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Development of the middle class

KC‑6.2.I.E (KC)
KC‑6.3.I.B (KC)
SOC (Theme)
Unit 6: Learning Objective H
During the Gilded Age, an expanded middle class and a wealthy upper class found new things to do with their time and money: leisure, consumption, and philanthropy. 


  • During the Gilded Age, male and female office workers expanded the ranks of the middle class.
  • Larger incomes and increased leisure time among middle- class workers fostered a culture of consumption and popular amusements in American cities.
  • The wealthiest Americans debated whether and how to use their fortunes to improve society. In the “Gospel of Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie promoted the idea that, during their lifetimes, the rich should give away their money to benefit the public.

The middle and upper classes in the Gilded Age

Most residents of American cities during the Gilded Age worked demanding jobs for low wages, toiling in factories or sweatshops and returning at night to crowded and unsanitary housing. But the new era of industry and innovation didn’t only produce misery: as factories and commercial enterprises expanded, they required an army of bookkeepers, managers, and secretaries to keep business running smoothly. These new clerical jobs, which were open to women as well as men, fostered the growth of a middle class of educated office workers who spent their surplus income on a growing variety of consumer goods and leisure activities.
The Gilded Age boom also produced immense wealth for those fortunate few who took advantage of their own smarts and the government’s
policies to become titans of industry. By 1890, one percent of the population controlled 25 percent of the wealth in the United States.start superscript, 1, end superscript As the gap between the rich and poor grew, contemporaries debated what America’s new aristocrats owed to the rest of society. Should they seek to improve cities and create opportunities for the less fortunate to advance, or should they simply enjoy the spoils of victory?

Jobs and education after the Civil War

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which gave federal lands for the purpose of building public universities. Higher education, once reserved for the children of the elite, was now open to a new class of young people. Women, as well as men, took advantage of new educational opportunities. At the end of the century, about 40 percent of college graduates were women.squared
Educated men and women entered the working world as managers and clerical workers. Companies generally reserved these choice positions for white, native-born employees.
Women’s smaller hands seemed ideal for operating typewriters and telephone switchboards, and their smaller paychecks (they were paid one third to one half of what men were paid) saved employers money. Nevertheless, women found new levels of freedom and independence as wage-earners.cubed

Leisure and consumption

Members of the middle class were eager to spend the extra cash in their pockets on material comforts and leisure activities. Middle-class women browsed new department stores like Macy’s and Marshall Field’s, which offered ready-made clothes and household goods, buying what an earlier generation of women would have made at home.start superscript, 4, end superscript
As their incomes rose, so too did the amount of leisure time middle and upper- class families could enjoy. For those who had time to play, cities offered many options. Theatre and vaudeville shows, amusement parks, circuses, dances, and sporting events drew excited crowds.
Photo of the New York Gothams baseball team.
The New York Gothams in 1884. During the Gilded Age, the first professional baseball leagues formed. The Gothams later became the New York Giants, and then the San Francisco Giants. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Gospel of Wealth

The middle class figured out quickly what it wanted to do with its money: purchase consumer goods and have fun. But all of the amusements and frippery in the world would hardly make a dent in the fortunes amassed by the Gilded Age elite. “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth,” steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote in his 1889 essay, “The Gospel of Wealth.”start superscript, 5, end superscript
What should the very wealthy do with their money? Were they morally bound to use it for the public good? Some thinkers of the era believed it would actually harm society for the rich to lift up the poor; Social Darwinists thought that interfering with the “survival of the fittest” would prevent the human race from evolving. In his 1883 essay, “What Social Classes Owe Each Other,” Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner answered the title question with: not a thing.start superscript, 6, end superscript
In “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie took a different stance. He argued that great inequalities of wealth were a natural consequence of industrial society, but that the wealthy ought to engage in
to make sure that the deserving poor had an opportunity to improve themselves. Instead of living ostentatiously, leaving money to heirs, or willing their fortunes to charity after death, wealthy individuals ought to donate to worthy causes while they were still alive. This way, a wealthy man could “administer [his wealth] in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community--the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”start superscript, 7, end superscript
Carnegie followed through on his own advice, giving away $350 million during his lifetime for libraries and universities. Many other wealthy industrialists also gave away millions to fund education and the arts.
Photo of Carnegie Free Library.
The Carnegie Free Library of Braddock in Braddock, Pennsylvania, built in 1888. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Critics charged, however, that philanthropists like Carnegie used charitable giving to justify careers of corruption or to build monuments to themselves, with buildings and universities bearing their names. Carnegie ruthlessly cut wages, lengthened shifts, accepted dangerous working conditions, and undermined unions at his steel mills. The 1892 Homestead strike, staged by steelworkers attempting to prevent a pay cut, led to the deaths of several strikers and strikebreakers.

What do you think?

What led to the growth of the middle class during the Gilded Age?
What was the main argument of The Gospel of Wealth? Did Carnegie’s philanthropy make up for his treatment of workers?

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Amira Aitbay
    Why did so many people those days believe that it is inappropriate for poor to work and try to "build one's life" if every billioner did his best to be and maintain on the high position? Sorry for my ignorance, if I somehow offend somebody.
    (11 votes)
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    • stelly orange style avatar for user x_o
      Imagine working for twelve hours in a hot and dirty steel mill for six days for ten dollars a week. If you accidentally fell asleep, it was guaranteed that you would die. The conditions I described were the same as those of Andrew Carnegie's workers. Although they did try their best to maintain public relations, they didn't care for their workers. Workers didn't have a say in what their paycheck or working hours would be. According to PBS, the annual wage of 4,000 of Carnegie's workers would be equivalent to Carnegie's income. Though some of the "robber barons" did try their best to maintain public relations, any amount of philanthropy wouldn't be able to cover up a death of a worker who died in a factory because of poor working conditions.
      (6 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
    In the KA article above it states the top 1% of the population controlled 25% of the wealth during the Gilded Age. The overall tone in the article implies that figure represented the relatively large gaps in wealth disparity and was representative of the Gilded Age where a very small number of people were extremely wealthy while the majority of people - just underneath the surface - had much less.

    The link below states as of June 2019, the top 1% controlled 32.4% of US wealth. Those numbers reflect a wealth disparity 30% greater than the 25% figure during the Gilded Age. If the article below is accurate, does that mean we are now (July 2020) in a 2nd Gilded Age?

    (8 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user taylor.young
    What led to the growth of the middle class during the Gilded Age.-The middle and upper classes in the Gilded Age
    These new clerical jobs, which were open to women as well as men, fostered the growth of a middle class of educated office workers who spent their surplus income on a growing variety of consumer goods and leisure activities.2-In “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that extremely wealthy Americans like himself had a responsibility to spend their money in order to benefit the greater good. In other words, the richest Americans should actively engage in philanthropy and charity in order to close the widening gap between rich and poor.
    (1 vote)
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  • male robot johnny style avatar for user Pramodh Dhruva
    If carnegie's philosphy was to give back to society how did he not instead treat his workers better? For example, give better wages, environment, and role.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user nigist.k.gebregiorgis
    why didn't the wealthiest Americans use the gospel of wealth earlier?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Chris Centanaro
    Why did cargine follow his own advice?
    (0 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Humble Learner
      Well, there is a simple answer to that question. Carnegie would look extremely hypocritical if he did not follow what he preached. In case you don't know, being hypocritical means that you say something like, "Hey, you shouldn't eat donuts, its bad for you" but then you yourself eat donuts. Its kind of like going against your own word, so obviously, that would look very bad on Carnegies part.
      (3 votes)