Exam preparation materials

Chapter 18: Society and Culture in the Gilded Age, 1865–1900



Samuel F. B. Morse develops the telegraph


Young Men’s Christian Association opens


Comstock Law enacted


Central Park completed  • Baseball’s National League founded


First Woolworth “five-and-dime store” opens


Brooklyn Bridge opens


Statue of Liberty dedicated


Hull House founded in Chicago by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates


Ellis Island opens


Chicago World’s Fair takes place


Alexander Graham Bell develops the telephone


Coney Island opens


First U.S. subway opens in Boston


Jane Addams

Comstock Law

Gilded Age

Samuel F. B. Morse

Jacob Riis

Tammany Hall

Alexander Graham Bell

dime novels

gospel of wealth

Thomas Nast

social Darwinism

Mark Twain

Brooklyn Bridge

Thomas Edison

Hull House

Frederick Law Olmstead


“Boss” William M. Tweed

Central Park

Ellis Island

Emma Lazarus

Otis’s elevator

Statue of Liberty

Young Men’s Christian Association

“The vast populations of these cities are utterly divorced from the genial influences of nature…. All the sweet and joyous influences of nature are shut out from them. Her sounds are drowned by the roar of the street and the clatter of the people in the next room…. Her sights are hidden from their eyes by rows of high buildings….”

—from Town and Country, by Henry George, 1898


There is a long tradition of anti-urban sentiment among American intellectuals, as is shown in the quote from Henry George above. As America became more industrial, such sentiments seemed increasingly anachronistic. The nation experienced a series of profound changes between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century. First, the standard of living in the United States rose dramatically, but the rise was uneven: A fabulously wealthy elite came to dominate the economy and politics, while grinding poverty persisted. In fact, this era is often referred to as the Gilded Age—implying a thin gold veneer covering a cheap base. Second, the United States was changing from a rural, agricultural nation to an urban one. Third, new inventions, fruits of industrial progress, changed the way Americans lived their lives. Many of the cultural products of this era reflect these changes.


Cities grew rapidly during the Gilded Age. Rural Americans and European immigrants were drawn to industrial jobs in cities. Some critics, such as Henry Adams, a descendent of the Presidents Adams, saw urbanization as a disease. Reformers attempted to create antidotes for urban problems.

Politics: The Age of Tammany Hall

Political corruption, common in the United States during the Gilded Age, was especially rampant in cities. Most cities were run by political machines, well-run party organizations that got their people elected; ideology was not important. At their best, the leaders elected via political machines provided needed services to immigrants and the poor. At their worst, the machine leaders amassed great wealth and power through theft, kickbacks, and intimidation. The most notorious machine was New York City’s Democratic Party. Its most infamous “boss,” William M. Tweed, and headquarters, Tammany Hall, have become bywords for corruption. Tweed was eventually brought down, in large part, as a result of a series of cartoons by the most well-known cartoonist of the 19th century,Thomas Nast.


One of the most significant trends of the Gilded Age was the large number of immigrants who entered the United States. The “new immigration” involved mainly Southern and Eastern Europeans and Asians, while the “old immigration” (1840s–1880s) consisted mainly of Northern and Western Europeans (primarily Irish and German). Catholic Italians, Eastern European Jews, and Slavs filled urban ethnic enclaves such as New York’s Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Immigrants were generally drawn to the economic opportunities of the United States; in addition many Jews left Russia to avoid anti-Semitic massacres known as pogroms. The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, was installed in New York harbor in 1886 with a poem by Emma Lazarus celebrating America’s role as a destination for immigrants. In 1892, Ellis Island opened as an immigrant-admitting station.

