Culture in the Gilded Age

Social Darwinism in America

American social Darwinism held that the social classes had no obligation toward those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for survival.

Learning Objectives

Describe the role that Darwinian ideas about natural selection had in the social science and public policy of the late nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • "Social Darwinism" is a name given to various theories emerging in the United Kingdom, North America, and western Europe in the 1870s that claim to apply biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics. Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Edward L. Youmans, John Fiske, and John W. Burgess helped shape American social Darwinism.
  • Sumner believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for survival was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.
  • The great majority of American businessmen rejected the anti-philanthropic implications of the theory. Instead, they gave millions of dollars to build schools, colleges, hospitals, art institutes, parks, and many other institutions.

Key Terms

  • Herbert Spencer: An English philosopher, biologist, and sociologist who was highly influential in proposing economic and political theories based on Darwin's theories of evolution, and who influenced many American thinkers including, most notably, William Graham Sumner.
  • fascism: A political regime, having totalitarian aspirations, ideologically based on a relationship between business and the centralized government, business-and-government control of the market place, repression of criticism or opposition, a leader cult, and the exaltation of the state and/or religion above individual rights.
  • eugenics: A social philosophy that advocates the improvement of human hereditary qualities through selective breeding.

Social Darwinism

"Social Darwinism" is a name given to various theories emerging in the United Kingdom, North America, and western Europe in the 1870s that claim to apply biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics. According to their critics, at least, social Darwinists argue that the strong should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease. Different social-Darwinist groups have differing views about which groups of people are considered to be the strong and which groups of people are considered to be the weak, and they also hold different opinions about the precise mechanisms that should be used to reward strength and punish weakness. Many social Darwinists stress competition between individuals in laissez-faire (hands-off) capitalism. Social Darwinism—as well as the notions of evolution and Charles Darwin—are frequently linked with racialism, nationalism, imperialism, and eugenics. Many critics note that social Darwinism became one of the pillars of fascism and Nazi ideology; Nazi Germany's application of policies of "survival of the fittest" eventually created a very strong backlash against the theory.

Darwinist Collectivism

A different form of social Darwinism was part of the ideological foundations of Nazism and other fascist movements. This form did not envision survival of the fittest within an individualist order of society, but rather advocated a type of racial and national struggle in which the state directed human breeding through eugenics. Terms such as "Darwinian collectivism" or "Reform Darwinism" have been suggested to describe these views, in order to differentiate them from the individualist type of social Darwinism.

Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner

Portrait of William Graham Sumner

William Graham Sumner: William Graham Sumner's 1883 pamphlet, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other was highly influential.

Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era. Spencer proved to be a popular figure in the 1880s primarily because his application of evolution to areas of human endeavor promoted an optimistic view of the future. In the United States, writers and thinkers of the Gilded Age such as Edward L. Youmans, William Graham Sumner, John Fiske, and John W. Burgess developed theories of social evolution as a result of their exposure to the works of Darwin and Spencer.

In 1883, William Graham Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin's findings with free-enterprise capitalism to provide his justification. According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for survival will create a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more of the like, which will eventually drag the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for survival was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.


These ideas did have influence on American politics. For example, The Bourbon Democrats supported a free-market policy, with low tariffs, low taxes, less spending and, in general, a laissez-faire government. However, the great majority of American businessmen rejected the anti-philanthropic implications of the theory. Instead, they gave millions of dollars to build schools, colleges, hospitals, art institutes, parks, and many other institutions. Andrew Carnegie, who admired Spencer, was the leading philanthropist in the world (1890–1920), and a major critic of imperialism and warfare.

The Family Economy: Women and Children

During the Industrial Revolution, the economic and social roles of woman shifted and became largely focused on the domestic sphere.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate family structures in the late nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In a family economy, families provided agricultural products, manufactured goods, and supplied services for the market.
  • After the Industrial Revolution largely ended the family economy, men inhabited the public sphere 's worlds of politics, economy, commerce, and law while women presided over the domestic sphere of child-rearing, housekeeping, and religious education.
  • The "separate spheres" ideology prevented women from undertaking professional careers and pursuing higher education.
  • The separation between female and male spheres was heavily influenced by biological determinism, the notion that women and men are naturally suitable for different social roles due to their biological and genetic makeup.
  • The "cult of domesticity," a prevailing value system among the upper and middle classes during the nineteenth century in the United States and Great Britain, emphasized new ideas about femininity, the woman's role within the home, and the dynamics of work and family.

