Conversion to Urban Industrialism
The United States became industrial champion of the world in the
Gilded Age. It was not a Golden Age. Industrial output was growing
at double the rate of population, notwithstanding the continuously
heavy immigration and, indeed, because of it. "The Gilded Age" was
the happy title of a novel by Mark Twain and C.D. Warner that dealt
with the ludicrous contradictions of the times. It might well be applied
to a country of desperate aspiration and clumsy achievement, whose
needs and problems festered under the rich wrappings of an
extravagant and ostentatious barbarous elite.
It was the age between the fateful withdrawal of federal troops from
the South and the turning of the country into an urban industrial
civilization, roughly then between 1877 and 1907. It was evident, if
not admitted, in the end that the urban areas would be largely
Catholic and preponderantly descended from
nineteenth century immigrants.
Abraham Lincoln was mindful of how the North and West were
developing even while the Civil War was being fought, and
pridefully told the country in 1863 that he was proclaiming the last
Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day and that the
prospering condition of the country was a miracle evidencing the
Divine regard for America.
"Needful diversions of wealth and of
strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense
have not arrested the plow or the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has
enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of
iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more
abundantly than heretofore."
In every foreign war in which it engaged, America's economy has
expanded briskly. It is arguable that the Civil War was no
exception. On the one hand women and Blacks had to work harder,
and the economy was on a war footing; on the other hand, after the
war, the South recovered slowly except in the Southwest and Border
States. Likewise in the North, people worked harder, and no
slackening or recession could occur in wartime.
The cities and industries grew apace, agriculture, too.
Much of American agriculture and industry modernized and
developed to huge proportions outside of the cities.
Most of the cities would have grown large even if
they had been deprived of most of the new industry.
In world history and in poor countries and rich, cities have
grown large because, in addition to seating new and old industries,
they have been centers of trading and communications, of
government, and of the arts and sciences, not to mention being a
place where hordes of people with nothing
else to do preferred to live.
The pace of urban growth speeded up. In the 1880's 100 cities more
than doubled their populations. And most of these acquired suburbs,
too. For the outfitting and management of their new cities,
Americans drew heavily upon European inventions and experience -
in sanitation, public health measures, road and drains construction,
plumbing, in everything having to do with the arts -
hardly in government, unfortunately.
The grand growth of cities and industry in America was
accompanied by a continual dismal chanting against the cities and in
praise of the countryside. The "authorities" of political science and
sociology lent their baritones to the rural buffoons of politics. Just as
the urban came to outnumber the rural population, the chant reached
its fortissimo, at the turn of the century. A vein of ethnic prejudice
lined the doleful music, implying that the urban-dweller was racially
as well as environmentally inferior to the mythical countryfolk.
The vast peopling occurred largely without
inside toilets and running water, without municipal sewers,
in fact with hardly anything that came to be regarded
a few years later as the vital public services.
The largest cities emptied their sewage into private
with 70,000 privies in Baltimore alone at the end of the century.
They paved their streets first not at all,
some then with planks, then with macadam, then
cobblestones, then in some cases granite blocks, sometimes with brick,
then after the
eighties with asphalt, the whole transition taking about one political
Often then, the streets had to be torn up to lay drains and pipes.
Muddy boots became as much a part of the American city as of the
rural areas. Filth and crime were commonly encountered on the streets.
From their very beginnings American cities were unfit to
walk in and have persisted so until the present. They had not aspired
until the end of the century to have parks. President Eliot of
Harvard was as close to a Renaissance man as the age produced; he
proposed plans for cities of parks and walks, of decentralized
housing and industry; his effect was a spit in the
ocean of pain and ugliness.
High achievements in engineering were registered. The skyscraper
was invented and realized, a creature of iron and steel to begin with;
concrete came much later. Although William Le Baron achieved the
first skyscraper of Chicago in 1885, it was Louis Sullivan, also of
Chicago, who was the prime architect of the new structures. The
electric building elevator replaced the mechanical elevator in tall
buildings after 1889. Marvels were accomplished in steel: Brooklyn
bridge was completed in 1883.
The Chicago River was reversed so as not to dump its wastes into
Lake Michigan, laid so beautiful along its edge, but the River
turned into a canal that ended in the Mississippi River (hopefully
with its polluting material dropped to the bottom en route).
Horse-drawn street cars were brought in; steam railways were tried,
some on elevated tracks, but were too awkward and dangerous. Cable
cars worked well, though cumbersome. The solution was the electric
trolley car of the 1890's. Meanwhile New York, Philadelphia and
Boston were tunneling subways for electric trains.
The rapid spread of the eminently useful bicycle after 1888
pressured for better streets.
No major invention came about after the turn of the century to
save the cities from themselves. Many small
steps occurred, usually to correct some growing fault,
sometimes causing more of a problem than existed before,
like water purification to replace the old pure
natural water, asphalt instead of brick streets,
more street lighting by gas and then electricity,
electric traffic signals, buses in place of trolley cars on tracks,
fill-ins of wetlands in and around the cities.
Houses were erected slapdash for the most part in the fast early stages
of growth. Buildings rose in height. Families were squeezed into small
flats and smaller houses and lots. But the excellent returns on renting
to workers and clerks encouraged more substantial buildings; brick
tenements and row houses became common. They quickly became
slums; it was as if a decree had once been promulgated
that there should never be an American whose
ancestors had not lived in a slum, rural or urban. Surprisingly,
about a third of the families in America owned their shelters. Most
of these were in the country, of course, but many were in the city,
where, given a little time and family members at work or bringing
in a wage, a stick house could be erected and quickly filled with
family and tenants. Mortgage and loan associations
enticed many to borrow and be plagued thereafter by the
threat of eviction for defaulting on payments.
