Names & Terms in 
   Fasttrack to America's Past
   Section 6:  The Gilded Age
Return to
Originating
Page


 
Addams, Jane - a Chicago woman whose work in the neighborhoods of that city led to important reforms nationwide in efforts to help the poor.  She is famous for establishing Hull House in 1889 as a kind of community center in a slum section of Chicago.  It offered advice and classes for immigrants trying to adjust to American life, and its success led to the creation of settlement houses in other cities.
    The settlement house movement drew in and gave a cause to many educated American women, and helped create a broader consciousness of social issues.  The movement is an important sign of a shift in ideas about class and poverty away from Social Darwinism.  Now, the idea was growing that poverty had social causes that could be studied and solved.  Addams is often considered "the mother of social work" in the U.S.

Anthony, Susan B. - the most famous of the 19th century women who organized to fight for woman suffrage (the right to vote).  A teacher in Rochester, N.Y., she became involved in the movement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 1850s.
    Anthony and a group of other women in Rochester voted in the 1872 presidential election.  She was arrested some weeks later, tried, and fined $100.  She refused to pay.  She continued pressing for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of women to vote, while other groups favored a state-by-state approach.  Anthony died in 1906, but her work helped bring about the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote nationwide in 1920.

American Federation of Labor - the most famous of the labor unions that grew in the Gilded Age to fight for better pay and conditions forfactory workers.  The AF of L was formed in 1881 by Samuel Gompers, a poor Jewish immigrant who rose to become president of a cigar maker's union in New York City.
    The AF of L was actually a federation (association) of many labor unions, and as such, represents a trend toward "bigness" similar to what was happening in industry.  It included only skilled workers, not unskilled workers.
    Gompers and the AF of L did not oppose the system of capitalism and big industry, as some radical labor leaders did.  He just wanted a better deal for workers, and fought for it until his death in the 1920s.  The AF of L later merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO, a powerful union even today.

Boss Tweed - the nickname of William Marcy Tweed, the most famous of the political bosses who controlled many large American cities in the Gilded Age.  Tweed was the kingpin of the Democratic Party's "political machine" in New York City.  The organization was nicknamed Tammany Hall, after the building where the party held its meetings.
    Tweed and his counterparts in other big cities built their power mainly on the votes of poor immigrants who needed the small favors the party organization provided.  If necessary, ballot-box stuffing produced more votes to elect the party's candidates.  For the party members, the pay off of their efforts came in the control of City Hall money and contracts.  This control was used in various crooked ways to generate millions of dollars for insiders.
    The Tweed ring was broken by newspaper stories about graft [fraud] and corruption in city politics  in 1871, and Tweed himself landed in jail.  But the general pattern of politics he represented survived well into the 20th century in many big cities.

Carnegie, Andrew - the young Scottish immigrant who rose from a bobbin boy in a cotton mill to become the owner of America's largest steelmaking corporation in the late 1800s.  Largely self-educated, Carnegie worked his way up a series of jobs as America was becoming an industrial giant in the Gilded Age. 
    He pioneered business practices that are now common, including very large-scale production, and "rationalizing" the production processes.  This meant studying every aspect of the process carefully, then improving each step of production.  (McDonald's, for example, uses the same approach today with fast food.)
    He sold his steel company for $500 million in 1901, then gave away most of his fortune, much of it to build public libraries.  He spoke of an obligation of wealthy people to make money, then use it for the public good.  Workers in his plants, however, faced the same harsh conditions and long hours that were common in big industry at the time.

Dawes Act - the act passed by Congress in 1887 that tried to "Americanize" the Indians by breaking up the tribal system.  It failed.  The law was passed by Congress after most Indian tribes were already confined to reservations in the West.
    The Dawes Act represents two conflicting ideas.  Americans would accept Indians as citizens.  But they would not accept them as Indians.  Under the act, the Native American nations were declared abolished.  Indian families got 160 acres of reservation land as their own.  The idea failed, in part because Indians were not given farm equipment or taught how to farm.
    Today, some Native Americans still live on reservations, and try to keep alive tribal traditions.  Others live and work in mainstream American society.

Edison, Thomas - a famous inventor who created the electric light bulb, phonograph, and movie projector in the decades before 1900.  Edison is important because he represents the birth of a systematic approach to inventing things.  He held more than a thousand patents.
    The electric light (1879) changed the look of American cities, and created an entire industry to supply electric power.  Edison's laboratory was in Menlo Park, New Jersey.  It ushered in the modern idea of a “research and development” company.  His most famous saying is that genius is "one percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration."