Key Terms

  • Family Economy: A term used to describe the family as an economic unit. The early stages of development in many economies are characterized by family-based production.
  • biological determinism: The interpretation of humans and human life from a strictly biological point of view.
  • cult of domesticity: A system of values that emphasized new ideas about femininity, the woman's role within the home, and the dynamics of work and family.
  • Public sphere: An area in social life in which individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion, influence political action.

The Family Unit

The early stages of development in many economies is characterized by family-based production. The term "family economy" can be used to describe the family as an economic unit. In the early, preindustrial era, technology was limited and most economic activity took place within the household; production and distribution was organized by custom and tradition. High mortality rates and low productivity meant that on the farms and in towns, life was short and living conditions were harsh.

The family economic unit is dependent on the specialized labor of family members. The family was a multigenerational producer with capital and land provided by older generations and labor provided by younger generations. Goods were produced not only for home consumption but also to sell and trade in the market. The family economy supplied agricultural products, manufactured goods, and provided services.


During the postindustrial age, the family as an economic unit changed. The family transformed from being a unit of production to being a unit of consumption. This new era of industrialization altered farming to require fewer people, therefore children were no longer viewed as economic assets but rather as liabilities. Industrialization further contributed to the demise of the family economy where the capitalist market encouraged production in large-scale factories, farms, and mines. Wage labor became common, and family members no longer worked together but rather used the wages they had earned to buy goods that they consumed as a family. The Industrial Revolution, starting in the nineteenth century and extending into the twentieth, is seen as the force that changed the family economic unit and is credited with the creation of the "modern family."

Separate Spheres

"Separate spheres" refers to an ideology that defines and prescribes different realms for women and men. Culturally originating in Europe and North America, the distinct ideology emerged during the Industrial Revolution, although the basic idea of gendered separation of spheres is much older. The notion of separate spheres dictates that men, based primarily on their biological makeup as well as on the will of God, inhabit the public sphere—the world of politics, economy, commerce, and law. Women's "proper sphere," according to the ideology, is the private realm of domestic life, child-rearing, housekeeping, and religious education. The shift during the Industrial Revolution from family as producer to family as consumer, from work being done together in the same spaces to work being done in centralized factories and businesses, contributed to this ideology.

The idea that women should inhabit a separate, domestic sphere has been extant in Western thought for centuries, extending as far back as the ancient Greeks. In Politics, Aristotle described two separate spheres in Greek society: the home (oikos) and the city (polis). Women were confined to the private realm of the oikos while men occupied the public sphere of the polis.

Biological Determinism

The separation between female and male spheres was heavily influenced by biological determinism, the notion that women and men are naturally suitable for different social roles due to their biological and genetic makeup. The idea of biological determinism was popular during the Age of Enlightenment and among such thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued that women were inherently different from men and should devote themselves to reproduction and domesticity. Women were considered passive, dependent on men, and due to their reproductive capacity, ill-suited for life outside of the domestic realm. Rousseau described women's primary duties in Emile, or On Education, stating that, "women's entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, to care for them as adults, correct and console them, make their lives sweet and pleasant; these are women's duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood."

Other Influences

The popular beliefs about inherent gender differences remained deeply embedded in popular consciousness throughout the Progressive Era. By the early twentieth century, however, dissident anthropologists and other social scientists began to challenge the biological determination of human behavior, revealing great similarities between men and women and suggesting that many gender differences were socially constructed. Despite these new insights and social and economic changes—such as women's entry into the labor force—the "separate spheres" ideology did not disappear. Women's confinement to the private sphere was reinforced by cultural and legal arrangements, such as the lack of women's suffrage, legal prohibitions against women undertaking professions such as medicine and law, and discouragement of women obtaining higher education. Strong support for the separation of spheres came from anti-suffragists who relied on the notion of inherent sexual differences to argue that women were unfit for political participation.

The Cult of Domesticity

The "cult of domesticity" was a term for the prevailing value system among the upper and middle classes during the nineteenth century in the United States and Great Britain. This value system emphasized new ideas about femininity, the woman's role within the home, and the dynamics of work and family. "True women" were supposed to possess four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. The women and men who most actively promoted these standards were generally white Protestants who lived in New England and the northeastern United States. The cult of domesticity revolved around women being the center of the family; they were considered, "the light of the home."

