In his new HBO series The Gilded Age, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes captures the glamour and tumult of late 19th-century New York City. The dresses are big, the houses are bigger, and both are dwarfed by the clash between old and new money at the heart of the series. Here’s a little historical background on its eponymous era.
When Was the Gilded Age?
The Gilded Age kicked off sometime after the Civil War and culminated around the turn of the century, though sources differ regarding more precise start and end dates.
Some say it began after Reconstruction, which ended in 1877 when the federal government basically agreed to butt out of Southern states’ business in exchange for those states accepting Rutherford B. Hayes as president after his highly contested 1876 election.
But the economic and industrial boom that characterized the Gilded Age was greatly influenced by the development of railroads—which could transport both goods and people more cheaply, safely, and efficiently—and that expansion was already happening during the Reconstruction era. The Transcontinental Railroad, for instance, was finished in 1869.
The beginning of the end of the Gilded Age was the Panic of 1893, a financial crisis that occurred when two massive companies, Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, folded. The railroad bubble burst, the stock market crashed, and the nation was plunged into a depression.
Some historians cite Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, which began when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, as the Gilded Age’s true undoing. Roosevelt ushered in the Progressive Era with “trust-busting” policies that dismantled monopolies, and he rooted out much of the political corruption that had enabled robber barons of all industries to amass wealth on the backs of the poor. His crusade coincided with grassroots movements to achieve equality, too—through unions, women’s suffrage, and other human rights efforts.
Why Was It Called the Gilded Age?
Railroads may have been the lynchpin of the Gilded Age’s economic growth, but business was booming in virtually every other industry, too. This gave way to a new focus on materialism: Tycoons flaunted their wealth by buying extravagant food, clothing, houses, furniture, and everything else—a trend that economist Thorstein Veblen dubbed “conspicuous consumption.”
In this way, Gilded Age life did seem somewhat bathed in gold. But just as a gilded item is only covered in a thin layer of gold, the upper class’s opulent veneer masked something much less glamorous. According to PBS, the average annual income among 11 million of 12 million families in America circa 1890 was a paltry $380. To put that in perspective, Marion Fish, wife of businessman Stuyvesant Fish, once spent $15,000 on a diamond dog collar. (The dog wore it to a doggy dinner party.) Cities were dirty, dangerous, and overcrowded; factory employees were overworked and underpaid; and strikes were common. In short, for much of the population, life was a constant struggle.
Who Actually Coined the Term Gilded Age?
The term Gilded Age is taken from the title of an 1873 satirical novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today follows an enterprising young woman who allies herself with an unscrupulous senator in order to pass property-related legislation that’ll increase her family’s wealth. There’s lots of political corruption and corporate greed, not to mention a vengeful murder and its aftermath. It’s an over-the-top story meant to reflect an over-the-top time period.
While Twain and Warner coined the phrase, the author best known for capturing Gilded Age high society is probably Edith Wharton, whose novels The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth both function as a social commentary on New York’s late 19th-century elite.