs, unlike the industrial working and wealthy classes . More would assume urban living translating to a consumer culture featuring employment of domestic servants, shopping designated to women and subscription to family magazines . The staged development of the education curriculum encouraged enrollments drawn from either gender. Nonetheless, the analysis of its accomplishment would reveal a contrasting scene where disproportionate statistics across the social levels. For instance, few from the rural areas would enroll in colleges unlike from the predominant upper and middle classes .
The gilded age period reveals the reconstructed platform for gender-redefined roles through equal opportunities for women in education. While a change to the curriculum demonstrated in Yale and Harvard institutions reveals accommodation of both members of a separate sphere, few women graduated from the colleges. It would replicate in the emphasis for domesticity as business and political platforms were designated for men, citing corruption and competition. The public policy would later discard retrogressive practices surrounding the notion of a separate sphere with multiple reforms such as woman suffrage, abolishing slavery and support for fraternal societies. This influenced the emergence of a different redefinition of manliness from the predominant courage, independence and loyal characters . Unfortunately, the acceptable reform process would attract criticism following the emergence of the distinctive lesbian and gay subcultures. These subcultures drew contradicting opinion as they poked holes to the morality of the reformed urban-industrial society.
While the increasing middle class and upper class would suggest remarkable evidence of economic and social progress, most cities displayed the failure to cure the urban poverty in the densely populated neighborhoods. The difficulty to afford good housing, leaving the majority of urban population resort to tenements characterized by appalling conditions, reveals the misleading image perceived of a succeeding nation . For example, the urbanization and reforms were only concentrated in the northern states, unlike to the southerners condemned with the same-old problems . It emerged in the latter through racially-segregated practices, high illiteracy levels, lagged education policies, and employment of would-be students.
The economic growth and social redefinition accomplished in the gilded age reflect the reconstruction attempts to end segregation and racial discrimination amongst the natives, African Americans and immigrants . Although the Civil Rights Act would generate a shield against discrimination, some state enacted laws prohibiting intermarriages . The restrictive environment became evident in the Supreme Court ruling, terming the provisions of the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional to individuals and companies. Some states would replicate the ruling such as the separate accommodations in Florida and elimination of African Americans from the political sphere.
The Native Americans extended their prejudices to immigrants, thus converging strains of economic, political, racism and political restrictions. Although The Dawes Severalty Act would aid in civilizing the society and save the Asian immigrants from discrimination and violence, it barely accomplished its objectives of making the Indians as self-sufficient, profit-oriented, and property conscious . Particularly, the allotments made under the individual land-ownership program saw much of the reservation land sold to westerners. In addition, the passage forced the Plain Indians surrender their communal living for individualism practices .
While the mechanization and industrialization initiatives transformed the economy, the immediate population would barely meet the labor supplies demanded in the industries. It drew an attractive platform for more immigrants comprising men, women and children, who occupied the regions dominated by preceding members of their races . However, most individuals suffered from insufficient control over their long working schedules and lesser earnings for the women and children. Besides the wage differential, most laborers suffered from work-related ailments including rheumatism, pneumonia and carbon-monoxide poisoning. It reveals a lack of prioritizing workplace safety through regulations, hence deteriorating health conditions for the workers . This contributed to increased negligence on workplace safety compared to the European nations.
The transformation of the economy through mechanization, urbanization and increased transport connectivity, reveals the achievement of the 1877-1900 era. This would initiate manufacturing belts, large cities, redefined gender roles and reformed education curriculum. However, these accomplishments created a misleading image owing to the mess lying beneath the shine. The racial-segregation, discrimination, gender-biased remunerations, negligence in safeguarding workplace safety and loss of reservation lands are features befitting an accurate description of the Gilded Age.
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