Although all women were supposed to emulate this ideal of femininity, black, working-class, and immigrant women often were excluded from the definition of "true women" because of social prejudice.


Godey's Lady's Book cover, June 1867: Godey's Lady's Book was a highly influential women's magazine that reinforced the values of the cult of domesticity.

Prescriptive literature advised women on how to transform their homes into domestic sanctuaries for their husbands and children. Women were the center of the domestic sphere and expected to fulfill the roles of a calm and nurturing mother; a loving and faithful wife; and a passive, delicate, and virtuous creature. These women also were expected to be pious and religious, teaching those around them Christian beliefs, and were expected to inspire and support their husbands unfailingly.

The characteristics of a "true woman" were described in sermons and religious texts, as well as in women's magazines. In the United States, Peterson's Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book were the most widely circulated women's magazines and were popular among both women and men. Magazines that promoted the values of the cult of domesticity faired better financially than competing magazines that offered a more progressive view in terms of women's roles. With a circulation of 150,000 by 1860, Godey's reflected and supported the ideals of the cult of true womanhood. The magazine's paintings and pictures illustrated the four virtues, often showing women with children or behind husbands. The publication also equated womanhood with motherhood and with being a wife, declaring that the "perfection of womanhood (...) is the wife and mother." The magazine presented motherhood as a woman's natural and most satisfying role, and encouraged women to find their fulfillment and contributions to society strictly within the home.

Outdoor Recreation

Bicycle riding, camping, baseball, and public parks grew in prominence during the late nineteenth century.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate different types of outdoor entertainment that arose during the late nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The first well-known chain-drive bicycle was the "Rover," produced in 1885 by John Kemp Starley. It led to a bicycle craze in the 1890s.
  • Frederick Law Olmsted attained preeminence for, among other things, designing parks. He codesigned Central Park and numerous other parks and park systems in Boston, Chicago, and other cities.
  • Modern camping is often traced back to Thomas Hiram Holding, who traveled through the wilds and prairies of America with his family. Camping became popular in the early twentieth century.
  • Baseball, called the "American pastime" as early as the 1850s, was a popular spectator sport through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Key Terms

  • bicycle craze: A sudden consumer enthusiasm for bicycles during the 1890s, precipitated by improvements in bike design.
  • Frederick Law Olmsted: American journalist, public administrator, and landscape designer, popularly considered the father of American landscape architecture; famous for codesigning many well-known urban parks, including Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City.

The Bicycle

The 1890s experienced an enormous bicycle craze, driven by several significant developments in bicycles: the invention of the "safety bicycle" with its chain-drive transmission, whose gear ratios allowed smaller wheels without a concurrent loss of speed; and the subsequent invention of the pneumatic (inflatable air-filled) bicycle tire. Experiments with chain-drive had been attempted in 1869 and 1879, but the first well-known chain-drive bicycle was the "Rover" produced in 1885 by John Kemp Starley. Very quickly, the penny-farthing, or high-wheel, passed out of fashion, and multitudes of people all over the world began riding the "safety." It was largely the popularity of this type of bicycle at this time that precipitated the paving of roads.


The Overman Victor "Flyer" bicycle: The Overman Victor Flyer was a popular safety bicycle during the 1890s.

September 13, 1892, saw the opening of a Bicycle Railroad between Mount Holly, New Jersey, and the H.B. Smith Manufacturing Company in Smithville, New Jersey, during the Mount Holly fair. The railroad had 3,000 riders its first week (for amusement instead of for commuting). Coney Island wanted one, and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago featured one. Several others were built for amusement in Atlantic City, Ocean City, and Gloucester City, New Jersey (the first two in 1893 and last in 1894). The application of the internal-combustion engine to the bicycle during the 1890s resulted in the motorcycle, and then soon after, the engine was applied to four-wheel carriages, resulting in the motor car or "automobile," which in later decades largely supplanted its unmotorized ancestor.


The history of recreational camping often is traced back to Thomas Hiram Holding, a British traveling tailor, but it was actually first popularized in the United Kingdom on the river Thames. By the 1880s, large numbers of visitors took part in the pastime, which was connected to the late Victorian craze for pleasure boating. The early camping equipment was very heavy, so it was convenient to transport it by boat or to use craft that converted into tents.

