Gilded Age Lecture
My first historical love was the Gilded Age. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because the names were familiar. As a child, I had heard of Carnegie and Rockefeller. We lived near New York City and Rockefeller Center was where you could ice skate. Carnegie Hall was where really good musicians played. I knew J. P. Morgan too. Money was a god in suburban New Jersey so the robber barons were titans. We were the classic upper-middle-class kids, trading baseball cards to prepare us for the stock exchange and comics books were discouraged (fantasy only makes money on the West Coast).
For this reason, and the fact that I crib from Mark W. Summers’s amazing textbook, The Gilded Age, my Gilded Age lecture needed less revising than my others. Years ago, I focused almost exclusively on conflict during the era. I tried to explain the differences between the Knights of Labor and the AFL. I tried to have my students rise and fall emotionally with the Populists. But I found my classes did not care about Terrence Powderly or Mary Lease.
They did care, however, about technology. So now, to incorporate it all, my overall argument is this: “Businessmen, workers, immigrants, farmers, and politicians transformed the United States from a marginal player in global economics to a powerful global competitor. In the process, the nation expanded in influence, material products, and conflict.”
I always start with the new technologies and how industrialization changed so much. College students can relate to a lot of it. Light transformed the night. If you had electricity, you could stay up later and now see the girl you were hitting on at the bar. “Night life” was a new and expanding invention. Telephones … well, I don’t have to explain to them the importance of their cell phones. Improved and cheaper steel made buildings go up and railroads go out. I then move into the darker side of it all. The decimation of the bison population (great photos on this, and already discussed when we talked about Reconstruction); the loss of worker autonomy and interest; grueling hardships for farmers that stemmed from overproduction and terrible credit structures; the rise in orphans (picture to the side is a great one of New York orphans who were shipped West to find new homes). They couldn’t all turn out like “ragged Dick” – perhaps the most humorously named hero for a college class in all American literature (it always gets a laugh from the immature students who are listening).
Then, I move into the “Spanish-American War,” a war my students are already familiar with from our Reconstruction discussion and lecture. Why, oh why, do textbooks still call it that? Hist does; Foner does too; we don’t all it that in Major Problems, mostly because Lisa Cobbs Hoffman is one of the most brilliant scholars of American foreign relations and policy. Why can’t we come up with something better; sorry, but “Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-Puerto-Rican-American War” isn’t much better. I tried “War of 1898” in my first book, but that seems too vague. Any improvements?
Anyway, the “Spanish-American War” stands as the grand expression of both the Gilded Age Reconstruction. It’s where the white North, South, East, and West work together and new technologies help create new markets. This is an example of how I try to braid lectures together so they hear about similar topics time and again.
What’s missing? Lots! The Populists get two or three sentences. The Midwest gets about the same. William Jennings Bryan gets beat up in a minute or two and I don’t even reference the Wizard of Oz. I would love to hear how others teach the topic, and if someone can help Lisa and I find a killer document from the Mormons in the time period.