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The Gilded Age and the Second Industrial Revolution

The Gilded Age was marked by the Second Industrial Revolution, introducing mass production and new technologies like the Bessemer process for making steel, railroads, and the telephone. These innovations connected markets, transformed cities, and changed the American economic system, leading to a boom in wealth and industry.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] So, we were talking about the wealth inequality that characterized the Gilded Age, but you were telling me that that's not the only thing, Kim, that characterizes this period. - [Voiceover] Right, what really makes the Gilded Age happen is what we call the Second Industrial Revolution. Are you familiar with the First Industrial Revolution? - [Voiceover] But, of course. - [Voiceover] So, that was the revolution where they had steamships and canals and kinda this early creation of the market system in the United States, say like 1820s-1830s. The Second Industrial Revolution is more of a revolution of mass production, I would say, and ways of making and shipping and communicating about business transactions and materials that didn't exist before. - [Voiceover] So, what are some of these disruptive technologies (Kim laughs) that are really poised to change the shipment paradigm? So, okay, so off the top of my head, trains probably a huge deal in this period? - [Voiceover] Yes. - [Voiceover] So, we've got all this coal going and that means that there's a lot of smelting happening and that means that there's also a lot of steel happening too. - [Voiceover] Steel. I think if I had to choose one most important technology of the Gilded Age, it would have to be steel. Now, it's not like steel didn't actually exist before this. - [Voiceover] Right, steel had been around for millennia. - [Voiceover] Yeah, I think so. - [Voiceover] Millennium. - [Voiceover] But, what happens in this time period is there's a new process for making steel. It's called the Bessemer process. And the Bessemer process basically makes steel faster and it makes it cheaper. And in this time period, Andrew Carnegie we talked about being this major steel baron, railroads throughout the United States, partly supported, majorly supported by the U.S. government. And during this period, they lay 40,000 miles of new tracks of rail. - [Voiceover] That is so many miles. - [Voiceover] That is so many miles. - [Voiceover] How long is the United States from Los Angeles to New York? (Kim laughs) Like 3,000 miles? 3,100 miles? - [Voiceover] Yes. So, just imagine a nation where most railroad tracks had gone through sort of the eastern coastal cities up until 1865. Now, the entire country is connected by rail. There's more rail in the United States in 1900 than all of Europe combined. - [Voiceover] So, the Bessemer process of making steel is this foundational technology that enables a lot of the Gilded Age to happen. - [Voiceover] Right, so it enables the United States to move out and also to connect markets. So, you can now take raw materials from the West, which is really important, that's where the gold lives and also cattle ranching, you take those things from the West, you take them to the cities to be processed. Then, you take the finished goods and send them back out into the smaller towns. So, rail facilitates all of that. - [Voiceover] So, this is how my hometown became notorious-- - [Voiceover] Yeah. - [Voiceover] of Chicago. So, there would be cattle drives, I guess then, that came from the West and then they would all be slaughtered and processed in Chicago. - [Voiceover] Right, yeah. I'm a native Pennsylvanian, you're a native Chicagoan, and we are born from steel places, as the steel industry really grew up in Pittsburgh. And what I think is really interesting about steel too is that it's like a self-sustaining industry because you need the steel to make the railroads. And then, the railroad industry pays for the creation of steel, which facilitates the creation of more railroads, which necessitates the creation of more steel and it's just like this never-ending boom in steel in the Gilded Age. So, steel facilitates the United States moving outward, but it also facilitates the United States moving upward. - [Voiceover] Oh, I see what you did. That was good. - [Voiceover] Yeah, you like that? - [Voiceover] Yeah. - [Voiceover] So, steel allows for the construction of buildings that are taller than ever before. - [Voiceover] So, what is this building here? - [Voiceover] This building here is the Home Insurance Building in Chicago. I don't believe it is there anymore. And do you know what is special about the Home Insurance Building? - [Voiceover] No, what's special about it? - [Voiceover] The Home Insurance Building is considered to be the world's first skyscraper. - [Voiceover] What?! Awesome! - [Voiceover] Yeah, it looks pretty short for a skyscraper by modern standards. - [Voiceover] I mean, I couldn't build a building that tall. - [Voiceover] That's 10 stories tall. And what you can do with steel is build these steel-frame structures that allow you, without using stone, there's kind of like a steel cage underneath the facade