Business, Labor, and Technology in the Gilded Age (1868-1922)
  1. Some Useful Definitions
  2. The Gilded Age
  3. "Robber Barons" or "Captains of Industry"?
  4. J.D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil
  5. Ida Tarbell and The History of the Standard Oil Company
  6. The Steel Industry
  7. Andrew Carnegie and The Gospel of Wealth
  8. Social Darwinism
  9. The Changing Status of Labor
  10. Mechanization, Scientific Management and the Reorganization of Work
  11. Child Labor
  12. The Knights of Labor
  13. The Haymarket Affair
  14. The American Federation of Labor
  15. The Pullman Strike
  16. Thomas Edison and the Electrical Industry
Some Useful DefinitionsTop
This document contains a list of key terms and their definitions, which will be useful to have on hand throughout this module. An understanding of these terms is essential to the study of industrialization and organized labor.
     Some Useful Definitions.rtf  
The Gilded AgeTop
Historical Context
The term "Gilded Age" was factitiously coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley in their 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The "Gilded Age" generally refers to the decades between the end of reconstruction and the turn of the century (about 1870 to 1900). It was a time of unprecedented industrial and economic growth, tumultuous politics, and a wave of immigration. The dazzling flurry of technological innovation that occurred is sometimes referred to as the "Second Industrial Revolution." The industrial, transportation, and communications industries quickly boomed, but were subject to the tumult of an unstable economy. The word "monopoly" could easily characterize this era, in which a few trusts and individuals thrived and amassed fortunes while many Americans lived in poverty and lost their personal autonomy to the corporate machine. The Gilded Age was a formative period in American history, in which the standards for modern business and economics were just beginning to take shape.

Attached Documents
The timeline below includes major events in economic and political history during this time period.

The political cartoon, "Hopelessly Bound to the Stake," addresses the discontent of some laborers with the changing nature of work during the era of industrialization.

The political cartoon, "What a Funny Little Government," satirizes the relative power and prowess of large business concerns and the U.S. government.

Questions to Consider
1. Why would Twain describe this era as the "gilded" age rather than the "golden" age?
2. How do you interpret the message of the "Hopelessly Bound" cartoon?
3. How do you interpret the message of the "What a Funny Little Government" cartoon?

     A Gilded Age Timeline.rtf  
     monopoly stake.jpg
     funny little govt.jpg
An edited Gilded Age Timeline from:
The political cartoon, "Hopelessly Bound to the Stake" appears at:
The 1900 "What a Funny Little Government" cartoon appears at:
"Robber Barons" or "Captains of Industry"?Top
Historical Context
Names like Rockefeller and Carnegie are synonymous with wealth and power. Individual tycoons like these played a pivotal role in making the US the leading industrialized nation in the world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The debate over whether these men were greedy, corrupt, and immoral "robber barons" or innovative and enterprising "captains of industry" is still going on today. Nevertheless, each were instrumental in the "corporate revolution" of the time period, in which new business practices led to the industrial advantages of economies of scale.

Attached Documents
A short audio lecture (3:38 minutes) on Rockefeller and Carnegie, found below, gives a brief outline of their lives.

John D. Rockefeller built a massive fortune in the oil industry using practices including swallowing up competitors and negotiating exclusive deals with railroad companies. In 1911, Standard Oil's monopoly was dissolved in a Supreme Court decision based on the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Rockefeller was often maligned in the press and some perceive him as one of the most hated figures of his day. By the time of his death, Rockefeller, a devout Baptist, had given away over $500 million in philanthropic pursuits.

JP Morgan was one the most influential and powerful figures in the financial world. His philosophy that only ruthless competition would lead economic stability led him to begin a series of consolidations in the railroad and a number of other industries, leading the formation of colossal corporations including US Steel and General Electric. The cool and rational Morgan was a avid art collector and once served as President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant, is known for being a truly self-made man. Though brilliant in matters of business, workers and labor unions at the Carnegie Steel Company found him dismissive of their concerns. At the turn of the century, he sold his steel company to JP Morgan (who integrated it into the mammoth US Steel) and dedicated his time and fortune to philanthropy. He famously wrote, "the man who dies rich, dies disgraced."