Thomas Hiram Holding was responsible for popularizing a different type of camping in the early twentieth century. He experienced the activity in the wild from his youth, when he had spent much time with his parents traveling across the American prairies. Later he embarked on a cycling and camping tour with some friends across Ireland. His book on his Ireland experience, Cycle and Camp in Connemara led to the formation of the first camping group in 1901, the Association of Cycle Campers, later to become the Camping and Caravanning Club. He wrote The Campers Handbook in 1908, so that he could share his enthusiasm for the great outdoors with the world.

Camping as a recreational activity became popular among elites in the early twentieth century. With time, it grew more democratic and varied. Modern participants frequent publicly owned natural resources such as national and state parks, wilderness areas, and commercial campgrounds.

The International Federation of Camping Clubs was founded in 1932, and clubs from all over the world began affiliating with it. By the 1960s, camping had become an established family holiday standard, and today campsites are ubiquitous across Europe and North America.


In the mid-1850s, a baseball craze hit the New York metropolitan area. By 1856, local journals were referring to baseball as the "national pastime" or "national game." A year later, 16 area clubs formed the sport's first governing body, the National Association of Base Ball Players, which lasted until 1875.

The National League was founded in 1876. As the oldest surviving major league, the National League is sometimes referred to as the "senior circuit." Several other major leagues formed and failed. In 1884, African American Moses Walker (and, briefly, his brother Welday) played in the American Association. An injury ended Walker's major-league career, and by the early 1890s, an unspoken "gentlemen's agreement" effectively barred black players from the white-owned professional leagues, major and minor. Professional Negro Leagues formed, but quickly folded. Several independent African-American teams succeeded as barnstormers.

The National League's first successful counterpart, the American League, which evolved from the minor Western League, was established in 1901. The two leagues, each with eight teams, were rivals that fought for the best players, often disregarding each other's contracts and engaging in bitter legal disputes. A modicum of peace was eventually established, leading to the National Agreement of 1903. The pact formalized relations both between the two major leagues and between them and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Leagues, representing most of the country's minor professional leagues.

The World Series, pitting the two major-league champions against each other, was inaugurated that fall, albeit without express major-league sanction. The Boston Americans of the American League defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League. The next year, the series was not held, as the National League champion New York Giants, under manager John McGraw, refused to recognize the major-league status of the American League and its champion. In 1905, the Giants were National League champions again, and team management relented, leading to the establishment of the World Series as the major leagues' annual championship event.

Frederick Law Olmsted


Plan for Central Park: Plan for the entrance to Central Park, ca. 1863.

Frederick Law Olmsted (April 26, 1822–August 28, 1903) was an American landscape architect, journalist, social critic, and public administrator. He is popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture. Olmsted was famous for codesigning many well-known urban parks with his senior partner, Calvert Vaux, including Prospect Park and Central Park in New York City, as well as Elm Park (Worcester, Massachusetts), which is considered by many to be the first municipal park in America.

Olmsted not only created numerous city parks around the country, but he also conceived of entire systems of parks and interconnecting parkways to connect certain cities to green spaces. Two of the best examples of the scale on which Olmsted worked are the park system designed for Buffalo, New York, and the system he designed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Olmsted was a frequent collaborator with architect Henry Hobson Richardson, for whom he devised the landscaping schemes for half a dozen projects, including Richardson's commission for the Buffalo State Asylum.

In 1883, Olmsted established what is considered to be the first full-time landscape architecture firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. He called the home and office compound "Fairsted." It is now the restored Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. From there, Olmsted designed Boston's Emerald Necklace, the campuses of Stanford University and the University of Chicago, as well as the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, among many other projects.


Central Park: Horseback riding in Central Park.

New York City's need for a great public park was voiced by the poet and editor of the Evening Post (now the New York Post), William Cullen Bryant, and by the first American landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, who began to publicize the city's need for a public park in 1844. Many influential New Yorkers expressed the need for a stylish place for open-air driving, similar to the Bois de Boulogne in Paris or London's Hyde Park. After an abortive attempt in 1850–1851 to designate Jones's Wood, in 1853, the New York legislature settled upon a 700-acre area from 59th to 106th Streets for the creation of the park, at a cost of more than $5 million for the land alone. The state appointed a Central Park Commission to oversee the development of the park, and in 1857, the commission held a landscape design contest. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux developed what came to be known as the "Greensward Plan," which was selected as the winning design. Olmsted began executing their plan almost immediately.