The Growth of the Physical City

Cities grew outward and upward during the Gilded Age. The Brooklyn Bridge was an engineering marvel at the time it was completed in 1883. Designed and completed by John Roebling and his son Washington, it connected the then-independent cities of Brooklyn and New York. Skyscrapers were not a possibility until the development of steel-skeleton construction and the elevator, developed by Elisha Otis in 1857. The lack of affordable space in urban cores made tall buildings economically desirable. The “walking city” rapidly gave way to a complex network of neighborhoods and districts divided by class, race, ethnicity, and function. A series of innovations in public transportation in the 19th century made this transformation possible. Horse-drawn streetcars gave way to cable cars (1880s), which gave way to electric trolleys (1890s). The first subway opened in Boston (1897); New York was soon to follow (1904). Department stores, such as Macy’s in New York, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, and Marshall Field’s in Chicago (all founded in the 1870s and 1880s), developed the idea of providing, under one roof, the goods that a variety of specialty shops had previously sold. Many cities, sometimes reluctantly, built parks to provide space for leisure activities and fresh air. Frederick Law Olmsted is most closely linked to the parks movement. He designed New York City’s Central Park (completed in 1876).

Urban Poverty

Overcrowding and grinding poverty were endemic to growing cities of the Gilded Age. Areas in the Lower East Side in New York had the highest densities in the world. Various reform movements sprung up in response to the dramatic rise of urban poverty. Many reformers were inspired by the social gospel movement: the belief that religious institutions should work to improve society, as well as attend to people’s spiritual needs. How the Other Half Lives (1890), by Jacob Riis, drew many people’s attention to the conditions of the poor with wrenching photographs. New York passed the Tenement Law in 1879, which mandated that every room in an apartment have an outside window and that buildings meet plumbing and ventilation standards. The dumbbell tenement grew out of this law, wherein buildings were designed to conform to the standards while cramming the largest number of people into the smallest amount of space. Jane Addams organized Hull House (1889), a settlement house in Chicago, which served as a community center and home for poor immigrants (mostly women and children). The Settlement House Movement established centers in many cities to help the poor. Settlement house workers tended to be college-educated women.

Challenges of Urban Life

Gilded Age cities were growing at a faster rate than municipal services. Consequently, a series of urban problems developed: trash in the streets, lack of water, crime, lack of sewage treatment, and fire. The political machines that ran cities often seemed overwhelmed by these problems. Slowly, reformers pushed for municipal services. New York created a modern police force in the 1840s; other services followed in the post–Civil War period.


The post–Civil War period saw an explosion of inventions. Between 1800 and 1860, the U.S. Patent Office issued over 36,000 patents; over the next 40 years, it would issue 500,000 more. These technological advances had a major impact on American life. Observers commented on the ingenuity of Americans.


The production and distribution of electrical power was made safer and less expensive after the Civil War. During the 1880s, electricity became available to people in major cities. Electricity made possible a host of changes in people’s lives. Thomas Alva Edison was most responsible for bringing electrical power and its applications to the public. He created the first modern research lab, employing hundreds of employees and receiving patents for hundreds of inventions, including the incandescent light bulb, which replaced gaslights. Also important were electric printing presses and sewing machines. Many rural areas would not get electricity until the 1920s and 1930s.


A series of inventions changed the way humans communicated with one another. The first important innovation in communication was the telegraph, perfected by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1844. Morse code, a series of long and short electric impulses, was used by Western Union (1870) to send millions of messages over wires. Alexander Graham Bell developed the “talking telegraph,” or telephone, in 1876. American Telephone and Telegraph was founded in 1884; by 1900, 1.5 million Americans had telephones. The development of the typewriter in the 1860s transformed office work. The linotype machine (invented in 1885) allowed printers to create type for printing quickly. This greatly reduced the cost of producing newspapers and magazines.



A series of crusades were launched during the Gilded Age to regulate activities that some saw as immoral or dangerous. These crusades can also be seen as an assault on immigrant and working-class customs and activities. By far the most popular moral crusade was the anti-alcohol, or temperance, movement, which would finally achieve success in 1920. The largest temperance group was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (founded in 1874). Anthony Comstock was the most well-known crusader against gambling, prostitution, and obscenity. He was incensed at the increasing divorce rate and the availability of birth control. The Comstock Law (1873) made it illegal to send material deemed obscene, including information about birth control, through the mail.


