The Truly Gilded Age

Perhaps one of the most lied about eras of American history (though there are many) is the Gilded Age. The title for this era was given because on the outside it looks golden but on the inside it is said to be corrupt and horrible. But, I take the position it was all golden. The Gilded Age launched America as a global power and made us incredibly important worldwide. We now more wealth and resources and quickly made our way to the top of the chain globally. Besides this, wages grew for everyone, and while you can reference the trope that “the rich got richer and the poor got poorer” this claim has no merit to it. Wealth and capital were given to many and resources were no longer hard to achieve as they had been in the dark ages. As Andrew Carnegie says in his essay “The Gospel of Wealth”, “The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford. What were the luxuries have become the necessaries of life. The laborer has now more comforts than the landlord had a few generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer, and appointments more artistic, than the King could then obtain.” The claims of how terrible it was are made without warrant whatsoever but simply a hatred for those who produced the mass amounts of wealth in the first place.

The first huge misconception about the Gilded Age is that many workers endured incredibly low wages and lived impoverished lives. Along with their supposed suffering, the rich got richer and profited off their suffering. Though, we have clear evidence that tells us otherwise. The first claim made is unemployment went way up due to the corruption of the “robber barons”. Well, this claim actually has no backing to it, statistically or logically. If a ton of people were needed to fill a long line of manufacturing jobs, theoretically it would make sense unemployment goes down. The data we have regarding the unemployment rate during the Gilded Age comes from a paper “Unemployment Rates in Postbellum America: 1869-1899” by John Vernon. What Vernon finds is the unemployment rate was nothing out of the ordinary during the Gilded Age – it had a couple of points where it rose but it stayed between 4 and 8 percent. In addition, we learn the real GNP of the nation substantially rises.

The next thing to note on wages is how much they grew during the Gilded Age. According to “Wages in the United States and Europe, 1870-1898” basically every field gained a significant growth in average wages [2]. For blacksmiths in New York, the average wage went from $2.24 to 2.55 and boilermakers’ wages grew even more, going from $1.83 to $2.52 an hour. Another trend to notice is the average wages across all big cities was higher during the peak of the Gilded Age, and seemed to decrease as it came near its end. To make this increase more valuable, simply turn to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI calculator which allows us to see the equivalent worth of a dollar all the way back to 1913. In 1913 dollars, and using the increase seen for boilermakers in New York, we find an increase of $17.80 an hour by the end of the Gilded Age. We also find the final boilermaker wage was equivalent to $65 of today’s money – putting it at over double today’s average boilermaker wage [3]. Given the fact these wage increases were actually at the end of the Gilded Age than at its peak and this was a noticeable trend across virtually all fields, we are safe to assume wages were helped substantially by the Gilded Age.

But, wages might not mean jack squat because even if your money wage is high, it may be subject to devaluing of the dollar or inflation of prices, making it worth just the same as it was before. Luckily we know the first isn’t true. The value of the dollar was dropping after the Civil War, so it was actually the goal of monetary policy during the Gilded Age to raise the value of the dollar. This was done through increasing tariffs as well as limiting the currency to hard money such as gold instead of soft money like Greenbacks [4]. Due to increased production at the time of the Gilded Age, it wouldn’t be hard to assume average prices went down. The closest data we have comes from “Comparative Wages, Prices, and Cost of Living: Massachusetts and Great Britain. 1860-1883” which primarily looks at the cost of living in Massachusetts. The data provided here seems to deny our worst visions of the prices. It seems prices of groceries, provisions, and fuel were all growing largely prior to the Gilded Age, but all dropped during [5]. To sum up, the amount people were able to buy during the Gilded Age actually grew immensely. Not only did money wages increase, but the value of the dollar was designed to go up, and the prices of products went down due to an increase in production. This all leads us to believe, the real wages in America went up immensely during the Gilded Age, allowing our citizens a large amount of purchasing power.

Of course, this all comes at a cost – the big one being this huge lack of regulations, particularly in workers’ rights. In 1870 and 1880, we find the average amount of hours clocked was 61.1 and 60.7 respectively, which is about thirteen less hours per week than is worked now [6; 7]. This is certainly high; roughly ten hours a day. But, this work was not undue, because the culture at the time actually made this preferable for people. The average man was told he was to work and spend most of his time doing what he didn’t like in order to gain the protection of his rights. As Thaddeus Russell says, “The lesson that the government secures our rights only if we abide by democracy’s demand to sacrifice and restrain ourselves had been broadcast to white citizens since the Revolution. All citizens and potential citizens were told that the more they worked and the less they lived for themselves, the more they were entitled to protection” [8]. From this perspective, the average ten hours a day, six days a week was not too bad.

But of course, the conditions were said to be so horrible. With the free market and a deregulated economy, probably bought to be that way by those no good robber barons, we can expect harsh work conditions where people get injured and are provided no care whatsoever. Wrong! For one, workplace deaths in mining and railroads were higher during the Gilded Age, though not by much. In terms of other jobs, it seems workers had just as many rights, and particularly more leverage, when it came to leaving a company for their bad conditions. As the Economic History Association puts it, “Workers and firms responded to these dangers in a number of ways. Some workers simply left jobs they felt were too dangerous, and risky jobs may have had to offer higher pay to attract workers. After the Civil War life and accident insurance companies expanded, and some workers purchased insurance or set aside savings to offset the income risks from death or injury. Some unions and fraternal organizations also offered their members insurance. Railroads and some mines also developed hospital and insurance plans to care for injured workers while many carriers provided jobs for all their injured men” [9]. It appears employees had leverage over their wages and their working conditions and in addition, had the money to spend on insurance, which was already expanding. In addition, due to the culture going more conservative, there were many new religious bans on specific products and other regulations on business. One of these managed to get all businesses closed on Sundays in Massachusetts [10]. Furthermore, anti-trust laws were put in place to break up monopolies, despite them coming about through natural causes and simply gaining its role through being the corporation which provides the most value and works most efficiently.

So why are our history teachers and virtually every historian so against the Gilded Age? These robber barons, as we can see here, provided a great service through their entrepreneurship. Regardless of this simple fact, we’re still told they were evil and corrupt. But, how? Was it because of the supposed government subsidies and corporate welfare they used to start themselves up? Well, that claim is massively debunked in an article titled, “The Truth About the ‘Robber Barons’” by Thomas J. DiLorenzo. In fact, the brilliance that was expressed through the railroad system came through ingenuity, hard work, and the free market [11]. Is it because the lives of so many people were terrible? That can’t be the case because data has been available for decades proving this wrong. Maybe, they’re just dumb. Maybe they haven’t heard of every piece of data. Or, maybe they have a goal in all this. The Gilded Age, as amazing as it was, was socially oppressive and incredibly capitalistic and hierarchical. So, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised our public school teachers want to lie about it.













2 thoughts on “The Truly Gilded Age

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