Mass Marketing, Advertising, and Consumer Culture

By 1900, advances in consumer education and mass production helped advertising to become firmly established as an industry.

Learning Objectives

Examine the rise of consumer culture in the late nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1840, Volney B. Palmer established the roots of the modern-day advertising agency in Philadelphia by buying large amounts of space in various newspapers at a discount and then reselling it to advertisers at a higher rate.
  • Prior to the Industrial Revolution, members of the working classes worked long hours for low wages and had little time or money left for consumer activities.
  • Frederick Winslow Taylor brought his theory of scientific management to the organization of the assembly line in commodity industries, unleashing incredible productivity and cost savings and ushering in the era of mass consumption.

Key Terms

  • Henry Ford: The founder of Ford Motor Company and pioneer of the assembly line. Fordism—the mass production of inexpensive consumer goods with high wages for laborers—revolutionized the American economy.

Advertising is a form of communication used to encourage or persuade an audience to take some action. Most commonly, the desired result is to drive consumer behavior with respect to a commercial offering, although political and ideological advertising is also common. The purpose of advertising also might be to reassure employees or shareholders that a company is viable or successful.

Advertising During the Industrial Revolution

The advertising poster shows a woman in fancy clothes (partially vaguely influenced by 16th- and 17th-century styles) drinking Coke. The card on the table says

Drink Coca-Cola: A Coca-Cola advertisement from 1900.

As the economy expanded during the nineteenth century, advertising grew as well. In June 1836, the French newspaper La Presse was the first to include paid advertising in its pages, allowing the paper to lower its price, extend its readership, and increase profitability. Around 1840, Volney B. Palmer established the roots of the modern-day advertising agency in Philadelphia. In 1842, Palmer bought large amounts of space in various newspapers at a discounted rate then resold the space at higher rates to advertisers. The actual ad was still prepared by the company wishing to advertise, making Palmer a space broker.

The situation changed in the late nineteenth century when the advertising agency of N.W. Ayer & Son was founded in 1869. N.W. Ayer & Son was the first full-service agency to assume responsibility for advertising content. They offered to plan, create, and execute complete advertising campaigns for customers. By 1900, the advertising agency had become the focal point of creative planning, and advertising was firmly established as a profession. Around the same time, Charles-Louis Havas extended the services of his news agency, Havas, to include advertisement brokerage, making it the first French group to organize.

At the turn of the century, women had few career choices in business; advertising, however, was one of the few industries that welcomed them. Because women were responsible for most of the purchasing done in the household, advertisers and agencies recognized the value of women's insight during the creative process. In fact, the first American advertising to use a "sexual" sell was created by a woman for a soap product.

The Rise of Consumerism

The advertisement shows a lavishly dressed young woman with her finger to her chin. She's holding two packaged of Loring's Corpula. Text at the bottom of the poster reads,

Get Fat: An 1895 ad for a product for weight gain.

The next several decades saw a significant shift in consumerism. During the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, capitalist development became primarily focused on the capital goods sector and industrial infrastructure (e.g., mining, steel, oil, and transportation networks). At that time, agricultural commodities, essential consumer goods, and commercial activities had developed, but not to the same extent as had other sectors. Members of the working classes worked long hours for low wages and little time or money was left for consumer activities.

Capital goods and infrastructure were quite durable and took a long time to be used up. Henry Ford and other leaders of industry understood that mass production pre-supposed mass consumption. After observing the assembly lines in the meat packing industry, Frederick Winslow Taylor brought his learnings to other industries. This unleashed incredible productivity and reduced the costs of all commodities produced on assembly lines.

While previously the norm had been the scarcity of resources, the Industrial Revolution created an unusual economic situation. For the first time in history, products were available in outstanding quantities at outstandingly low prices; thus, they became available to virtually everyone. For instance, Henry Ford believed that the workers who made his car should all be able to buy one. This became a reality with the Model T car. Ford created a huge publicity machine in Detroit to ensure every newspaper carried stories and ads about the new product. Ford's network of local dealers made the car ubiquitous in almost every city in North America. As independent dealers, the franchises grew rich and publicized not only the Ford but also the concept of automobiling; local motor clubs sprang up to help new drivers and to encourage exploration of the countryside.