Americans tended to have more leisure time by the end of the century. Americans pursued leisure activities such as baseball and bicycling in the Gilded Age. The founding of the Young Men’s Christian Association (1851) reflected the concern both for physical fitness and moral uplift. Americans flocked to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, where neoclassical architecture and processed foods were on display.


Literacy rates rose during the Gilded Age as more Americans attended school for longer periods of time. With literacy rising and the cost of producing books and periodicals falling, more Americans were reading. Unlike the sentimental literature of the antebellumperiod, realist writers attempted to portray life, even its seamier side, in a direct way. William Dean Howells wrote about the plight of factory workers in A Hazard of New Fortunes (1885), and Henry James wrote about the life of the upper class in The Bostonians(1886). Edward Bellamy, in his novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888), imagined someone looking back from the future and finding that the problems caused by industrialization had been solved by a socialist government. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) depicted the horrors of the Civil War. Mark Twain, who drew on the local customs and color of the Mississippi River culture, produced two of the most important classics in American literature, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Edith Wharton exposed the foibles of upper-class New York in The House of Mirth (1905), and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918) portrayed life on the plains.


Realism also influenced American artists. Most important among realist artists were Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. Also, the Ashcan School of painting, with its direct representations of urban poverty, developed during the period.

The Popular Press

New printing presses were able to mass-produce books, and inexpensive “dime novels, with themes of adventure, crime, or the West, became the rage. Newspaper publishing, headquartered in New York City, became big business. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst emerged as important publishers, printing sensational, and sometimes fictionalized, accounts of events. This “yellow journalism” is often cited as a cause of the Spanish-American War. Ladies’ Home Journal offered advice to middle-class women. McClure’s and Harper’s Weekly published feature articles about contemporary problems.

Cultural Justifications for Industrial Growth

Many Gilded Age ideologies and writings saw the amassing of wealth by industrial titans in positive terms.

The owners of large corporations justified their practices with the philosophy of social Darwinism. Writers such as Charles Graham Sumner applied to the human world observations of the natural world made by Charles Darwin. Darwin had observed that in nature, those members of a species that are best adapted to a particular environment are more likely to survive into adulthood and pass on their genes to the next generation. Social Darwinists saw this “survival of the fittest” model as applicable to human society, where a competition for success favors the cleverest and strongest. The rich and the poor, therefore, deserved their respective positions. Such a philosophy supported a laissez-faire philosophy, where the government played little or no role in intervening in the economy.

Most of the owners of big business were churchgoing Protestants. The idea of the gospel of wealth, which was the title of a book by Andrew Carnegie, saw the accumulation of wealth as a positive sign from God.

Popular literature of this era, especially the stories of Horatio Alger, told “rags-to-riches” stories in which a poor boy, through honesty, thrift, and a bit of luck, achieves great success in life. The implication of these books, such as Ragged Dick (1868), was that wealth was within everyone’s reach.


During the Gilded Age, American society had to deal with some dramatic upheavals, as a predominantly rural, homogeneous people faced the promise and peril of an urban, diverse, and industrial society. New patterns of life emerged as new inventions, consumer goods, and cultural products became available. America became a wealthy and confident nation during this period, ready to assume a more prominent role in world affairs.


•  New immigration: The wave of immigration from the 1880s to the 1920s of Eastern and Southern Europeans, contrasted with the “old” immigration of Northern and Western Europeans

•  Political machines: Political party organizations that run cities and are often associated with corruption and undemocratic practices; the most notorious example was New York’s Tammany Hall Democratic club of the Gilded Age

•  Realist movement: Art and literature that seek to depict the commonplace in a plausible and direct manner

•  Settlement house movement: The movement of mostly college-educated women to provide shelter, cultural activities, and services to the poor; the height of the movement occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

•  Social gospel: Also called “applied Christianity,” this reform movement, driven by Christian teachings, sought to relieve the suffering of the poor.

