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Introduction to the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain, was a time of intense industrialization in America from 1865 to 1898. Despite the appearance of prosperity, it was marked by political corruption and vast wealth disparities. Titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller amassed fortunes, while immigrants lived in poverty.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hello David. - [Voiceover] Hello Kim. - [Voiceover] So I brought you here to talk about the Gilded Age, which is one of my favorite eras of American history. - [Voiceover] Because everything was great and covered in gold? - [Voiceover] No, because it is the only era of American history I can think of that has a sarcastic name. (laughter) - [Voiceover] What's to be sarcastic about? What's happening between, so I see it's from 1865 to 1898 which is the end of the Civil War, and then what happens in 1898? - [Voiceover] It's basically everyone woke up one morning and were like "oh we're done with the Gilded Age, now it's time for the Progressive Era". - [Voiceover] Hooray, Spanish-American wartimes! - [Voiceover] More first the Spanish-American War. So the Gilded Age is kind of this period of really intense industrialization and kind of focusing on America's development as an industrial and business power. It's very inward looking, whereas after the Spanish-American war the United States takes a bigger role on the world's stage. The sarcastic part of the Gilded Age is that this was a term coined by Mark Twain of all people, in 1890. And he wrote a book called "The Gilded Age", and what Twain was trying to say was that the United States in this period wasn't experiencing a golden age, an era of prosperity and happiness, but rather a Gilded Age. - [Voiceover] Oh so just like a thin layer of gold on top, disguising the cheap tin beneath? - [Voiceover] Exactly. - [Voiceover] Oh snap, Mark Twain. (laughter) So what's going on in this era that earns this nickname? What is the appearance of fancy, lovely gold that just turns out to be tacky and miserable? - [Voiceover] Well I think what people are talking about under the title of Gilded Age is that it's this time when immense wealth is accumulated by a number of individuals. Many of whom still have their names on things today. Like Andrew Carnegie, of Carnegie Mellon University, or Carnegie Hall. J.P. Morgan, who was a banking magnet. We still have J.P. Morgan as a financial institution today. And I would say John D. Rockefeller is another. He was a founder of standard oil, so he was an oil baron. Of Rockefeller Center, right. So these are the individuals who got enormously wealthy in the Gilded Age. And they got wealthy by being the captians of these new expanding industries. - [Voiceover] Titans of industry. - [Voiceover] The titans of industry. So steel, and banking, and oil. But they got rich partly through political corruption. So one of the less than savory parts of the Gilded Age is that. A lot of this was done through political kickbacks, bribing of officials, bribing of the vice president of the United States. - [Voiceover] Woah woah woah, what? They bribed the vice president? (laughter) - [Voiceover] That was a scandal that dogged the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant - [Voiceover] Oh man. - [Voiceover] Credit Mobilier was a construction company that had less than savory ties to some people very high up in government. So these fortunes of people like Carnegie and Morgan were built partly on political corruption, and partly on the backs of waves of immigrant laborers. - [Voiceover] Like my ancestors. - [Voiceover] Like my ancestors. And so during this time period in the eastern part of Europe, in the southern part of Europe, there were political eruptions, there were just general poverty especially in Italy. In Russia there were a number of pogroms, which sent Russian Jews out of Russia and they came to the United States. And they came from very bad situations, so what they came to was a little bit better but it wasn't much better. - [Voiceover] Which is how they all ended up living in this one apartment in lower Manhattan, as you've detailed in this Jacob Riis photograph. - [Voiceover] Right. Okay so, Jacob Riss was a photographer in the 1890's. And he went around the lower east side of Manhattan, basically just photographing what he called "How the Other Half Lives". By the other half he meant immigrants, the poor who were living in the lower east side of Manhattan. Which, at that time, was the most dense section of humanity on Earth. And you can see here that this is a photograph from a tenement that he took a picture of. - [Voiceover] And what is a tenement? - [Voiceover] So tenements were these apartment dwellings which kind of sprang up, often in the backyards of other normal buildings. But they were sort of hastily constructed, they had many rooms in them, they weren't up to fire code. I'm not even sure there was a fire code. Most of the rooms didn't have windows or electric lighting, or ventilation. - [Voiceover] Sounds like a great place to live. (laughter) But does it have curb appeal, Kim? (laughter) - [Voiceover] There is some pictures that can show you no, most of them were next to giant rotting heaps of garbage. - [Voiceover] Oh boy. - [Voiceover] One of my favorite things about the story of Jacob Riis is that he was a pioneer in the field of photography because he used flash photography. So you know, you've seen in old movies those flashbulbs that go off, right? Cause that was the only way he could get these apartments - [Voiceover] Cause there was no lighting in them. - [Voiceover] There was no lighting in them. so you couldn't take a picture of them without light. So he brought his flash camera and he regularly set things on fire. - [Voiceover] Oh no. (laughter) - [Voiceover] In these apartments as he was trying to document what life was like. - [Voiceover] Oh that's awful. - [Voiceover] So this is a photograph by Riis called "Five Cents a Spot", and so you paid five cents a night to live in this apartment. And so if you count here, there's one, two, three, four, five, six, I think this is somebody else's legs, seven, did I get everybody? There might be somebody else hiding over here. Seven men sharing this room, and they're just doing the best they can. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] And you compare that with this, which is John D. Rockefeller's mansion in New York. It's called and I'm gonna butcher this "Kykuit". So the real question of the Gilded Age is how is it that some people get so wealthy, while some people are incredibly poor? - [Voiceover] Sure. - [Voiceover] And whose responsibility is that? At one point, J.P. Morgan decides he is going to buy out Andrew Carnegie. He buys him out for more than four hundred million dollars, he loans money to the U.S. government. So he is the single biggest creditor to the U.S. government. At that point who has more power, the federal government, or J.P. Morgan? - [Voiceover] So we're really talking about the clash of two great and terrible energies, right? Like this immense wealth, and this immense deprivation. - [Voiceover] Yeah. - [Voiceover] How do they play out? - [Voiceover] We'll get to that in some more videos.