The mention of the Gilded Age, the industrial boom at the end of the 19th century, brings to mind the names of influential men such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry George, and J. P. Morgan, yet it often omits the vast majority of American people who struggled through poverty and inequality. “The acceleration of technology, the concentration of money,” as noted by historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, marks this as a highly transformative era in which cities and class distinctions developed.
The Gilded Age, a new PBS American Experience film set to premiere on February 6, 2018, explores the growing industrial power of the United States in conjunction with the economic and social disparities between business titans and their workers. In anticipation for its premiere, Untapped Cities was given an exclusive preview of the movie, which you can watch above.
According to historian Nell Irvin Painter, “workers served as sellers of their labor and it was important for the person running the whole enterprise to buy that labor as cheaply as possible. It didn’t matter from the point of view of the person at the top of the company whether or not the cheapest possible price for labor could support a family.” The rise of these two classes, the working class and the wealthier, upper class, sparked intense and often violent disputes over issues like wealth distribution, the role of government in private property, as well as concerns of economic growth and justice.
Factories and plants relied on people who were willing to work twelve hours a day for extremely meager pay, and the cultural and linguistic barriers between working class groups only made it easier for employers to exploit them. “There was no workman’s compensation, there was no insurance. If you were lucky you were taken care of for a little while by the employer. But industrial accidents were a major concern, workplace safety was a major concern,” observes historian David Nasaw. Yet, despite these many difficulties, a sense of solidarity eventually grew among the working class which allowed them to form labor unions and pursue fair wages and safe working conditions.
As national wealth and foreign investment increased, the economic and social divisions between classes only widened, triggering passionate debate that would linger and influence the United States today. To learn more about the complexities of The Gilded Age, be sure to check out the film premiere on February 6th and explore the various PBS American Experience resources.