The American Dream and the Gilded Age

This research paper addresses the influences of the profound discoveries made during the Industrial Revolution on the American Dream, mainly the railroads. It uses a variety of sources. My goal is to comprehend the changes on people’s goals when America’s population, jobs, and opportunities spiked. This research paper is important because it addresses the time period in which many changes rocked America, in our society, culture, and businesses, from our streets to our rooftops.

It is easy to say that the Gilded Age was a time of lavish spending and blind value placed in social prestige, or that the Industrial Revolution’s machines blackened the buildings and crowded the cities, but that’s only half the truth. During these years, the steam engine was universalized, connecting the recently divided sides of the U.S., and manufacturing and transport jobs drastically increased. The Gilded Age nourished the development of a brighter American Dream, full of motivation to make the future greater and grander, and the itch to travel spurred by the creation of the intercontinental railroad and the traveling revolution.

The Gilded age had a rocky start, beginning at the end of the Civil War. America’s people were extremely divided, and a large part of the population had only just gained citizenship – in 1865, slavery was abolished. Americans were tired of hardships and war, and believed in ease of life instead. Well to do businessmen were highly respected, as their family members had no need to hold jobs of their own, and could afford to lounge (Rothman). This standard of wealth was the ultimate goal of the time, and a weighty part of the American Dream. Society also became more connected in terms of families, in both the upper and lower classes. Business in the lower class was much different, of course. Common jobs were farm hands and rail layers.

Due to the Industrial Revolution, people holding manufacturing and labor jobs (including train workers but not agriculture jobs), rose from less than 8.8 percent to 20.1 percent (Taylor 6). That is an over 128% increase in manufacturing employees. In the above graph, the estimated numbers of manufacturing workers are displayed. It is clear that the number of workers dramatically increased between the years 1850 and 1900, the beginning half of the Gilded Age. Manufacturing jobs supported the continuing Industrial Revolution, the population boom, and working class families. These families dreamt of a better life, one that they had worked up to. The American Dream of the Gilded Age idolized the ‘self-made man’, the hard working executive who got down and dirty with his employees. As the working class grew however, this became less and less likely for each worker. The increase in manufacturing jobs did allow for the common American to be able to support his family and aspire for a greater position nevertheless.

Unfortunately, some working class families were not able to support themselves on manufacturing jobs. Independent labor was viewed as something that was supposed to rise, and then decline as the American workforce stabilized after the Civil War (White). This was not the case, “The inability of many wage workers to earn enough to support the gendered ideal of a home…proved alarming,” (White). The worst off of them all were the recently freed – the people of color – and other immigrants. While most of them did find employment, they possibly were not paid as much as their white counterparts in the same jobs.

Not only were they unable to find work higher up the corporate ladder, but they were treated as “threats to the white home,” (White). This ideology is shockingly and depressingly similar to the far-too-familiar battle cry of certain protesters: ‘immigrants are stealing our jobs!’ Immigrants were drawn to America because of the American Dream that all Americans, Native American to Asian American, believe in, despite the numerous headlines proclaiming it, once and for all, finally, truly, for real this time, absolutely and completely, through and through, dead.

Even for the American-born, wages were not anything to write home about, unless in complaint or if they owned a business, worked up the ladder, or were one of the top ten percent. Most laborers and manufacturers were not paid very much: there was an extreme gap between the upper and lower classes, thus why the ‘middle’ class has not been mentioned (this is not to say that they didn’t exist, just that the numbers were too insignificant to require attention). Just before 1900, “the richest 4,000 families in the U.S. (representing less than 1% of the population) had about as much wealth as other 11.6 million families all together,” (Rothman). Those rich families bathed in money, and they showed it. Part of the upper class American Dream was having enough money to look like a millionaire, not just to be one.