Advertising, in its marketing of goods through various platforms and message that the viewer is in need of some product, played a major role in creating this consumerist society. Advertising changes in order to keep up with the changing consumer; it identifies the viewer's needs and associations of brands and products before he or she is consciously aware. The mediums through which individuals are exposed to ads are ever changing and ever growing, as marketers are always trying to get in touch with and captivate their audience. For example, around the time that the automobile became prevalent in society, billboards were created. These advertisements featured short details about a brand or a “catchphrase” that a driver could quickly and easily spot, recognize, and remember.

Cheap Amusements

During the Gilded Age, free time and disposable income were spent on new forms of leisure such as amusement parks, burlesque shows, dime museums, and vaudeville shows.

Learning Objectives

Analyze amusements and entertainment from the Gilded Age through the end of the 1930s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Amusement parks provided new forms of entertainment, including trolleys, rides, roller coasters, and concessions.
  • Burlesque shows featured acts such as stripteases, singing, comedy routines, mime acts, minstrel shows, and dancing.
  • By the late 1930s, a social crackdown on burlesque shows began their gradual downfall.
  • Dime museums were designed as centers for entertainment and provided moral education for the working class.
  • Vaudeville, a type of entertainment consisting of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill, was popular from the 1830s to the 1930s.

Key Terms

  • vaudeville: A popular type of entertainment that featured a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill.
  • amusement park: A commercially-operated collection of rides, games and other entertainment attractions, which became highly popular among Americans during the first decades of the 20th century.
  • Dime Museums: Institutions providing cheap entertainment and moral education, which were very popular at the end of the nineteenth century among the working classes.
  • burlesque: A genre of variety show emerging in the 1860s and evolving into a a very popular blend of satire, performance art, music hall, and adult entertainment.

During the Gilded Age, many Americans began working fewer hours and had more disposable income. With newfound money and time to spend on leisure activities, Americans sought new venues for entertainment.

Amusement Parks

Amusement parks, set up outside major cities and in rural areas, emerged to meet this new economic opportunity. These parks reflected the mechanization and efficiency of industrialization while serving as source of fantasy and escape from the realities of working life. By the early 1900s, hundreds of amusement parks were operating in the United States and Canada. Trolley parks, established at the end of the trolley line by enterprising streetcar companies, stood outside of many cities. Parks such as Atlanta's Ponce de Leon and Idora Park near Youngstown, Ohio, took passengers to traditionally popular picnic grounds, which by the late 1890s often included rides such as the carousel, "Giant Swing," and "Shoot-the-Chutes." These amusement parks, with names such as "Coney Island," "White City," "Luna Park," and "Dreamland," often were based on nationally known parks or world's fairs. The American Gilded Age was, in fact, the Golden Age of amusement parks that reigned until the late 1920s.


White City Amusement Park: Photograph of the White City Amusement Park, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1908.

By the end of the First World War, people seemed to want an even more exciting entertainment, a need that was met by the roller coaster. Although the development of the automobile provided people with more options for satisfying their need for entertainment, after the war, amusement parks continued to be successful. The 1920s saw the development of many innovations in terms of the roller coaster, which employed extreme drops and speeds to thrill the riders.



Bon-Ton Burlesquers: A poster for an American burlesque show, 1898, showing a woman in an outfit with a low neckline and short skirt holding a number of upper-class men "on the string."

American burlesque is a genre of variety show. Derived from elements of Victorian burlesque and music hall and minstrel shows, burlesque shows in America became popular in the 1860s and evolved to feature ribald comedy elements such as lewd jokes and female striptease. By the early twentieth century, burlesque in America was presented as a populist blend of satire, performance art, music hall, and adult entertainment.

Performers, usually female, often created elaborate tableaux with lush, colorful costumes, mood-appropriate music, and dramatic lighting. Novelty acts, such as fire breathing or contortionists, might be added to enhance the impact of the performance. The genre traditionally encompassed a variety of acts. In addition to the striptease artistes, the show included a combination of chanson singers, comedians, mime artists, and dancing girls, whose performances were all delivered in a satiric style with a impudent edge. The striptease element of burlesque became subject to extensive local legislation, leading to a theatrical form that titillated without falling foul of censors.