of this. And so, you can build buildings that are taller while having windows. - [Voiceover] It's like a Faraday cage. I bet there was terrible cellphone reception in there. - [Voiceover] I imagine so, yeah. There were no cellphones at this time. All right, so you know what else made these tall buildings possible except for the steel structures? - [Voiceover] Was it elevators? - [Voiceover] It was totally elevators. - [Voiceover] Yes! - [Voiceover] Yes, see, you're better at this than you thought. - [Voiceover] Yeah! - [Voiceover] This is the time of the invention of the Otis elevator, and this is my little elevator entrance, that-- - [Voiceover] Nice! - [Voiceover] You could go to the top of a tall building without having to walk up 37 flights of stairs, which is pretty sweet for our efficiency, if not maybe our waistlines. - [Voiceover] Okay, so, but we've got this steel process which enable the construction of tons and tons of rail and tons and tons of buildings, of new buildings where you can put more industry and more people. And that enable cities to grow and wealth to grow. - [Voiceover] Yeah, exactly. So, there are more and more people flooding into cities. By 1870, there are more people working for other people for wages living in cities than people who work for themselves, which is a new era in the American economic system. There's some other really important business technologies that grow up in this time period as well. So, there's the telephone, which makes it possible to do business transactions on the spot. It revolutionized the speed of business very much the same way that the internet is gonna revolutionize the speed of business in the 1990s. You also have refrigeration, which you would not think would be that big of a deal, but think about how it allows you to move foodstuffs all over the country to new markets. You were just talking about Chicago, right? So, the only way that cattle could be driven into Chicago, slaughtered, and then have meat sent to all the other markets in the United States was through refrigerated train cars. And they have similar things for steamships that allow people to, for example, bring oranges from Florida to New York. So, it's this web of markets that are connecting the United States, and this is my terrible drawing of the United States, but rail and then ships make it possible for all of these markets to connect together over time and over space. - [Voiceover] That's super cool. - [Voiceover] You know, the railroad was even so important in this time period that, in a way, it invented the modern system of time. Because before the railroad, localities would just decide when noon was based on when the sun was highest in the sky, which meant that-- - [Voiceover] It didn't matter whether or not it was the same time in Kansas City as in St. Louis. But once you have a train connecting 'em, the St. Louis train gets in at 12:05, if you're off, you'll miss your train. - [Voiceover] Or that might lead to a collision of trains if they don't know when the other train is going to be coming through. - [Voiceover] Yeah, okay. So, inventions of the Gilded Age: intranational train travel, the telephone, refrigeration for meat, the Bessemer process for steel, and the standardization of time. - [Voiceover] All of those things. And I would say the last thing that might be really important here is also electrification. - [Voiceover] Oooh! - [Voiceover] Yeah, and like steel, electricity was not invented in the Gilded Age, but what happened was the spread of the light bulb in both homes and businesses, which meant that you could work longer hours. You didn't sleep as long. Actually, the amount of sleep that people got per night switched from about nine hours before electrification to about seven hours after. So, Thomas Edison is literally responsible for robbing us of sleep. But it also made it possible for workers to work longer hours and it significantly reduced the risk of fire in businesses, which meant you could invest in them with more confidence. - [Voiceover] Oh, because they didn't have gas lamps that could burst into flame. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] Awesome, well that's super cool. So, hooray Gilded Age, right? - [Voiceover] Right. And I think one thing that's important to understand about these technologies is that one of the goals of these technologies was to make it possible to produce things faster, but also to produce them with less-skilled workers, because a skilled worker, someone who knows a craft and can produce a finished item from start to finish, that takes a long time and it costs a lot of money. This is the difference between buying a suit off the rack and having a bespoke suit. If you wanna pay someone for that time and talent, you're gonna pay a lot. But if you can make something on a machine, then you can make a lot of them very quickly and you don't need someone who is an expert tailor. You just need someone who can operate a sewing machine to do a couple of seams. So, what they're trying to do here with this innovation is spread consumer goods, spread a higher standard of living. But they're also doing that at the price of having less-skilled workers making much smaller wages.