When I first began my teaching career, if I were to pick one time period where I had the least amount of knowledge, it would have been the "Gilded Age" from 1877 to the turn of the century. While I had studied some related topics in college, such as U.S. foreign policy and the "New South," I never developed a depth of knowledge for this period as I had for other time periods in United States history. Since then, however, it has become one of my favorite time periods to study mostly because of its importance in bridging early U.S. history to the modern age of the twentieth century. A couple weeks ago, I finished reading The American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism by H.W. Brands. Brands presents an excellent analysis of the time period and the conflicting themes of democracy and capitalism in the decades following the Civil War.
I have found that my early trepidation with teaching the Gilded Age is fairly common among history educators because the period is complicated and often confusing to students. As I tell my students, almost every textbook on United States History presents this era differently and usually breaks from chronology favoring a more thematic focus instead. However, the importance of that thematic focus cannot be overlooked.
I begin the era by asking students to imagine that we are getting into a De Lorean. Then, I have to explain what that is - I suppose that illustrates our generational divide (okay, for those who still don't get it - click here). Once I get through that explanation, I ask students to go back in time and look at what life was like at the end of the Civil War. Native Americans and buffalo still freely roamed the Plains, it took a wagon to get to the Pacific, dirt roads and horse travel defined transportation in American cities. Further, the South was destroyed and African Americans now freed from bondage were hopeful for what free life would bring. Industry was beginning to expand due to the war, but businesses were mostly local affairs where the business owner still directly managed the business and worked hard to make a living.
Next, I ask students to "kick it up to 88" (still, they don't get it) and fast forward to 1900. By the end of the century, just a short 35 years, life in America was dramatically different. Native American culture was almost gone from the Plains and so were the buffalo. Several transcontinental railroads stretched across the Plains reaching to the Pacific, along with the "golden wire" of the telegraph - America's first "Internet." Many farmers who had fled to the Plains with the hope of opportunity and free land offered by the Homestead Act found themselves broke from mounting debt caused by overproduction, deflation and a multitude of other challenges. Major industries now dominated the national economy and the industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were the most influential men in the country, not the presidents or politicians of the Gilded Age. Cities grew up and out with the development of skyscrapers, streetcars, suspension bridges and mass transit, with automobiles coming soon. Pollution and poverty followed with the massive surge of immigrants pouring into the cities in the last decades of the century, along with an emerging labor movement now influenced by socialism and radicalism. A more modernized culture developed in urban areas with spectator sports and amusement parks, while the rural South moved to eliminate the gains made by blacks during Reconstruction and create a segregated society defined by "Jim Crow" laws. Though the frontier had been declared "closed" in 1890, Americans now looked outward on the world and became a global power following the territorial and political gains of the Spanish-American War. A truly different America existed in 1900 than 1865, an illuminated and connected national economy and culture ready for the dynamic twentieth century.
Resources to share:
The Men Who Built America - outstanding series by the History Channel, short clips available online are good supplements for classroom discussion.
Best of History Websites - The Gilded Age (this is always a good EdTech site to look at for teaching U.S. History)
For fun, two students in my summer school class found this video of a teacher singing a jingle about the Gilded Age. The whole class started singing along!