Burlesque gradually lost popularity beginning in the 1940s. A number of producers sought to capitalize on nostalgia for the entertainment by attempting to recreate the spirit of burlesque in Hollywood films from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Charlie Chaplin, who starred in the 1915 film A Burlesque on Carmen, noted in 1910:

Chicago... had a fierce pioneer gaiety that enlivened the senses, yet underlying it throbbed masculine loneliness. Counteracting this somatic ailment was a national distraction known as the burlesque show, consisting of a coterie of rough-and-tumble comedians supported by twenty or more chorus girls. Some were pretty, others shopworn. Some of the comedians were funny, most of the shows were smutty harem comedies—coarse and cynical affairs.
By the late 1930s, a social crackdown on burlesque shows began their gradual downfall. The shows had slowly changed from ensemble ribald variety performances, to simple performances focusing mostly on the striptease. In New York, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia clamped down on burlesque, effectively putting it out of business by the early 1940s.

Dime Museums

Dime museums were institutions that were briefly popular at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States. Designed as centers for entertainment and moral education for the working class, the museums were distinctly different from upper-middle-class cultural attractions. In urban centers such as New York City, where many immigrants settled, dime museums were popular and cheap entertainment. The dime museum social trend reached its peak during the Progressive Era.

In 1841, P.T. Barnum founded the first dime museum called the "American Museum." P.T. Barnum and Charles Willson Peale introduced their concept of "edutainement," which provided moralistic education through sensational freak shows, theater and circus performances, and many other means of entertainment. The American Museum burned down in 1865.


P.T. Barnum's American Museum: The  1853 illustration depicts the "Lecture Room" of the American Museum of New York, built by P. T. Barnum. It was eventually more popularly knows as Barnum's American Museum.

For many years in the basement of the Playland Arcade in Times Square in New York City, Hubert's Museum featured acts such as the sword swallower, Lady Estelene, Congo the Jungle Creep, a flea circus, and a half-man half-woman, and magicians such as Earl "Presto" Johnson. Later, in Times Square, Tommy Laird opened a dime museum that featured Tisha Booty "the Human Pin Cushion," and several magicians including Tommy Laird, Lou Lancaster, Chris Capehart, Dorothy Dietrich, and Dick Brooks.


Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment popular in the United States and Canada from the 1830s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Acts included performances by popular and classical musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, impersonators, acrobats, jugglers, athletes, lecturing celebrities, and minstrels. Shows also sometimes featured illustrated songs, one-act plays or scenes from plays, and movies. A vaudeville performer is often referred to as a "vaudevillian." Vaudeville had many influences, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary burlesque. Called "the heart of American show business," vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America for several decades.

At its height, vaudeville played to various economic classes and an in a variety of venues. On the vaudeville circuit, it was said that if an act would succeed in Peoria, Illinois, it would work anywhere. The question, "Will it play in Peoria?" has now become a metaphor to indicate whether something appeals to the American mainstream public. The three most common levels of production were the "small time" (lower-paying contracts for more frequent performances in rougher, often converted theaters), the "medium time" (moderate wages for two performances each day in purpose-built theaters), and the "big time" (possible remuneration of several thousand dollars per week in large, urban theaters largely patronized by the middle and upper-middle classes). As performers rose in renown and established regional and national followings, they worked their way into the less arduous working conditions and better pay of the "big time." The capitol of the "big time" was New York City's Palace Theatre (or just "the Palace" in vaudevillian slang). Featuring a bill stocked with inventive novelty acts, national celebrities, and acknowledged masters of vaudeville performance (such as comedian and trick roper Will Rogers), the Palace provided what many vaudevillians considered the apotheosis of remarkable careers.

Vaudeville and Immigrant America

In addition to vaudeville's prominence as a form of American entertainment, it reflected the newly evolving urban inner-city culture. The ethnic caricatures that now composed American humor reflected the positive and negative interactions between ethnic groups in American cities. The caricatures served as a method of understanding different groups and their societal positions.

Making up a large portion of immigration to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, Irish Americans became subject to discrimination due to their ethnic physical and cultural characteristics. Stereotypical depictions of the Irish as greenhorns alluded to their status as newly arrived immigrants, a portrayal presented in many avenues of entertainment. The use of the "greenhorn immigrant" character for comedic effect showcased not only how immigrants were viewed as new arrivals, but also what they could aspire to be. The Irish-American ideal of transitioning from the "shanty" to the "lace curtain," though often depicted in satire, became a model of economic upward mobility for immigrant groups.

