Introduction: The Gilded Age (03:52)
America emerged as an economic powerhouse in the late 19th century; divides in wealth and opportunity grew more pronounced. The country’s 4,000 richest families amassed nearly as much wealth as the remaining 11.6 million families combined.
Agrarian Model to Industrial Revolution (04:00)
America started as a nation of farmers but quickly became industrialized. Railroads connected the country, allowing industrialists to sell goods to consumers in faraway regions and young people from rural communities to reach the city in search of work. (Credits)
New Tycoons (02:07)
Andrew Carnegie consolidated his manufacturing enterprises under the banner of Carnegie Brothers and Company in 1881. He amassed enormous personal wealth, like oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Humble Beginnings (04:17)
After struggling financially in Scotland, Carnegie’s family moved to Pittsburgh, a city that had been rapidly transformed by industry. By age 30, Carnegie had become a full-time capitalist. He quickly recognized the financial potential of steel.
Steel Manufacturing (02:13)
The first steel rails rolled out of Carnegie’s mill in the fall of 1875. He believed the keys to underselling the competition were volume and efficiency. By 1881, his consolidated company showed a profit of 40%, and he personally made over $1 million.
Vanderbilts and the 400 (05:35)
Alva Vanderbilt oversaw the construction of her family home. Upon its completion in 1882, some New York elites considered the mansion to be gaudy. Caroline Schermerhorn would determine whether the Vanderbilts were worthy of joining high society.
Vanderbilt Ball (05:50)
Alva understood the power of money. Her family made its fortune in the cotton trade, affording her a privileged existence. She sent 1,200 invitations to an opulent party she hosted on March 26, 1883; the press covered the event.
American Opportunity (02:44)
America’s prosperity was noticed overseas. Over 3 million immigrants entered the United States from 1880 to 1885, more than tripling the number of the previous five years. New York was the biggest draw; the population nearly doubled in a single generation.
Cheap Labor (03:33)
New York needed muscle to build streets, sewers, and water mains. Factory owners relied on people who were willing to work long hours for meager pay. Workers joined labor unions to demand better wages and safer working conditions.
Class Conflict (05:33)
The working class vote concerned industrial leaders and in the summer of 1886, strikes and boycotts forced politicians to act. Labor leaders decided to form a political party and turned to author Henry George.
Tail-Board Campaign (03:02)
George gave rousing speeches from the backs of wagons as he ran for New York mayor. He pushed for big ideas that included increased taxes on property owners, public ownership of mass transit, and better working conditions. He finished second with 68,000 votes.
Business of Money (03:42)
John Pierpont Morgan followed his father into banking. European investors wanted a piece of the action as America grew into an empire, and they turned to Morgan for help.
Morgan Reigns in Railroads (05:03)
Railroads pushing into the American West became the hot-ticket investment of the 1870s and 1880s. Billions of dollars had flowed into the industry by 1888, much of it from Morgan’s European clients. The banker convened meetings of railroad presidents to promote cooperation.
Exploitation of Farmers (02:51)
American farmers shipped wheat, corn, oats and rye across the world, but many did not see the economic benefits. Predatory lenders kept them in debt and railroads kept transportation costs high.
People's Party (07:48)
Among the loudest voices decrying farmer exploitation was Mary Elizabeth Lease. She helped found the Populists Party that took control of the Kansas state legislature. It formed a broad coalition with radical ideas and focus on working people’s concerns.
Homestead Massacre (07:50)
Carnegie was vexed by the demands of organized labor at his Homestead Steel Works and he set about breaking the union. This led to the bloody Homestead strike.
Panic of 1893 (03:39)
News that a trust with a virtual monopoly on rope and twine was on the verge of failure began to ripple through Wall Street on May 4, 1893. Nervous investors began dumping stocks, leading to a run on banks and mass unemployment.
Coxey's Army (07:44)
James Coxey organized the first march on Washington in 1894. He wanted to petition Congress to hire unemployed workers to build roads, schools, and courthouses, but the movement fizzled after he was arrested.
Morgan Amasses Power (08:10)
The Depression allowed Morgan to buy controlling interests in a slew of bankrupt railroads. He organized an international syndicate of investors to bail the country out as gold reserves dwindled and the government teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.
Vanderbilt Divorce (05:58)
Alva's divorce created a scandal in 1895. She kept her mansion in New York, her summer cottage in Newport, Rhode Island, and custody of her three children. She repaired her social standing by marrying her daughter to the Duke of Marlborough.
Democratic Convention of 1896 (08:44)
Democrats convened in Chicago to pick their nominee for president and determine their stance on the gold standard. William Jennings Bryan led the silver wing of the party and ran on a pro-labor platform. The Populists backed him in lieu of running their own candidate.
Republican Party (07:51)
Industrialists became alarmed by the size of Bryan’s crowds and coalesced behind the pro-business candidate, William McKinley. There were no legal limits to campaign donations and McKinley ran with more money than Bryan; McKinley won.
Credits: The Gilded Age (01:39)
Credits: The Gilded Age
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