Yet we speak of averages, and are likely to overlook the
considerable number of people who, given a higher than average
wage or salary, could hire excellent immigrant workers to put up a
house, paying them very little. Before the age was out, suburbs had
grown up, usually beginning as independent nearby villages and then
becoming bedroom communities, obtaining richer neighbors, fresher
air, and quiet, in exchange for a long commuting time.
Cities were vile places. Neighborhoods stank of the particular
industries sheltered by them. Sewage was sniffable practically
everywhere. Public health was continuously menaced. Typhoid fever,
tuberculosis, yellow fever, cholera, smallpox were endemic and often
epidemic. (Still, the idea that rural areas were healthy, long a myth, has
been discharged by numerous studies, the earliest of them beginning in
this period; the primeval forest was bad enough, but the remade rural
environment gave a worse account of itself, lagging far behind in the
application of preventive medicine, hygiene, diet, and medical care.)
People did not have strong convictions about cleanliness nor could
they keep clean if they wanted to in many circumstances. Other
diseases came from pollution and occupational poisons; hundreds of
thousands of miners suffered from lung disease, usually called "black
lung" in the coal mining areas. The poverty of the workers, the
inadequacy of urban facilities, and the lack of a tradition of cleanliness
in cities such as Dublin, Glasgow and London, whence came many
immigrants, did not foster sanitary
personal and family habits.
Diet was miserable. A penchant for bits of meat, pancakes, potatoes
and sweets - skip the vegetables and fruit - led to frequent rickets
and shorter lives. Milk was becoming abundant but germ-ridden often;
only late in the century did the cows get chased out of town, along
with the chickens and pigs, and with them went some of the
sophistication and amusement of children from coming to know
animals - including the terrors of their slaughter a few yards down
the street. Pasteurization of milk ( a French invention) came along
with several other important controls based upon discoveries in
micro-biology; these spread quickly everywhere.
Families were usually large and included several children. A sample of
several thousand urban households of the 1880's gives us useful
data. Border-state natives were the largest, and had the largest
number of children, with about 30% having five or more children.
Foreign-stock families came next in size and about 28% held over
five children, then came Southern natives, and finally Northern
native-born families, with considerably fewer members
to a household and less children. German and Irish
families in Philadelphia in 1900 averaged
seven children, Southern whites and blacks six.
Native American household heads of the North brought in the highest
median earnings, $485.
British husbands took in $453 (a difference, one writer stresses,
worth 200 pounds of beef).
Continental men took in $383, Irish $367, French Canadians $358,
and Anglo-Canadians $345. The differences relate to the skills and
locations of work, and the kind of industry worked in. The native
husbands of the Border State households (presumed all Caucasians)
earned $343, and Southerners only $250.
These same families (not a random or even highly valid sample, but
much more reliable than the guesses or journal accounts) spent a total
of $605.60 on the average per year - 42% for food, 20% on the
household, 15% on clothing, 4% on sickness and death costs, 6% on
discretionary and 6% on all other costs. (Cato, writing 2200 years ago,
tells us that the marginal laborer of the Roman Republic spent 52% for
food, 8% for clothing, and 40% for rent and other costs of living.
Generally his family ate wheat puddings, vegetables, rarely meat, and
drank wine. Bread and circuses later were provided free.)
The 25% with the lowest income ($110 - 457 for the year) got their
money 76.7% from the husband, 12.9% from working children, 5.2%
from working wives, 3.3% from boarders, and 1.9% from other
sources. The most affluent workers' families ($800-$2,777) got three
times as much of their income from the labor of their children. Child
labor operated under appalling conditions, but it kept most
American working-class families surviving, solvent, and secure.
Butter and eggs were used in place of meat. Still, fresh and salt meat
came to $75.00 of a total food expenditure of $223.00 for a family
of seven in a year's time, according to a remarkable accounting by
one worker's wife. Total wages of the household came to $576.00
for the year, rent to $84.00 and a
small surplus was claimed.
She warns us, however, that when the factory shut down, as it did the
past year for six weeks, everyone felt the necessary sacrifices. Illness
was, of course, not compensated for in any way. Nor accidents; there
were more than half a million serious industrial accidents per year.
(Employer's liability was negligible).
Such a family could be and often was ruined by the next year's
events. It could also be pushed into the next higher category of the
poor owing to a child coming of an age, twelve or older, when he or
she might find work or tend the other children while the mother
worked. In any event, the portrayal here is of a well-organized,
healthy family with a full "breadwinner." Chances are good, in fact,
that the story was a concoction of government propagandists. Most
farmers, Black and White, most laborers Black or White, most Blacks,
did not come near to this state of affairs.
Infant mortality in 1900 was 162 per thousand births, lower than the
average of the previous century; the rate declined to 100 in 1915; and
halved to 77 in 1923. The figures were not reliable, inasmuch as in
rural areas infant deaths went unreported, not to mention abortions
and miscarriages, especially among the poor and the Blacks.
A third of all pregnancies of Michigan women in 1898
were artificially terminated, that is, aborted.
The crude death rate betrayed the same unreliability, but it seems to
have declined between the early 1800's and the early 1900's,
perhaps by nearly 50%. At 24 per thousand and 14 per thousand,
the rate was still high, but so it was around the world. For men and
women, life expectancy increased by seven years between 1789 and
1855, a memorial generation. In the next 40 years, until 1897, there
occurred a 14-year increase in life expectancy. Industrialization and
urbanization were accompanied, that is to say, by an
increase in longevity.
In the Gilded Age, half the booming country's assets
were owned by 1% of the families.