Railroad entrepreneur Jay Gould considered himself to be one the most hated men of the 19th century. Gould was the archetypal "robber baron," constantly mired in scandal and corruption. One of his major achievements was helping Western Union ascend to dominance in the telegraph industry.

Questions to Consider
1. In a time when the "rules of the game" for big business were just being hashed out, is it fair to call successful industrialists "robber barons"?
2. Do you think that extraordinarily successful individuals are always subject to public scrutiny? Do you think the industrialists of the Gilded Age deserved their reputations?
3. Given the status of the United States as the world leading industrial nation at the turn of the century, do you think that the industrialists' sometimes questionable business ethics can be excused?
     Carnegie and Rockefeller.mp3  
     jay gould.jpg
Link to Audio:
Link to Rockefeller Picture:
Link to Morgan Picture:
Link to Carnegie Picture:
Link to Gould Picture:
J.D. Rockefeller and Standard OilTop
Historical Context
The story of the Standard Oil company, begun in Cleveland in 1870, provides a comprehensive illustration of corporate consolidation. Standard Oil employed vertical and horizontal integration tactics on a grand scale to grow the business into a monopoly that controlled virtually all the oil production in the nation. In 1882, the company combined its interests across dozens of states into a trust. As anti-trust laws began to take effect in the 1890's, Standard Oil eventually evolved into a holding company based in New Jersey. John D. Rockefeller, the company's president, became the richest man in the world for a time, earning him both the admiration and disdain of ordinary Americans.

Attached Documents
In "Rockefeller on Industrial Combinations," the industrialist explains the necessity for and positive aspects of large industrial combinations.

In this 1911 Supreme Court opinion in the case of Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, the court orders the Standard Oil monopoly to be dissolved due to its violation of the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The opinion traces the historical development of the trust and outlines types of tactics used by Standard Oil to consolidate its interests into a vast conglomerate.

Questions to Consider
1. According to Rockefeller, what are the positive aspects of large industrial combinations? Why are such arrangements necessary?
2. Why did the court order the dissolution of the Standard Oil empire? What does the opinion say about the effect of monopolies on trade?
3. What examples of vertical and horizontal integration are cited in the opinion?

     Rockefeller on Industrial Combinations 1899.rtf  
     Standard Oil Co of New Jersey v United States Opinion 1911.rtf  
Link to Rockefeller on Industrial Combinations:
Link to Supreme Court Decision:
Ida Tarbell and The History of the Standard Oil CompanyTop
Historical Context
Ida Tarbell grew up in an oil town in North Western Pennsylvania. Her father did well as an oil refiner until the Southern Improvement scheme, a secret arrangement between select oil refiners and the railroads, devastated the businesses of independent refiners. The deal, brokered by Rockefeller and others, gave some refiners cheaper railroad rates and kickbacks while the price of shipping was raised for others like Mr. Tarbell.

Attached Documents
Following a distinguished academic career and journalistic career in Paris, Tarbell set out to illustrate the disturbing rise of the monopoly and decline in corporate ethics with a nineteen part series on the Standard Oil Company in McClures magazine. Her painstakingly researched series became widely popular during their publication between 1902 and 1904. The History of the Standard Oil Company is an early example of investigative journalism aimed at exposing corruption and exploitation. Called "muckraking" by Teddy Roosevelt, these kinds of articles fueled and inspired many of the reforms of the Progressive Era. Tarbell's work has been distinguished as one of the best examples of investigative journalism in the 20th century.

