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Industrialization and the Gilded Age: 1816–1900



The 19th century was the age of industrialization in the United States. The invention of steam power led to the expansion of the railroad and the introduction of mechanized labor. This, in turn, made the manufacturing and transportation of goods more efficient. Many Americans left their farms, and waves of immigrants arrived from overseas to work in factories. Cities became overcrowded and dangerous places to live and work. While industrial leaders made millions of dollars, their workers made little and often resorted to strikes to improve their lot. The Gilded Age, as the period came to be known, was also marked by widespread political corruption.

At A Glance

  • Industrialization in the United States centered on processing cotton. It began with the introduction of cotton mills and expanded considerably thanks to improvements in transportation and inventions such as the cotton gin and the sewing machine, fueling the First Industrial Revolution.
  • The Second Industrial Revolution was marked by the propagation of factories and assembly lines, the application of science to develop innovative technologies and materials, the establishment of corporations, and the use of vast natural resources made available via western expansion.
  • Cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and San Francisco became centers of industrialization because of their access to a large workforce and their proximity to natural resources and transportation.
  • Industrialization and modernization of city infrastructure led to rapid urbanization in the United States.
  • The population growth in America's cities in the 19th century was fueled by waves of immigrants mainly from Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
  • Urbanization led to numerous social problems, including overcrowding, the spread of disease, and a rise in criminal activity.
  • Men, women, and children living in cities often worked long hours for little pay, but the availability of free public education offered city dwellers a chance to improve their lives.
  • Industrialization changed the nature of business with the advent of corporations and monopolization of markets. Those who benefited most were industry giants such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller.
  • Despite their philanthropic activities, the titans of industry did not treat their workers well, and when unions threatened their property or production, they employed brutal tactics to undermine them.
  • The phrase "Gilded Age," coined by satirist Mark Twain, describes a period that on the surface looked opulent and grand, much like an item gilded with gold. However, a much harsher reality existed beneath the surface.
  • Political machines became a powerful force in the local politics of major cities. They appealed to immigrants and the working class by supplying them with jobs, homes, and loans in exchange for votes.
  • National and state governments in the Gilded Age were often corrupt, in part because many politicians were beholden to big business and practiced patronage under the spoils system. The Populist Party consisted mainly of farmers and labor groups.