Most people could not save. They could only
do a little better or worse from year to year.
National production rose steeply between the
Civil War and 1914. In consequence
prices declined over the same period. Real wages
did double between 1860 and 1914.
In 1890 the average national wage per year
amounted to $439 for all manufacturing workers,
with a low of $302 in cotton textiles and
a high of $630 in soft drinks and beer.
Salaried workers received more (including the honor of being paid a
salary rather than a daily wage, and a presumption that lay-offs
would be rare); clerks received $848 (this was the age when the
social superiority of clerks over manual workers was advertised and
believed), but railroad clerks earned only $635; postal employees
averaged $878; schoolteachers, almost entirely female,
brought in a mere $256.
Farm wages were considerably less. In 1900 the average annual
wage was $490.00, requiring a work-week of 69 hours on a six or
seven-day stint. Per capita income for the whole population, for all
incomes and all gainfully employed in industry, commerce,
governments, and agriculture, amounted to about $190 in 1890.
Still the cities were more attractive than the country, never mind the
lovely myths about country life that the urban and small-town middle
classes foisted on the schoolchildren and themselves. When Judge
Gary, infamous head of New York Steel, giver of the name of Gary,
Indiana, which name, unlike Stalingrad, has never been changed, to
Laborville, say, testified before a congressional
committee about working conditions at the plants of the largest
company in the country, possibly in the world, where men had to
labor practically all of their waking hours all the week long, he
compared them with country labor as getting a favorable deal.
But the country worker, the farmer at least, could call for his own
respites, watch the sky and scene roundabout from time to time, and
usually set his own pace, nor was he likely to be observed and
bullied by bosses and what a century later came to be called security
guards, who were then mere thugs, backed by the company
managers and these by the local sheriffs and police departments.
Englishmen make poor workers, complained a Carnegie executive in
1875, because they brought to American notions of unions, conditions
of work, and wages from the Old Country; give us instead, he said, the
Germans, Swedes, the Irish (sic), the fresh lad from the American
farm, who are more willing.
In Europe at the same time, the worker might observe a number of
holidays without penalty, mostly religious in origin. Bare-bones
Protestantism had shed most of these before the factory system
began in America. Whatever his condition otherwise, the peasant of
Britain, Ireland, Germany, and the other European counterparts of
Americans could often be found discussing the state of the world
and heaven with others, or even at a cafe or bar.
The lads were leaving the farms as fast as they could - Americans
then, as ever, were not happy at farming: for every man who left the
city for the country, twenty left the country for the city. These native
Americans were no less exploited than the immigrant or minority
member. They could, however, escape a little easier into higher
positions, where still they were worked very hard and had almost none
of the perquisites of middle management today.
There were three major phases of the so-called industrial revolution
that took early America to the end of the twentieth century. The first
was the crafts phase, when small businesses were commencing to
spread into a large variety of manufactures and transportation modes,
prompted by many inventions, both mechanical and psycho-social; the
second can be called the smoke-stack phase; and third and present
phase the electro-chemical.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, we are observing the
smoke-stacks - water power and steam engines greatly magnified,
the multiplication of inventions (and the prototypes of twentieth
century major industries, such as electricity and diesel engines
working upon oil). Coal and iron mines, and to a lesser degree
petroleum wells, provided fuel and heavy construction material.
A new lexicon came into being; what men were doing now had to be
described by new terms for the new processes, even beyond the new
terminology of the materials and machines. Increased specialization
brought many new job descriptions to go with the new kinds of work.
Accounting practices were heavily revised. With increased functions
and personnel, bureaucracy came to large business and government.
The factory system took over everywhere, covering large acreages,
attracting or building its worker communities. A new class of clerks
came into being; these would for most of a century feel themselves
superior to the manual workers and imagined themselves as ready to
take over management roles as soon as their worth was recognized.
Before the crafts industrial revolution, the cottager, the printer, the
work unit tended to be complete: the raw material came out ready for
consumption. In the beginning of the industrial revolution, the
movement of work processes was toward specialization of the
company, that would deal with distant companies, agents, middlemen;
there was neither horizontal nor vertical integration.
It was typical to receive an already begun thing and pass it along
before it was ready for the consumer. But now the new captains of
industry sought economies, controls over people and processes and
prices, and smoother, quicker coordination of the
total process of their industry.
Where they succeeded, as did John D. Rockefeller for some time in the
petroleum industry - drilling, pumping, storage, transportation,
refining, distribution, sales - the profits were huge. His key
achievement was to gain control of 95% of the refining capacity of the
country, which he achieved by efficient organization, astute bargaining
with the parties on all sides, by making secret deals with the railroads,
buying out competitors, undercutting others, refusing services to
others, in short, employing whatever
tactics might prove effective.
Later on, J.P. Morgan did the same for the steel industry with the
formation of the United States Steel Corporation, which began with
iron ore quarries and extended to the customers for finished steel.
The list of giant industries that sprang up is long. They
all went through the stages of discovery, initiation, scrambling for
capital, fighting competition at every stage, mutually destructive
pricing, voluntary or compelled amalgamation, and controlled raw
material sources, production quotas, and pricing.
Most major industries came to be monopolized by one or at most
several firms. They numbered in the scores; their annual product
exceeded that of many countries of the world, and if the rest of the
country's gross domestic product were to have been measured and
added, it would have exceeded that of any nation in the world by the
end of the century. Its industrial production surpassed that of united
Imperial Germany. To the great corporate names already mentioned
could be added three score others, that the American citizen was
coming to know as well as he did the names of the individual States,
names like American Can, Pullman Car, Dupont in explosives, and
Singer Manufacturing Company in sewing machines.
