The Gilded Age Defined
Samuel Cupples lived in a historical period known as "The Gilded Age," which is roughly defined as the time period shortly after the end of the Civil War into the turn of the 20th century. During this era, the potential existed for people to lie as one of the heroes in Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches novels. Those who achieved great wealth celebrated their fortune in grand style. They built magnificent palaces for their homes, with many on a section of Fifth Avenue in New York City known as "Millionaire's Row." The wealthy threw lavish parties and spent hours of leisure time attending the opera or theatre.
However, while the rich lived in high style, the vast majority barely eked out a living. The great technological advancements that brought some individuals enormous wealth also inspired a massive wave of immigrants into America. Rural Americans and immigrants flooded into the nation's urban areas and lived in tenement housing strife with crime, filth, and disease. In their website, PBS reports, "In 1890, 11 million of the nation's 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line."
A general feeling of unrest festered in American cities as laborers struggles to improve their lot. Finally, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) Missouri's most famous author, continued to produce both popular and socially significant literature. In 1873, Twain, along with Charles Dudley Warner, published the book The Gilded Age, which was a scathing commentary on society in this time period. Twain's title coined the phrase that permanently named the era. The apt title points to the greed, corruption, poverty, and social injustice hidden by a radiant veneer that covered up the guilt of the wealthy who did not take action to cure society's ills. Although a fictional story, the novel depicts an American society riddled with corruption, scandal, and huge economic disparity among its citizens.
With the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, America saw a new and larger migration to the western states. Drawn by the possibility of gold or silver in California or the Dakota Territory, rich soil in the Plains, and excellent grazing land for raising sheep or cattle, thousands of Easterners set out for the great "frontier." The government supported this migration through the Homestead Act, in which the federal government sold 130 million acres of western land for very little and similar programs by western states that sold another 50 million acres. In addition to the growth from American migration, the West was growing through immigration to the area by Chinese and Mexicans who sought work on the railroad or in the fields.
Unfortunately, many of the people who moved west found that it was not the promised land that they had sought. The mid-1870s were a time of unusually high rains for the typically dry western states. This gave new residents a false confidence that quickly faded after 1887, when the land returned to its normal semi-desert state. Many farmers had bought their new land and other supplies on credit and relied on purchased items for their own food and household goods. This commercial farming put farmers at the mercy of the market as they had never been before. When the world experienced massive overproduction of agricultural goods in the late 1800s, many farmers were forced to seek mortgages and, again, many lost their land. These difficulties in farming and the rising industrial revolution led to a shift from a previously agricultural society to an industrial one. As the economy shifted, so did the people. Many returned to the east and very many left their rural communities for the growing cities.
Amazing Technological Advances
The second half of the 19th century saw an unprecedented technological boom. From America's creation to 1860, the United States government issued approximately 36,000 patents, but from 1860-1890, it issued 440,000 patents. These new products and procedures revolutionized industry.
Although scientific research on electricity had evolved for decades, it was not until the 1870s that Edison developed its use. During this decade, he invented the light bulb, created a generator, and established the first central power plant in New York City. The introduction of electricity allowed for significant advances in home and business power and in manufacturing.
Advances in the steel industry also fostered many changes in this time period. The process of making steel from iron was discovered in the 1850s, but it was the open- hearth process introduced in the United States in 1868 by Abram C. Hewitt that allowed steel makers to produce greater quantities, larger dimensions, and more versatile steel. This new steel was used in the production of locomotives, railroad tracks, skyscrapers, and bridges.
The Eads Bridge, which was dedicated in 1874, employed this new process and became significant to the St. Louis community as a symbol of its technical knowledge and business significance. It also connected East St. Louis to downtown and introduced many new techniques for bridge building that was incorporated in bridges across the country. Other significant inventions for business included the typewriter, cash register, and adding machine or calculator.
Communication advancements during this time period were also essential for growing businesses. The first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed in 1866. Then, in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone. By 1880, St. Louis had 600 telephone subscribers, mostly businesses. The postal service in America also experienced significant advances during this period.
Acquiring Unimaginable Prosperity
Along with these advances and an expanding national railroad network, the rise of the corporation surged during this time period and propelled Gilded Age prosperity. Whether considered either as "Captains of Industry" or as "Robber Barons," corporate tycoons acquired overwhelming wealth as they secured the United States as a world industrial power. Corporate leaders concentrated their power by intertwining related operations that became known as trusts.
In addition to selling stock to finance their ventures, businesses generally grew as the result of either horizontal or vertical integration. In the case of horizontal integration, a company bought out its competitors until it had a monopoly on a particular good; an excellent example is John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil. With vertical integration, the company expands its operation to incorporate more and more aspects of production. For example, a business that originally only manufactured a good would set up their own transport system, begin to wholesale the items, and sometimes even set up retail stores.
Andrew Carnegie monopolized the steel industry by employing vertical integration to tie up all aspects of steel production and distribution. Samuel Cupples' success can also be largely attributed to his understanding of this process and how handling more aspects of production lowers costs and raises profits. New management techniques accompanied these growing businesses. Winslow Taylor's "scientific management" theory increased efficiency while it decreased the significance of workers.