Questions to Consider
1. How does Tarbell characterize the tactics of Standard Oil Company?
2. What was Tarbell's opinion of Rockefeller himself?
     Ida Tarbell The History of the Standard Oil Company.rtf  
The excerpts from Tarbell's The History of the Standard Oil Company appear on the web at:
The photo of Tarbell appears at:

The Steel IndustryTop
Historical Context
Andrew Carnegie's steel mills set new standards for the steel industry at the turn of the century. His dedication to underselling his competitors led him to effectuate new strategies to increase efficiency, cut costs, vertically integrate, and invest in new technology. Carnegie was able to produce steel at profoundly reduced prices, which made engineering feats like bridges and tall buildings much more affordable. His obsession with cutting costs, however, translated to low wages and dangerous working conditions for laborers in his mills.

Prominent financier J.P. Morgan bought out Carnegie's business and integrated it into U.S. Steel. U.S. Steel became the world's first billion-dollar corporation in 1901. The mammoth corporation counts legendary business giants like Andrew Carnagie, J.P. Morgan, and Charles Schwab amongst its founding fathers.

Attached Documents
The chart of iron, steel, and coal production shows the dramatic rise of the United States to industrial dominance beginning in the 1880's.

The graph comparing the prices of steel and iron rails shows the dramatic plunge in price that occurred when the Bessemer process of steel production was introduced after the Civil War. This was one of the many innovations in steelmaking that Carnegie adopted to cut costs.

The map below includes some of the many companies incorporated by U.S. Steel (vertical integration), as well as examples of different related industries absorbed by the company(horizontal integration).

Questions to Consider
1. List a few reasons why an efficient steel production operation could be very lucrative (consider other industries that use steel).

     Iron, Steel and Coal Production.bmp  
     us steel incorporation.jpg
Link to Chart:
Link to Graph:
Link to Map:
Andrew Carnegie and The Gospel of WealthTop
Historical Context
The spectacular wealth of some late 19th century industrialists was sometimes rationalized by their belief that they were doing good for society. Andrew Carnegie, one of the most generous philanthropists of his day, wrote Wealth in 1889 in defense of the successful man who acquires a vast fortune.

Attached Documents
Here, he extols the virtues of individualism and laissez faire capitalism, while appealing to the wealthy to give in a way that is "animated by Christ's spirit."

Questions to Consider
1. What does Carnegie mean when he instructs the wealthy to "consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds"?
2. Do you agree with Carnegie's assessment that "wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made a much more potent force for the elevation of our race than if it had been distributed in small sums to the people themselves"? Why or why not?
3. Can the private sector be trusted to serve the public interest? Why or why not?
     Carnegie Gospel of Wealth 1889.rtf  
Wealth appears in its entirety at:
Social DarwinismTop
Historical Context
The term "Social Darwinism" refers to a popular pseudo-scientific justification for racism, which claims that the biological theories of evolution and natural selection can also be applied to human society. It implies that variations between ethnic or racial groups are deterministic of their social rank and those inherently inferior to others should be left to die out as a result of their own incompetence. Social Darwinism was a popular view amongst the intellegencia of the day, perhaps because of its scientific veneer.

Attached Documents
In Herbert Spencer's Progress, he draws the parallel between the organic process of biological development and the organic quality of all processes in society. Spencer's ideology received a boost with the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species in 1859 (the term "social Darwinism" was not coined until Richard Hofstadter published Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944). The excerpts below do not mention "survival of the fittest," however, they do give the reader a basis for understanding why Spencer's thought seemed valid to readers of the day.

Questions to Consider
1. Spencer establishes a parallel between evolution in biology and evolution in society. Does he think this evolution is a good thing or a bad thing? Explain your answer.
2. Why might this be an appealing social philosophy for the great industrialists of the Gilded Age?
3. Why is it controversial to apply the concept of "survival of the fittest" to human society?
4. Identify some passages in Carnegie's The Gospel of Wealth that employ the reasoning of Social Darwinism.
     Herbert Spencer Progress Its Law and Causes 1857.rtf  
This document appears on the web at:
The photograph of Herbert Spencer was located at
The poster showing the pseudo-scientific proof for racial differences was found at

The Changing Status of LaborTop
Historical Context
A hallmark of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is the expanding output of American industry. As machines replaced skilled craftsmen and artisans, the nature of work for most laborers changed dramatically. While mechanization did greatly reduce the prices of manufactured goods, wages fell and workers found themselves doing repetitive tasks for long hours under strict supervision.