Societies tend to move in a coordinated, transacting fashion, we
should remember, and agriculture in cheap-land mobile America
was as revolutionary as urban industry. As early as the seventies
small farmers were barely holding their own, while giant farms were
bringing about a new agro-industry. Wheat farms and cattle ranches
of thousands of acres were working the soils of the Near Northwest
down to the Near Southwest, from Canada to the Rio Grande.
German discoveries and practices in chemical fertilizers were
enthusiastically adopted, and taught to students of the expanded
agricultural and mechanical colleges that had been funded
everywhere by the federal government (under the 1862 Morrill Act).
The coincidence of heavy German immigration to Northwestern
farms and the prompt dissemination of German scientific advances is
notable. Environmentalism, more in philosophy than in practice, a
kindness to the landscape, came into being in the Gilded Age. (Ernst
Haeckel coined the term "ecology" in 1866.)
The Constitution was user-friendly to businessmen. Especially as
interpreted by the courts. Governments continued to help the capitalist
and the entrepreneur, the good ones and the bad ones, and to
persecute the complaining workers and their representatives, whether
good or bad. Expectedly, there is argument over the qualities of those
who emerged top dog during the Gilded Age. Some say that there was
no special way. No special genius. No morality
that one would find unambiguously recommended in the
Gospel, in the Constitution, in Shakespeare, in a
writer of consequence, in poets.
The general formula for great success was, first of all, settling upon
the strategically correct business - new enough for new men; vast
potential for growth; a technology that had gone through the
invention and pioneering stage. Then came choosing reliable and
competent partners and employees and clients; working hard;
lucking in; and arranging, sooner rather than later, banking and
financing connections. Getting all of this together required a lot of
talent and a steadfast character.
The tycoons knew how to make deals and seize opportunities, how
the future was shaping up. Like politicians watching the polls, they
scrutinized the faces and fates of the unsuccessful, learned how the
mob was heading, paid as little attention as possible to legal forms
and restraining laws. They let neither politicians, nor lawyers, nor
media criticism, nor reformers stand in their way - and there were
all too few of these last types anyway in the Gilded Age.
In one way or another, most of the new achievers came out of the old
possessors, not John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie to be sure -
they had been poor boys - but J.P.Morgan, for instance. Long after
the myth of "from rags to riches" became part of folklore, sociologists
and economists dug up family records on the oligopolists, and even as
Roberto Michels found among the early Bolsheviki, the successful
commissars disproportionately came from successful families, and tried
usually to hide their origins. They did not emerge from
bitter poverty and ignorance.
Sympathy for the businessmen who were displaced, edged out, or
ruined by the monopolists, would be misplaced. They shared all of the
vices of the monopolists, and gnashed their teeth only at not being able
to exploit the worker and the environment as greatly and profitably as
the triumphant barons of industry and commerce. If Rockefeller had
not forced out of business most of his competitors, the whole group of
speculators and producers, refiners and distributors of petroleum
would have battled continuously, raising and lowering prices to the
consternation of the business community, the
financial institutions and the public.
Rivers of petroleum would have been wasted. As it was,
Pennsylvania oil reserves did disappear quickly and the industry went
West to repeat the act. Furthermore, the weak individual industrialists
would have been victimized by the railroad directors,
for they had little bargaining power in their individual capacity.
Not until 1890, after the horse had escaped from the barn, did
Congress attempt, half-heartedly, a restraint upon the monopolists.
Then it was that a bill of Senator John Sherman of Ohio, ably
reworked and conducted through the toils of the legislative process by
Senator George Hoar, declared unlawful all trusts and combinations in
restraint of trade and manufacturing. However, this was window-dressing.
It did little more than reiterate what the common law had
said for centuries about monopolies, that they were unlawful
conspiracies against the public and the realm.
In reality, the syndicates, secret pacts, trusts, interlocking
directorates, and holding companies that were the substances causing
protest and attempts at legal controls, might thank Congress for a
vague and unenforceable and lackadaisical law, that the economic
oligarch waved at in overtaking and passing. Many more trusts were
formed and the new phase could be hardly countered by the
Sherman Act or any act thought of to this day, the use of simple
investment banking techniques to see that all the controls of an
aggregate of concerns controlling an aggregate of production were in
the proper hands to count on the results of their activities.
J.P.Morgan brought this upon the American Republic.
Exceptional men invented and pioneered and rode the roller-coaster at
least part of the ways. Alexander Graham Bell patented a variety of
telephone that after many design changes entered the inventory of the
American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1885. Thomas Alva
Edison not only invented numerous devices - the phonograph (1877),
the incandescent light bulb (1879), a storage battery, a copying
machine, and the motion picture (all of these with
competitors in Europe who claimed credit, too), but he set up an
"institute of invention," an avant-garde conception of how things
ought to be developed in the modern world, the first R & D
establishment, that brought him in lucrative contracts and produced
profitable innovations. His lamp bulb fed on direct current, that
unfortunately could not be carried long distances along a wire.
Nicholas Tesla, an engineer who immigrated from Croatia in 1884,
espoused alternating current, and was fought by Edison, and sold out
to Westinghouse. He invented the electric dynamo still basic to electric
power and set up the Niagara Falls power system. He ran a fantastic
experiment station in the Rocky Mountains to pass currents through
the Earth and obtain charges therefrom of the potency of lightning, and
died in an unpaid Manhattan hotel room, his only friends the pigeons
he fed from his window. Frank Westinghouse carried on most
successfully with the AC system.
Charles Proteus Steinmetz was another immigrant, from Breslau,
who fled in 1888 when his socialist convictions got him into trouble.
