Chapter 1 | The Gilded Age | American Experience | PBS


♪ ♪ (kids shouting) NARRATOR: A vicious cold snap hit New York in the first week
of February 1897, but nothing could slow
the preparations for the impending revelry. The city’s wealthiest citizens
were readying themselves for one of the most anticipated
balls in the nation’s history– an extravagant exclamation point on what would come to be known as the Gilded Age. REBECCA EDWARDS: During the Gilded Age, Americans feel quite certainly
that they are the vanguard of civilization and progress. This is an enormous period of opportunity,
and possibility, and hope. NARRATOR:
No group felt more confident about the future than the guests
who would gather for the party at the luxurious
Waldorf Hotel. The evening’s total price tag,
according to newspaper reports, was enough to feed nearly a
thousand working-class families for a full year. ♪ ♪ Defenders noted
that the ball stood to benefit the entire city. Critics begged to differ. “With all the people,”
warned one minister, “who have to lie awake nights
contriving “to spend their time and their
money, and all the others “who lie awake wondering
how they may get food, there is danger in the air.” It was a fractious time in which
a sense of desperation amidst growing wealth
was emerging. EDWARD O’DONNELL: Increasingly workers
begin to say, “If I as, as a member
of this society “lack the ability to pay my
bills, and to feed my family “then I am not a free citizen
of a healthy republic. “I’m something, something else, something that the Founding
Fathers would not recognize.” (whistle blows) RICHARD JOHN: The magnitude of the late
19th-century transformation of American society
is hard to exaggerate. It was as if you woke up
in one country and you went to bed in another. ♪ ♪ NARRATOR:
Thirty years after the Civil War, America had transformed into an economic powerhouse, but the transformation had
created stark new divides in wealth, standing,
and opportunity. STEVE FRASER: It’s shocking for people to see a country developing before them that is increasingly
clearly divided into the haves and have-nots. NELL IRVIN PAINTER:
Gilded is not golden. Gilded has the sense of a patina
covering something else. It’s the shiny exterior
and the rot underneath. NARRATOR: By the time New York’s elite
gathered at Waldorf ballroom, the richest 4,000 families
in the country, less than one percent
of all Americans, had scooped up nearly
as much treasure as the other 11.6 million
families combined. “We are the rich,”
one partygoer remarked. “We own America;
we got it, God knows how, “but we intend to keep it
if we can.” There is this fight over what is America’s
collective self-identity. Who are we? Are we two nations,
the poor and the wealthy, or are we one nation where everybody has a chance
to succeed? ♪ ♪ DAVID NASAW: When this nation comes out of the Civil War, we are still a nation divided
by regions. There’s very little
national market. If you need a pair of shoes, you don’t get it from a factory
a hundred miles away. You get it from
the local shoemaker. (birds squawking) PAINTER:
Life was much, much more local, much more what was going on
right around you, what your neighbors were doing,
what your friends were doing, what your enemies were doing,
and how you were doing on a day-to-day basis. H.W. BRANDS:
America had been founded, its political system
had been founded, for a country of farmers, but it was becoming a nation
of industrialists. It was becoming a nation
of urban workers. It was becoming a nation
of cities. (train chugging) Railroads knit the entire
country together in a way that hadn’t existed
before. So now merchants, manufacturers,
industrialists can think nationally. You don’t have to think simply
in terms of your local market. If you have a good idea, if you have a good procedure
for producing something, you can think of selling your
goods all over the country. (train clacking on tracks) NARRATOR: By the early 1880s the nation’s
largest corporation, the Pennsylvania Railroad, carried more than
two million tons of industrial and consumer goods
every year. Steel left mills in Pittsburgh for destinations
around the country; so too did refined oil
from Cleveland, factory-made furniture
from Cincinnati, and harvesters from Chicago. (train steam hissing) Railroads moved coal from
Wyoming, timber from Oregon, silver from Nevada and Colorado,
and copper from Montana. ♪ ♪ Tens of thousands of young men
and women from farm families could hop on the train to go
where the jobs were: the newly industrializing
cities. Former slaves and their children
joined the urban migration, bound for new opportunities
in Memphis, Atlanta, Richmond, or as far north as Philadelphia
and New York. The hope is for equality, and
for first-class citizenship, and to be a part of
what is happening in terms of progress and change. They’re trying to make
the democracy and the country work for them. FRASER: Progress is part
of the American credo and has been almost from
the beginning of the nation. Americans prided themselves on their inventiveness,
their ingenuity, their entrepreneurial
get-up-and-go. GIDDINGS: Progress is thought of
as inevitable. It’s divinely inspired. There’s a pastor who talked about these
technological innovations as God’s tools to make
a more perfect society. ♪ ♪ And so it becomes almost
a spiritual idea, this industrial spirit. (birds chirping) ♪ ♪ (horse hooves clomping) NARRATOR: One of the most innovative
entrepreneurs of the day was Andrew Carnegie. He owned a stable
full of fine-blooded horses and enjoyed taking long rides
through Central Park. (horse whinnies) ♪ ♪ In the spring of 1881 he was a
man in the saddle in all ways, having just consolidated his growing manufacturing
enterprises under a single banner:
Carnegie Brothers & Company. Some days Carnegie would ride
out of the park and head north on upper
Broadway. Other days he would ride
all the way to the High Bridge, where traffic loosened and
he could open up to a gallop along the banks
of the Harlem River. In the few hours he was out
riding through New York his blast furnaces 300 miles
to the west produced more than
60 tons of steel, and earned him about as much as the average American
made in a year. This remarkable and novel fact
made 45-year-old Andrew Carnegie the emblem of a new kind
of American dream. ♪ ♪ Like John D. Rockefeller
in the oil refining business and Cornelius Vanderbilt
in railroads, Carnegie was riding a wave
of industrialization — using new technology
and mass production to secure enormous
personal wealth. NASAW: What’s important to realize
is that these men, they have visions. Carnegie, Rockefeller,
the railroad barons — they don’t invent anything. They’re managers. JACKSON LEARS: Carnegie is one of the few
American millionaires of this era or any other who can genuinely call himself
a self-made man. He really does come
from humble origins.

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