The rise of industrialization and reform in “The Gilded Age and Progressive Era”

By Mitch Farish | February 7, 2022

Technological innovation, the concentration of vast wealth in few hands, government corruption, anti-immigrant hysteria, and progressive proposals to combat social and economic disparities: These may seem like items pulled from today’s headlines, but they entered America’s consciousness more than a century ago in an era that took its name from Mark Twain’s satiric novel of greed and corruption, “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today” (1873). Now you can find primary sources (business, legal, and personal papers) documenting the rise of American modernity in The Gilded Age and Progressive Era located in the Library’s A-Z Databases list.

Learn about the high-rise transformation of American cityscapes in the papers of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White. Learn about personal and business dealings of the rich in the papers of John Jacob Astor and John D. Rockefeller as they built family dynasties from successes in real estate and oil. Learn the extent of government corruption in the papers of Chauncey Mitchell Depew, lawyer for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad, who bought his way into the United States Senate by favoring corporate interests. Learn how in the 1890s countervailing forces of progressive reform moved the nation’s economy from laissez-faire capitalism to regulation of monopolies and turned exploited immigrants into organized labor.

"IS THIS A REPUBLICAN FORM OF GOVERNMENT? IS THIS THE EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAWS?" Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast in 1876 following the Hamburg massacre of Black militiamen in South Carolina. The Gilded Age began with the withdrawal of federal troops from the defeated Confederate states. (Open image in a new tab to enlarge)
A Black man kneels beside the bodies of other slain Black people. His shirt is torn at the neck as he looks to the sky, his hands spread wide with tears streaming down his anguished face,

Although past histories have concentrated on the two percent of American households that controlled more than a third of the nation’s wealth, the database uncovers details about the bottom 40% who had no wealth at all, including African Americans left behind when workplace reform became a concern for the welfare of white workers only.

The daybooks of William O’Gorman, Overseer of the Poor in Newtown (now Elmhurst) in the New York borough of Queens, reveal how the poor fared while the rich played. Accounts and activities include descriptions of visits to formerly enslaved African Americans and immigrants in need, and the circumstances and history of individual cases.

A scrapbook in the McKim, Mead & White papers shows the harm perpetrated on Native people in the name of uplift. A clipped article on The Ramona Industrial School for Apache Girls in Santa Fe boasts of bringing “genuine Apaches” from three hundred miles away and transforming them from “unkempt girls in moccasins, buckskins, blankets and paint into eager pupils who are dressed and can read, count, write, draw, sing, sew and work like American white girls in our own home …” The goal was to train the girls “to become skilled cooks and housekeepers … in American households.”

Documents are tagged with at least one theme to help guide your study. Key themes include:

  • Architecture
  • Art and Literature
  • Business
  • Charity and Philanthropy
  • Industry
  • International Affairs
  • Labor Movement
  • Leisure and Entertainment
  • Material Culture
  • Politics and Corruption
  • Poverty and Inequality
  • Protests and Strikes
  • Reform
  • Society and Events
  • Urban Development