The Plight of Labor
Workers were in ever-increasing demand during the booms of this time period, so the industries found themselves looking for new sources of employees. Immigrants flooding into America during the Gilded Age proved one source for workers.
From 1865-1890, 10 million northwestern Europeans (e.g., English, Irish, German, Scandinavian) settled permanently into the U.S. From 1890-1914, the pattern shifted to the eastern parts of Europe as 15 million people emigrated from such countries as Russia, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Turkey, and Lithuania. Many of these were former farmers who had lost their land in the industrialization of Europe. There were also people fleeing famine (for example, the Irish), and persecution (like the Jews).
These immigrants tended to settle in urban areas, often where they had family or friends, and in the eastern and midwestern states. Meanwhile, in the west and southwest, 100,000 Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. from 1890 to 1900, and by 1880, there were at least 200,000 Chinese-Americans in the area. These workers in the west, along with the Irish and African-Americans in the east, helped to build the railroads and later populated the factories. However, these were not enough.
Business also turned to women and children for labor. In St. Louis, women accounted for 15% of employees in the manufacturing industry. In addition to women, at least 1.7 million children under the age of 16 were working in America during this time. Although 60% of these children worked in agriculture, both farm and factory work was grueling and deprived children of education and a childhood. The factory workers were at special risk for injury when they grew weary.
Harper's Weekly, August 19th, 1871
The dismal working conditions for factory employees (especially women and children) was just one of the many social problems facing our nation as it moved into the Industrial Age. Ordinary workers felt left behind as they witnessed men like Andrew Carnegie accumulate fabulous wealth. Meanwhile, poverty, poor living conditions, limited health care, and a lack of education opportunities afflicted the growing working class.
Some major movements of the age addressed these problems differently. Workers organized labor unions in an effort to improve their conditions with demands for better wages and working conditions. Although labor unions existed before this time, the 1860s brought the first national organizations, only to then usher in one of the worst strikes in history a mere decade later. Knowing that their labor was their most valuable bargaining chip, workers went out on strike, often with violent consequences.
Nearly 10 thousand strikes and lockouts occurred in the 1880s alone. In the Great Railroad Strike of July 1877, Philadelphia railroad workers struck and other sympathetic unions across the nation joined in a general strike of support, many experiencing violence and even deaths. In Baltimore, for example, eleven people died and 40 others were wounded after the state militia fired on workers to subdue the strike. Fortunately, St. Louisians, who actively supported the effort and also staged a general strike, were relatively peaceful and nonviolent.
Laborers often turned to a city's political machine for more immediate relief than unions could provide from their poor working situation. William March ("Boss") Tweed ran New York City's Tammany Hall and provided more services to the urban poor than did the city government. However, political corruption frequently ran rampant during the Gilded Age, and Tweed and his inside ring personally pocketed at least $30 million by defrauding the city and through tax favors. Cartoonist Thomas Nast ran a series in Harper's Weekly through the 1870s that shed light on Tweed's shady dealings and ultimately led to his arrest and conviction.
Philanthropy or Conspicuous Consumption?
Another movement, Social Darwinism was somewhat an opposite of the labor union. The English philosopher, Herbert Spencer, applied Darwin's theory of evolution and subsequently originated the phrase "survival of the fittest." Spencer believed that poverty and destitution was nature's way of weeding out the weak in society. Many big businessmen used this theory to support their growing wealth and their deplorable treatment of their employees.
However, not all wealthy felt that the poor were destined to die out. Many believed in the "gospel of wealth," a social movement that promoted the public interest in an effort to give back to society. Andrew Carnegie's philanthropic efforts are exemplary of this attitude. Women in the upper and middle classes especially became involved in this type of work. As advances in household technology allowed them more free time, women often turned their attentions to issues such as education reform, care of the poor, and (in more radical cases) women's suffrage. Both Mr. and Mrs. Cupples strongly backed charities and charitable organizations. For example, they both worked with the Methodist Orphans Children's Home for many years.
Sometimes this philanthropy was done more from a desire to demonstrate wealth, however, than from some noble ideal. Philosopher Thomas Veblen criticized the growing upper and middle classes for what he called "conspicuous consumption." This was the increased desire to demonstrate one's wealth decoratively and to purchase more than one really needed. Conspicuous consumption was a particular danger with the newly rich, who were anxious to prove their high cultural status. They often built large, ornate homes and filled them with collections of art work, books, and exotic souvenirs from trips abroad.
From the Gilded Age emerged the best and the worst in America. The post-Civil War boom inspired the ingenuity to advance society with new technology. Entrepreneurs amassed enormous wealth that allowed them to live conspicuously, but it also enabled their philanthropy that benefited the general public. They increased their social station, however, at the expense of the lowest classes of workers. The American value structure rose to the fore to expose the oppression, corruption, and scandals to the betterment of society with the effects still in force today, over a century later.