He became a professor at Union College and a General Electric
Company consultant, worked like Tesla on lightning, transmission
lines, and generators, to the tune of over 200 patents.
Few believed that man could ever fly by motor until he did so fly.
Balloon flights were old by a century when Wilbur and Orville
Wright began a lifetime of experiment and construction at Dayton,
Ohio, encouraged by their father, who was an itinerant preacher on
the road half the time, but also by their mechanically gifted mother.
The sons never married, their sister married at 52.
They were upstanding, abstemious, determined bicycle repairmen,
absolutely determined to fly a machine and doing so
definitively in 1903, assiduous afterwards in
seeking patents, contracts, payments, and credits.
Orville, the surviving brother, sold their business for a
million dollars. Like Charles Lindbergh, who was to fly
the Atlantic Ocean solo two decades later,
the Wrights were the rage of Paris.
With all this industry on top of trade and transportation, and the
millions of workers entailed, there had to be an enlarging middle
class. Some of its elements were old, meaning that they descended
usually from middle or upper class parents, but the majority were
new, coming out of the new or greatly expanded occupations of the
smoke-stack age. The older types were heavily represented, for
example, among teachers, among professionals such as doctors and
bankers, among writers and publishers, and among ministers (but
not priests, these being newly minted from generation
to generation by the Catholic Church).
The civil servants were new except in the upper realms where
politicians could obtain support for election from the old middle
class gentlemen and ladies. Also included here would be the
prosperous independent farmers, and large land-owners and rentiers of
country and city. All of these increasingly sent their children to
increasingly exclusive private schools, boarding them there often, so
that a kind of national upper-middle class began to develop,
sometimes in this manner keeping in touch with the
scions of the truly and permanently rich.
The overwhelming number of the middle niches were filled by new
types. Here were most civil servants, technicians and machinists,
suppliers of mechanical goods, smaller independent farmers, retailers
and wholesalers, artists and entertainers, and the great American
salesman. Ladies were still absent in all occupational
categories of the middle class, except as landladies. The potential
wave of women in middle-level jobs of industry and business and
politics was imperceptibly forming far out at sea. It would take a
hundred years for it to come crashing in.
Good ladies were concerned with welfare, particularly with the
innumerable depressed, but here they were forced almost entirely
into a certain decorum. They had to propel and stand behind their
menfolk. They could, if they would, read some of the reports of the
absolutely foul conditions of life in the city for most of its
inhabitants. They might not only derive a lubricious satisfaction
from these, but also truly learn what life was like just
down the street from them.
They could be shocked by hearing how many women were
prostitutes (never mind the mistresses, call girls, loose women of
their circles), as many as they and many more. These hung around
and lent a promising air to dance halls, saloons, hotel lobbies,
vaudeville shows, theaters, magazine stands, amusement parks,
Turkish baths, restaurant back rooms, state fairs, barber shops,
excursion boats whether on the Hudson, the Ohio, the Mississippi,
Lake Michigan, or wherever, lonely wharves by the thousands, and -
need we say - the streets, and the scores and hundreds, and in
Chicago and New York, the thousands of brothels themselves, plain
and plush. One can think of all of this as part of the Gilt or part of
the Problem of the grossly enlarging city. And think, too, that the
automobile back seat had hardly been dreamed of.
We shall probably not be able to ascertain the number of women, or
men for that matter, who were onto drugs in the Gilded Age.
Neurasthenia and hysteria were common. In fact, one observer after
another tells us that the typical American countenance in this period
was strained and anxious, among women as well as men. It
evidenced the social climber's and survivors' diseases.
Fatigue was as common among the leisure classes as among the
laborers, among "unoccupied" women, lying among their chocolates
and cats, as among their menfolk. Depression was common, too.
And the fits of hysteria that practically imaged the Victorian Age, the
fits that allowed Freud to build a theory of psychoanalysis at the
end of the period. Cocaine was the drug of choice, after alcohol, of
course. Cocaine was used in some cases to break the alcohol or
heroin habit. It was easily obtainable. Some mixed it with tobacco
and smoked it or chewed it. Some took their cocaine in wine or
whiskey. It was certainly a stroke of genius but also a promise of
what was really therein to call it - whatever it was -
a few years later, "Coca Cola."
Electricity had its domestic side. The sewing
machine was electrified, then the room fan, the
toaster and teakettle, and, in the 1880's,
the vulvular vibrator, followed, a decade later,
by the vacuum cleaner and electric iron.
Numbers of women had long since suffered the illness
called hysteria (from the ancient Greek word for uterus and
early referred to as "womb furie.")
Physicians treated it variously, by hypnosis, by
psychoanalysis, by sleeping potions, and by digital
manipulation of the genitals. But the vibrator was to be cheaper and
more patient than the doctors, and its electrified manifestations were
manifold, with an enormous market nudged along by
advertisements and scientific arguments in
American males, who were too obtuse to comprehend and
too ashamed to admit it, were convicted of
amorous incapacity and put in their place by, ironically,
a mechanical device. (Spas, to which women resorted,
also lent douche hoses, which were used for vaginal play.)
Farmers and workers organized rapidly on occasion, but just as rapidly
their organizations dispersed. They treated the hard tasks of the
organization of unions, of cooperatives, and of socialism as they had
the sporadic revival movements of the century before-
chiliastically, enthusiastically, ready to win their demands
tomorrow, but not to wait for the day after.