Agriculture was arguably America’s top grossing field (ba dum tss) during the Gilded Age. Even before the Civil War, agriculture was the largest source of exports in America. After the Civil War, from 1860 to 1880, 150,000,000 bushels were exported from America, at a total value of $190,000,000 (Wallace 4). This number only continued to climb. To account for this vast increase in production and exports, look only to the population boom. The Industrial Revolution, which was already in America, was finally impacting the population. The Industrial Revolution allowed for leaps and bounds to be made in the medical fields, allowing more lives to be saved. Less and less people died from easily preventable diseases.

Americans were living longer, and were able to retire, meet their grandchildren. People dreamt of being surrounded by extended family, in luxury, generations both behind and before them. Another improvement was made in farming. Crop rotations were used more often, and new techniques were used to increase production (Wallace 1). Farms produced more food, which supported the population increase. All of these people and large families needed work; luckily enough the expanded farms needed hands. Farms saw the biggest increase in workers, and laboring amounts increased by 100 percent (Lebergott 6). These jobs gave employment to much of the working class. Because most Americans were job-holders, this meant that people had more opportunities, and more hope for the future. More aspirations led to the Gilded Age Americans being very hard workers, striving for their American Dream.

The popularization of steam engines and railroads changed accessibility and trading forever, expanding the areas deals could be made and simplifying the process to ship commodities in and out of the United States. For example, “in 1860 there were about 30,000 miles of railroads in operation, mostly east of the Mississippi. By 1900 there were almost 200,000 miles [of rails],” (Wallace 3). Traveling was cheaper than ever – no longer was it required to own a horse to cross the country, instead a ticket could be purchased and a train boarded.

The locomotives were viewed a revelation. The railways were also used to transport materials to other parts of the U.S., or ports, to be shipped to other countries. Cotton and other unprocessed textiles were one of the largest exports, and each shipment had to be gathered at the farms, loaded into crates, brought to train stations, loaded onto trains, run to the ports, loaded onto ships, and then brought to the rest of the world. Hundreds of thousands of inland farms depended on rail lines to transport their products (Vedder 17).

Exports increased, and America earned more money; selling to other countries, taxing their ships, gaining revenue through ports and the railways all brought money into the American government and its people’s pockets. All of those train tracks were made of metal rails supported by wooden beams. The wood was American made, and most of the metal was as well (Bond 328). Americans started to value ownership more, and owning their own business became a part of the American Dream.

Americans also raised themselves in their own points of view; because of their extensive exports, they perceived other countries, mainly Great Britain – where most of the textiles were shipped – as dependent on them. Great Britain just might have been, as their smaller land mass wouldn’t allow them to grow as much or develop as much land as the U.S., although the Industrial Revolution had reached them first.

The ease of transport inspired people to travel more and connect with long-distance family. Mail was also easier and faster to transport through the railways, making communication more popular. Over ten years, the amount of mail in the U.S. doubled, going from 7 billion to 15 billion pieces. Of course people traveled to see friends and relatives, having a family that was interconnected was another component of the American Dream.

The Gilded Age transversed the line between labourer hand-done work and sleek steel machinery who – human run – could slice through work in half the time. The ideologies of Americans completely transformed to looking forward, and striving to force their aspirations to life. The American working class people were largely optimistic, believing that they could work their way to a better life.

The people of the upper class lived a fulfilled life, completely content in themselves. Cooperation and contact between classes was limited. The American Dream didn’t include ‘help your neighbor and so help yourself,’ but leaned instead to individuals working, the hard workers, the build-yourself-ups, the leaders with muddy boots. Health was a great component, Americans were living longer than ever. The new workforce and job market combined nicely, but for some of the workforce, the pay was little enough to disillusion them from the American Dream.

This was especially the case for immigrants and people of color. The new railways, however, did increase the United States’ revenue, and expanded its exports and revolutionized the transportation system. In other words, the American Dream was alive and thriving, fueled by steam engines and running on a railroad. It was of a greater country, interconnected and easily explored, with friends near and far, finally having the respect of other nations, the ability for anyone to succeed if they worked hard and for themselves, and of finer products, machine and handmade alike.