•  Telegraph: Perfected by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1844, the telegraph allowed for communications over long distances by tapping out coded messages to be carried over wires.

•  Temperance movement: The 19th and early 20th century movement to limit or outlaw the drinking of alcoholic beverages; achieved its ultimate success with the passage of the 18th Amendment—or Prohibition—which went into effect in 1920

•  Yellow journalism: Sensationalistic, lurid, and often falsified accounts of events printed by newspapers and magazines to attract readers


1.   Pick the choice that matches the author with the book he or she wrote.

X)    Stephen Crane

Y)    Willa Cather

Z)    Henry James

1)    My Ántonia

2)    The House of Mirth

3)    The Bostonians

4)    The Red Badge of Courage

Answer choices:

(A)    X-4; Y-2; Z-1

(B)    X-2; Y-1; Z-3

(C)    X-4; Y-1; Z-3

(D)    X-3; Y-2; Z-4

(E)    X-2; Y-1; Z-4

2.   The “new immigrants” of the late 19th and early 20th century were primarily

(A)    Anglo-Saxons.

(B)    Irish refugees from the potato blight.

(C)    from within the Western hemisphere.

(D)    Eastern and Southern Europeans.

(E)    exiles leaving the United States.

3.   Pick the answer that matches the person with the idea or movement he or she is associated with.

X)    Charles Graham Sumner

Y)    Jane Addams

Z)    Andrew Carnegie

1)    the gospel of wealth

2)    social Darwinism

3)    pragmatism

4)    the settlement house movement

Answer choices:

(A)    X-1; Y-2; Z-3

(B)    X-2; Y-3; Z-4

(C)    X-2; Y-4; Z-1

(D)    X-3; Y-4; Z-1

(E)    X-3; Y-1; Z-2

4.   Urban political machines during the Gilded Age

(A)    were scorned by immigrant groups, who were cheated by graft and corruption.

(B)    were usually associated with the Republican Party.

(C)    often formed alliances with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

(D)    often provided a social safety net in an age when welfare did not yet exist.

(E)    were eliminated by the Pendleton Act.


1.    C

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage, a novel that takes place during the Civil War; Willa Cather wrote My Ántonia, a novel of frontier life; and Henry James chronicled the life of upper-class Boston in The BostoniansThe House of Mirth, which chronicled high society and the clashes between tradition and modernity, was written by Edith Wharton.

2.    D

Between 1880 and the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, the largest number of immigrants came from Eastern European countries such as Russia and Poland, as well as Italy. Anglo-Saxons comprised the first European immigrant group to come over, primarily during the colonial period. Irish refugees from the potato blight came over during the 1840s and 1850s. Immigration from within the Western hemisphere is a phenomenon of the later part of the 20th century, especially after 1965. There was never a significant movement of people out of the United States, even among freed slaves returning to Africa.

3.    C

Charles Graham Sumner was the most prominent proponent of social Darwinism. Jane Addams is the person most closely identified with the settlement house movement. Andrew Carnegie wrote a book entitled The Gospel of Wealth. William James is associated with the pragmatist philosophical movement.

4.    D

Immigrants received benefits, from jobs to money, which cemented their loyalty to the political machines. The urban political machines of the Gilded Age, especially New York’s Tammany Hall, were associated with corruption, but immigrant groups stayed loyal to these machines. Urban politics from the Civil War until today have generally been dominated by the Democratic Party, not the Republicans. The political machines, with their strong working class and immigrant support, would not support the temperance movement. The Pendleton Act of 1883 was designed to eliminate federal patronage jobs by instituting a merit system of employment, which required some workers to pass civil service exams.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!