Attached Documents
The 1939 interview with a shoemaker from Lynn, Massachusetts, found below, highlights the impact of mechanization on work and home life.

The artisanal ideal of independence eroded with the growth of mass-production. The practice of compensation through "store pay" and "scrip wages," redeemable only at the store owned by the employer, proliferated during this time. In "Store Pay Is Our Ruin," miners lament the dependent relationship fostered by their employers.

In testimony before the US Senate, a mule spinner (a worker who tends a large yarn-making machine) about the mill's reliance on child labor, the scarcity of work, and living conditions for the poor laborer.

Questions to Consider
1. How did life change for the shoe maker after the machine age set in?
2. What criticisms of the store pay system do the correspondents offer?
3. What role did child labor play in the mule spinner's factory?
4. How much money did the mule spinner make? How did the family get by?

     The Impact of Machinery on Making Shoes.rtf  
     Store Pay is Our Ruin 1878.rtf  
     A Mule Spinner Tells the US Senate About Late 19th Century Unemployment 1883.rtf  
Link to Interview:
Link to "Store Pay is Our Ruin":
Link to Senate Testimony:
Mechanization, Scientific Management and the Reorganization of WorkTop
Historical Context
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industries began to employ automated machinery and "scientific management" to increase efficiency. The application of new technologies coupled with new strategies to streamline production propelled the U.S. to the number one player in industrial production by the turn of the century. The reorganization of work to maximize production resulted in a wide range of cheaply available consumer goods. New scientific management practices also led to a decline in the importance of skill and craftsmanship in favor of discipline and subordination. Historians disagree as to whether Taylor's ideas were a breakthrough in management strategies, or dehumanizing forces that belittled the worker. As businesses began to take a more scientific, organized approach to management, they financed industrial research and time studies on a grand scale.

Attached Documents
The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) by engineer Frederick W. Taylor was widely published and applied to industrial production. In fact, the practice of scientific management is also known as "Taylorism." The following document introduces the reader to the fundamentals of the system.

Questions to Consider
1. What, according to Taylor, should be the principle aim of management?
2. What do the employer and the employees gain, respectively, from scientific management?
3. What should employers do to learn how to increase efficiency?
     Taylor The Principles of Scientific Management 1911.rtf  
Link to Taylor Work:
Child LaborTop
Historical Context
Though children have always participated in economic activity, industrialization, the tumultuous economy, and the influx of poor immigrants at the turn of the century made cheap child labor an institution in all kinds of industries and occupations. Historians estimate that up to 25% of children were employed in manufacturing by 1910. As the Progressive Era dawned, many reformers began addressing the issue.

Attached Documents
Reformer Lewis Hine captured thousands of arresting images of child workers in the early 20th century while on behalf of the advocacy group The National Child Labor Committee.

This 1908 report on child labor in New York City tenements illustrates the weakness of the state's child labor restrictions in a system where manufacturers give laborers work to do at home.

Questions to Consider
1. According to the report, how did the home work system conflict with the intent of New York's compulsory education requirements?
2. What, according to the report, are the "evils" of the sweat shop system?
3. What advantages did manufacturers gain by allowing home work?

Lewis Hine photos:
A little girl peering out a window of a mill.
A child picking crops.
Dusty boys in a coal mine.
Link to Report:
The Knights of LaborTop
Historical Context
As corporations gained more power and specialization and mechanization of labor undermined the status of the skilled laborer, American workers sought to organize themselves into unions that could collectively bargain with employers. The most important of these early labor organizations was the Knights of Labor, founded as a secret organization in 1869. The Knights garnered opposition from the more prevalent craft unions because they included almost anyone from any industry, including African Americans and women. The Knights espoused a utopian vision for the future of the American labor force, in which workers owned the means of production. The Knights also advocated social reforms such as women's suffrage and temperance. Their membership peaked in the mid-1880's.

