The Gilded Age

Defined by opulence, extreme wealth, and huge cultural shifts, the Gilded Age is a favorite among historians. Yet many are not in complete agreement about what the Gilded Age was, and how it affected American culture at large. In The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoise, 1850-1896, Sven Beckert argues that understanding the elites of America, and more specifically of New York City during this time period is critical to understanding society at large. “The goal of this book is to restore New York’s merchants, manufacturers, banks, real estate speculators, rentiers, and professionals to the central place in the nation’s history that they deserve… for better or for worse, the history of the nineteenth-century United States remains incomplete without them (Beckert 11-12). Beckert argues in his book that as New York City grew to become the financial and cultural powerhouse of the country during the late nineteenth century, the elites who drove that culture were influential to society at large. He notes in fact, that shared culture was truly what held the bourgeoise class together given the different backgrounds they came from. “The diverse entrepreneurial bourgeoise that is at the center of this work was deeply divided and notoriously unstable” (Beckert 8). According to Beckert, the wealthy of this era came from a mix of backgrounds and the only true thing unifying them was that they owned capital and wanted more of it. This of course put them at odds with each other as well as united them, since there was competition within the class itself to obtain more wealth at the expense of the other bourgeoise (Beckert 8).

Counter to Beckert’s view of a diverse upper class is that of Michael McGerr, author of A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920. Noting that the “upper ten” made up only one to two percent of the United States population, McGerr also argues that they were a homogenous group.

The upper class came mostly from English stock, from families long in America. In a largely Protestant land, they belonged, by birth or conversion, to the smaller, more fashionable Protestant denominations – Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational. With only occasional exceptions, they came from middle- and upper-class origins. Hardly any matched Andrew Carnegie’s storied rise from rags to riches, from working-class bobbin boy in a textile factory to multimillionaire and steel baron. While fewer than 10 percent of the population had even graduated from high school, many of the upper ten had gone to college or professional school.

McGeer 7

McGeer’s overarching argument in this book is that the Progressive Era was a time of unprecedented cultural change in America that has not been seen before or since, and he attributes the homogeneity of the wealthiest class to part of this change. “What would become the Progressive Era… began as an unprecedented crisis of alienation amid the extremes of wealth and poverty in America” (McGeer 7). The upper class was a unified group that the lower ones could rally against to demand change, and membership in this class was dependent on factors like background, education level, and religion, which made it harder for those from outside a specific group to break into.

Yet another historian, Clifton Hood, argues differently about the cohesiveness of America’s uppermost class in the Gilded Age. In his book In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class & The Making of a Metropolis, Hood argues that New York City’s wealthiest people were different from more traditional aristocrats precisely because they were willing to accept others. “What distinguished the New York upper class from the outset is that its members were comparatively dynamic, open, and aggressive (much like New York City) as opposed to the stuffy, family- and pedigree-oriented upper classes found elsewhere in America and Europe” (Hood xi). Members of the upper class in New York City were much less focused on a person’s background than they were on their current status; how much wealth and power they had.

At the same time, however, it is hard to argue that tensions didn’t exist between those who came from older, well-established families with generational wealth, and those who, like Carnegie, had risen from nothing to outrageous wealth. “It is important to remember that the emergence of a more cohesive bourgeoisie, the rise of a social group with shared identities, ideas, and at times politics, did not eliminate economic conflicts, social distinctions, and political quarrels” (Beckert 13). Even while unified by their wealth and social status, there was still tension in different forms between those of the upper class.

One of these tensions was a desire to establish a sort of legitimacy, such as that held by European aristocrats, which Hood explores in his book. It was common for the elites of New York City to socialize with nobility when vacationing in Europe, and many children of America’s wealthy class married European aristocrats, thus adding a legitimate title to the family (Hood 219).

It is not a far leap to consider whether in some ways, the building of houses might have been another attempt by the upper class to establish their legitimacy. Especially for those who did not come from generational wealth, building a large, ostentatious house could be a way to show the other members of your class that you are on equal footing as them. And indeed, this is a point where all three historians agree: the wealthy found unity in their quest for more. “Members of the New York City upper class behave like this not so much because they are civic-minded… but because they pursue wealth, prestige, and power; in other words, they seek personal gain” (Hood xi) “One of bourgeois New Yorkers’ defining characteristics, the ownership of capital, drove them apart as market competition and divergent demands on the state threw them into constant struggles” (Beckert 8). McGerr doesn’t lay out this idea as explicitly as the other two, but instead talks about the idea of individualism, and how pervasive it was among members of the upper class. “The upper ten attributed the hardships of the poor not to an unfair economic system but to individual shortcomings” (McGerr 8) The wealthy of this time felt that anyone could reach their status if they worked hard enough, thus inspiring them to continue in their quest for more.

Relating the Gilded Age to the Gold Coast

The tangibility of the mansions and estates built by members of the upper class during the Gilded Age might be able to clear up some of the disagreements among historians. By looking at the education level, immigration status, religious affiliation, and other traits of estate owners for example, we might be able to understand whether McGerr or Beckert’s ideas of diversity in the upper class is correct. Additionally, understanding the legacy of these estates could demonstrate how the members of the Gilded Age bourgeoise really did impact society, or if their importance has been overstated. Finally, examining the extent to which their estates were manifestations of the wealth and power held by the upper class could help support or refute the idea that people in this age were in a constant battle to acquire more.

Although this project might not be able to answer all of these questions, it can lay the groundwork for research that will allow historians to better understand what the lives of the wealthy during the Gilded Age looked like, and how we are still feeling their impacts over a century later.

Next page: The Gold Coast