Ellis Island - the first stop of millions of immigrants entering through New York City from 1892 to 1943.  Immigrants arriving through Ellis Island were examined for infectious disease and other health problems before being allowed to enter the country.  It is open today as a  museum.

graft - the term for corruption in politics that involves crooked money making schemes.  Often the term is associated with big city politics, where opportunities for graft are endless for a well-entrenched political group or "machine." 
    A typical scheme might involve rigged bids for road or construction work.  In exchange for a hidden payment or kickback, the politicians throw the work - often at an inflated price - to a company run by friends.  In some cases, the line between graft and a legitimate political "donation" can be hard to draw.

Homestead Act - a law passed in 1862 that gave 160 acres of free land in the West to anyone who would go there and live on the land for five years.
    Some 400,000 families, including thousands of black settlers, became homesteaders.  Home was often made with sod (dirt and grass) walls, and life was harsh for the early pioneers on the Great Plains.  Some succeeded, but many found that land without nearby water or rail access could never become a successful farm.
    Many people preferred buying western land from railroad companies.  The companies were given the land by the federal government along their routes as an incentive to build the lines.  Barbed wire, the steel windmill (to pump water), and new steel plows were key inventions that made farming the Plains possible.

Indian Wars - the broad term for the sporadic but often deadly battles involving settlers in the West together with the American Army on one side, and Native American tribes already living in that region on the other.  Some fighting occured in the decades before the Civil War, but it intensified as many more settlers headed west after the Civil War ended in 1865. 

political machine - a local or state political organization that is so successful at winning elections that its candidates almost always win.  In some cases, this success is due to unfair use of the political process to win influence for party insiders.  Political machines are often headed by a "boss" who dispenses favors of various kinds to keep the party's members in line and motivated to "get out the vote" at election time.

Rockefeller, John D. - the businessman who started the Standard Oil trust in 1882, and used it to gain control over most of the nation's oil business in the Gilded Age.
    Rockefeller brought organizational genius to a badly disorganized business.  But his methods also included crooked deals with railroads and price wars, all designed to drive competitors out of business.  He and his company are often studied today as examples of business practices of the era.  After 1900, courts ordered the trust broken into separate companies, some of which still exist today.
    Rockefeller, like Carnegie, gave away part of his fortune to worthy projects, such as medical research and the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.  Some of his descendants are still powerful in banking and other fields.

Sherman Antitrust Act  - passed by Congress in 1890, it was an early attempt to try to control abuses by large combinations of businesses called trusts.  It generally outlawed combinations of companies that acted in restraint of free trade.  But it was only rarely used against the industrial giants until later laws, like the Clayton Act (1914), made it easier to win cases against trusts.

Spanish American War - the war fought in 1898 to help Cuba gain its independence from Spain.  The war began after an American battleship sent to Cuba, the Maine, mysteriously exploded.  But tension had already been fanned by American newspapers, all trying to outdo each other with reports of Spanish mistreatment of Cubans.
    Theodore Roosevelt and his band of volunteers, the "Rough Riders," became famous in the fight.  Victory brought Cuba under U.S. protection, and outright control of Puerto Rico and the Philippines.   Filipinos expected to be given their independence.  They were not, however, because America feared that some other country would take them over.  Filipinos launched a rebellion, and American troops were sent to keep control of the islands.
    At home, the conflict over the Philippines sharply divided public opinion.  Many said it was un-American to use force to keep the islands.  They were finally given their independence after World War II.

tenements - a type of apartment building common in big cities starting in the mid 1800s.  They were often poorly built and overcrowded.  Many were created by dividing up floors and even rooms of large houses.  As a result, not all units had water or toilets.  Even in new tenements, these facilities were usually in a hallway shared by many families.
    In a landmark effort to use government power to improve social conditions, New York City passed building codes  (1876) to improve tenements.  Jacob Riis exposed the shocking conditions of life in the tenements in his famous 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives.

trusts - a form of business organization in which several companies are joined and managed as if they were one giant company.  They are illegal today, but were common in the late 1800s.  To form a trust, shareholders of several companies turn over their shares to "trustees" who manage and coordinate the separate companies.  The trust has more power to bargain with suppliers and create efficient, large-scale industries.  It can also avoid the costs of competition.
    Consumers, workers, and other competitors, however, are often hurt.  Trusts often became near monopolies, drove smaller firms out of business, and “fixed” prices.  The Standard Oil trust is often cited as an example of this pattern.  Many trusts also bribed politicians to gain special legislation or otherwise benefit their interests. 
    The Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) was an early, but not very successful, attempt to control abusive trusts.  After 1900 Congress began passing laws that were more effective, and federal courts forced some trusts to split up into separate competing companies. 

 
 
 
Copyright Notice

    Copyright 1999, 2015 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.