In The Gilded Age, Julian Fellowes, the British creator of hit period drama Downton Abbey, offers an authentic and elaborate American story where class, race, sexuality and gender undergo radical redefinitions in 19th-century New York. ‘The Gilded Age’ was a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner who used it as the title of their 1873 satirical novel, applying the metaphor of ‘gilding’ a cheap metal with a thinlayer of gold to an age when ostentatious appearance concealed corruption, greed and exploitation. While their story takes place in Washington, D.C., the HBO series is set in the nation’s capital of finance, where a few super-wealthy individuals once boasted more comparative wealth than today’s top technology titans.
the real era
In 1865, the United States was coming out of the Civil War with an economy based on agriculture and small-scale, small-town production. Then, with the invention of an industrial process for the mass production of steel, a technological revolution took place that transformed the economy, technology, government and social customs, and established mass production. Cities grew exponentially. Railroads connected the East Coast and the West Coast. Major innovations of the time included the telephone, car, refrigerator, electric lightbulb, typewriter and electric motor, as well as advances in the agricultural and coal mining industries.
THE VERY RICH
In the 1890s, the corporate model expanded to a wide range of enterprises, with fewer regulations surrounding wealth and business practices. A class of extremely rich people emerged. By 1890, this 1 per cent of the population controlled 51 per cent of the nation’s real and personal property. They had the power to create jobs for the many, and fund thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, schools, opera houses, public libraries, orchestras and charities. New York gained spectacular new architecture, beautiful parks and squares, mansions and palatial public buildings.
AND THE REST
However, while in the post-Civil War years there was a vision to create a nation more equal in wealth, inequality actually increased dramatically. Americans who were once independent producers and small business holders now worked for wages in cities. In New York, fuelled by mass immigration from Europe, people worked long hours in sweatshops for little pay and lived in tiny residences called ‘tenements’. Furthermore, African-Americans lost many civil rights gained after the Civil War. Violence, lynchings, segregation, legal racial discrimination and expressions of white supremacy increased. Under such conditions, even the most ambitious and talented black Americans found it difficult to work, let alone advance. By the 20th century, as the US was on its way to becoming the world’s largest industrial nation, some of the profound divisions that define the country today were being formed.
John D. Rockefeller
Founder of the Standard Oil Company, Rockefeller controlled some 90 per cent of the refineries and pipelines in the US in the 1880s. He made considerable donations to charitable causes that exceeded $500 million.
Was an automaker who treated his workers remarkably well, raising wages and keeping working hours to eight hours a day, five days a week. He donated personal funds to the Henry Ford Hospital for the poor. Other organisations included a school for African-American children in Georgia.
John Pierpont Morgan
Was a financier from a wealthy family. He invested in the Edison Electricity Company, helped to create General Electric, formed JP Morgan & Company and gained control of half of the country’s railroads. He also created the first billion-dollar company, U.S. Steel. However, Morgan engaged in unethical and anti-competitive practices, workers’ wages were low and conditions were poor.
Born to poor Scottish immigrants and built his fortune as the owner of Carnegie Steel Company, the largest steel company in the world at the time. He established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the New York Public Library, and a college that would become part of Carnegie Mellon University. He wrote “The Gospel of Wealth,” an article that argued that the wealthy have a responsibility to contribute to society.