Attached Documents
Some historians attribute the organization's decline to the opposition of the union's leading figure, Terrance Powderly, to strikes and the extremely broad goals and membership. Many members deserted the Knights simply because they felt they could get more done in a more narrowly focused, aggressive organization.

The seal of the Knights of Labor carries the motto, "That is the most perfect government in which an injury to one is the concern of all." This image is found below.

Questions to Consider
1. Summarize the goals of the Knights of Labor Organization as presented in their constitution.
2. Contrast the philosophy of the Knights regarding capital and wealth with that of Andrew Carnegie in The Gospel of Wealth.
3. Discuss the differences between craft and industrial unions (see "Some Useful Definitions). Why would craft unions be threatened by more broad-based, industrial unions like the Knights of Labor?

     terrance powderly.gif
     Constitution of the Knights of Labor 1878.rtf  
The photo of Powderly appears at:
Link to Seal:
The 1878 Constitution of the Knights of Labor appears at:
The Haymarket AffairTop
Historical Context
Many labor groups rallied around the idea of an 8-hour workday as they tried to regain control of work. On May 1, 1886, mass strikes and the largest spontaneous labor demonstration in the nation's history occurred in Chicago. Among the 100,000 demonstrators were anarchists that alarmed police. Although the demonstration passed calmly, violence ensued two days later when police shot and killed 2 unionists demonstrating against "scabs" at McCormick Reaper Works. The next day, a bomb exploded at Haymarket Square as police tried to break up a demonstration against the shooting of the unionists. Mass arrests of radicals followed and 8 anarchists were convicted of the bombing under somewhat questionable circumstances. The Haymarket affair renewed fears of radicalism and led some employers to develop blacklists of unionists and strengthen their resolve against strikers' demands. The incidents also precipitated the decline of the Knights of Labor, whose disillusioned members defected as anti-labor sentiment swelled.

Attached Documents
This detailed chronology of the Haymarket Affair and Trials appears below.

The colorful account of the violence at McCormick Reaper Works cast the demonstrators as drunken anarchists is provided below.

This version of the "Attention Workingmen!" announcement was used by the prosecution in the subsequent trial. The circled inflammatory line was cut from the final version of the flyer, but not before a few hundred of the original went into circulation.

The following circular was distributed by anarchists on the night of May 3rd in response to the killing of workers at the McCormick Reapers Works by police.

In "Effect of the Haymarket Bombing on the Knights of Labor," labor organizer Oscar Ameringer describes his naivete as a young man in the midst of the heated demonstrations.

Questions to Consider
1. What does the Haymarket Affair demonstrate about the anxieties of workers? What effect do you think this incident had on labor-management relations?
2. After the Haymarket Affair, how do you think citizens and law enforcement reacted against radicals and labor?
     The Haymarket Riot and Trial Chronology.rtf  
     Bloodshed in Chicago May 4 1886.rtf  
     Effect of the Haymarket Bombing on the Knights of Labor 1940.rtf  
Link to Haymarket Chronicles:
"Bloodshed in Chicago" Document:
Link to Flyer One:
Link to Circular:
Link to "Effect of the Haymarket Bombing on the Knights of Labor":
The American Federation of LaborTop
Historical Context
The American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers as an alliance of craft unions comprised of mostly skilled workers. The AFL focused on concrete, labor-related goals like increased wages and the right to collective bargaining. Unlike the Knights of Labor, the AFL did not seek to overturn the industrial wage and hour system in favor of a new social order, nor was it centrally controlled. Thus, the organization became the voice of "mainstream" American labor. The AFL remained the most powerful labor organization until 1955, when it merged with the CIO.