One of the longest-lived of farmer-worker organizations was the
Grange, or Patrons of Husbandry, founded by farmers in 1867. It
counted a million members within a few years, and collected a
million votes when its candidates ran under the Greenback Party
label in 1878. (But the Greenbacks disappeared after 1884.) Besides
running candidates, Grange lodges set up producers' and consumers'
cooperatives - aimed at the unpopular middlemen who owned silos
and wholesale stores and bought and sold grain. They conducted
themselves as social clubs as well in a great many
Another group, less affluent on the whole, the Farmers' Alliances, was
developed during the period in many states; they were not a political
party but hoped for social legislation, were friendly to women's rights,
and sought to form cooperatives in order to eliminate the middlemen,
who, we may recall, were the bane of poor Whites and Blacks in the
South and were nearly as oppressive in the North: or so it seemed to
the unsuccessful farmer, that is, most farmers. The Alliances numbered
a million-and-a-half Whites plus, separately organized,
a million Blacks in 1890.
For two decades around then, with the founding
of the Knights of Labor, nearly a million workers were
brought together to demand shorter hours,
elimination of children from the work force, cooperatives,
cheap money, and from time to time the exclusion of
Chinese and other immigrants, although
immigrants among them were numerous.
The Noble Order of Knights were a confused lot, reaching out as a fraternal
organization and secret society, a political movement, a political
party, a resettlement group, an egalitarian and yet discriminatory
congeries. Often they organized both men and women, Blacks and
Whites, and skilled and unskilled workers. After
earlier railroad strikes succeeded, the ever-guileful
Jay Gould sucked them into a strike for which he prepared an ambush
by violent strikebreakers.
(There had been terrible depressions in 1873 and 1877, each with
heavy wage cuts and unemployment that ruined hundreds of
thousands of poor families.) The 1877 strike of the railroads
showed the nation what a fully organized labor movement might do.
The militia of several states had to be called out and
finally federal troops descended upon the scene.
As usual, the "forces of law and order" suppressed
the strike supporters, to the benefit of the companies.
The Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW or "Wobblies," were a
more radical aggregate of migrant workers, radical immigrants, miners, lumberjacks and sundry other groups. "Big Bill" Heywood led and
inspired them. They won an important strike in Massachusetts but lost
more often, usually in bloody combat with the authorities and owners.
The movement slipped after 1912, and was persecuted in World War I by the Federal Government for its pacifist and socialist principles.
A more sober socialist party was led
initially by Daniel de Leon, a Dutch West Indian,
who was replaced in 1901 by Eugene Debs, of
Alsatian ancestry, America's greatest socialist.
He had led the railroad union workers
in the Pullman strike of 1894.
Despite support from around the country,
the strike collapsed in the face of determined onslaughts by
outside strikebreakers and federal troops ordered in by
President Grover Cleveland. As candidate for President,
Debs won nearly a million votes in 1912. He went to jail
for his pacifism in World War I. When he was visited in
jail by affectionate friends, the New York Times said,
"Why all the kissing, Mr. Debs?"
Widespread violence had attended also the Homestead, Pittsburgh,
steel strike two years earlier. In this, perhaps
the most violent of strikes, workers destroyed much company
property and fought against hundreds of strikebreakers
brought in from outside the area by the companies, and
ultimately were mowed down by the state militia. This
was the year after the founding of the Populist Party in 1891;
Ignatius Donnelly, whose books on ancient catastrophes were
mentioned in Chapter One, drew up its party platform.
Besides proposing the usual social welfare programs that were in
vogue, the Populists wanted to increase the silver and paper money
in circulation to $50 per capita; over the generation past this figure
had gone down greatly. The farmers were the hopeful ones behind the
demand; its enactment would cheapen money, thus making more
of it available for the repayment of debt and the purchase of
necessities. Another Populist or People's Party demand was for an
income tax, still another the popular election of U.S. Senators. They
also hoped for the nationalization of the railroads. In 1892 the Party
picked up a million votes for its Presidential candidate. They
practically forced the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan upon the
Democratic Party in
1896, and he lost the election narrowly, scaring
high business and finance. He lost twice more as the
Bryan's oratory was the culmination of the traditional evangelical
style. For opposing reasons, both populists and banking circles went
hysterical over his Democratic Convention speech of 1996 in which
he implored the voters not to let America be crucified upon a
cross of gold.
Silver mining interests applauded as vigorously as the Populist
Democrats, for they, too, wanted to cheapen the currency, increase
the money supply, give the poor man something to clink in his
overall pockets. Presumably America could not be crucified on a
cross of silver.
Bryan later became Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson,
resigning when the anti-German policies of the government became
apparent to him. When last in the public eye, he was
debating Clarence Darrow in a Tennessee court of law over the guilt
or innocence of a schoolteacher named Stokes, whose offense was to
teach, contrary to a State statute, that man was formed by long
periods of evolution from lower forms of life -
an anti-Judeo-Christian idea that Bryan disliked.
Although Stokes was convicted, his case was later
dismissed on appeal, for
Among the immigrants were numerous anarchists, who believed
private property was basically theft, that capitalists were to be
eliminated in favor of workers' cooperatives, and that violence had to
be used to bring down the social system. In Chicago, a largely Germanic
anarchist group met at Haymarket Square
4 May 1886to protest the killing of a
striking worker at the International Harvester Plant.
When police descended upon the meeting violently, a bomb was
thrown among them killing one officer and wounding others.
Retribution was visited upon the agitators; four were hanged, on
doubtful evidence of complicity in the crime, while others were
handed long prison sentences.
The Haymarket bombing initiated the first major
"red scare" -- as distinguished from customary violence against
agitators for workers' causes. All labor problems
could be sloganized to justify root and branch
socialists, anarchists, and all who
sympathized with them fell prey to police,
vigilantes, zealous prosecutors, and a persecutory press.