The Rise of Realism

American realism attempted to portray the life of ordinary Americans at home, presenting a new artistic perspective.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the new focus on realism and how it manifested itself in the arts

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • American realism was a style in art, music, and literature that depicted contemporary social realities and the lives and everyday activities of ordinary people.
  • The Ashcan School was a group of New York City artists who sought to capture the feel of turn-of-the-century New York City through realistic portrayals of the everyday lives and environments of the lower class, immigrants, and slum dwellers.
  • Prominent realist writers included Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, William Dean Howells, and Horatio Alger Jr.
  • Naturalism, which grew out of realism, not only depicted its subjects realistically but also emphasized the role of social conditions, heredity, and environment in the development of one's character.

Key Terms

  • Ashcan School: A realist artistic movement, which came into prominence in the United States during the early twentieth century, best known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York's poorer neighborhoods.
  • Naturalism: An outgrowth of realism that also focused on how social conditions, heredity, and environment shape human character.
  • Realism: In the arts, a style characterized by the depiction of subjects as they exist in objective reality, without embellishment or interpretation.


From the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, the United States experienced enormous industrial, economic, social, and cultural change. A continuous wave of European immigration and the rising potential for international trade brought increasing growth and prosperity to America. Through artistic expression, American realism attempted to portray the cultural exuberance of the figurative American landscape and the life of ordinary Americans at home. Artists allowed the emotional tenor, textures, and sounds of the city to influence the style and composition of their creative projects. Musicians noted the fast-paced nature of life in the early twentieth century and responded with a fresh and new tempo. Authors told new stories about boys and girls that real Americans could have grown up with. Pulling away from fantasy and focusing on the now, American realism presented a new gateway into modernism. The Ashcan School, also known as "The Eight," along with the group called "Ten American Painters," created the core of American modernism in the visual arts.

The Ashcan School

The painting shows five men drinking at McSorley's bar.

McSorley's Bar (1912): McSorley's Bar, John French Sloan, 1912 (oil on canvas).

The Ashcan School was a group of New York City artists who sought to capture the feel of turn-of-the-century New York City through realistic portraits of everyday life. These artists not only depicted the rich and promising Fifth Avenue socialites, but also the culturally textured lives of the lower classes. At least one critic of the time did not like the Ashcan School's choice of subjects, which included alleys, tenements, slum dwellers, and taverns frequented by the working class. The group included members such as George Bellows, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, George Benjamin Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, and Edward Hopper, and became known as the "Revolutionary Black Gang" and the "Apostles of Ugliness."

Realist Writers

Realist writers included Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Stephen Crane, William Dean Howells, and Horatio Alger Jr. Realist journalists, also called "muckrakers," included Jacob Riis and cartoonist Art Young. Realist musicians counted James Allen Bland, C.A. White, and Scott Joplin in their number.

Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), better known by his pen name of "Mark Twain," grew up in the Mississippi River frontier town of Hannibal, Missouri. Early nineteenth-century American writing tended to be flowery, sentimental, or ostentatious—partially because authors were still trying to prove that they could write as elegantly as the English. Twain's style, however, was based on vigorous, realistic, colloquial American speech, and gave American writers a new appreciation of their national voice. Twain was the first major author to come from the interior of the country, and he captured its distinctive, humorous slang and tendency toward iconoclasm. For Twain and other American writers of the late nineteenth century, realism was not merely a literary technique: It was a way of speaking truth and exploding worn-out conventions. Twain is best known for his works Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the latter of which combined rich humor, a sturdy narrative, and social criticism.

Literary Naturalism

Naturalism was a literary movement taking place from roughly 1880 to 1940 that used detailed realism to suggest that social conditions, heredity, and environment had an inevitable role in shaping human character. Naturalism is the outgrowth of literary realism, a prominent literary movement in mid-nineteenth century France and elsewhere. Naturalistic writers were influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. They believed that heredity and social environment largely determine one's character. Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also attempts to determine the underlying forces (e.g., the environment or heredity) influencing the actions of its subjects. Naturalistic works often include uncouth or sordid subject matter; for example, the works of Émile Zola, the most renowned literary naturalist, demonstrate a frankness about sexuality along with a pervasive pessimism. Naturalistic works exposed life's dark, harsh realities, including poverty, racism, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth. As a result, naturalistic writers frequently were criticized for focusing too much on human vice and misery.

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