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Posted: November 15th, 2022

Why Did the Gilded Age End?

Why Did the Gilded Age End?
The Gilded Age began at the conclusion of the Civil War. Robber barons amassed fortunes in unregulated industries such as oil and steel as railroads raced to connect the country. In a novel satirizing the corruption that lay behind America’s new prosperity, Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age.” The name stuck, but the good times did not: as Gilded Age mansions like the Breakers in Newport and the Biltmore in Asheville grew in popularity, so did discontent with rampant income inequality. The Panic of 1893 brought the Gilded Age to an end, triggering an economic depression that ushered in the Progressive Era’s sweeping reforms. Here are five reasons why the Gilded Age ended:

1. The 1893 Panic
The failure of two of the country’s largest employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, precipitated the 1893 Panic. As businesses that had borrowed heavily to invest in railroads went bankrupt, the stock market plummeted. Crop prices in the American South and West fell. Unemployment reached as high as 19%. The crash highlighted the wealthy’s power—as well as labor’s powerlessness. “The Panic of 1893 demonstrated that the laissez-faire, unregulated economy was not working.” “It never worked for the poor, but it took the panic to reach the middle class, who had the most to lose,” says Nancy Unger, Professor of History at Santa Clara University and president of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

2. Muckrakers Bring Corruption to Light
American novelist Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), circa 1915.
American novelist Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), circa 1915.

Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Muckrakers were investigative journalists who exposed corrupt politicians and corporations. In some cases, their efforts resulted in reform. Ida Tarbell’s exposé of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court case ruling that the company violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed the shady side of Chicago’s meat industry, prompted the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. Political cartoonists such as Thomas Nast mocked Tammany Hall, Crédit Mobilier, and the Whiskey Ring scandal that engulfed President Ulysses S. Grant. “Muckarakers sensationalized an already growing dissatisfaction with the power that corporations were exercising,” says Joan Waugh, a UCLA history professor.

3. The Silverites and Populism
Populists argued for shorter workdays, a graduated income tax, and government ownership of commodities such as railroads and telephone companies. They were mostly farmers who were fed up with the government’s favoritism of big business. “Gilded Age America was a very different country than rural, agricultural America prior to the Civil War,” Unger says. During the Second Industrial Revolution, inventions such as electricity, as well as the rise of factories and railroads, resulted in a previously unheard-of migration of goods and people to cities.

By 1900, urban areas housed 30% of the US population. Farmers became increasingly reliant on railroads to transport their goods, which meant railroad executives controlled both market access and prices. Many farmers wished to raise the cost of their goods by basing US currency on silver rather than gold, which was more plentiful. When Republican William McKinley faced Democratic rising star William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election, silverism was a major topic. Bryan, dubbed “The Great Commoner,” shot to prominence after delivering a speech at the Democratic National Convention denouncing the gold standard as a “Cross of Gold” that the working man was forced to bear. While Bryan was defeated, he gave voice to many who felt excluded from Gilded Age prosperity.

4. Reforms of the Progressive Era

Progressives believed that it was the government’s responsibility, not private citizens, to correct society’s ills. “The rise of big business, its power and influence had never been seen before in our country or around the world,” Waugh says. “Progressive legislation and social reform movements contributed to the development of a new language in order to comprehend and shape it.”

While industrial titans such as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller amassed vast fortunes, 40 percent of industrial laborers in the 1880s lived below the poverty line. Progressives advocated for worker rights, as well as housing and sanitation reforms. They advocated for expanding voting rights and women’s suffrage in order to limit corporations’ ability to buy power through bribes, kickbacks, and graft.

Theodore Roosevelt was number five.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), America’s youngest president, succeeded William McKinley after his assassination. Roosevelt was a popular leader and the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in mediating the Russo-Japanese war.
After William McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) took over as President. When Teddy Roosevelt took office at the age of 42, he was the country’s youngest president.

“The assassination of William McKinley marked the true end of the Gilded Age,” writes Waugh. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he was a popular two-term president who had just won the Spanish-American War. When he took office, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a moderate, but he is best known for his progressive legislation and reputation as a “trust buster.” “People criticized progressives, portraying them as weak supporters of the nanny state.” “No one could ever accuse Roosevelt of being weak,” Unger says. Roosevelt cultivated a hyper-masculine image that helped him bridge political divides. During the 1902 Coal Strike, he met with both big coal and labor and oversaw progressive legislation like the Pure Food and Drug Act and the establishment of national parks.

Study Note:
The Gilded Age, which lasted from the 1870s to the 1890s, was a period of rapid industrialization and economic growth in the United States. The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain to describe a time of great wealth and excess, but also of poverty and social inequality. The Gilded Age came to an end for several reasons, including political and economic changes, social and labor movements, and natural disasters.

A main reasons for the end of the Gilded Age was the economic panic of 1893. The panic was triggered by a number of factors, including a decline in the gold supply and a downturn in the agricultural economy. Banks and businesses failed, and unemployment soared. The panic led to a depression that lasted for several years and had a significant impact on the economy and society. The depression led to a decline in consumer spending and investment, which further weakened the economy. This economic crisis also led to a decline in the power and influence of the wealthy elite, as well as increased public support for economic and political reforms.

Another reason for the end of the Gilded Age was the rise of social and labor movements. The period saw the emergence of various groups, such as farmers, workers, and women, who were seeking to improve their economic and social conditions. These groups were often led by charismatic leaders and activists, such as Eugene Debs and Susan B. Anthony, who advocated for reforms such as the eight-hour workday, the right to unionize, and women’s suffrage. The growing social and labor movements led to increased public pressure for reforms and helped to bring about changes in laws and policies that improved the lives of many Americans.

A third reason for the end of the Gilded Age was the impact of natural disasters. The period was marked by several natural disasters, including the Johnstown Flood of 1889 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which caused significant damage and loss of life. These disasters highlighted the need for better infrastructure and more effective disaster response measures. They also led to increased public awareness of the importance of environmental conservation and the need to protect natural resources.

The Gilded Age ended for several reasons, including economic changes, social and labor movements, and natural disasters. The economic panic of 1893 had a significant impact on the economy and society, and led to a decline in the power and influence of the wealthy elite. The rise of social and labor movements led to increased public pressure for reforms, and helped to bring about changes in laws and policies that improved the lives of many Americans. The impact of natural disasters also highlighted the need for better infrastructure and more effective disaster response measures, and increased public awareness of the importance of environmental conservation.
Works Cited:
-Twain, Mark. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Charles L. Webster and Company, 1873.
-Foner, Eric. The Republican Party and American Politics from Hoover to Reagan. Simon & Schuster, 2020.
-Riess, J. A. “The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” Journal of American Culture, vol. 15, no. 4, 1992, pp. 1–9. JSTOR,
-McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920. Oxford University Press, 2003.
-Friedel, Frank. “The Johnstown Flood.” History Today, vol. 39, no. 5, 1989, pp. 34–40. JSTOR,

The Gilded Age’s wealth and technology transformed America into a world power, but it concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. Progressive Era reforms expanded the government to ensure a “square deal” for all, in Roosevelt’s words. – cheap history dissertation writers

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