Foreigners, in this case Irish nationalist workers, were also involved in
the "Molly McGuires," most prominently active in the coal mining
areas. They were a secretive group, operating as a combined
international anti-British conspiracy, anti-employer organization, secret
labor union within the labor unions, an association to bring preferment
to Irish Catholics, and in all of these aspects committed hundreds of
killings and beatings. Managers and uncooperative workers were often
their victims. Their decline was associated with the achievement of
minor objectives in the mines, with the assimilation of many members
to the larger society, and with the arrest of key members by Pinkerton
private detectives and state police, followed by convictions.
Some immigrants were easier to unionize
than native Americans. The latter had been profoundly
individualistic all along and
had little impulse to give up their regularly
enjoyed liberty of decision and action in order to
fight against the owners of industry and their thousands
of minions and private police, certainly not
to join with "foreigners" against the native-born elite.
Immigrants, by contrast, came already aware of the
great strides that labor movements were taking in
Europe, of the gains that they had won. England and
Germany, for instance, had much social welfare
legislation on the books a good political
generation before the United States acted.
But blacks were humble, poor southern whites
bewildered, and immigrants of halting speech:
actually all shared all three traits that
combined with their rawness and newness
and rural backgrounds to render them near to hopeless
prospects for unionization.
With an ideological breach between native and foreigner,
there could be no enduring union. Worse,
the several ethnic groups were prey to division and betrayal.
One could be employed to crack another.
Moreover, only a hundred years earlier,
there still existed indentured servants, those who had
been so much a part of the settlement of the country,
so that employers, consonant with American habit and culture,
could see in the worker not much beyond the status of the
indentured servant. (We may hope that the reader does not
hold the notion that a man who has risen from the ranks is
usually a more benign boss than a person given an
entitlement to command others straightaway.)
For these reasons, the American labor movement never really got off
the ground, though on several occasions it went roaring down the
runway. It was anti-socialistic, individualistic, atomistic, permeated by
bucolic ideology and utopian visions. Americans who agonized over
the condition of the working class could not arrive at an effective
formula for winning a respectable permanent place in the hugest of
industrial societies. Indeed, they made their intransigence and defeat
into a virtue and victory, claiming that unions were an evil and foreign
influence on the true-blue worker.
The American Federation of Labor was the exception. This
assembly of autonomous crafts unions was set up in 1886 under the
leadership of Samuel Gompers, a Dutch Jew who learned social
science by reading to his fellow workers in a tobacco shop in
Florida while they spit on and rolled the leaves. Separate unions
were set up, locally autonomous but each having a national
headquarters and affiliations and thus capable of calling upon their
fellows everywhere to join in strikes and boycotts. Carpenters,
Pullman Car porters, masons, numerous other trades, even
professional musicians, soon had their unions. The scheme proved
more effective, especially when it was executed in collaboration
with local politicians needing personal and financial support.
But it overlooked the mass of industrial workers. As for the clerical
workers, they were hopeless so far as the union movement was
concerned. Sitting below the bosses admiring, they would watch
their advantageous position and initial superiority in pay diminish
with time. They were self-respecting but proletarianized without
knowing it, which meant that they were poor but unorganizable, and
The American tradition of corruption and violence naturally
characterized labor relations. The crafts union leaders were often
involved in bribery, pay-offs and racketeering; they could usually
call upon thugs to threaten or injure non-union scabs and recalcitrant
employers. The largest demonstrations of the violent tenor of
America occurred, however, in connection with the efforts of the
true class movements and mass movements of labor, such as were
described fleetingly above..
When all efforts to organize a working-class mass movement failed,
the workers and farmers could exclaim,
"We have met the enemy and they are us."
Politics of the city and nation in these years left much to be desired:
the Presidents were mediocrities, wrote Lord Bryce, a careful and
systematic authority on American government. ( He is not so brilliant,
nor so celebrated today, as Alexis de Toqueville who wrote a half
century earlier - but then de Toqueville was more moved by populist
democracy.) Not only were the Presidents unimpressive, said Bryce,
but the cities were the most conspicuous
failure of American democracy.
It is easy and correct to generalize here. Both the cities and the nation
were dominated by the moneyed interest, as Hamilton and
Madison would put it. But now we were talking about veritable
dinosaurs crunching about the country. National politics operated
usually without giving much trouble to the industrial captains. The
Senate was "a rich man's club," said everybody, peaking perhaps in
1900 with 25 millionaires in residence. Considering that the club
was elected by the state legislatures, still, this fact
casts the state legislatures in a lurid light:
indeed they were rings of corruption.
A persuasive case can be made that the most scientific concept to be
applied to modeling the American political system for some fifty
years here was a set of interlocking rings of corruption. We have
already advanced the thesis, without fear of slander, that the
Presidents of the post-Civil War period were worse than
mediocrities, and contributed on the whole to the defeat of racial
and industrial and social harmony in general.
At least, in the Congress, voices could be heard denouncing one
unholy alliance after another. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, for all its
weaknesses, was intended sincerely to call a halt to
monopolization of all the industries of America. Not without
representations by the National Labor Union, a predecessor of the
major workers' groups named above, Congress decreed an eight-hour
day for all federal government employees; this was well ahead
of private industry, which seemed to take no note of the fact.
Washington was dominated by business interests. The place, still hot,
humid, and culturally a negative, was relatively inactive, bereft
of knowledge regarding planning, administration, and late
technology, except in a few departments insulated from
politics. The opinion still prevailed, that the best
government did little or nothing.
