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Continuity and change in the Gilded Age

KC‑6.1 (KC)
KC‑6.1.II (KC)
KC‑6.1.III (KC)
KC‑6.2 (KC)
KC‑6.2.I (KC)
KC‑6.2.II (KC)
Unit 6: Learning Objective L

Video transcript

- [Narrator] The Second Industrial Revolution in the United States ushered in new technologies and new ways of living and working during the Gilded Age. Steel, electricity, and the telephone allowed railroads to crisscross the country, skyscrapers to rise out of cities, factories to hum along long after sunset, and business transactions to take place instantly over hundreds of miles. This was the time when the United States began its transition from a nation of rural farmers to a nation of city dwelling factory workers. So, at a glance, the Gilded Age seems like a time of radical change for the country. But, as historians, how can we tell just how much change really occurred from 1865 to 1898? One way we can do this is to track over time what changed and what stayed the same from the beginning of the Gilded Age to its end. Historians call this process examining continuity and change over time. When we study history, it's important to look at continuities, or things that continued on the same as they were before, because it's really easy to focus on how one aspect of society really transformed during a certain period of time and then forget to account for the fact that almost everything else didn't change at all, but it would be practically impossible to track the changes in every aspect of society. So let's dial in on a few areas. Since the major transformations came through technology and business in this time period, and those are both aspects of work, I'm curious about how the kind of work that people did and the way that they did it changed over the course of the Gilded Age. And since I know that cities grew a lot during this time period, let's also look at changes in living patterns. Where people migrated to and from and how they lived. I'm also curious about the extent to which these changes in work and living patterns affected the major ideas and culture of the time. Did people's beliefs about society change much during the Gilded Age? Or was the culture of the United States at the end of the 19th century pretty much the same as it was at the end of the Civil War? So let's look at the major trends in each of these areas at the beginning and the end of this time period so we can try to answer the question how much change did industrialization really bring during the Gilded Age? By the way, I'm not gonna go into a whole lot of detail on these trends because we're doing a really big overview of the Gilded Age here. So if you find that you're not familiar with something that comes up, just make a note of it and you can look it up when you have time. Okay, first, let's compare the changes in work and business from 1865 to 1898. Well in 1865, the United States was still a primarily a nation of farmers, although there were a good number of people in the North and the West who worked in mills, and mines, and on railroads. Many African Americans had transitioned from working as slave laborers on plantations in the South to working as sharecroppers, where they would work portions of plantations in return for a pretty measly share of the profits. In fact, most work in the United States was segregated by race. It was pretty uncommon for whites, African Americans, Chinese laborers, or Mexican American laborers to work side by side anywhere. In terms of the way businesses were organized, the Civil War had sowed some initial seeds of business consolidation. The industrial might that had helped the North win the Civil War made it easy for some large companies to begin turning natural resources into infrastructure. How did that compare to the state of work in 1898? Well there were still plenty of farmers and sharecroppers, although the mechanization of agriculture in the late 19th century had a negative effect on many farmers, sending them to the city looking for work. By the end of the century more people worked for someone else for wages than worked for themselves for the first time in American history. A lot of this factory growth was driven by new business practices like mass production on the assembly line, which broke complex tasks down into tiny steps so that no one required much training to work in a factory. A process known as deskilling. Women and children began working in factories as well, but as at the beginning of the Gilded Age work places still tended to be racially segregated and by the end of the 19th century businesses undergone major consolidation. Often using monopolistic practices to dominate industries and fix prices and wages. In response, many workers began to organize labor unions, but they had pretty limited success. So overall, I would say that industrialization led to some pretty major changes in the world of work, although work generally remained segregated and the process of transitioning from farms to factories wasn't entirely complete. During the Gilded Age there was a huge shift towards unskilled wage work and big corporations. Next let's look at living and migration patterns. In 1865 only about 20% of the population lived in cities. Most of the migrants to cities were Irish and German immigrants coming from Northern and Western Europe. Most African Americans continued to live in the South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the cities themselves had pockets of density and poverty, like New York City's Five Points neighborhood, but they weren't yet incredibly crowded. What about in 1898? Well, the percentage of the population living in cities nearly doubled, up to 40%. Several cities grew to more than one million people for the first time during the Gilded Age and who was coming to the cities changed as well. Political and economic trouble at home led many Southern and Eastern Europeans to head for the factories in American cities and African Americans also began to slowly trickle northward in order to escape sharecropping and Jim Crow. This massive influx of people meant that cities were very dense and many people had to crowd into tenements, unsafe, unventilated, ramshackle apartment buildings. In 1900, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was the most densely populated neighborhood in the world. So I would say that industrialization also led to quite the transformation in living and migration patterns. The factory jobs available in American cities drew new people to them from all over the country, and the world, and also changed the standards of living. Last, let's map the changes and continuities in prominent cultural ideas over the course of the Gilded Age. Although there are lots of different ideas and forms of cultural expression we could talk about, I'm gonna focus on ideas about the economy, and race, and immigration since those are so closely tied to the other two categories of analysis we've got here. Immediately after the Civil War, there was an intense push in Congress and in the North to ensure racial equality for African Americans with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, but there was also a very strong nativist or anti-immigrant sentiment among white native born Protestants who especially objected to the immigration of Irish Catholics. As far as the economy went, there were many people who argued in favor of laissez faire economics, that the government should engage in little to no regulation of the market and that was pretty much the prevailing government approach of the day. Alright, how does that compare to 1898? Well unlike in the immediate post war period, racial equality for African Americans had been abandoned as a mainstream idea with the rise of Jim Crow and rulings like the 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy versus Ferguson, which approved segregation. Nativism was also still a force in American life and it had even intensified thanks to the flawed racial pseudo-science known as Social Darwinism, which suggested that people who were in high positions in society, both in terms of race and wealth, belonged there because they were the fittest. But there were a few reformers who were beginning to question the effects of industrialization like settlement house founder, Jane Addams or early muckraker Jacob Riis. So in terms of ideas and culture, it looks like there was actually more continuity than change over the course of the Gilded Age. There may even have been an overall regression in ideas about race and immigration in this time period. There were a few efforts to soften the pains of industrialization and urbanization, but they weren't yet widespread. Let's return to our question then and see if we can formulate a thesis statement to address the extent to which industrialization brought change from 1865 to 1898. From the evidence we've gathered, I'd say that the technological and business advancements of the Second Industrial Revolution brought enormous changes to the ways that people lived and worked in the United States, transforming the country from a rural farming nation to an urban industrial one, but the major ideas about immigration, race, and the economy didn't change as much. Segregation and nativist sentiment intensified over the time period and efforts to reign in the excesses of industrial capitalism were just getting started. The major social efforts to improve the lives and work of this new urban population would have to wait until the Progressive Era.