Attached Documents
The selected quotes from Gompers found below illustrate his views on a variety of subjects.

Questions to Consider
1. Contrast the quotes from Gompers with the Knights of Labor constitution. What philosophical differences between the two groups can you identify?
2. Why do you think the Knights met their demise before the turn of the century while the AFL continued to flourish?
     Samuel Gompers Selected Quotations.rtf  
The photo of Gompers appears at:
Link to Gompers Quotes:

The Pullman StrikeTop
Historical Context
The 1894 Pullman Strike is the quintessence of labor-management relations during the era of corporate tycoons that was the Gilded Age. George Pullman, the owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company, provided and controlled every aspect of his employee's lives, much like a feudal lord. Employees lived in the model town of Pullman, attended Pullman schools and churches, shopped at Pullman Stores, and use Pullman utilities. As one employee famously described it, ""We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell."

When Pullman slashed wages in order to protect profits after the onset of the Depression of 1893 without lowering prices and rent his town or yielding to negotiation, the American Railway Union (ARU) led by Eugene V. Debs initiated a massive strike and a boycott of train using Pullman cars. Eventually, The US Attorney General obtained a court injunction against the workers for interfering with the delivery of the mail and President Cleveland sent federal troops to enforce the injunction and crush the strike. The strikers were forced to return to work on Pullman's terms, Debs served a prison sentence for disobeying the injunction, and the ARU was disbanded. However, some historians believe that President Cleveland's actions cost him the nomination of his party two years later, the same year that the hated George Pullman died in fear that his tomb would be defiled.

Attached Documents
The paycheck below is an example of the control Pullman had over the lives of his employees. After deducting rent and other expenses, this paycheck amounted to only 12 cents.

This artist's rendering below depicts the riot that erupted when federal troops arrived to enforce the injunction. Violence claimed the lives of over 30 people by the end of the strike. It was the first use of federal troops to break a strike.

This short but impassioned address by Jennie Curtis, leader of the women's local unit involved in the strike, is found below.

In "Letter on the Pullman Strike," a letter from the suffering people of Pullman to the Governor of Illinois and his three letters appealing to George Pullman to aid his former employees are a presented.

Questions to Consider
1. What can you deduce about the nature of labor-management relations at this time? What about the relation between business and government?
2. What arguments for feeding the people of Pullman does the Governor make on their behalf?

     Jennie Curtis Address to ARU 1894.rtf  
     Letters on the Pullman Strike.rtf  
Link to Pullman Paycheck:
Link to Riot Depiction:
Link to Curtis Address:
Link to "Letters on the Pullman Strike":
Thomas Edison and the Electrical IndustryTop
Historical Context
With 1093 patents in his name, Thomas Alva Edison was one of the nations most prolific inventors. In 1878, after years of development, Edison innovated one of his most important contributions: the incandescent light bulb. Edison's bulb was not the first electric light, but it was cheaper, more efficient, and decidedly safer than its predecessor, the open-air carbon arc lamp. With a team of researchers at his Menlo Park laboratory, Edison also developed the first electrical systems, making this technology viable in the world outside the lab. Electric light would forever change the urban and industrial landscape.

Attached Documents
Edison is pictured here in his lab at Menlo Park.

Following this image is a photo of an 1879 Edison incandescent lamp.

This short film, "A Day with Thomas Edison," (4:02 minutes) was produced in 1922 by General Electric. It shows an elderly Mr. Edison surveying the bulb production process.

Questions to Consider
1. How do you think the incandescent bulb affected work and home life?
2. What does the film reveal about the electric industry and industrial system in general with regard to labor?
3. What does the "Minute of Darkness" clipping suggest about the importance of electricity? How long had practical, accessible lighting been established by 1931?

     edison lab.jpg
     edison bulb.gif
     Day With Thomas Edison.mpeg  
Link to Edison Picture One:
Link to Edison Picture Two:
Link to Film:
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