From 1888 onwards, Senator James Blaine was in charge in the Senate
and Washington and lent his brokerage services to
monumental deals around the capital and country. Senator Nelson
W. Aldrich of Rhode Island might be termed the perennial Crown
Prince of the Republic. It was their group and its ring upon ring,
interlocking networks we would say today, that crushed in a panic
the labor movements, the reform movements, the Democratic Party
when it fell under the influence of cheap money advocates such as
William Jennings Bryan - who, let it be said in favor of his
opposition, that no man had a freer voice in trying to upset the
American plutocracy over so many years.
The United States was still a developing country, although its
adolescent girth was huge. The government's continuous struggles
over the relation of gold to silver content, in backing up bonds and
currency, helped cause one and then another economic panic and
depression. President Cleveland, for instance, found the country's
reserves "low" at one point, and decided that Congress had
better stop backing government bonds with gold, and repeal the
fixed relation between the price of gold and silver in dollars.
What should have been a plausible idea, little better or worse than
the next man's, caused many silver mines promptly to fail, credit
generally to collapse, unemployment to rise to 20%, riots to break
out, industrial production to diminish, imports to lessen, and
European investors to begin to sell out their American interests. In
the next elections, of 1894, the Republicans regained control of
Congress. Financiers August Belmont and J.P. Morgan lent the
government the credit facilities it needed to reassure the anxious and
baffled sheep of the financial community, the media, the
politicians and the foreign bankers.
Not only does our lack of space forbid an explanation of all this
here now, but there was really no explanation: it was one more
depression such as had continually occurred from the beginning of
the Republic, once or twice per decade, each time inflicting increased
anxiety and hardship for a couple of years on most
Americans. Still, as wars killed and wounded their myriads, but the
population increased, so depressions brought their compounded and
confounded miseries while, underneath, the generative
forces of the next phase of economic expansion
readied themselves to leap forward.
The cities were going their own way. Their political leaders - in rings,
fiefdoms, and gangs - learned how to negotiate and
compromise with the leaders of industry and yet persuade the
denizens of the city that they were respected and even dominating
the government. Connections between the cities and the State and
national governments were many, and more a network of corrupt
arrangements than they were of "planned scientific and
administrative benefits for the whole of the city in relation to the
state and nation." Such latter expressions could
inspire ironic laughter.
The phenomenon of the boss was nationwide, from Boston to San
Francisco. The boss signified the combination that worked, the
myriad minor precinct captains, the money streaming in from all
quarters, the pathetic endlessly suffering dependent poor gratefully
putting on the role of a supporter, not a beggar, the clamoring
business elements who were ready to fulfill civic needs if
only they were given the contracts to do so.
The cities had to do very much, but how to do it was the question.
State legislatures, usually fully corrupt, gave the cities hostile and
inefficient, but extremely detailed, instructions on how they must do
everything, until a city home rule movement in Illinois and a few other
places reduced the dictatorship of the yokels. But this did not help the
situation, because the city slickers ran everything corruptly too. The
difference was that cities had to be constructively corrupt, whereas the
legislators were usually purposeless in their grafting.
It was like the situation in the world of the late twentieth century,
when some progressive governments did much of their work with
the grease of corruption, like Italy and France; the corruption found
its way to formidable progress; but in others, like the Soviet Union,
corruption was only personal, could not be invested in enterprise or
to carry on political debates, and made matters worse.
The conclusion is obvious: capitalist corruption is much less
damaging and more constructive over a wide range of effects than
socialist or communist or militarist or, for that matter,
civil service corruption.
Legislatures - Congress among them - became the seats of the bucolic
imagery of America that proved itself destructive over the next
century, keeping the cities from doing anything,applauding the
labor relations philosophy of business, despising the incoming
immigrants, keeping the educational systems in
thrall to the rural imagery.
The Gilded Age was also the age that brought the glamorized
cowboy, whose ragged outfits became highly styled by city folk,
"saddle-set" tourists, dudes from the East and abroad whose coming
engendered a false folk culture that fixed itself on the minds of the
next century of Americans and the whole world via the media. They
came to hunt and fish and ride the range, doing their bit to
exterminate the buffalo and the fowl. They liked rugged landscapes
and the presence, even when hostile, of Indians. A few bought huge
cattle and sheep ranches and stayed a while.
Physical mobility remained high during the Gilded Age. Over 50% of
the persons registered in the city of Rochester's Directory in 1864 were
gone by 1869. Middle and working classes, not to mention the
large migrant element, shared the penchant for moving.
Stabilizing factors did begin to appear. Many members of the new
middle classes slowed their movements with their investments in
jobs; industrial workers with families had their moves encumbered; the
newer waves of immigrants were more and more inclined to be
embraced by family life. As work and therefore skills became
specialized, one could less easily expect to
find employment elsewhere.
There may also have been a slowing of the eagerness to buy land: a
paucity of land opportunities was noised about, but land was still
cheap as dirt, and perhaps the reluctance to go onto the land came
from realizing that one would buy land now from a failure, not the
government or a primary promoter in most instances - a scary
thought; the potential settlers felt like soldiers marching to the front
past uniformed blasted bodies and wrecked equipment.
Better to take up city jobs.
A final question disturbs us. Could the country have developed
industrially as fast by treating workers, whether foreign or native,
well? Much of Germany, the Netherlands, Northern Italy, Northern
France, and England, after all, developed about as fast, while giving
the worker a better deal. Still - probably not. Because the United
States had other costs to pay: the general backwardness of the
population that included Southern Whites, Blacks, frontier simplists,
footloose myriads, and an unassimilated work force: there were heavy
communication costs incident to the mixture of types
presented to businessmen to organize, train, and direct.
Hardheartedness beat out sympathy in
human relations generally.